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Intelligent design: scientifically and religiously bankrupt

By Michael Zimmerman - posted Friday, 14 May 2010


In case you had any doubt, the last nail was just placed in the coffin of intelligent design (ID). And, in case you had any doubt, that last nail joins many others that have been in place for quite some time.

The latest attack appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) and provides conclusive evidence that the design of the human genome is incredibly imperfect, or, in other words, very far from being intelligently structured. As John Avise, a University of California-Irvine biologist, noted in the paper, his focus "is on a relatively neglected category of argument against ID and in favor of evolution: the argument from imperfection, as applied to the human genome."

The basic concept of intelligent design comes in two parts and is as simple as it is satisfying for those unwilling to think deeply about the natural world, science, or the nature of religion. Part one, stretching way back to the ancient Greeks, notes that nature is so perfectly integrated that it must have been designed just as we see it. Part two, largely attributed to Lehigh University biologist Michael Behe, says that while some aspects of nature might certainly have changed (evolved?) over time, others are so complex that they must always have existed in the form we find them in today. Indeed, he coined the term "irreducibly complex" to explain such structures. Change anything at all in these irreducibly complex structures and they fail to work.

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Both parts of ID are spectacularly wrong.

Indeed, demonstrating imperfect design in humans has become something of a fascinating cottage industry. Listen, for example to Abby Hafer, a physiologist at Curry College, discuss five serious flaws, from the blind spot in the human retina to the placement of human testicles, on NPR's Here & Now. In his PNAS article, Avise simply extends this analysis to the human genome discussing myriad serious problems arising from "gratuitous gene complexities" that no self-respecting designer would tolerate.

As Avise notes, Charles Darwin rebutted the intelligent design argument offered by William Paley in 1802. In chapter 14 of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin said, "On the view of each organic being and each separate organ having been specially created, how utterly inexplicable it is that parts ... should so frequently bear the plain stamp of inutility."

Beyond the obvious, and growing, problem that natural design is far from perfect, the concept of intelligent design also runs afoul of the scientific method. Simply put, ID offers no hypotheses that can be tested - the hallmark of scientific investigation.

The concept of irreducible complexity is even more problematic. Each example of a biological entity or process that has been advanced as being irreducibly complex has been found, after further investigation, to be understandable as a function of its constituent parts. Not surprisingly, as scientists focus their attention on complex structures, over time, they begin to make sense of what they see.

Proponents of ID, on the other hand, demonstrate the height of arrogance in their position. Rather than working towards a greater understanding of their subjects, they proclaim something to be irreducibly complex and call for scientific investigation to be halted, claiming that any additional study would be a waste of effort.

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Not surprisingly, Darwin had something to say about this anti-intellectual position as well. In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote, "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

In calling for enhanced science literacy, most major scientific organisations, including the National Academy of Sciences (in the US) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have made it clear that ID has no scientific underpinnings and that promoting it so blurs the line between science and non-science as to make the former almost meaningless.

Religious organisations have also recognised the paucity of intellectual content embodied in ID - and the damage that it can do to religion as well as science. The United Methodist Church, for example, at its 2008 General Conference, resoundingly adopted the following motion: "The United Methodist Church goes on record as opposing the introduction of any faith-based theories such as Creationism or Intelligent Design into the science curriculum of our public schools."

For religion to accept the concept of intelligent design would mean embracing the concept of the "God of the Gaps", a religiously vacuous idea in which adherents turn to God for an explanation for that which science cannot explain. As science advances, the "gaps" become smaller and smaller and God is relegated to a progressively less interesting role.

From both a scientific and a religious perspective, intelligent design is dead and buried. All that's left is to spread the word about its demise.

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First published in the Huffington Post on May 11, 2010.



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About the Author

Michael Zimmerman is the founder and executive director of The Clergy Letter Project.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Michael Zimmerman

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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