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What is intelligent design?

Striving to understand the debate in a ‘publish or perish’ world.
By Jim Baird
For the Christian Chronicle
December 1, 2005
Intelligent design.Endorsed by President Bush, mandated by the Dover, Pa.,school board and condemned by many scientists and educators. What is it really?

Intelligent design isa movement of anti-evolution scholars. Its public beginning is probably the1991 publication of the best seller by Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial. Johnson was a longtime Berkeley law professorand a recent convert to evangelical Christianity. He used his argumentativeexpertise to pick out what he considered to be numerous holes in the evidencefor the theory of evolution. He charged that evolution is not believable on itsown merits. Instead, he claimed, it is believed only because it is supported bythe philosophical system known as scientific materialism, a system that claimseverything happens by material causes alone. This philosophy, Johnson implied,is the real reason evolution has lasted so long in spite of the problems withits evidence.

In all his work sofar, Johnson has refused to be drawn into any discussion of the age of theearth. His reasoning is tactical — he wants to talk about the real weaknessesin the case for evolution and he had seen far too many creationistsmarginalized by the age of the earth issue.

Naturally, Johnson’srefusal to speak out on this issue has earned him criticism from young earthcreationists. But it has been crucial for the success of the intelligent designmovement, for two reasons. It has unbalanced the defenders of evolution, whowere used to shifting the debate to the age of the earth. And more importantly,it has allowed in a wider range of allies than Johnson could have anticipated.

The most famous ofthese was Michael Behe, a Roman Catholic, Lehigh Universityprofessor of biological sciences and researcher with a history of grants fromthe National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. Hispublication of Darwin’sBlack Box in 1996 provided a huge boost in the prestige of the intelligentdesign movement. Behe’s argument was that when Darwin published his theory, he had noknowledge of the inner workings of the cell. But biochemistry has revealed theamazing molecular machinery within cells, machinery so irreducibly complexthat, Behe maintains, it could not have been built through evolution.

Evolution can onlyexplain by suggesting that slight improvements happen by chance. Because oftheir usefulness, these slight improvements are preserved by natural selection,a foundation for the next improvement when it comes along.

But, Behe argues, formolecular machines such as those responsible for blood clotting, retinalresponse, bacterial flagellum, etc., there are no partial steps. Until theentire machine is built, none of the pieces is shown to provide a benefit tothe host animal. With no benefit, there is no reason for natural selection toselect them. Like a mechanic with extra pieces left over, natural selection ismore likely to toss them out than to keep them lying around cluttering thingsup.

Behe’s survey of theliterature revealed that almost no research had been done to explain how suchmachines might have come into being through evolutionary processes. “Publish orperish” was Behe’s challenge to the evolutionary establishment — publishexplanations of the evolution of these molecular machines or quit claiming theyarose by evolution.

After Behe, WilliamDembski entered the fray with The Design Inference in 1998 and the moreaccessible Intelligent Design in 1999. Dembski used information theory todetect signs of intelligence in otherwise confusing material. Analogous to theways television technicians isolate information-bearing signals fromnon-information bearing static, Dembski identified specified complexity as his markerfor intelligent design.

Dembski argued thatthe origin of life from non-life, and the diversification of life, show clearsigns of specified complexity; and that the cases of observable evolution shownothing but the conservation of specified complexity. He charged that naturalcauses are incapable of increasing specified complexity.

In effect, Dembskihas issued a publish-or-perish challenge of his own to the evolutionaryestablishment — publish detailed explanations of the evolution of specifiedcomplexity within known organisms or perish as a credible theory.

Defenders ofevolutionary orthodoxy have been swift in response to the intelligent designmovement. Scholars such as Philip Kitcher and Robert Pennock have devotedentire books to disputing the claims of the movement point by point, andscholars of international stature, such as Stephen Jay Gould and RichardDawkins have blasted particular claims made by Johnson or others.

The most commoncriticism of intelligent design is a reversal of the publish-or-perishchallenge itself. “Where,” the critics ask, “are the positive scientificpublications of intelligent design theory?” Critics claim that until theintelligent design movement can build up a body of peer-reviewed research, theintelligent design theorist cannot claim to have damaged, or even muchtroubled, the evolution paradigm.

In the end, opendebate will decide the issue. Neither mandates by the courts, pressure by thechurches nor authoritative pronouncements by the scientific establishment willdo more than delay the process (and, quite frankly, embarrass the loser).Christians know more clearly than all others that it is error that ultimatelyresorts to force. Truth wins by its own beauty and power.

In our classrooms, weshould work for open and frank discussions of evolution, with all the evidencefor it, as well as its many problems. And we should work for a betterunderstanding of the nature of science itself, which will never be an oracle offixed wisdom, but always a tentative effort to make sense of the world God hasgiven us.

Those who hope, as Ido, for the end of the theory of evolution must realize that theories as deeplyestablished as evolution can only be overthrown by penetrating investigationand rigorous discussion.

Appeals to externalauthority, to rule God out of the debate or to rule him in, will only slow theprocess.

JIMBAIRD is a professor of Bible at OklahomaChristian University,Oklahoma City.Contact him at [email protected] .

Filed under: Staff Reports Views

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