Thursday, September 08, 2005


The sound of one duck quacking

"If it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it's a duck."

-- Michael Behe on intelligent design in a Feb. 7 New York Times Op-Ed "Design for Living" (read it for free, here, coutesy of our friends at the Discovery Institute)

Second in the series, "If it quacks like a duck... " (Part 1) (Part 3) (Part 4)

Michael Behe says there is a strong appearance of design in nature. However, by failing to answer any of the fundamental questions -- the who, what, when, where, how, and why questions -- he has failed to supply a description of the essential characteristics of intelligent design that might help us to identify that class of objects.

Compounding the problem, Behe then proceeds to offer up a comparison between the Rocky Mountains, an object that is, as he says, the product of unintelligent physical forces -- others might simply call them natural -- and Mount Rushmore, a man-made object.

The fact that Behe is unable to supply a single, unambiguous, widely agreed upon example of an intelligently designed object that we might compare to other objects he claims are products of intelligent design must be considered, then, to be absolutely fatal to his assertion that "we can often recognize the effects of design in nature."

The word "recognize" means to perceive that something is the same, has been perceived before, or to know or identify from past experience or knowledge. If the intelligent design "theorists" offer us nothing for comparison -- and that's exactly what Behe offers -- then we will be unable, by definition, to recognize intelligent design.

Behe, and other intelligent design "theorists" have also failed to tell us exactly what they mean by the words "intelligent" and "design."

Red State Rabble's The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers four definitions for the word intelligent. Among them, the the first seems most apt, "having the faculty of understanding." Even that, however seems somewhat unsatisfying in coming to grips with what Behe is trying to suggest.

Perhaps, going back to Behe's comparison between the Rockies and Rushmore will help shed light on what he really has in mind. He says the Rockies are a product of "unintelligent physical forces." The word "unintelligent" doesn't really help. We can be sure he does not mean to imply brainless or fatuous physical forces. Perhaps insensate -- lacking sensation or awareness; inanimate -- is closer to his meaning.

More revealing though, we think, is the pairing of unintelligent with "physical."

Although it is often denied by supporters of intelligent design, the real meaning of the word "intelligent" when paired with design must be non-physical, spiritual, supernatural, or perhaps even metaphysical.

There is a great deal of evidence to support this view. We will cite but one from Kansas. Last December, an eight-member minority of the Kansas Science Standards Committee led by William Harris submitted recommendations to the State Board of Education for revisions of the draft standards adopted by the majority in which they decried the "naturalistic view that physical and chemical laws plus chance are adequate to explain all natural phenomena... " as a non-theistic belief system that stands in opposition to traditional theistic beliefs.

The following May, Michael Behe was brought to Kansas to testify before a sub-committee of the state board in favor of these revisions.

The protestations of intelligent design activists aside, it seems fair for us to conclude that by "intelligent," Behe and his fellows mean a force that seems to stand outside of or above natural forces. Something supernatural.

What then, do they mean by design?

Design is one of those hard-working words that has many meanings. Certainly one meaning of design that Behe and those who share his ideas have in mind is to fashion, plan, or to have a goal or purpose, in the same way an architect might design and execute the construction of a building for a specific purpose.

Design can also be ornamental, as in a pattern. This definition is, we think, also a part of what Behe and others have in mind when they speak of design. It is not unreasonable to think that it is in complex patterns -- the chains of nucleotides in DNA's double helix, made up of complementary bases of adenine and thymine or cytosine and guanine, for example -- exhibiting the qualities of form, order, systematic arrangement, and a relationship of parts to a whole that these design "theorists" believe the hand of their designer might be seen.

Form, undoubtedly, is a particularly important concept for intellectuals who believe the world has been corrupted by the naturalism of science:

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," Genesis tells us. "And the earth was without form, and void..."

Tomorrow, we will examine patterns and their recognition. (Part 1) (Part 3) (Part 4)


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