On the surface, the current popular debate about the evolution of life and Intelligent Design must look like two relatively equally matched packs of boffins arguing over the finer points of science. The reality is quite different. The reality is that powerful religious groups, mostly in the USA, are pushing the discredited ramblings of a handful of scientists in an attempt to introduce God into the secular science classroom.
The roots of the debate go back to the publication of Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859. Most of the world’s churches initially reacted with shock and horror at this obvious challenge to the Biblical story of creation. But the majority came around pretty quickly and accepted that the weight of scientific evidence firmly backed evolution. And, conversely, they accepted that a complete lack of evidence supporting a literal creation made that position untenable.
However, there has always been a small minority of more fundamentalist Christian churches, particularly in the USA, whose doctrinal position requires that the whole of the Bible must be true and, therefore, the origins of the universe, life and humanity are spelt out, as literal fact, in the first and second chapters of Genesis. Evolution and science contradict this position and so, they argue, science and evolution must be wrong.
The conflict arises in the public school system, again, particularly in the USA where Church and State are separated by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Science classes teaching evolution present a worldview that conflicts with a literal, Biblical creation (a position that became known as ‘creationism’). Some Christian parents in the US are outraged that their children are being taught concepts that conflict with their religious views.
A long string of legal tussles beginning with the so-called ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ of 1925 has played out the same arguments over and over again: Could evolution not be taught as part of a science education? Or, if it must be, then perhaps creationism could be taught alongside it to appease the religious convictions of some parents and students?
These legal battles culminated in the 1980s with several high-profile court cases across the USA. All of them found that creationism was religion and so could not be taught in secular State schools. Evolution, however, was affirmed as scientific and secular and so it could remain in the classroom. For the creationists, a new strategy was required and thus Intelligent Design was born.
The basic concept of Intelligent Design actually has even more ancient roots. Cicero outlined the basic concept in 34BC when he argued that the complexity in nature implied the hand of a creator. More recently William Paley published Natural Theology in 1802 in which he presented his famous analogy of finding a watch on a beach. The complexity of the watch’s manufacture and the intricacy with which the numerous parts come together to form a functional entity surely indicated, according to Paley, that an intelligent hand (a cosmic watchmaker) was behind its design and construction.
After the legal defeats of the 1980s, some creationists went in search of a scientific argument supporting their beliefs that could then legitimately be taught in science classrooms. As luck would have it, a handful of scientists at that time were conducting research on complexity in nature and asking how such complexity could have possibly evolved.
There are two main arguments in the quiver of Intelligent Design. Firstly, Professor Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Ohio argues that some structures in nature are not only complex, they depend on the entirety of that complexity to function. An eye, for example, simply doesn’t work if it is lacking the lens or the iris or the retina, and so on. How, Behe asks, could such a complex structure have evolved piecemeal, as evolution ought to dictate? Behe called this concept ‘Irreducible Complexity’.
A second important concept within Intelligent Design is that of ‘Specified Complexity’, the brainchild of William Dembski of Baylor University in Waco Texas. Specified Complexity attempts to classify levels of complexity found in nature. A snowflake, for example shows a level of complexity, but does that mean that it was designed? What about something that is arguably much more complex such as the human eye, is that so complex it must have been designed? Dembski set about using complex mathematics from computing information theory to come up with design filters: formulae by which he can claim that the level of complexity in the eye must imply design, while the lower order of complexity seen in a snowflake does not.
Intelligent Design with its twin concepts of ‘Irreducible Complexity’ and ‘Specified Complexity’ started to become public property through the vigorous efforts of the Discovery Institute, a conservative, right-wing think tank based in Seattle, Washington. It was the Discovery Institute who backed the production and distribution of the DVD documentary Unlocking the Mystery Of Life. Here, the DVD’s narrator contends, is a scientific theory that offers another explanation for the origins of life and its living diversity. An explanation that indicates there is an otherwise unknown intelligent designer.
Several creationists have actually spoken out against Intelligent Design because it does not affirm the literal truth of Genesis. For them, it is not good enough to simply open up a theoretical space for God the Creator. Most creationists, however, have seized upon Intelligent Design because it does provide a gap into which they can insert their creator and it appears to have the scientific credentials that put it on an equal footing with the Theory of Evolution.
But does Intelligent Design cut the scientific mustard? That’s a question I’ll address in my next column.
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