Creationists are trying to shoehorn fundamentalist Judeo-Christian beliefs into the public schools and universities again. Their plan is to pressure school boards into accepting the teaching of “intelligent design” as an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
A group called the Discovery Institute has been promoting “intelligent design.” Their argument is that nature is too complex to have been brought into being by the blind, nonpurposeful process of Darwinian evolution, which depends, essentially, on the accidents of mutation and environmental change to explain changes in plants and animals and the emergence of new species, including ourselves. They say it would be simpler to believe that some great mind or intelligence has planned all of this.
There are two problems with this. The first is, if this great mind is so purposeful and intelligent, why on earth has he, she or it created such a bizarre array of species in nature? Recently I came across a web site, www.caudata.org, which tells me that scientists now recognize 85 different species of salamanders of the genus Bolitoglossa, which range from Mexico to the jungles of South America. But looking at photographs of these little critters, it is clear that they are mostly variants on a theme: Air breathing through skin (no lungs), short snout, popeyes, mushroom-shaped tongue, long tail, feet shaped like mittens, and a propensity to climb rather than stick to ground level like the orthodox and respectable northern two-lined salamanders in my backyard. The variation is in the color scheme and other details.
It is easier to imagine that the differences in environment in their huge range led the original Bolitoglossa to branch off and develop 85 different species, than to believe that some great universal mind suddenly woke up one morning and decided that there were too few species of mitten-footed salamanders in the world, and it was time to “intelligently design” some more. To me, it would have been more intelligent to design just a single species and make them infinitely tougher and more adaptable, say the size of crocodiles, with claws, poison fangs, fur (for cold snaps) and pterodactyl wings, instead of fragile little things that fit in the palm of your hand and that curl up and die if you leave them in the sun for two minutes. What’s intelligent about designing them like that?
Another issue is that of Ockham’s Razor. Thomas of Ockham (or Occam) was a medieval English philosopher who laid down the rule accepted by all scientists and philosophers today, that the best explanation of a phenomenon is the simplest one, or the one that requires positing the existence of the smallest number of entities and processes. When the promoters of “intelligent design” claim that it is better than natural selection because of its relative simplicity, they invoke Ockham’s razor. But they cheat.
They cheat, because by introducing a vast, undefined “intelligence” as the explanation for everything, they are introducing a huge unexplained “entity” into the process.
We are not allowed to ask where this great intelligent mind came from, what its nature is, how to explain its decision-making processes, all of which would be even more complex issues than natural selection. So “intelligent design” actually is a more complex explanation for the variety of species than natural selection. Intelligent design flunks the rule of Ockham’s razor.
True, scientists don’t have explanations for everything, and every chain of scientific reasoning must be rooted in unproved assumptions at some point. But scientists always are ready to take that chain of reasoning one step further, and seek proofs or disproofs of those assumptions. To posit the existence of a vast intelligence and will behind nature, and then expect people to take this on faith, is a religious-mystical stance, not a scientific one.
As an educator, I have taught classes on human evolution (via physical anthropology courses) and on comparative religions. I will be glad to include the theory of intelligent design in my comparative religion class, as one more mystical or religious explanation of human origins.
But I will not waste the time of my physical anthropology students with any such thing.
Emile Schepers is a frequent contributor who teaches social sciences at the college level.