Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Intelligent Design...Not just another TLC show

Warning: This entry is not particularly funny. It is good for you, broccoli. Which is also not funny, but can prevent cancer. I can't promise that this entry will prevent cancer, but I can't promise that it won't, either. Just to be on the safe side, I would go ahead and read it. And eat some broccoli.
President Bush...not my favorite president of all time. Probably not even in my top ten (he's a little ways below Taft). But just as I'd gotten used to unnecessary wars and various assaults on civil liberties, he goes and does something to piss me off just a bit more. What is it this time, you ask? This time, President Bush has come out to advocate the teaching of intelligent design in public schools along side evolution.

side note: Is this important? Not according to CNN. I could find this nowhere on their webpage. Pretty lame on their part.

Am I shocked? No. While Bush would not state his own personal beliefs for the record, I'm guessing that they involve a benevolent being with a snowy white beard and a very large index finger. And maybe a cloud of smoke. And the word poof.

And, to be certain, it involves a big, deep, echoing void of logic. Sort of a logic black hole, where no reasonable thought can escape.

But, the point of this post is not to insult the president. That is the point of all my other posts. No, the point of this post is to present an argument against the teaching of intelligent design in schools. I will briefly explain what intelligent design is, the arguments for intelligent design, the arguments against, and my personal view on the matter.

In the end, you will see that there is nothing scientific or reasonable about intelligent design and it will be clear that this is just a thinly veiled religious argument.

The Reasoning:

The argument is, if schools teach a "theory like evolution" (it's just a theory, dammit!), then they should also teach alternate theories. You know, just in the interest of completeness. You gotta be fair. Of course, I would then argue that if you are going to teach those two theories (I'm using theory loosely here, intelligent design is not a theory) then you should teach all possibilities. I'm rounding up all my lobbyists to push my "Invisible gnomes shaped life through interpretive dance" theory into the biology textbooks. After all, there is no way to disprove it. Go ahead and try. Anyway, this idea that evolution is no more valid than any other theory is why we have reached this point. What is never mentioned is that there are a few more theories out there that nobody seems to attack, namely Gravity and Relativity. Really, though, they are just theories too.

Intelligent Design is not a theory

But seriously, why do I think it is absolutely, unequivocally wrong to teach intelligent design in the classroom? The answer is that it is not a theory, but more a flight of fancy. Like most Republican agendas, it is based more on scoffing and insults than on bearing the burden of proof. Let's look at some of the arguments brought up against evolution by proponents of intelligent design and see why they don't hold water.

The Classical

"If you find a watch in the desert, odds are someone put it there; it didn't form on its own." This is paraphrasing an argument put forth by William Paley in 1802 in response to Darwin's work.

Life is incredibly complex, it's true, and so one can see how the idea of a super-being guiding the formation of life would be a popular one. But I think the problem is an inability to grasp just how long hundreds of millions of years really is. Over these hundreds of years, environment drives life to adapt, to change...or die. Those that fail to develop don't win in the quest for food and mates and don't get to proceed on to the next generation. I'm sure this isn't really news to anyone as I'm really just summarizing the idea of survival of the fittest. After all, nobody claims that evolution is "random" or "spontaneous." I agree that it is unlikely that a bunch of molecules would suddenly decided to form a monkey, but give it 100 million years and the forces or environment and before you know it you are dodging feces.

If you break down the argument of the watch in the desert to its true essence, the argument is really "it just seems too hard, it couldn't happen." That isn't such a good argument for science, but it is perfect for theology. While it makes for great Sunday School, it has no place in a biology class. The more interesting part to this argument is the more sophicated arguments put forth again evolution, particularly the idea of irreducible complexity.

Irreducible Complexity

This is the point where the proponents give their argument a fancy name and start using big words. And I've got to hand it to them, Irreducible and Complexity are both big, fancy words. They sound very scientific...if only the argument sounded as good as its name.

What is irreducible a nutshell, if possible? The idea is, some things are so complex that they could never have come about through evolution. The canonical example is the mousetrap; it could not function if a single piece was missing and each individual piece has no value in and of itself. If you've ever played the game "Mousetrap," you know that the little basket won't fall if even one of those pieces is set up incorrectly. It is a compelling argument, and one that becomes even more compelling when one looks at a real biological process.

The example most often cited is the bacterial flagellum, the propeller of the bacteria. In an amazing feat of engineering evolution engineering an amazing feat, the parts of the flagellum are all arranged into motor components and joints that are just as if an engineer had designed it (maybe an engineer with a big white beard? Hmmm...could be). Michael J. Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, argues that the possibility that these parts arranged themselves through an evolutionary process is basically zero and this implies intelligent design.

