Extract: ‘Intelligent design’
From the chapter ‘Nature’
In August 2005, George W. Bush gave his official imprimatur to another cooked-up ‘controversy’, which centred on the teaching of biology in US high schools. It represented a miraculous victory for those who opposed the science of evolution, and who now called their alternative scheme ‘intelligent design’ (ID). The idea behind ID, familiar from the mid-nineteenth-century arguments over Darwin, was that some biological structures were so complex that they could not have occurred through evolutionary processes, and must instead have been ‘designed’ by an ‘intelligence’. This kind of argument used to go by the name of ‘natural theology’. Its most famous early exponent was the theologian William Paley, who argued in this way: if we see a watch, we infer the existence of a watchmaker; so when we see complex life, we should infer the existence of a God.
ID kept the same creationist argument, but changed the angle of attack by substituting vocabulary. Gone was any explicit mention of theology or God, replaced by the usefully vague ‘intelligent’. That adjective also had a secondary use: when one hears the phrase ‘intelligent design theorists’, it is perhaps tempting to understand ‘intelligent’ as referring to the theorists themselves, as well as to the design. By contrast, IDers tended to refer to their opponents – that is, biologists – as ‘neo-Darwinists’. What was actually known as the ‘Neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis’ of evolutionary science combined Darwinian theory with twentieth-century genetics. Yet the consistent use of the term ‘neo-Darwinist’ by evolution’s enemies imputed to scientists an idolatrous reliance on the supposedly outdated ideas of one man, as though he were the false god of an ‘evolutionist’ religion.
The phrase ‘intelligent design’ itself was first popularised in a notorious 1987 American biology textbook called Of Pandas and People, earlier drafts of which had referred approvingly instead to ‘creationism’ and ‘creationists’ before the new jargon was simply dropped in. The term was quickly adopted by religious sympathisers, and gradually gained traction through the 1990s. Its cheerleaders creatively employed many tricks of language-twisting and code-phrases to gain ever more publicity for their cause, culminating in two major trials in 2005, in Kansas and Pennsylvania, that hinged on the question of whether ID should be taught alongside evolutionary theory in high-school biology classes.
When addressing audiences of fellow believers, proponents of ID were quite frank about their motivations. ‘Intelligent design’ was engineered as a weapon in the war between Christianity and godlessness. The famous 1999 ‘Wedge Document’ that was leaked from the carefully named pro-ID organisation, the Discovery Institute, set it out explicitly. ‘Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.’ One of ID’s founders, Phillip Johnson, expressed the essentially religious nature of the concept thus: ‘There’s a difference of opinion about how important this debate is. What I always say is that it’s not just scientific theory. The question is best understood as: Is God real or imaginary?’ Another ID advocate, William Dembski, wrote: ‘Any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient.’ ID’s proponents were motivated to criticise evolution not for its scientific content, but because they believed the view of life as having arisen from natural processes robbed the world of meaning. ‘Intelligent design theory’ would rectify this catastrophe by basing school discussions of biology firmly on Christian principles.
However, there was the pesky obstacle of the US Constitution to contend with, particularly the Establishment Clause that prohibited the government from promoting religion, and which had led the Supreme Court to strike down previous attempts at teaching creationism in science classes. ID’s novel approach to this problem was to deny that it was religious, and instead to claim for itself the status of science, so that it should be taught alongside evolutionary biology.
ID’s claim to be science was implicit in its self-description as a ‘theory’. In the parlance of science, a ‘theory’ is not just a casual guess, but a well-established understanding that accords with the present evidence and reliably explains or predicts features of the natural world. On the other hand, IDers regularly referred to evolution as ‘just a theory’, appealing to the ordinary-language sense of ‘theory’ as meaning a mere guess: in this way, you might have a theory about why your friend acted the way she did last Thursday; or you might even sarcastically deride another friend’s opinion by saying ‘That’s just your theory’. So ID carefully worked the same word in two directions: appropriating the technical sense of ‘theory’ for itself, and demoting it to the casual sense for the enemy.
