Thursday, March 08, 2007

Book Review: Why Intelligent Design Fails

Editors: Matt Young & Taner Edis
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
ISBN: 0-8135-3433-X

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.

Anthropic Principle
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.


Erik said...

Evie, I found your book review of Young and Edis very interesting, especially because the book doesn’t consider ID-ers as mere “creationists” who reject evolution theory because they believe God created the universe in six days, 4,000 BC. The problem is that our relevation books (Bible, Koran) contradict so often the human faculty to observe systematically physical processes and to test hypotheses in a systematic way about these processes. Also for me this was a hindrance I overcame. We also tend to reason in circles. I once had a discussion with a Christian colleague about the (im)possibility that the Israelite people had roamed around in such a small desert for fourty years (40 being the number of “waiting and preparation” on several places in the Bible), because I had read an essay by Goethe from 1820 or so on this subject. We completely misunderstood each other. He tried to “prove” to me that it really took 40 years, because other Bible-texts said so also. I also had problems in my adolescence with Jesus arranging his own death according to a certain scenario, because “this had been foretold in those-and- those parts of the Bible”. So Judas helped Jesus, instead of betraying him! For Christians, educated in orthodox environments, it must be very hard to accept that God didn’t create the world according to the picture they have in their minds, even if they must accept (because of the overwhelming amount of indications) that there has been an evolution. In Holland we have a Peter Scheele who transforms Darwin’s theory into a “degeneration theory”, stating that God created all creatures in their ideal forms, but since then these ideal forms are only de-generating. He published several books on this idea (not translated in English as far as I know).

Stephen said...

Thanks Evie for bringing this forward. I enjoyed reading your response to the Young and Edis book. I have been very interested in this debate since the "Intelligent Design" argument has arisen. There are many positive rationales behind this movement but it must be within the confines of scientific rationale.
In our Christmas pageant written by Major Jim Watt who attends our church, he touches wonderfully on this whole area. Evolution is hit straight on - how life has evolved to the point of where we are today. The whole point is that "God created." How He got it done is not the issue. It's about that God created. He created the processes that unfolded over the billions of years that began at a particular moment when there was nothing, no time, no proteins, no elements of any kind. There was just God in the vastness of nothing.
Current science theories, the intelligent design movement, Darwinism and creationists are trying to make sense out of something that we will never fully understand. It does not mean we don't try and expand our knowledge and understanding. It about marvelling at the complexities of the universe yet at the same time standing in awe how it is so perfectly tuned to allow life here on earth and perhaps other places at the far reaches of time and space.
It's about how God said "it is good" and we are part of that. Biblically speaking, I think the Bible is in perfect agreement with how the universe has, and continues to unfold.
I frequently converse with people about this issue and I always say that we need to remember that the Bible is the revelation of God, to help us to understand him and to fellowship with him. It's not meant to be a manuel by which to explain the details of life on earth. The earliest sections of the Bible were written within the past 4000 years. We tend to forget that people did not have a concept of huge periods of time. They lived a subsistance life - day to day. Life was so uncertain. So, to understand that God created, it was written to help them understand just that. "A day" , and "it was good", they could understand. Billions of years, evolutionary processes, proteins, big bang - none of these could be conprehended.
Christians need to stop grasping at straws, trying to explain away scientific fact and reason and embrace that all of this, you and me, our very existence, the universe and all that it contains, was created by God. How it was done is not what is important. Putting it all into a neat and explainable package is not our job. We are in the business of helping people to understand that God saw it as "good" and that means you and me. He created it, processes and all to allow us, who are created spiritually in his image to have fellowship with him.
I don't know if this makes any sense but I sure do enjoy discussing such things.

Erik said...

Stephen, thanks for your elucidating explanation. I will stop making (rational) sense. I agree that we are so impregnated with reasoning, calculating, cause-and-effect study etc. which our ancestors didn't hinder in their search and finding the Truth, I think they took it fot granted that we are not able to explain everything, but we are grown up too much with that idea.

Stephen said...


Thanks for commenting. I have been enjoying reading your comments as you respond to Evie's blog.