Editors: Matt Young & Taner Edis
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
It has been less than two years since citizens in Kansas and Pennsylvania fought significant political and legal battles regarding public school science curriculum. In both cases, some folks sought to expand the curriculum to include instruction in Intelligent Design alongside of Darwinian evolution as a plausible scientific alternative to that theory. The proponents of Intelligent Design eventually lost both of these battles. Nevertheless, it is likely that similar struggles will erupt again. For this reason, Why Intelligent Design Fails is a book that deserves a wide audience.
Is Intelligent Design scientific? Is it simply old-style Creationism - or the even older classical Argument by Design for God’s existence - in a hip new designer fashion, complete with culturally appropriate, linguistically sophisticated accessories? Does the theory pose questions that ought to be considered seriously by scientists, or is it primarily of interest to philosophers, theologians and conservative Christians? All of these questions are addressed in Young and Edis’ book.
Young and Edis ignored (as much as possible) Intelligent Design’s political and legal contexts and compiled a book that would examine the theory’s scientific claims solely against the norms of scientific methods and dialog. The authors who contributed to this work come from a wide range of research disciplines: physics, biology, zoology, astronomy, anthropology, paleontology, molecular pharmacology and computer science. At times the subject matter is dense, but, in general, the material is readable and accessible to lay people.
Irreducible Complexity & Specified Complexity
Two of the leading spokespersons for Intelligent Design are Michael Behe, a biochemist, and William Dembski, a mathematician and information theorist. Both of these men are recognized researchers who have published peer-reviewed papers on topics other than Intelligent Design. The only portion of their work that is in question in Young & Edis’ book is that which deals with Intelligent Design theory. Since Behe and Dembski have been the most cogent proponents of the theory, the bulk of Why Intelligent Design Fails is devoted to analyses of their work.
Michael Behe’s principle contribution to Intelligent Design theory is the concept of Irreducible Complexity. Simply stated, an organic structure is irreducibly complex if it consists of three or more essential parts without which it cannot function. According to Behe, such structures could not have arisen by chance assemblage from available organic odds and ends and, therefore, must have been designed. Behe argues that the eye and the flagellum are two examples of such structures. Several of the authors who contributed to this book argue forcefully against Behe’s claims and dismiss the concept of Irreducible Complexity.
William Dembski’s primary contribution to Intelligent Design theory is the concept of Specified Complexity, which he also calls Complex Specified Information. His arguments are based on computer models and calculations of statistical probability intended to demonstrate that randomness and chance couldn’t possibly account for the order that permeates the universe. Several contributors to this volume discuss flaws in Dembski’s computational processes and conclude that Specified Complexity, like Irreducible Complexity, is not a robust concept.
Some proponents of Intelligent Design argue that the Anthropic Principle supports their claim. This principle suggests that, since life could not exist in the absence of a host of specific conditions, the presence, confluence and precise balance of the conditions that currently prevail could not have happened by chance. They must have been designed explicitly for the purpose of nurturing and sustaining life. This argument is, at best, an exemplar of the moralistic fallacy: the universe in its current form is exactly as it should be. At worst, the argument is an example of circular reasoning: restating an argument's conclusion (there is a Designer) as one of its premises (the universe appears to have been designed).
It is possible that the universe could have developed differently than it has. Had that been the case, forms of life other than those familiar to us could have developed. Moreover, given the vastness of the universe, it is entirely possible (perhaps even probable) that life, perhaps similar to that on earth or perhaps vastly distinct from it, exists in other galaxies. Obviously, such suppositions cannot be proven via current technologies. Nevertheless, until the technologies to examine such questions develop (as they probably will), these possibilities cannot be dismissed. Currently, there is no scientific reason to assume that the universe in its present state is as it had to be.
Is ID Science?
The book’s final chapter investigates whether Intelligent Design is science. The authors of this chapter do not dismiss Intelligent Design as an indefensible scientific theory. Rather, they note that the theory in its current form has significant flaws and is not yet as scientifically robust as its proponents claim it is. The greatest shortcoming of current Intelligent Design theorists is that they operate in a backwards manner from most researchers. Broadly speaking, normative scientific inquiry requires formulating hypotheses and establishing procedures that will determine whether or not those hypotheses are correct. These hypotheses can be, and often are, proven wrong. In contrast to this method, Intelligent Design theorists set out to find evidence that supports their belief in a Designer. They start with an answer rather than a question, and they will not accept or engage with any evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This is not an acceptable research method in either the natural or social sciences.
Two other significant shortcomings of Intelligent Design are that its proponents have not developed coherent research programs and they have not published any findings in juried scientific journals. If Intelligent Design theorists want to be taken seriously as scientists, they need to start behaving more like scientists and less like political activists. This entails, for one thing, entering into dialog with other scientists in scientific conferences and journals. It also entails subjecting Intelligent Design hypotheses to normative research processes of observation, testing, revision and refinement. Until Intelligent Design theorists begin meeting such expectations, which are normative for all researchers, their theory will languish on the edges of science rather than at its center. And as long as Intelligent Design remains on science’s fringe, it should not be included in public school science curriculum.
On the other hand, Taner Edis points out that scientists must remember that there are many valid methods of gathering data. Historical, archaeological and anthropological inquiries, for example, require methods that differ substantially from those of natural scientific research. The laboratory is not the only venue in which scientific inquiry occurs. Thus, Intelligent Design should not be dismissed out of hand simply because it may not always apply a particular method of natural scientific research.
Why Intelligent Design Fails is a well-written book that does not descend into dogma or ad hominem attacks. The authors who contributed to this book wrote in the best spirit of scientific dialog and criticized ideas rather than theorists. If Intelligent Design proponents want to be accepted into the scientific community, they would do well to address the issues raised in this book. Readers interested in questions about the relationships between science, religion, education and culture will find that the time they invest in reading this book will be time well spent.