Evolution makes predictions – for example, about what kinds of fossils should be expected to be found at different strata of rock, including intermediary forms such as the winged dinosaur archaeopteryx; or about the results of genetic experiments in the laboratory, including the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria – and they are repeatedly confirmed by observation. Evolution also has majestic explanatory force, in accounting for the features of current life on the planet. It can inspire awe; but IDers felt that awe was their turf. So for ID, evolution was ‘just a theory’. ‘Intelligent design’, on the other hand, was purportedly a ‘theory’ in the sense of a robust, scientific theory, and yet, weirdly, it did not do much explaining or predicting. Officially, for example, it did not hold even a view as to who the mysterious designer was. All of its proponents believed that the designer was the Christian God, but since to admit this would be to admit that ID was disguised religion, and so unfit to be taught in science lessons, they preferred to leave the official theory vague.
Michael Behe, author of one of the celebrated ur-texts of popular ID, Darwin’s Black Box, was asked to confirm this at the Dover Area School District trial in Pennsylvania during October and November 2005, where a group of parents were suing to overturn the district’s decision to use the ID bible, Of Pandas and People, in biology class. Their counsel, Eric J. Rothschild, asked Behe: ‘You believe [the designer is] God, but it’s not part of your scientific argument?’ Behe responded: ‘That’s correct.’ In other words, ID as a ‘theory’ observed some biological feature and said: this must have been designed, but we have no idea who designed it, and we are not even interested in finding out. Actually, they were certain they knew.
As well as pretending ignorance as to the identity of the designer, ID also had nothing to say about how the purported design actually happened. What were the physical mechanisms by which the designer fiddled with molecules so as to produce his desired animals? ID offered no answers, not even any hypotheses. In Dover, Michael Behe defended this odd reticence by comparing it to astrophysics. Rothschild asked Behe to confirm the statement that ‘intelligent design does not describe how the design occurred.’ Behe responded: ‘That’s correct, just like the Big Bang theory does not describe what caused the Big Bang.’ The comparison was vastly erroneous. Big Bang theory describes what caused the universe as it appears to us now, offers a massively detailed description of what happened during the Big Bang itself, and does indeed have ideas about what caused it.
As it happens, the theory of the Big Bang was first proposed by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, who wrote that his idea remained ‘entirely outside of any metaphysical or religious question’. The Vatican, indeed, officially took the view that God was the ‘cause of causes’, setting the universe in motion to operate according to natural laws, and that religion was therefore compatible with robust scientific theories, including evolution. The fundamentalists of ID, on the other hand, hated what they saw as the ideological consequences of evolution too much to adopt such a view. Yet their competing ‘theory’ of ‘intelligent design’ was completely silent on what happened during the hypothesised design, or even when it happened. It just must have happened, right? Don’t ask me how.
In general, for a ‘scientific theory’, ID was curiously reluctant to answer scientific questions. Why did, for example, the mysterious Intelligent Designer give vertebrates, including humans, a flawed eye with a blind spot, but bless the humble squid with a different type of eye that suffered no such problem? ID studiously avoided the question. Why did the Intelligent Designer give humans an organ, the appendix, which resembles a withered version of that for digesting plant matter in other animals but serves no function in people except occasionally to poison them? What principle of intelligent design caused five-month-old human foetuses to grow a thin coat of fur all over their bodies while still in the womb, where it was not cold, and then lose it before they were born into the world, where it might well be cold? Don’t ask.
ID’s strategy was instead to focus on unanswered problems. As with any scientific field, areas of evolutionary biology are incompletely understood. To scientists, these areas suggested new research, experiments and hypotheses. To IDers, they represented a chance to claim that these questions would never be answered by science. We cannot currently explain how this part of a bacterium evolved, they would reason, so it must have been created by an intelligent entity. This type of argument had for centuries been known as the ‘God of the gaps’. It is easy to do: you simply find a gap in current understanding and claim that it can only be filled by positing God.
