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Facts and fictions about ‘Intelligent Design’
By George A. Ricker

Perhaps the biggest fiction put forth by the advocates of “Intelligent Design” is that evolutionary theory is in trouble and is widely rejected by many scientists. It’s a claim that gets made regularly in the popular media and is often attributed to the doyens of the ID movement—William Dembski, Michael Behe and Philip Johnson—and is echoed by their cohorts at every available opportunity.

The claim is a lie—not just a distortion of the truth but an outright lie.

Evolutionary theory may be the most robust theory in modern science. It is supported by evidence in every discipline that is remotely related to it. It is widely accepted as the best explanation for the development of life on this planet—and by extension, anywhere else in the cosmos.

The overwhelming majority of scientists in all scientific disciplines accept evolution as a fact. That verdict approaches near unanimity among those scientists who work in fields related to biology. It is not a weakness but a strength that the theories used to explain the facts of evolution are themselves constantly evolving. That is the way science works. Besides, the bedrock concept of evolution through natural selection—first articulated by Charles Darwin less than 150 years ago—is stronger and more widely accepted today than it ever was in Darwin’s lifetime.

There is no scientific controversy on this point. So let me repeat myself. The claim often made by advocates of “Intelligent Design” that evolutionary theory is in trouble or is about to be supplanted simply is not true. Those who make that claim also claim to be scientifically literate. Therefore the only reasonable conclusion I can form is that they are being intentionally deceptive.

In short, they are lying.

But that is only the beginning of the deceptions put out by this crowd.

They once suggested they were offering an alternative to the theory of evolution. Hence the argument that their theory deserved equal time in science classrooms. But the truth is they have no theory. There is no theory of “Intelligent Design” that can be compared to evolutionary theory. “Intelligent Design” is not a scientific theory at all. It is an attempt to punch holes in evolutionary theory.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, scientists working in various biological disciplines are constantly engaged in that very thing. Science advances when scientific knowledge is expanded and that can only happen as we revise and/or enhance our understanding of the natural world. That process requires us to challenge the conventional wisdom, not to blindly accept it.

So modern biologists do not regard evolution as sacrosanct. They regard it, like all scientific theories, as a work in progress. Evolutionary theory is, itself, evolving.

But saying “God did it” is not a scientific theory. Saying “this is so complicated I don’t understand how it could have happened without divine intervention” is not a scientific theory. Saying “the probability of this event is so low, it couldn’t be due to undirected natural processes” is not a scientific theory. The fact is there is no scientific theory of “Intelligent Design,” thus there is nothing that can be taught in science classrooms as an alternative to evolutionary theory.

In fact, the proponents of “Intelligent Design” now concede as much. Now their argument is that we should “teach the controversy.” It’s a position that would have substance if there actually were a scientific controversy over evolution through natural selection, but there is not. As I’ve already pointed out, these people claim to be scientifically literate so I have to assume they know that. They are simply hoping the general public either does not know it or does not want to admit it.

Ah, but what of the arguments put forth by the advocates of “Intelligent Design?” Haven’t they pointed out serious flaws in evolutionary theory?

That’s another fiction.

The proponents of “Intelligent Design” have no genuine interest in advancing science. Their real interest is in advancing a religious agenda at the expense of science. They want to discredit evolution because they recognize that naturalistic explanations of the development of life on this planet make gods unnecessary. This does not mean that evolutionary theory proves the god-idea false. It does not. It simply means that evolutionary theory offers an explanation for the development of life without reference to the supernatural.

And that is why the ID crowd’s idea of science is to conduct a propaganda campaign. It is why instead of entering into a genuine dialogue with scientists and defending their claims by publishing their theories and the evidence they claim supports those theories in peer-reviewed journals, they prefer to write popular nonfiction for the mass market.

Scientists often write books to explain their work to the general public. Indeed, it can be a valuable contribution because it contributes to the overall scientific literacy of the population. However, the proponents of “Intelligent Design” prefer the media circus to honest debate, and it is not the scientific literacy of the American people they are banking on. Quite the contrary.

There is no mystery—although they avoid the issue whenever they can—about the identity of the designer implied by their ideas. It is “God.” Indeed, one of the complaints made about science by this crowd is that science automatically excludes the supernatural from its considerations. What those critics don’t say, what they can’t admit, is the reason for the omission.

It is not because science is unwilling to consider any and all explanations for the phenomena being studied. It is because there is no evidence to suggest supernatural explanations have any validity. Science is about the study of the natural world, of natural phenomena, of the universe, the cosmos of matter and energy. Various scientific disciplines explore various aspects of nature. All of them depend upon evidence, experimentation, testing, modeling, independent verification and so on.

