Intelligent Design isn’t just bad science, it’s bad religion.
By J. M. Tyree
America’s new Scopes trial pits the Dover, Pennsylvania School Board and the proponents of the Intelligent Design movement against the established body of science. But in a nation where 65% of the population thinks that evolution and creationism should be taught side-by-side, and where only 26% believe that all life descended from a single ancestor, the media spectacle would appear to benefit the creationists. For them, victory would be more publicity, the generation of a fake controversy in which there are two sides with competing theories — the fair and balanced approach to scientific knowledge. If there is a controversy over Intelligent Design, as the President believes, then the scientists have already lost.
Yet aside from its nonentity status as a scientific theory — a “theory” must be provable or disprovable (“falsifiable”) by experiment, therefore Intelligent Design doesn’t qualify — there is another curious flaw in the design of Intelligent Design (ID) that has gone little noticed. ID isn’t just bad science, it’s a funny sort of religion. If somebody told you that Intelligent Design Theory could have anti-Christian implications, you might get exasperated, and understandably so, given the political leanings of the theory’s proponents. But, in fact, the harder you look at Intelligent Design, the less genuinely Christian it feels.
ID, in a nutshell, argues that living beings are too brilliantly put together to be the result of an “undirected” process such as evolution. Therefore, an intelligent cause or agent must be directing the process, shepherding life along to the magnificent complexity of the brain or the seemingly mysterious inner workings of RNA. As the web site of the Intelligent Design Network puts its, “ID is thus a scientific disagreement with the core claim of evolutionary theory that the apparent design of living systems is an illusion. Intelligent Design is simply the science of design detection: how to recognize patterns arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose.”
On a slightly less glamorous note, take the bombardier beetle, a favorite example of creationists because of its seemingly inexplicable method of storing explosive gasses in its body without blowing itself up. “How are you going to explain that step-by-step by evolution, by natural selection,” says an ID proponent named Gish. “It cannot be done!” The argument is called “irreducible complexity,” a term that along with the even more voodooish “specified complexity,” forms the bedrock of ID’s pseudoscientific vocabulary. (One of the key “theorists” of ID, Philip E. Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, suggests deliberate deception as a tactic: “get the Bible out of the discussion.”) In fact, scientists have a plausible model for the evolution of the bombardier beetle, which is one reason why ID cannot be taught in schools. It’s not a competing theory, it’s just plain wrong.
Despite the new cloaking device of pseudoscientific language, ID is actually a recent mutation of one of the oldest, most persistent, and most tempting of religious ideas, the so-called “teleological argument” or “argument from design.” It is so ancient, in fact, that one of its earliest proponents was not even Christian. The Roman orator Cicero said, for example, “When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers?” St. Thomas Aquinas rehearsed the same argument as his fifth proof of God’s existence in The Summa Theologica, and theologian William Paley (1743-1805) fined-tuned the idea into its classic form in his book Natural Theology. Paley argued that the universe was like a pocket watch humanity had found dropped in a field; it would be unreasonably to assume that such a complex object had not maker.
Equally, there have always been critics of the teleological argument, like Spinoza, David Hume, and, more recently, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Hume, a notorious antagonist of religion, wrote in carefully and artfully constructed forms like the quasi-fictional Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777), perhaps in order to avoid trouble with the authorities. There, Hume put forward what are now considered the classic objections to the teleological argument, which also apply in spades to ID. The most devastating objection is that even if you assume the world was designed, it does not appear to be designed by a very nice deity. Bearing in mind that the Christian God must be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, wouldn’t there be some way for God to prevent events like the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, or Nagasaki? As Hume pointed out, if he can’t, he’s not all powerful, and if he won’t, then he’s not all good. Theologians do have answers for these problems — God must allow the universe to proceed in an orderly fashion, and an orderly universe appears to require storms, earthquakes, and volcanos — but the answers are not very satisfying when confronted with the epic scale of human suffering.
The proponents of ID do not appear to realize how big this problem is to the very type of religion they seek to promote. First of all, ID posits the notion of “The God of the Gaps” who steps in to meddle with the process of evolution in order to make life so wonderfully complex. But if God is willing to meddle with the inner workings of the bombadier beetle, why won’t he put a little extra spin on a hurricane to make sure it doesn’t hit any major cities? Speaking in religion’s own terms, ID is not only an argument from design, it’s also an argument for providence, God’s good guidance of the universe, human history, and individual moral choice. Once God starts meddling, why does he limit himself to biology? If history, too, can be used as part of God’s design, then the raw materials from which we try to deduce God’s nature must include genocide, war, and famine. As Robert Frost wrote of some smaller “assorted characters of death and blight” in his poem “Design,” “what but design of darkness to appall.”
The Designer who so Intelligently Designed our world, in theory, could be malevolent or capricious just as easily as he could be all good. He might have designed us intelligently, but for the purpose of watching us tear each others’ throats out. He might have designed us intelligently, but on a whim, and then forgotten all about us. In theological terms, ID suggests forces operating upon the world from without, but it does not say whether that those forces are good or evil. You could hypothesize, for example, that a Satanist could step forward to support ID. Yes, the world shows evidence of an intelligent designer, but one with a sick sense of humor. Therefore, the Satanist might conclude, Intelligent Design is correct, and we should worship the Devil, since the world seems more like his handiwork than the Other Guy’s.
For all that ID can tell us about the Creator, H. P. Lovecraft’s nightmare deity Cthulhu might have been the brains behind the operation. (Lovecraft, like Thomas Hardy and Stephen Crane, was an early proponent of what might be called Malevolent Design.) Is there anything inherent in ID that tell us for certain who let the dogs out? If not, is ID really much use as a Christian theory, or is it simply another spacecake philosophy that suggests, like The X-Files, that “something is out there”?
Intriguingly, this fatal flaw in ID as a specifically Christian idea is not well understood by the evangelical Protestants who so eagerly promote it as a competitor to evolution. A leading ID proponent, William Dembski, for example, claims in one place that the theory only makes sense as part of “God’s general revelation,” but argues in another book, The Design Inference, that an “alien life force” might also be responsible, in theory, for designing life on earth. Dembski is a mathematician and philosopher associated with ID’s Seattle think tank The Discovery Institute. He invented the term “complex specified information” to explain what he thinks are patterns in nature that cannot be random. But the acronym for his “discovery,” CSI, is an unintentionally accurate label for the problems with ID. Like the detective show CSI, ID forces you to guess at the nature of God by viewing the world as one big crime scene with a single perpetrator. Working up a profile of the party responsible would involve some rather dark psychology — the kind featured in the Book of Job.
Self-defeating and incoherent, Intelligent Design is worse than useless, not only as science but also, one imagines, for religious folks who might be attempting to understand God by working backwards from the world as their body of evidence. Inevitably, one begins to wonder more about cluster munitions than bombardier beetles, and the old problem of evil slips in. If He exists, why does God allow evil? Even if you can explain why God designed cancer and HIV, which is no easy task, you are still left with His role in world events from Darfur to Baghdad and New Orleans. Far from being examples of Intelligent Design that reinforce the Christian message, aren’t these kinds of meditations precisely the reasons that many people lose their faith?
J.M. Tyree is a literary essayist, with work published or forthcoming in The Nation, Utne Reader, Antioch Review, New England Review, Discover, National Geographic Adventure, and McSweeney’s.