Modern IDers used exactly the same idea, only now dressed up in pseudo-scientific terminology. William Dembski coined the phrase ‘complex specified information’, to denote information – such as that encoded by the human genome – that in his view could in principle not have come about through natural causes. (Sometimes he described it as ‘souped-up information’, though the flavour of the soup remained obscure.) Michael Behe, meanwhile, promoted the notion of ‘irreducible complexity’, according to which some biological systems could not in principle have evolved, since if you remove any one part they no longer work. Both phrases amount to the logical fallacy of proof by definition. I make up a technical-sounding phrase that really means ‘designed’. I say that some biological feature can be described by this phrase, and then try to argue that therefore, that feature must have been designed. But this is only an illusion of logic: the inference follows directly from the way I have carefully stacked the linguistic decks. In fact, in their a priori ruling-out of scientific explanation, the phrases ‘complex specified information’ and ‘irreducibly complex’ are both just rhetorical appeals to ignorance.
In Behe’s case, this was dramatically illustrated during the Dover trial. One of his favoured examples of ‘irreducible complexity’ at the time was the immune system of vertebrate animals, so Eric J. Rothschild stacked in front of Behe a pile of books he had previously lent him, that Rothschild claimed represented the leading research into the topic, with titles such as Evolution of Immune Reactions, Origin and Evolution of the Vertebrate Immune System, The Natural History of the Major Histocompatibility Complex, and so on. Behe had not read any of them. ‘I am quite skeptical,’ he opined, ‘although I haven’t read them, that in fact they present detailed rigorous models for the evolution of the immune system by random mutation and natural selection.’ Rothschild was incredulous. ‘You haven’t read the books that I gave you?’ he asked. ‘No,’ Behe replied. ‘I haven’t.’ Apparently, it is not necessary to know everything the enemy thinks. It suffices to insist that whatever they think must be wrong. ID’s inbuilt prejudice against any type of naturalistic explanation for its favoured talking-points, and so its inescapable religiosity, could not have been more clearly demonstrated.
Vacuous though they were, ID’s jargon-phrases of ‘complex specified information’ and ‘irreducible complexity’ did have the undeniable virtue of sounding sort-of-scientific. And in this way they could function as stealthy stalking-horses for the prime idea of ID itself. Following similarly farcical court hearings in May 2005, the Kansas State Board of Education drafted a new version of its Science Standards, which claimed in its prefatory ‘Rationale’ that it did not include ‘Intelligent Design’. However, attentive reading revealed the following passage later on: ‘Whether microevolution (change within a species) can be extrapolated to explain macroevolutionary changes (such as new complex organs or body plans and new biochemical systems which appear irreducibly complex) is controversial.’ See that little ‘irreducibly complex’ smuggled in there? That, as noted, is code. It is used by no one except proponents of ID. What it really means is ‘intelligently designed’. What is more, the terms ‘microevolution’ and ‘macroevolution’ themselves are ID fictions, expressing the strategy of accepting some parts of evolutionary science because the evidence is so overwhelming, and focusing highly selectively on a few examples. Kansas education functionaries had once again become the laughing stock of the civilised world during the trial. Perhaps it would be more politically efficient to adopt ID by stealth, using its special code-language to reassure the initiated.
It was time to conduct an experiment. I decided to test the hypothesis of ID-by-stealth, and wrote to each member of the Kansas Board. Two of the minority disagreeing with the new draft, Sue Gamble and Bill Wagnon, replied in agreement with my analysis. Of the majority who were pushing the new draft, only Kathy Martin replied. She wrote that the new Science Standards document did ‘not support or repudiate Intelligent Design’. ‘Please explain to me,’ Martin requested, ‘why “irreducibly complex” could not be used when referring to scientific data/evidence being studied by scientists.’ Once I had explained this, she responded a second time, very graciously, to wish me luck in my ‘search for truth’. On 8 November 2005, by a vote of six to four, the board approved the new standards.
