Intelligent Design or ID, has been getting a lot of press these days. Just this past month Time magazine (the Canadian publication) featured a cover story titled “The Evolution Wars”, pitting Darwin against, well, a bunch of people who really believe in Intelligent Design (1). Even President Bush has declared the need to “teach both sides” of the biological “debate”. In contrast, high-profile biologists such as Oxford professor Dr. Richard Dawkins, author of the bestselling book The Selfish Gene, flatly deny the mere existence of this so-called debate (1). To the average newspaper reader, Bush seems almost progressive, while the evolutionary biologists appear suspiciously guarded. Are they afraid? Do they feel their own precious ideology of Darwinism is under threat?
Simply put, no, they don’t. Indeed, groundbreaking discoveries in science often have to swim against the tide before they can redirect it. The ‘theory’ of Intelligent Design just happens not to be one of those discoveries. Intelligent Design will never catalyze biological progress the way the discovery of DNA did. Why not? Because ID has been given the chance to do so for hundreds of years, and never has.
Intelligent Design, or under its more generic alias in philosophy, the design argument, stimulated scientific pursuit centuries before Darwin came onto the scene. It is a remarkably simple argument: Life and/or the universe is so mind-bogglingly complex, someone had to have planned it. Theologically speaking, it’s a relatively reasonable statement to make, and because it so snugly embraces both the physical world and its creator (which we habitually interchange with the concept of God), it has been used time and again to simultaneously reinforce the authority of the Church and motivate pious naturalists (2). Its roots stem all the way back to Plato in Ancient Greece and it has played a sporadic, occasionally dominant role in science right through to the establishment of the Anglican Church in the 18th Century (2). But alongside ‘natural theology’, as it was then called, there have always been precautionary disclaimers emphasized by philosophers, scientists and theologians alike stressing the dangers of merging theology and science. Aristotle was one of the first in recorded history to recognise this, and his views continued to be reinforced by many great thinkers, including Rene Descartes, Sir Francis Bacon, and Immanuel Kant (2).
It might surprise some, in light of the apparent resurrection of the “science versus faith” debate in the United States; that every one of these philosophers believed strongly in God (2,3). What they recognized, and what many people overlook, throughout history to the present day, is that the parameters of robust scientific pursuit do not necessarily infringe on the realm of faith or spirituality. Kant conceived the idea of two worlds, the physical, or ‘phenomenal’, which is what we can sense, and the real or ‘noumenal’ world, a greater cosmos separate in terms of human experience from the physical, but still an integral part of the universe (2). Essentially, science is the examination and exploration of the phenomenal world: learning through experimentation and logic about how the physical universe functions. The study of Kant’s more metaphysical, and by definition separate, noumenal world should ideally be the field of theologians. Intelligent Design attempts to mix these two worlds together, producing a pseudo-scientific theory that ultimately compromises the legitimacy and scope of both well-established fields of study. The reason many biologists decline from participating in the “debate” between ID and evolution is that the two ideas do not fall on a common, rational battleground: evolution works on the physical plane alone, while Intelligent Design incorporates untestable, non-physical (and therefore inherently unscientific) beliefs into its arsenal. Any attempt at debate would simply end in wasted breath and wasted effort.
Though when stripped down ID consists of little more than a theological attack against perceived atheist implications of evolution, there still are a few published books on the subject (4, 5). Usually they highlight two main ‘problems’: apparent ‘holes’ in evolutionary theory, and the ‘irreducibly complex’ nature of living systems (4, 5). ‘Holes’ in evolutionary theory often refer to issues such as the lack of ‘transitional’ fossils in the fossil record. Transitional fossils are chronological sequences of fossilized organisms that show gradual morphological change from one species to another (4). Never mind the glaringly unreasonable assumption that anything less than a complete fossil record after billions of years of geological upheaval and destruction is tantamount to disproving evolutionary theory; it also happens that even some of the most mysterious macroevolutionary processes, such as marine mammal evolution, are now being supplemented with convincing fossil evidence (6).
The idea that Earth’s biological systems are simply too complex to have been formed through evolutionary trial and error resurrects an age-old theological world view that has been reluctantly receding for centuries in the wake of scientific discovery: the “God of the Gaps” hypothesis (7). A term that refers to the human tendency to attribute what we cannot explain to divine intervention, ‘God of the Gaps’ met its match in the boxing ring of astronomy against Galileo and Copernicus during the 15th to 17th Century, though public victory was not officially celebrated until many years later (8). Since then, the secular scientific method has given human beings a means by which to surprise and astound themselves with new knowledge again and again.
Scientific inquiry comes to a dead halt when we presume that we know the whole picture. It is the nature of the game to chase after new answers, to hunt and toy with new puzzles, to fence ruthlessly and skilfully against the ideas of our colleagues. Contrary to what many might believe, proving or disproving God is not one of its objectives. As such, science is not obligated to let Intelligent Design into the ring, especially if ID is not willing to play by the rules.
1. Wallis, C.: The Evolution Wars. Toronto: Time Canada Ltd; 2005.
2. Ruse, M.: Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have A Purpose? Cambridge, Massachussetts, London: Harvard University Press; 2003.
3. Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626):
4. Davis, P. and Kenyon, D.H.: Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. Texas: Haughton Publishing Company; 1993.
5. Behe, M.J: Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: The Free Press; 1996.
6. PBS Evolution Library: Whale Evolution:
7. The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy:
8. Pitt, J.C: Galileo, human knowledge, and the book of nature : method replaces metaphysics. Dordrecht, Boston : Kluwer Academic Publishers; 1992.