The reason science excludes the supernatural from its considerations is because there is no evidentiary basis for including it. There is nothing to suggest supernatural explanations have any validity at all, and there is no scientific basis by which they may be studied. Attempts have been made to study some aspects of paranormal phenomena and so on, but most objective studies have failed to yield any affirmative results. Those that appear to offer support for supernatural explanations invariably turn out to have been skewed by an agenda-driven approach that invalidated the results.

Studies on the value of anonymous intercessory prayer are classic cases of this sort of approach. Those that are conducted with scientific rigor indicate such prayers have no impact on the patients involved. Those that are conducted by people with a religious ax to grind always yield positive results that are widely ballyhooed in the media. The conclusions invariably are shown to be bogus, but somehow that fact never quite seems to get the publicity of the initial claims.

Those who genuinely want to advance the argument that an intelligent designer is responsible for the universe or anything in it must first deal with some fundamental issues.

Unless they can offer a qualitative and quantitative description of the designer in question and support their assessment with valid evidence, the hypothesis is dead on arrival. Unless they can offer some insight into how the phenomena in question were designed by the agent they propose, there is no basis on which to evaluate their claims. And unless they can offer some valid basis on which their preferred explanation is superior to the one now overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, their concept has nothing to recommend it.

And then, of course, they must explain who or what designed the “Intelligent Designer.” And so on.

Beyond those rather obvious hurdles, what exactly is it about the state of things in this universe that would lead anyone to conclude it represents intelligent design at all?

Suppose you asked someone to design an air-conditioning system for your apartment, and the designer returned with a cooling system rated at one million btu’s? Would you consider that an example of intelligent design? Yet, that is essentially the situation of our planet, which gets virtually all of its energy from the sun. However, only a small fraction of the energy produced by our sun is utilized here. All the rest is simply radiated into space. As near as we can tell, it is wasted. That’s hardly intelligent.

What sort of intelligent designer would design birds that can’t fly, mammals that do, and creatures that spend their entire lives in water but must come to the surface to breathe? What’s intelligent about a designer who keeps redesigning eyes about forty different ways and can’t come up with a better plan for orbital dynamics than one that causes periodic disruptions of life on this planet brought about by catastrophic collisions with extraterrestrial objects?

How can anyone claim it was intelligent design that combined and put into close proximity the organs for human reproduction and waste elimination in a dual-use system that is akin to locating a maternity ward in a sewer? What intelligent planner gave us wisdom teeth, an appendix and bodies that seem poorly designed for bipedal locomotion? And let’s not even think about the “intelligent design” behind such things as sexually transmitted diseases, Alzheimer’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and so on ad infinitum. Design? Intelligent? Who is kidding whom?

These things make a kind of sense if they are the product of undirected natural processes. They make no sense at all as the outcome of intelligent design. Life on earth is entirely too complex and too wasteful to be the product of intelligent design, especially if the designer in question has unlimited capabilities and benign intent.

It’s entirely possible the theory of evolution will some day be supplanted by a better theory or will become part of a new broader theory. But if and when that happens it will be the result of real science performed by real scientists, not an ill-conceived effort to punch holes in the theory of evolution and plug them with “the God of the gaps.”

There is no huge conspiracy of silence about “Intelligent Design” on the part of the scientific community. What there has been is a professional naiveté that has led scientists to ignore the claims made by the ID crowd in the mistaken belief that no one would really take such nonsense seriously. Most scientists prefer to spend their time on more useful pursuits than countering the claims of scientific hucksters.

Unfortunately that strategy has led to a propaganda success for the advocates of “Intelligent Design.” By creating the appearance of a scientific controversy in the dominant media, which is much more interested in fanning the flames of controversy than in shedding any light on the underlying reality, the proponents of this bogus pseudo science have received attention and deference that is far beyond anything merited by their pet hypothesis.

As a consequence they have managed to create a popular perception of evolution as a theory that really is on its last legs and is kept afloat only by a small but influential cabal of elitist atheistic scientists who refuse to even consider any challenges to evolution. This caricature is ludicrous and dead wrong, but it plays well with some Americans because it appeals to their own insecurities, prejudices and ignorance of basic science.

In short, the real controversy over teaching evolution is not a scientific controversy at all. It is a media controversy created by an effective propaganda campaign. The authors of that campaign are more interested in advancing their own religious opinions than in educating children, and those children will be the biggest losers if their campaign is successful.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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