It might be accounted a problem with the God-of-the-gaps argument that, as scientific understanding advances, questions are answered, and so gaps filled in, without reference to God. But this should not dissuade the light-footed creationist, who can simply hop over to another gap. The human eye, an apparently miraculous device for seeing, was once the cherished favourite of those inferring divine design from perceived complexity. By 2004, however, the eye’s evolutionary pathway was remarkably well understood. In any such case, the antidote is misdirection and irrepressible forward momentum. Look over here, another gap! When Michael Behe’s own examples of ‘irreducible complexity’, such as the blood-clotting cascade in vertebrates, were convincingly refuted by biologists who pointed out simpler clotting mechanisms and proposed detailed pathways of evolution, he simply came up with new ones. Reassuringly, the day when there would be no more gaps to fixate on continued to seem a long way off.
In sum: ‘intelligent design theory’ was remarkably free of explanatory or predictive content, and not even willing officially to speculate on the identity or behaviour of the ‘designer’ that it proposed, instead being negatively parasitical on areas of uncertainty within real science. During the Dover trial, Michael Behe was forced to admit that ID did not fit the definition of ‘science’ given by the National Academy of Sciences, and that his own definition of ‘theory’ as applied to ID was so generous that under it, astrology would also qualify as a scientific theory. In general, ID proposed no experiments that would confirm or refute it, and it created no substantial new data, simply adopting a defeatist philosophical position on the same data available to all biologists. ID was not in fact a theory at all.
Even this defect, however, was not insurmountable. William Dembski, for one, adopted the remarkably original argument that ID should be taught in schools precisely because it was so poor in content – or, as he put it, not ‘mature’. Only by teaching ID in biology classes, he wrote, could we be assured of having a ‘next generation’ of ‘scholars’ to investigate the topic. This was particularly revealing because, if ‘intelligent design’ had really been a controversy within science, it would have already been a rapidly expanding field, as young researchers flocked to fruitful new areas of research to attempt to make their name. Despite more than a decade of publicity, at the end of 2005, this was just not happening. The number of articles endorsing ID in the peer-reviewed scientific literature remained, depending on how you counted, somewhere between vanishingly small and exactly zero.
Patently, such ‘controversy’ as existed was not a scientific controversy at all. The players in the ID ‘controversy’ were scientists on the one hand, most of whom felt it a poor use of their time to respond to anti-scientific attacks upon their work, and evangelical Christians on the other. ID was not science but crypto-creationism.
Yet, by continuing to abuse the word ‘controversy’, as well as other terms such as ‘theory’ and ‘science’ itself, the IDers remained in the ascendant. Astrophysicist Lawrence M. Krauss observed, with a kind of admiration: ‘They’ve really in many ways won the public-relations battle with a brilliant slogan, which is “Teach the controversy”. Because it implies that there is a controversy. When in fact in science, in the scientific literature there’s no controversy. But by saying that they’ve managed to convince the public that somehow it’s a debate between two ideas that are virtually equal, when in fact they’re not.’ And so in August 2005, George W. Bush endorsed the neocreationists’ claim that there was indeed a ‘debate’: ‘Both sides ought to be properly taught […] so people can understand what the debate is about. I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.’ To this, ABC presenter Ted Koppel responded, with perfectly pitched irony: ‘Well … yes. But not all schools of thought deserve the same level of attention.’
Bush’s blessing was a crucial victory, nonetheless, for the strategy we might call Manufacturing Dissent. It works like this: shout loudly enough, and get enough publicity, and you can sow confusion and the illusion of controversy where there was none before. ID, remember, stands for intelligent design. But initials are versatile things. ID also stands for ideological dissatisfaction. And implicit deism. And intellectual dishonesty.