Sunday, November 7, 2004

Intelligent Design

I am impressed how many of my readers worked all the way through my recent very long blog entry in order to politely and intelligently dispute my remarks about intelligent design theory. (Of course, since these are my readers, they are polite and intelligent.) Let me make a couple of points about this:

1. I have read some of the criticisms of Behe's intelligent design argument concerning organelles, and I have found them unpersuasive (although they are at least headed down a road that could become persuasive, with enough evidence).

2. As I pointed out some months back:
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.


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.
Intelligent design theory advocates have something of an unfair advantage; all they have to do is demonstrate that one aspect of life suggests a designer. We would still teach evolution in biology classes as a way to make predictions (because the vast majority of biological change would still be unintelligent), but it would impose some humility on how we teach biology.

One of my readers tells me:
Well, I am from the era when they were "certain". The newer speculation(s)about the mechanism (punctuated equilibrium for instance) had not been proposed yet. I went to school in the Houston Independent School District in the '60's and our proximity to NASA made our classes very thorough in all math and science subjects.

Today, on the other hand, the subject is completely avoided because of the controversy surrounding it. My own children reported they got no instruction about this at all. Of course, we live in rural East Texas now.
It's a troubling problem, because the reaction to Revealed Truth evolution has been either Young Earth Creationism, or nothing at all. My wife taught at a fundamentalist Christian middle school in California--where, if the textbook had been the entire basis for teaching biology, she wouldn't have bothered. It was full of insulting and often inaccurate portrayals of Darwinian evolution. What she and I did to handle this was to get students started on a discussion of the purpose of science. Our goal was for the students to understand evolutionary theory (because they were certainly going to need to understand it when they went to college), and also to understand that a theory may be a useful predictive model, without necessarily being 100% correct.

As a chemistry professor of mine at USC suddenly and inexplicably pointed out during a lecture about electron clouds: "We really have no idea what's going on at the subatomic level. There could be angels dancing on the heads of pins, for all we know. But it's a model that works for predicting what's going to happen, and that's all that science really is: a method of predicting things." Unfortunately, there are people out there for whom science is Truth with a capital T--and they are as troubled by teaching evolution as a predictive model, as Young Earth Creationists are by the prospect that our planet is more than 10,000 years old.

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