The topic of intelligent design has become a regular feature in the mass media. School districts and courts are debating its place in the science curriculum. It is hard to understand why there is so much controversy over such a simple concept. Let me explain. Charles Darwin published his book The Origin of Species in 1859. At that time there were many questions about the concept that Darwin referred to as “descent with modification,” better known today as evolution, which occurs through a process called natural selection. Let me address the three major concerns, as I see them, regarding the current controversy.
First, ever since Darwin, people have been talking about the gaps in the theory of evolution. There is a persistent myth that evolution is a tenuous hypothesis. The fact is that today evolution is a well-established theory. Many of the earlier concerns about a lack of evidence supporting the theory have been eliminated. In recent years with the advent of DNA research the evidence supporting evolution through natural selection is overwhelming. The results of evolution have been noted in short-term changes in moths from white to black during the industrial revolution in England, while today researchers in the Galapagos Islands note that finches are evolving from generation to generation depending upon the level of rainfall. Also, the discovery of transitional forms has filled-in gaps in the fossil record, notably among the whales and their terrestrial ancestors.
In the old days, it was common for scientists lacking evidence to fill in the gaps in their scientific explanations with a reference to the Supreme Being. This approach has been called “God in the gaps.” For example, Isaac Newton, the brilliant mathematician, despite his superb intellect, was unable to develop an explanation that accounted fully for the orbits of the planets in the solar system. When he finished work on his theory, he realized that his calculations would soon lead to the total collapse of all the planets from their orbits. His answer was to explain that the Supreme Being accounted for the differences and kept all the celestial bodies afloat. A century later, the French mathematician Simon de Laplace developed perturbation theory that accounted for the problems encountered by Newton. Laplace’s theory explained the planetary orbits perfectly. After his book was published, he met Napoleon Bonaparte who had read his book and praised him for it. Napoleon then asked Laplace, “What place does God have in your theory?” to which Laplace is supposed to have responded “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”
A second concern regarding intelligent design is the notion that if a supreme, omniscient being does indeed guide the development of life on this planet then why isn’t the design more intelligent. There are numerous examples in nature in which the biological designs are far from efficacious suggestive of a random and more haphazard development that would be attributable to natural selection but not to an intelligent design. One example would be the human eye in which the retina is oriented backwards with sensory cells located at the back necessitating that light travel through layers of nerve cells to reach the sensory cells. Also, a better eye might be sensitive in the dark or to invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum such as infrared and ultraviolet.
My final and indisputable argument for terminating the intelligent design discussion, which serves as a backdoor assault on science by neo-creationists, is the simple explanation that science deals only in testable hypotheses. Belief systems such as intelligent design are not scientifically testable and thus do not fall within the domain of science. To include any belief system such as intelligent design or the flying spaghetti monster (see www.venganza.org) within the realm of science is to abrogate the progress that has been made since the Renaissance and a tactic that would return us to the Dark Ages. Biology is a part of science and it can only address testable, refutable hypotheses. Science is beautifully designed so that all hypotheses brought forward under its name are presented in falsifiable form (null hypotheses) and offered as propositions to be rejected and only after rigorous analysis, experimentation, and debate are they grudgingly accepted as tenuous proposals that eventually over time and constant testing are gradually accepted as theories.
The author is indebted to Neil de Grasse Tyson and his work The Perimeter of Ignorance published in Natural History, November 2005, pp. 28-34 for many of the ideas in this article.