Among scientists, Darwin's theory of evolution is still the accepted story of how living things came to be, but proponents of a theory known as “intelligent design” claim they can stump Darwin: Life, they say, is simply too complicated to have arrived by chance.
Intelligent design seems to have popped up out of nowhere, but it’s actually an old concept. The idea that an organism's complexity is evidence for the existence of a cosmic designer was advanced long before Charles Darwin was born. Its best-known exponent was English theologian William Paley, creator of the famous watchmaker analogy.
If we find a pocket watch in a field, Paley wrote in 1802, we immediately infer that it was produced not by natural processes acting blindly but by a designing human intellect.
Likewise, he reasoned, the natural world contains abundant evidence of a supernatural creator. This argument prevailed as an explanation of the natural world until the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859. The weight of the evidence that Darwin had patiently gathered convinced scientists that evolution by natural selection better explained life's complexity and diversity.
In some circles, however, opposition to the concept of evolution persists to this day. The argument has been revived by a number of academics, who differ from fundamentalist creationists in that they accept that some species do change and that Earth is much more than 6,000 years old.
Like their predecessors, however, they reject the idea that evolution accounts for the array of species we see today, and they seek to have the theory of intelligent design included in the science curriculum of schools.
Let’s go back to 1987. In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a Louisiana law mandating the equal-time teaching of creationism in public schools was unconstitutional. The Court noted that parents entrust their children to the schools “on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.”
Of particular importance is the Court’s statement that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bars any theory predicated on supernatural or divine creation because such theories are inherently and inescapably religious, regardless of whether “they are presented as a philosophy or as a science.”
So, can the intelligent design theory be considered true science?
For a theory to be considered scientific, it must meet certain criteria (consistency, progressiveness, and ability to change as new evidence is discovered, among others), and it must be testable. Critics of intelligent design say there are no means by which to test the theory, and its underlying assumptions are not open to change.
Its central conclusion is based on belief in the intervention of a supernatural agent that is able to operate beyond the laws of physics and nature, so these critics say the conclusion itself is unscientific.
There is one flaw in Darwinism. While it elegantly explains how microbes became man, there is one event that, as yet, it cannot account for: what gave the spark of life to inert matter? Theories abound, and Carl Sagan succeeded in creating amino acids, sugars and nucleic acids, some of the basic building blocks of life, from a mixture of gases that resembled the atmosphere of primordial Earth by introducing electrical sparks (simulating lightning) and ultraviolet radiation (simulating sunlight) into the mixture.
But so far, science has not been able to create a living organism in the laboratory, and the supporters of intelligent design leap upon this as proof that an entity beyond our understanding has the power to infuse inert matter with life.
Intelligent design has yet to establish itself as a thriving scientific research program. Critics argue that proponents of the theory either do not submit articles to peer reviewed journals, or set up “peer review” that consists entirely of intelligent design supporters.
Proponents of intelligent design claim that because their arguments challenge principles that are accepted as fundamental by the mainstream scientific community, research that points toward an intelligent designer is often rejected simply because it deviates from these beliefs without regard to the merits of their specific claims.
Thus, we have a stalemate. How such a stalemate can be resolved is beyond the scope of this column, but it can be said that the theory of intelligent design will not be considered as serious science until its supporters have their claims weighed by the scientific community at large, and not just those scientists who happen to give credence to the theory.
Until such a time, no body of beliefs unsupported by observation, interpretation, and experimentation conducted by the scientific body should be admissible in any science course. Incorporating such unsupported beliefs into a science curriculum compromises the objectives of public education.
Science has been greatly successful at explaining natural processes, and this has led not only to increased understanding of the universe but also to major improvements in technology and public health and welfare.
The vital role that science plays in modem life mandates we must teach only that which has been examined and judged by the criteria of the scientific community.