Will science lose to intelligent design?

The religious right is increasing efforts to force its dogmatic beliefs onto American society. Its agenda includes efforts in many states to force the teaching of religion in public schools. Its adherents argue that evolution is not a discipline of science but “only a theory,” and that “intelligent design” (formerly “creationism”) should have an equal place in public education.

In August the Kansas Board of Education gave preliminary approval to teaching intelligent design alongside evolution. Eight families in Pennsylvania have brought federal suit against the Dover Area School District, the first school system in the country to require that students be taught this dogma.

The claim is that intelligent design is as much a science as evolution. What makes a discipline scientific? All science expands knowledge progressively. From known facts concerning the properties and interactions of matter and energy, scientists make hypotheses to explain phenomena that are unknown. Those hypotheses are then tested by experiments. If proven correct, the conclusions join the known body of knowledge.

One defining characteristic of science is that it can predict the future within limitations set by the available known facts. Science predicts that if anyone on the planet drops his keys, they will fall to the surface below. Furthermore, knowing the distance to the surface, it is possible to calculate what the keys’ velocity will be when they hit as well as the time it will take them to hit.

Some disciplines of science cannot make perfect predictions because the contributions of some of the influencing variables are difficult to measure or have not been incorporated yet into the body of known facts.

Meteorology is such a case. Weather prediction has improved over the last decades, but is not perfect. Note that this is also true in the case of dropping your keys, although meteorology predicts with a much lesser degree of exactness. While the laws of gravity predict the keys will fall, the exact kinetics of falling will be affected by altitude, density of the air (resistance), wind currents, etc., which may be hard to measure or predict.

Evolution is a fully established field of science.

Life originated about 3.8 billion years ago. From scientific dating of the fossil record, paleontologists can trace the evolution of plants and animals from changes in structure (morphology) and function (physiology).

Evidence for evolution can also be found in comparisons among present-day life forms. For example, it is possible to observe how biochemical activities have evolved from bacteria to vertebrates.

A more recent tool is comparison of base biochemical sequences that make up genetic matter. This year, the DNA sequence of the chimpanzee genome was completed. It differs by only about 1 percent from that of the human genome. This strongly supports earlier anatomical and biochemical data indicating that early humans and chimps descended from a common ancestor 4 to 6 million years ago or more. Other genomes, such as those of the mouse, which have about 170 million years of evolutionary divergence from humans, do not show as much similarity for any of these biochemical or anatomical features. Science has never proposed that humans were directly descended from mice.

Intelligent design makes no predictions based on facts. None of its predictions have ever been tested by experiment. To define it as a discipline of science is absurd.

The role of the religious right in our capitalist society deserves further analysis, but it should be clear that its successes will lead to further ignorance and superstition, setting people up to be more easily misled and exploited by the ruling class.





David Kennell (kennell@borcim.wustl.edu) is a professor emeritus of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.