But this ignores the fact that a) there exist simpler flagellum out there that work without being so complex and b) These parts could have served a non-flagellum purpose originally and then combined together to form the flagellum. In fact, the bubonic plague bacteria's toxin injector is extremely similar to the flagellum.

Another popular example of the an irreducibly complex system is the blood-clotting system. Creationists argue that this is yet another wildly complex system and, in fact, if this system was incomplete it could be damaging to the body. But studies by Russell F. Doolittle of UC San Diego demonstrate that the blood-clotting system appears to have evolved from digestive system proteins. Hardly irreducible, I think.

The Larger Point and the Dramatic Conclusion

But I don't care. You know what? For every biological process that scientists explain creationist will come up with a new, harder to explain system. But that is entirely besides the point. Science can't explain everything right now. We can't explain how gravity fits in with the rest of the quantum world, but nobody doubts gravity despite the fact that gravity is nothing more than a theory.

The thing is, irreducible complexity is once again built on the foundation of "damn, that's really hard. Let's invent a superbeing." Even if we had no idea how the flagellum worked, it would be bad, bad science to just give up and not try to figure it out. Why does there have to be a stopping point? Why do we have to assume that, at some point, things are just unexplainable and it is time to give up? I can't emphasize enough that that is not science, that is religion, and it has no place in a science class.

What I wonder is, how did the burden of proof get shifted onto the scientists. Scientists are just trying to explain how the world works. They look at the facts at hand, try to come up with an explanation, and they only introduce new ideas when the evidence requires. Then they exhaustively test the hypothesis before allowing it to become a fact (or theory, depending on the nature of the hypothesis). But creationists have gone well beyond the introduction of an invisible force like gravity or magnetism to explain something observed, they have introduced an entire Super Being. One that is everywhere but nowhere at the same time. All knowing and all powerful. And there is absolutely no way to detect this being or prove his existence, you just have to believe. And if you don't believe there will be eternal punishment.


Which of these seems like more of a stretch? But the scientists have to refute every argument brought up by creationists or else the creationists will view it as a victory. Stump the scientist, go to heaven! I'll never understand this.

So the final point of this all? A summary of the argument, if you will. I don't give a damn about any of the creationist arguments. I don't care if the creationist come up with an example of a really complex system that no biologist can explain. I just don't care.





It just isn't. Scientists should, never, ever accept an endpoint to their research. There is always a next step and it is never acceptable to say "I'm stumped, somebody fetch me a big, pointing finger."

If there is divine intervention, who can say at what point it occurs? When do we give up? When did intelligent design occur? At the DNA level...the cellular level? Clearly we have no answer to this question so there is some work to be done and no, it isn't okay to look in your 2000 year old textbook for the answer. This isn't an open book test.

Let's keep science in the classroom and religion in the church. Creationism has no place in a science class. And that, my friends, is the bottom line.

Source: 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense, Scientific American, July 2002.

...which can be read in its entirety here.

Excellent post!

I worry about the next generation of kids as the intellegent design is gaining momentum these days. Doesn't it seem that we are moving backwards in the sciences? This is not good. America will soon be lagging quite a bit behind other countries as far as science research/education goes. Which is very odd I think.
Not good is putting it mildly.
>It is never acceptable to say "I'm stumped, somebody fetch me a big, pointing finger."

Very nice.
Loved this post.
Dr. Paul Gross, author of the book "Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design" let know-it-all blowhole Bill O'Reilly have it like this:

"Yes, sir, well, Bill, this is the No Spin Zone, but what you've just done in your "Talking Points" is the most remarkable example of good spin I've heard in three or four days... You said that intelligent design is nothing more than informing the kids that some people don't believe in evolution. Well, that would be innocuous and actually excellent if that's all it were, but it's not that at all. Intelligent design is a complex, highly proliferated body of action, literature, mostly PR. The purpose of which is to teach, or at least suggest, that there's a big body of scientific evidence showing that standard evolutionary biology is wrong, that so-called Darwinism has collapsed or is collapsing. That is all false.

Intelligence design theory, so-called, ain't theory. It's a body of claims, almost all of which are that Darwinism, so-called, is wrong, not evidence for intelligent design."

I think your big pointing finger image conveys this very nicely.

Great post!
That was good for me. Thanks! I'm going to go have a chocolate chip cookie now.
Awhh.... another victory for creationist!!!!!
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