H-NET Intelligent Design discussion

With all the Intelligent Design news lately, ID has been making the rounds on the H-NET H-SCI-MED-TECH listserv. Instead of writing papers, I got side-tracked by composing some responses to some of the discussion there.

I should start by saying that:

1) I don’t think there is any positive evidence of non-natural causes for science to find in nature (though I don’t completely rule it out), so don’t expect the ID program to be successful in the future.

2) ID is not a significant enough factor in the scientific community to validate including it in public school curriculum, assuming the point of science education is to teach the best science. The efforts to put it in schools are almost purely religiously motivated.

Having said that, I have to respectfully disagree with much of the discussion on H-SCI-MED-TECH, and I don’t think ID is as bad as most of the discussants seem to think.

Michael Roberts writes intelligently on putting ID in historical context, particularly vis-à-vis Paley. His points, with my comments:

1.  “Intelligent Design does not seek to explain
but to appeal to some intelligent designer to
certain things which seem to be beyond explanation
at present. This is what Behe does in Darwin's
Black Box. In fact it is a form of a god of the gaps
argument and he has received much criticism for that.”

The argument of Darwin’s Black Box is closely related to generic God-of-the-gaps arguments, but it does try to go beyond such negative to arguments to make a positive argument for design, particularly by analogy to other observable instances of design. Still, it is largely a negative, gaps-based argument.

2.  ID is not a rewrite of Paley as Paley
sought to explain Design not to appeal to it.”

[and following up on this point in a later email]

“In their understanding of Creation IDCs open themselves
to having a
split-level understanding of Creation, as part
designed and part
not… This is in contrast to the Design
of Paley and Buckland where all is designed.”

This is a serious philosophical and theological tension in ID, and does set it apart from Paley. While this criticism does not necessarily invalidate ID (on its own), it does detract from the potential potency of ID design arguments, which cede modest ground to evolutionary explanations—“a two-tier Creation” is somewhat unsatisfying.

3.  “ID must be put in historical context and
its connections with Young Earth Creationism
and an Old earth Creationism which is sceptical
of evolution. Barbara Forrest is helpful here.
ID may not be YEC but it is always going to bed
with YECs!! As a result they ignore any evidence
of the vast age of the universe and the earth.”

This is valid point, and the connections are indeed important, although ID advocates vary on their age of the earth opinions; many in fact reject YEC explicitly and do not ignore the accepted cosmic and geological timelines. As for Barbara Forrest, I find her (non­-)use of historical context appalling, at least in Creationism’s Trojan Horse. The fact that she co-writes with Paul Gross (of Higher Superstition fame) should be a tip-off that she doesn’t take the history of science too seriously (except as a history of the triumph of pure reason over ignorance and superstition).

4.  [B]e aware of the shoddy scholarship of both
ID and YEC, especially on its history.”

Indeed, although the same complaint can be made about the invocation of history on the part of the anti-ID side as well, while some ID advocates actually do use history fairly responsibly (David Swift in Evolution Under the Microscope, for example). Roberts himself has drawn attention to the misuse of history in anti-ID literature in this excellent review of Tower of Babel (and the review gives a better picture of Roberts’s general take than the snippets above).

Christopher Crenner of University of Kansas complains (rightly) that putting ID into the Kansas education system is simply naked politics, which sort of bypasses the whole issue of realism/social constructivism. With cultural politics dictating science education, we aren’t dealing with the same kind of subtle influence by which the social constructs the scientific; this is the political creating the scientific by fiat. But the core of his objection, it seems, is this:

“The intelligent-design faction lifts out
one central piece from an integrated and
coherent study of the life sciences,
holding it up for special critique.”

I agree with the “special critique” sentiment, but where did he go to high school? In my high school in Yukon, Oklahoma, the biology curriculum was utterly incoherent, and not just because evolution was either off the menu or so limited that I don’t remember it. High school science in general (and university science nearly without exception) is not integrated or coherent, and at that level it doesn’t necessarily need to be. High school science education isn’t about teaching kids the truth; science changes, and the simplified high school curriculum bears little resemblance to the actual state of the biological knowledge of scientists. Learning a smattering of Newtonian physics or Darwinian evolution doesn’t create responsible members of society, nor have much inherent value, but it may spark an interest in science. And Intelligent Design may do the same thing. ID isn’t any more disconnected from high science than the version of evolution that makes it into classrooms, and whether or not kids are taught a “right” or “wrong” theory (or both) is largely irrelevant. Each theory can enlist much more of the facts (or factoids, if you prefer) of biology than could be covered in a school year, and each could potentially demonstrate the empirical nature of science.

Hypothetical Situation:
Cosmo, a 10th-grader at Podunk High School, goes to biology class. His school board decided to “teach the controversy,” which is a step up from leaving evolution out of the curriculum altogether. Mrs. Benes (who also teaches home economics and coaches girl’s soccer) is ecstatic; now she can show the kids how ID is right and evolution is bunk. So Cosmo gets a head full of Intelligent Design Theory and decides he wants to become a biologist–not to be a culture warrior, but because he finds something he can connect with in (his school board’s version of) science. Most of his classmates also come out of high school “knowing” that ID is right, but they also know that the world isn’t just science versus religion; they know what the theory of evolution is, even if they don’t believe it. Better yet, they understand why it’s a cultural issue, though they are also under the impression that it is a genuine scientific controversy.

Cosmo goes off to college at Crazy-Go-Nuts State, and he majors in biology. He’s surprised that the other biology students don’t know anything about ID, and quickly comes to realize that there aren’t any scientists on campus who agree with it either (except for Professor Vandelay, a physicists who likes the anthropic principle arguments but doesn’t know any biology). He debates his classmates, and at least for his first two years, he wins easily. Like Aristotle’s physics vis-à-vis Newtonian forces, Intelligent Design is in many ways a lot more intuitive than abstract models of genetic changes and ad-hoc theories of co-optation. But the further he gets into science, and the more he reads about the ID debates, the more he realizes how powerful evolutionary explanations are, and the more he realizes the limits and fuzziness of Intelligent Design. He ignores the issue for a while, but he’s always looking for ways to weigh ID and evolution with evidence that isn’t already in the ID/evolution literature.

By the time he graduates, Cosmo is well ahead of the other biology majors at CGNSU (they were mostly pre-med anyway). All that time learning more and more biology (and physics, and math) to decide the whole ID thing for himself paid off, even if he still doesn’t feel like he knows enough to decide for sure between ID (a very weak version, probably encompassing universal common descent) and orthodox evolution. Fortunately he didn’t include his sympathy for ID (it certainly isn’t outright support anymore) in his graduate school application essays; Cosmo is soon on his way to study evolutionary biochemistry at a top-tier graduate school. In graduate school, any remaining sympathy he had for ID quickly evaporates. By the time he is publishing papers, he’s one of vast majority of scientists who simply don’t see ID as any legitimate scientific competition for modern evolutionary biology.

My own intellectual development took some similar turns to the fictional Cosmo; I didn’t become interested in biology until I took biochemistry my sophomore year at OU, but I probably would have had ID been taught in my high school. As a junior (and with a fair amount of biochemistry under my belt, in the class and the lab) I became interested in ID, but with plenty of skepticism and the expectation that a) the holes I saw in evolutionary explanations were probably my own ignorance, and b) ID could only work from a religious standpoint… it was God-of-the-gaps, but if the gaps were real, why not put God in them.

The more I read and learned (at first), the more I was convinced that in fact, there are a lot of recalcitrant holes and that, maybe, ID could be put on a mathematical, probabilistic footing that would make it more than God-of-the-gaps. I didn’t know much biology beyond biochemistry, but the biochemistry/molecular biology side of evolution seemed particularly weak (it still does in many ways, relative to the other realms of evolutionary explanation), and others argued that, in the same way, the more one knew about geology or organismal biology, the more shaky evolution seemed (the Dilbert Blog explains this argument well).

But ID only had the edge to a point. After about 2 ½ years of involvement with the ID issue, including quite a bit of enthusiasm for a while, I was largely back where I started (though knowing a lot more evolutionary biology and biochemistry), as a skeptic of ID. At this point, I don’t think ID is going anywhere scientifically. But it’s also not so intellectually indefensible as critics maintain; its failure is hardly self-evident without deferring to the opinions of the scientific community, particularly for non-specialists.

It isn’t a significant scientific controversy, but “teaching the controversy” in public schools is also not the end of the world. The fact is, a whole lot of biology makes sense without evolution… that’s why I could go through an undergraduate program in biochemistry without hearing a word about evolution (and even in core biochemistry graduate courses at Yale, it is mentioned on occasionally). Neither teaching ID nor neglecting evolution is going to make the United States fall further behind as a leader in science… if anything, I think ID might get more kids into science. And even if, as practicing scientists, they still disbelieve evolution (as a moderate number of molecular biologists, biochemists, and physical scientists do), it doesn’t make them bad scientists (although it would make them bad evolutionary biologists). After all, most biologists think in terms of classical physics (when they think in terms of physics at all), but it doesn’t make much difference to biology.

Moving on, Hall Triplett writes:

“"Intelligent Design" has been around for
centuries, only not in the form of a
scientific theory. It is a redesign of
the old ontological argument for the
existence of a supreme being. It was
presented by various philosophers as an
essential element in the philosophy of
religion until Kierkegaard refused to
accept it as essential and took his
famous leap of faith instead. It was
thoroughly debated in this century
between Father Copleston and Bertrand
Russell. The issue needs to be exposed
as ancient theology with only a new
scientistic name. It has a history,
just not in science.”

The problems with Triplett’s dismissal of ID here are manifold… critically, the history of “ancient theology” coincides significantly with the history of science. Design arguments of basically the same form as ID have been prominent from Plato to Descartes to Newton to Maupertuis to Kelvin to the modern exponents of the anthropic principle (including, apparently, Owen Gingerich), and from Linnaeus to Aggasiz to Osborne, through the Creationists and Creation Scientists of the 20th century, to the irreducible complexity folks. Trying to apply information theory (with very limited success thus far) to traditional arguments from improbability and analogical arguments is what perhaps sets ID apart from the traditional design argument. But the real weight of ID is that we simply know much more about the natural world than natural philosophers and natural historians did in Paley’s time, and if anything, Paley’s premise only got stronger the more we learned about the structure of living organisms. Of course, the theory of evolution also provided an alternate avenue of explanation which has been highly successful at explaining much of the seeming design in nature. It is a near consensus among biology experts that in fact, the evolutionary explanations are much better than the design arguments. The design argument stronger than it has ever been; it is only relatively weaker. That is why it takes an expert to decide between them.

For historians to suggest that ID is invalid a priori because it isn’t science is basically to abandon historicism in favor of political expediency; the modern definition of science (which assumes natural causes are the only causes that can exist) is a very modern invention, and the boundaries between science and not-science have never been particularly stable. It’s one thing to say, as either a scientist or a secularist or just a citizen concerned with church/state separation, “you’re a Creationist, and I’ve got to stop you.” It’s quite another for a historian to say, “you’re a Creationist, and because modern science says Creationism isn’t science, it must never have been science.” I don’t mean by that to completely conflate ID and Creationism; politically they amount to about the same thing today, intellectually there are significant differences both now and historically. Maupertuis, for example, argued extensively against mainstream 18th century natural theology; his position was—similar to ID—that, while looking to nature could demonstrate the existence of a designer, it could not help illuminate the characteristics of the designer… it couldn’t make the leap Paley and many before and after him would try to make, to equate the apparent designer with the God of the Bible. Every point on the spectrum between natural theology and philosophical naturalism has been part of what was considered legitimate science at some time.

As historians weighing in on the modern debate, I don’t think we can simply equate ID to earlier design arguments and judge it therefore as bad science (or bad theology masquerading as science). What we can do is, to the extent that we trust/endorse/believe in/accept modern science, defer to the judgment of scientists. If (as humanists still struggling with the limits of social construction and relativism) we can’t feel comfortable going along with the scientists for the sake of their expertise, we should withhold the verdict on ID, at least as far as its scientific value. Of course, that does not preclude fighting ID as a political movement and keeping it out of schools (though as I argued above, bad science in education doesn’t necessarily mean bad science education, from a pragmatic viewpoint).

I know many of my fellow historians of science will disagree strongly with a lot of what I’ve written here… please leave comments and criticisms.