There has been a lot of controversy regarding the proposed integration of ‘Intelligent Design’ into current biology curriculum. Intelligent Design is the hypothesis that all life on Earth was created and designed by an intelligent designer. Subsumed by this hypothesis, although not clearly stated, is that most proponents of Intelligent Design believe the intelligent designer to be the most intelligent designer, namely God. It is proposed that in the name of impartiality, Intelligent Design be taught along side Darwinian Evolution in biology classes.
We have two choices in trying to argue against this hypothesis. First we can show that the hypothesis is false by counter claims of design flaws. Next we can show that the hypothesis is an inherently un-testable hypothesis which thus belongs in the realms of philosophy or theology, but not in science. I will argue that while the first approach of finding design flaws is enlightening, it misses the issue. The issue is that for something to be taught in a science classroom it must somehow relate to a testable hypothesis: testable by experiment.
The temptation for someone who is versed in biology when approached with Intelligent Design is to quickly point out all of the design flaws that they know of. There are many examples to pick from but the most commonly offered are design flaws in (human) joints, most notably the elbow and the knee. One of my personal favourites is the prevalence of people with eye glasses which suggests there is a possible design flaw in the maintenance of a spherical shape of the eye. Biologists quickly offer up their favourite design flaw hoping to see a recantation of Intelligent Design. To their dismay, they get answers like: “We do not know the design of the intelligent designer. Perhaps non-spherical eyes are beneficial in some other unknown way, or the knee was some sort of design trade off against some other more beneficial feature. However, the sum of all the trade offs is the ultimate perfect design, designed by the most intelligent designer, God.” The frustrated scientist then returns to his beaker and the Intelligent Design guru returns to his pulpit or to the White House which are increasingly indistinguishable.
The reason that the hypothetical scientist and the theologian talk at cross purposes is that they both have failed to realize the bar of entry to science: a testable hypothesis. In life there are testable hypotheses and un-testable hypotheses. Some un-testable hypotheses are:
1) In absence of an observer, human or otherwise (i.e. a tape recorder): If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a noise? Yes or no?
2) Suppose all of history started 5 minutes ago with all of our collective memories implanted at that moment.
3) All good in the world is a work of a benevolent God, and all problems people experience are the result of God working in mysterious (good) ways.
4) The wonder and beauty of the living world is the result of an intelligent design and all counter examples such as fossils, design flaws, evolutionary proofs, are just the result of our inability to grasp the grand design.
The common thread that runs across all four statements is the fallacy of an unprovable statement. It is this same thread that many stitch together to form a rip stop nylon fabric of belief. Statements 1 through 3 would likely be widely accepted as topics for a class on philosophy or theology. Statement 4 is no different. It is an inherently unprovable statement which has no place in science.
Many have said that science is a religion unto itself. I have often said that the only reason our language has two words for science and religion is that we sorely misunderstand both. They are both searches for the truth. Science is an ideology based on the Scientific Method and the instrument of that method is the experiment. Science allows for discussions of all things provable, even if they are not yet proved. Take for example the Superstring revolution in physics. It is currently unproven; however, scientists are building the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland which should have sufficient power to create ‘supersymmetric’ particles which would confirm the theory. What experiment does Intelligent Design proposes to validate its hypothesis? How does one experimentally prove something was designed? Even if such an experiment could be constructed, how then does that disprove that the designed item was not self designed and thus (perhaps), not intelligently designed?
Confused? The notion of a self designing design is especially hard to understand on a planet where we (most) see a clear distinction between human made and natural objects. [However, it is a distinction I do not see because humans as part of nature.] Just the same, the notion of a self designing design is crucial to evolution, and while complex, its power is compelling. If you are confused and interested pick up a good book on the subject or take a course. However, if you are presented with Intelligent Design, ask for a proposed or executed experiment published in a reputable scientific journal. Darwin had to go through the same efforts of the before his works were accepted. There is an established process in place and it has been put in place by an intelligent design (irony intended). The designer is certainly not God and its intelligence is often arguable, just the same it has served us well so far.
In summation, scientists are, by definition, very inquisitive people who would love to have conversations about many different theories and possibilities. The price of admission to such a conversation is to bring with an experimentally testable hypothesis. All other discussions belong in a different classroom.