“Science” Against Science: More thoughts on “Intelligent Design”
James Na of the Guns and Butter Blog has written a follow-up post regarding the Dover decision, in which he reiterates that while he is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Discovery Institute, he is in no way connected to their advocacy of “Intelligent Design”. He further points out that the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture actually opposed the Dover, Pennsylvania school board’s policy on teaching “Intelligent Design”. So James (along with Seth Cooper, who contributes to his blog) is in the clear on this issue – not that I had accused him of being a Creationist, but evidently some people had. He’s not one, okay? (Or if he is, he’s deep in the closet and not planning to come out.)
The Center for Science and Culture presents a nuanced position on “Intelligent Design”: It “supports research by scientists and other scholars challenging various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory”, along with “research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design.” The Center’s “Top Questions” page claims that it does not advocate the mandatory teaching of “Intelligent Design”; rather, “evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.” All this sounds benign enough – after all, science is supposed to be all about challenging dogmas, subjecting old theories to new tests, and so on.
So why do I still feel uneasy about the Center and its work?
The problem, I think, is with the nature of “Intelligent Design” as a purportedly-scientific theory. The theory relies on the concept of “irreducible complexity” – basically, the idea that certain structures, especially the molecular-level biochemical “machines” inside our cells, are so constructed that (A) they can’t have appeared all at once as the result of a random mutation; and (B) if even one component were missing, they wouldn’t function properly – and so they can’t have appeared gradually, as the intermediate stages would have been useless to the organism. This argument looks convincing at first glance, but there are some good reasons for skepticism:
- The same argument has long been used against evolution regarding larger-scale adaptations such as insect wings, and has been proven false every time (at least when sufficient data was available to prove anything one way or another). For example, insect wings that weren’t large enough for flight were still useful for thermal regulation; and the maximum size at which the wing is useful for thermal regulation turns out to be a size at which the wing begins to give the insect aerodynamic benefits. Without getting into too much detail (remember that this is supposed to be a blog about the Middle East, not evolutionary biology!), the anti-evolutionists have never come up with a convincing argument based on “unbridgeable gaps” in the macro-scale evolution of organisms or organs.
- Switching the “irreducible complexity” argument to the molecular scale smacks of opportunism. Molecular biology (including molecular genetics) is a science in its early childhood, if not still in infancy. We know just enough to be able to appreciate some of the beauty and complexity of life on the molecular scale, without knowing enough to understand just how it all works – much less how intermediate versions of today’s cellular machinery might have functioned. Further, the fossil record provides no help in deciphering molecular-level evolution; we might find fossilized semi-whales (destroying one of the old anti-evolutionary “examples”), but we won’t find extinct versions of cellular machinery. It’s one thing to take a mature scientific paradigm and identify its weaknesses (as the Michelson-Morley experiment did for Newtonian physics, paving the way for Einstein’s theory of Relativity); it’s quite another to select an area of science that is still in its early stages and then cry fowl because of its supposed “gaps”.
At an even more fundamental level, the stated program of the Center for Science and Culture seems a little strange to me. If effect, the Center is supporting “research by scientists and other scholars” in order to show that certain phenomena cannot have come about through “scientific” causes – such as the laws of physics and chemistry combined with a limited amount of good luck and lots of time. “Research” with such goals is exactly what true science doesn’t do. Real science looks on unexplained phenomena as a challenge to be surmounted; the scientist seeks to extend the bounds of what can be understood and predicted. “Research” that seeks to exclude phenomena from scientific predictability is not science; if anything, it’s “anti-science”.*
In my perusal of the Center for Science and Culture’s website, I noticed that while the Center claims to promote “research”, it doesn’t actually state that it promotes “scientific research” – supporting “research by scientists” isn’t necessarily the same thing, although the latter phrase is certainly meant to imply that genuine scientific research is being done in support of “Intelligent Design”. Somehow, I find it very hard to believe that somewhere people with white lab coats and electron microscopes are laboring away to reduce the scope of scientific predictability!
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Of course, I can’t prove that the contentions of “Intelligent Design” are false – at least not with the knowledge available in December 2005. But I suspect that before too long, scientists will show how some of the “irreducibly complex” molecular machines inside our cells evolved; and when this happens, the “Intelligent Design” advocates will not give up their theory, but instead will find some even smaller hook to hang it on. In the mean time, what the Center for Science and Culture is promoting is not science, no matter how respectably “scientific” the Center claims to be. Either the Center is run by fools who don’t know what science is – which seems highly unlikely – or else, despite its protestations of scientific objectivity, the Center is disingenuously attempting to package a religious doctrine as a “scientific” theory.
* Of course, real science does sometimes find areas in which predictability is limited; Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is a prime example. But genuine scientists don’t seek to maximize areas of unpredictability; it’s worth remembering that even though quantum mechanics elegantly describes particle behavior using probability mathematics, Einstein found it extremely unsatisfying because “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”