A design for life

America's latest creationist theory relies less on Biblical absolutes than on appeals to today's cultural relativism.

Anthony Stavrianakis

Topics Science & Tech

Anti-Bush column inches over the past few weeks have employed well-worn clichés about the ‘deep’ south and redneck fundamentalist Christianity. Yet what is interesting is that one of the latest manifestations of this political movement seeks recourse not to the Book of Genesis, but to the value relativism characteristic of twenty-first century political debate.

A story in Wired magazine last month potted the spread of ‘intelligent design’, which suggests that the theory of evolution is wrong, in public school science classes (1). Intelligent Design (ID) is the product of a 1991 text by Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson called ‘Darwin on Trial’, and is sponsored and promoted by the Discovery Institute in Seattle (2). The theory essentially claims that because natural selection cannot explain everything, evolution is wrong. Given the complexity of the human organism, proponents argue, and given that evolution as we understand it is not a sufficient explanation, human beings must be the product of an intelligent designer (or a Creator, for the more theistically inclined). Natural phenomena that are neither explainable by law nor chance, Johnson suggests, leave open a third possibility – design.

But the Discovery Institute, a scientific moniker if ever there was one, is wary of using the G-word. It prefers not to speculate what may be the cause of the design that it claims to identify scientifically as the product of intelligence. With this strategic move, ID has hoped to bypass the accusations of creationism. Indeed ID distances itself from the claims of ‘young Earth’ radicals and rejects the literal creationist interpretation of Genesis.

Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s Centre for the Renewal of Science and Culture, says that evolution is ‘a controversial subject and when two groups of experts disagree about a controversial subject that intersects with the public school science curriculum, the students should be permitted to learn about both perspectives’ (3).

The insinuation is that the rejection of a theory because of insufficient evidence (‘evolution cannot explain everything, therefore it is wrong’) is as valid as a theory that is based on evidence but which cannot explain everything. ID supporters, however, would say that their theory is based on evidence, or what is known in ID jargon as ‘specified complexity’. Examples of ‘specified complexity’ are biological phenomena that are apparently too complex to be the product of chance or law, and so are posed as scientific examples of a non-material source of creation.

Meyer calls this the ‘teach the controversy’ approach – and ‘teach the controversy’ has become something of a political slogan for the ID movement.

But how can ID claim to be a critical analytical theory worthy of study in a science classroom? Many will be familiar with the philosopher William Paley’s example in his 1802 text Natural Theology, where he suggests that if someone in a field came across both a watch and a rock, the complexity of the watch would lead them to infer that there was a watchmaker – a designer. Secondary school students learn about William Paley in religious studies not in biology, and there is a good reason for this. To conflate design and intelligence is a faith position, whereas evolution explains design not by a non-material or non-earthly source, but rather by the internal mechanism of natural selection.

ID is a not-so sophisticated reworking of Paley’s argument, which by usurping scientific language seeks to move from religious studies to science classes.

ID is less a critique of evolution than a political agenda – and it feeds off a trait in political and scientific debate today whereby differing opinions are considered equally valid. The aim for ID proponents has been to boost the conservative Christian political agenda by taking advantage of the malaise that characterises public debate on scientific issues.

Meyer often cites Big Bang theory as one of the great scientific theories with much non-material basis – the difference is that astrophysicists are working on the mathematics behind the theory, but it is impossible to reach the conclusion of a Divine Creator through numbers. As scientist Richard Dawkins writes in the The Blind Watchmaker, ‘to explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the designer’.

Politically conservative Christianity is nothing to be concerned about in and of itself, but when it comes masked as a progressive scientific theory questions must be asked.

What is worrying is that politically conservative Christianity has leapt on the contemporary idea that criticism means disagreement, rather than evidence-based critique. A faith position is being accepted as a legitimate ‘choice’ in the question of evolution. We saw an example of this in the UK, with the case of creationist teaching at the secondary school in Gateshead two years ago (4). When prime minister Tony Blair was asked in the House of Commons whether he was concerned that a state-funded school was teaching creationism, he replied: ‘In the end, it is a more diverse school system that will deliver better results for our children and if you look at the actual results of this school, I think you will find they are very good.’

The evidence cited by ID proponents is taken completely out of context, and in fact proves the opposite of what they claim. They argue that advances in molecular biology suggest that natural selection is wrong. In fact, molecular biology has since the late 1960s been changing how we understand the mechanism of natural selection – fully in support of the theory of evolution.

Unfortunately, the ‘teach the controversy’ line seems to have stuck. It is endemic of our times that a differing opinion is immediately regarded as a valid opinion. There is a place for arguments based on design – in religious studies, not in science classes.

Anthony Stavrianakis recently graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and has worked as an intern at spiked.

(1) The crusade against evolution, Evan Ratliff, Wired, October 2004

(2) Discovery Institute website

(3) ‘Teach the controversy’, Stephen C Meyer, Cincinnati Enquirer, 30 March 2002

(4) Creationism teaching: who started it?, by Josie Appleton

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Topics Science & Tech


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