Friday, August 05, 2005


The Hollow Core of Intelligent Design

Evolution, the idea that the current, diverse forms of life on our planet arose from the earliest and most primitive organisms, did not, as some think, originate with Darwin.

The Greek thinkers Thales of Miletus, Empedocles, Anaximander, and Aristotle all considered the idea. The French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc noted the similarity between man and the apes and speculated they might have a common origin. Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, formulated a theory of evolution in Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life.

"[N]ature has in favorable times, places, and climates multiplied her first germs of animality, given place to developments of their organizations…" noted Jean-Baptiste Lamark in a speech delivered at the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris in May of 1803, "and increased and diversified their organs? Then… aided by much time and by a slow but constant diversity of circumstances, she has gradually brought about in this respect the state of things which we now observe."

There were others, many others, who observed the fact of evolution and wrote about it, as well.

Why then, does Darwin get all the credit?

The answer is really quite simple. The name of Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution, which he called descent with modification, will always be inextricably linked because he explained how evolution works.

Darwin's theory of evolution, unlike any of the others that came before it proposed a plausible, testable mechanism – natural selection – through which evolution could operate.

In the years since Darwin first proposed the theory of evolution in 1859, it has been strengthened by the re-discovery of the work in genetics by Gregor Mendel laying out the laws of heritability.

His experiments with pea plants, and work with fruit flies by Thomas Hunt Morgan, the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crick, and ongoing work in evolutionary developmental biology all have one thing in common. They all show how evolution works.

That is what a theory does. It provides a mechanism. It explains how something happens.

For example, people have always gotten sick. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out, but, for many centuries, it was thought that human illness was a judgment from God.

It wasn’t until Pastuer, Lister, and Koch, among others, conducted experiments that demonstrated that germs – microorganisms – cause infection, that we understood the mechanism of infectious disease.

Like those who doubt Darwin and evolution, there are still some who reject the germ theory of disease believing that sin is the cause of human illness. In his authorized biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch, for example, Edmund Morris quotes the former president as saying:

"Maybe the Lord brought down this plague" [AIDS-HIV] because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."

Knowing how certain diseases happen allowed us to take steps to prevent infection through hand washing, sterilization, and other public health measures, perhaps the greatest advance in medicine since Hippocrates. Believing that sin is the cause, and disease the effect, has done nothing, on the other hand, to advance human health.

The absence of a plausible mechanism, a how, is the hollow core of intelligent design.

Advocates of intelligent design claim to be able to identify design in nature, but have you ever heard Behe, Dembski, or any of the others describe how it might work in practice?

No, of course you haven’t.

For them, to propose how intelligent design might work would be to give the game away.

If design advocates were serious about their ideas, they’d put forward a hypothesis of how design works, but to be a scientific hypothesis, it would have to be testable.

Since we – and they – know the inevitable result of putting forward a testable hypothesis, they can not, and will not do it.

Although we have no satisfactory answers yet, courageous scientists have put forward testable hypotheses about the origin of life and the beginning of the universe that have deepened our understanding without having settled all the issues. This has been productive science, even if we doubt, as we do, that all the answers are now in hand.

In principle, there is nothing – in a purely scientific sense -- standing in the way of ID advocates proposing testable hypotheses. Only legal and political considerations, and the knowledge that doing so would arm scientists with yet another tool for proving them wrong prevent them from doing so.


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