The Case for Intelligent Design in Biology

Author: Samuel Metz 

Date: 6/22/05


There is no case for Intelligent Design in biology. 

There is no case against it, either. 

Thatís the problem. Intelligent Design (also known as Creationism) proposes that our current world is the product of a Higher Intelligence (usually referring to a Biblical God) following a Design (as reported in the Old Testament) whose purpose is not apparent to us. As philosophically appealing as this explanation may be, it is scientifically useless.

For one thing, when we see the slaughter, famine, and brutality endemic in the human condition, it is difficult to accept that Intelligence of any kind plays a role. Indeed, the quality of American politicians or the lack thereof, suggests a kind of Divine Stupidity. If Intelligence is at work, the world as we know it must be a Divine Proto-type, to be discarded before the Professional Version is introduced. 

It is also difficult to accept a Design at work. Earthshaking events occur randomly. The innocent suffer. Injustice triumphs. Hypocrisy goes unpunished. Who is the Intelligent Designer who created such a world? Is this the best design Intelligence can generate? 

But the primary reason Intelligent Design is scientifically useless is that the concept is not testable, not verifiable, and does not predict what might happen next. The answer to every puzzling question becomes, "The Intelligent Designer knows, we donít." Once we accept Intelligent Design, nothing more need be said. Or can be said. This proposal offers an elegant simplicity, and also incidental confirmation of one sect of one Western religion.

But it is not science. 

Evolution is equally unsatisfying, but in a different way. If we accept this theory, how do we explain the evolutionary advantage of a one-humped camel over a two-humped one? Why are both species alive and well? What is the purpose of the horn on the nose of a rhinoceros? Why do spiders have eight legs while insects have six? Do mosquitoes have any evolutionary purpose other than to spread disease and make summer barbecues an agony? 

But we can test answers to these questions, and maybe find acceptable ones. Evolution allows us to guess what direction life might take under different conditions. Evolution as a theory allows us, even encourages us, to ask more questions to constantly test its veracity, and perhaps change the theory to accommodate more information. 

This is what science is about. No true science offers authoritative answers; it only leads us to the next set of questions. Until the 17th century, humans knew, for a fact, "What goes up, must come down." It was the law. It was science. Then Newton proposed that if an object were launched into the sky with a certain velocity, it would go into orbit and not come down. Out with the old law; in with the new. The same generation of physicists also told us that light traveled in a straight line. It was the law. It was science. Einstein then proved that the path of light bent as it passed through a gravitational field. Out with the old law; in with the new. 

And so it goes in Biology. An unusual phenomenon stimulates a biologist to propose a hypothesis that explains it. Another biologist tests the hypothesis with an experiment. If the hypothesis is corroborated by enough experiments, it becomes a theory. If future tests confirm the theory without fail, it becomes a law. And it is taught to future biologists as law until finally, the next generationís biologist observes a phenomenon that completely contradicts it. A new hypothesis is generated, and the process starts anew.

This process is not religiously satisfying, philosophically nourishing, or personally reassuring, but it is science. And quite useful. 

Some esoteric philosophers challenge us with the proposal that the world was created yesterday, complete with implanted memories of events that didnít really happen. They dare us to prove this wrong. And we cannot. There is no way to either prove or disprove this idea. Whether it is right or wrong, the world is as we see it and accepting this proposal gives absolutely no insight. Philosophically unchallengeable, and in practice completely useless. This is not science.

Those who advocate teaching Intelligent Design because they fear Evolution will cause future generations to doubt the literal word of the Bible, need not fear. Evolution as a scientific theory is doomed, as are all scientific theories. Just as successive generations of physicists discarded old laws as new observations contradicted them, successive generations of biologists will find new phenomena that Evolution fails to explain. One of the brighter ones will propose a new hypothesis, test it, and, if it passes, replace Evolution with another theory that explains even more of what we see. 

And thatís the case for Evolution. It is only a theory, but even if were an accepted law, we know its days are numbered. For that is the nature of science. Intelligent Design is a final definitive authoritative answer, and that is not the nature of Science.

Out with the old, in with the new.


George J, Annas: Intelligent Judging ó Evolution in the Classroom and the Courtroom. New England Journal of Medicine, 2006; 354:2277-81 (May 25, 2006)


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