Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Intelligent Design, Evolution, and Science

I have had a very interesting exchange with a reader about this subject. If the advocates of the intelligent design argument are correct (that certain basic components of life do not appear to be the result of random processes, but show "intelligent design"), is this science? My answer is a qualified no.

What is the purpose of science? To come up with a methodology for predicting the future. We study chemistry so that we can say, "If I put ten kilograms of sodium into a container with five kilograms of water, what will be the end product?" What makes science useful (and not simply an entertaining exercise) is this ability to predict the future. In that sense, it doesn't matter what is actually happening at the lowest levels. As one of my chemistry professors at USC observed, part-way through a lecture about shells, subshells, electron clouds, probabilities, etc., "We have no idea what is going on at the subatomic level. There could be angels dancing on the head of a pin for all we know. But this lets us predict what will happen, and that's all that science is."

Evolution, whether right or wrong, is a predictive tool. It lets us make some informed guesses about what will happen--although it seems unlikely that any major changes that it can predict will happen within the lifetime of our civilization. Intelligent design, even if it turned out to be true, is not a predictive tool. If living organisms are actually indicative of intelligent design, we can't predict what that intelligence is going to do, can we? In that sense, intelligent design isn't really science in the same sense that chemistry is.

However: intelligent design arguments, to the extent that they raise serious questions about the blind and random process claims of evolution, are a legitimate restraining force on the dogmatism that characterizes biology teaching in primary and secondary education (and to some extent, even at the college level). If there are biological structures that do not seem to fit the blind and random development model of evolution, this is important, and worth discussing.

Dogmatism is a dangerous tendency: in religion; in politics; and in science, because it shuts off serious questioning. Unlike many of the Creationist arguments, intelligent design presents some serious challenges to the more doctrinaire forms of evolution.

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