Published in the August 2003 Humanist Inquirer

The Intellectual Chaos of "Intelligent Design"
by Barry Loberfeld

Good God, ID just won't go away! ID, of course, being "intelligent design," the creationist concept that nowadays seems to be leaping out at me from everything I watch, listen to, and read. An example of the last is the April 14, 2003 New York Times review of Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives (ed. Robert T.Pennock, MIT Press). Near its end, the piece (by Jim Holt, who "writes a column about philosophy and science for") attempts to refute ID with the counter-concept of "not intelligent design." To quote at length:

If nature were fashioned by a hands-on Divine Artificer, it ought to exhibit a certain elegance and efficiency. Then what of all the imperfections we see in the biological world? Why are organisms burdened with ill-adaptive features like the webbed feet of the frigate bird, which does not need them for paddling? Why is our genome littered with nonfunctional junk DNA? Why have 99.99 percent of the species that have ever existed gone extinct including the poor dinosaurs, created only to be wiped out by an errant asteroid? As [Stephen Jay] Gould remarks, "Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution -- paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce."

Ironically, whether it is the result of divine direction or just a natural development, a creationist rebuttal has come along in the form of Cornelius G. Hunter's Darwin's God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Brazos Press). A cover blurb by Michael Behe (!) ably summarizes the book's thesis that the "main supporting pole of the Darwinian tent has always been a theological assertion: 'God wouldn't have done it that way.' Rather than demonstrating that evolution is capable of the wonders they attribute to it, Darwinists rely on a man-made version of God to argue that He never would have made life with the particular suite of features we observe." In other words, if the frigate bird has weird feet, it means only that that (for whatever reason) is the design. Those feet no more disprove the existence of a Creator than the Mona Lisa's queer smile disproves the existence of a painter. (We'll put aside the question of whether creationists themselves will ever get around to "demonstrating that [the Intelligent Design entity] is capable of the wonders they attribute to it.")

Hunter (who is "currently completing a Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of Illinois") may very well have been aiming at "not intelligent design," but his argument backfires -- fatally. It is nothing less than a total obliteration of the concept of "design." The standard form of the challenge -- If you were walking along a beach and you found a watch in the sand, etc. -- drew its rhetorical force from the distinction between the man-made watch and the naturally-produced sand. But if now both the watch and the sand -- the complex and the simple, the efficient and the inefficient -- evince "design," then just what the heck does that term mean? What could possibly constitute non-design? Mr. Hunter has made "intelligent design" worse than unfalsifiable -- it is now irreversibly indefinable.

As scientists know, not all changes in a species further its evolution. This most recent development of creationism is a maladaptive mutation that cannot help but lead to extinction.

Backgrounds courtesy of: