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Intelligent Design or “No Model” Creationism Part I

Ronald H. Pine

October 15, 2005

Good Science Education—Not In Kansas Anymore?

I’m here talking to you today because I’m from Kansas, the most visible hotbed in the battle to keep religion, in the guise of science, out of the public schools. This is the second time that Kansas has been in the spotlight in this connection. For years, and throughout the U.S., the Creationists tried to get so-called “scientific” Creationism into the schools’ curricula. They were asking for equal classroom time for their message, in competition with standard evolutionary biology and the other historical sciences. The “young earth” Creationist “model” that they were pushing was such thinly veiled Fundamentalist Biblical-literalist Christianity that their scheme was ruled unconstitutional by the courts. But if you know anything about the strength of motivation of these people, then it shouldn’t surprise you that this didn’t stop their efforts to get their way one way or another. And so, in 1999, we saw a change from an initial 5/5 Creationist/evolution-friendly split on the Kansas State School Board (elected in 1998) when one “moderate” member broke ranks, giving the Creationists a 6/4 majority to approve the adoption of Creationist-influenced school science standards. A western Missouri group of Biblical literalist Creationists provided much of the impetus for this. Evolution and the Big Bang were definitely out. After a considerable brouhaha, non-Creationists became the majority on the Board in the next election in 2000, and evolution got back in the standards in 2001. After the most recent election in 2004, however, we again have a Creationist majority of 6/4, and the fix is in for the new standards, to probably be finalized sometime in November, 2005, to present the viewpoints of a stripped-down version of (pseudo)scientific Creationism called “Intelligent Design Theory” (ID). [There are, basically, two main types of Creationism—(pseudo)scientific Creationism and purely Biblical Creationism; they are, of course, not mutually exclusive.] At a minimum, the treatment of evolution will be watered down, various doubts about evolution will be expressed, and statements friendly to the concept of “design” included.

A group of 25 individuals was originally assigned the job of developing the 2005 new science standards. A “majority report” of 17 members of this group advocated an evolution-friendly version, but a “minority report” of eight members proposed numerous ID-friendly changes and additions. To foster the illusion of even-handedness, while still resolving the issue in their favor, the Creationist majority on the Board appointed three of their number as a committee to conduct “hearings” on the matter. Intelligent Design advocates appeared to testify, but the “hearings” were boycotted by proponents of evolution, except for an attorney representing their interests. The main arguments used by the ID partisans, in support of the proposition that tenets of ID be taught in Kansas schools, were (1) the claim that the standards then in effect had been hiding, from the students, supposed evidence for Design and against evolution, (2) that exposing students to “both sides” of the issue fosters valuable critical thinking skills, and (3) that the teaching of evolution in the public schools constitutes governmental establishment of the “religion of secular humanism,” contrary to the strictures of the “Establishment Clause” of the U.S. Constitution.

Concerning the above-mentioned arguments for teaching ID, and as will be shown below, the ID advocates have produced no scientific evidence for design and no real evidence against evolution. The argument that teaching “both sides of the issue” fosters critical thinking in science classes could, with equal force, be used to justify presenting Holocaust denial arguments in history classes; arguments against the HIV virus’s being responsible for AIDS, being included in health or sex education classes; and for claims of black racial inferiority being included in social science classes. All three of these positions are minority views advocated by, among others, people with genuine academic credentials. Why not teach these “controversies” as well, if teaching supposed “controversies” is such a good thing. People seem to lose sight of the fact that one side of a “controversy” can be just plain wrong and provably wrong at that. Also, court decisions have repeatedly affirmed that evolution is not a religion. The courts have also noted that if evolution were a religion (which it’s not), then the remedy would be to eliminate it from the public schools, not to put a second religion (Creationism) alongside it to compete with it in science classrooms.

Notwithstanding all this, the ID Creationists still demand that the schools “teach the controversy” —that is, the arguments on both sides of the (imaginary) controversy within the scientific community, concerning the validity of evolution. The very, very great majority of legitimate scientists, of course, state emphatically that there is no such “controversy.” “But how can they possibly say that?” say the ID advocates, “our very presence here at the hearings demonstrates, ipso facto, the existence of such a controversy.” The most prominent advocates of “Design Creationism,” however, primarily consist of scientific quacks (at least in regard to the topic of evolutionary biology) and lay essayists. A few have higher degrees in some field or other (usually having nothing at all to do with evolution), but such degrees in no way disqualify one as a scientific quack—after all, a high percentage of medical quacks throughout history have had legitimate degrees in medicine.

Is the especially intense media spotlight on Kansas justified? As a native Kansan, I frequently encounter non-Kansans who smugly give me flack concerning the manifest backwardness of all us hayseed types found in the Great American Middle. I thought this especially amusing when I lived, for a time, among Illinoisans (who are mere Easterners according to my view of things). The sarcastic Illinoisans were clearly unaware that mention of the E-word had been omitted from that state’s school science standards, under their very noses. Inhabitants of many other states are likewise oblivious to what has happened or is happening in their own backyards. The media fuss over Kansas reflects the fact that this is the second time that the issue has come to the fore at the state level there, as opposed to at merely a local level, and perhaps also because Kansas as the site for such a dispute fits in with stereotypical views held by the Media Establishment concerning the supposedly benighted intellectual qualities of us hick-types, but maybe most important because, in Kansas (unlike Illinois, for example), there is a highly visible ongoing battle because of the strength of many Kansans’ opposition to dilution or perversion of science teaching in the schools. The fact of the matter is that ID and Creationism in general have been and are now making inroads in education all over the U.S. and even in Europe and Asia. Furthermore, ID is gaining respectability in the eyes of many owing to publicly-given support by highly visible public figures, not least of whom is George W. Bush.

The Last Refuge—Design In the Gaps

Aside from some new rhetorical ploys, some new pseudomathematical fast footwork, new terminological mumbo jumbo, and (most important) sophisticated PR strategies, there is nothing really new about “Intelligent Design Theory.” Its roots actually go back well before the development of the Genesis-inspired Noah’s Flood pseudogeology developed in the 20th Century. Its main tenets and even its most specific arguments have long been part of the (pseudo)scientific Creationism that has been declared unconstitutional to teach in the public schools.

ID Creationism is nothing more than a stripped-down version of standard “scientific” Creationism—a version advocated by Creationists who are savvy enough to know that in order to achieve maximum penetration of public education, they must cut themselves loose from advocacy of the flood geology “model” pushed in the 1980s.

ID Creationism claims to be able to prove that evolution is impossible and “Intelligent Design” proved. If their claims were justified, they would have proved, by scientific means, the existence of God. This would be the most momentous accomplishment in intellectual history, and, specifically, the most momentous in science, philosophy, and theology. Since at least some ID advocates believe that they, personally, are responsible for making this revolutionary intellectual breakthrough, their egos have waxed as might be expected. But there is no science in ID; it consists mostly of a mishmash of essays (although some may run on at book length). All are completely devoid of any actual scientific content. Real Science is made up of contributions to knowledge. The knowledge is gained through developing and testing of hypotheses about what sorts of entities exist in nature and how they work and are interrelated. Actual results are expected to follow from these investigations and the scientists involved are required to share their discoveries and insights with the international scientific community through publication in scientific journals. There is none, repeat none of this going on in ID. All we have is more and more of those silly essays. Excuse me, but producing essays is not doing science. Although, as a rule, the ID essayists no longer repeat the familiar Bible-Science arguments supposedly proving the historicity of the Great Flood and of an earth only about 6,000 years old, they still use all of the timeworn and long-ago refuted Bible-Science arguments against evolution—especially those dealing with the fossil record. In addition, their arguments for the supposed insufficiency of natural processes to have produced life processes were used by Bible-Science Creationists for many years before the self-styled “Intelligent Design Theorists” arrived on the scene. All that has happened to these arguments, in the hands of the ID essayists, is that some new terminology has been developed along with some new and arcane pseudomathematical forms of obfuscation.

Most people have no idea how ballsy it is for the ID essayists to claim that they have come up with a scientific theory to compete with evolutionary theory. This is because, for the general public, the word theory generally means just any old idea that happens to pop into somebody’s head. An actual scientific theory, however, such as the modern synthetic theory of evolution or the modern atomic theory, etc., is a great overarching explanation for a virtual infinity of phenomena (this gives it actual content)—one with overwhelming evidence in support, profound explanatory power, and which has been accepted by 99+ of the international scientific community. More on this later.

As is so often the case, the actual truth seems completely unbelievable to those who have not studied, with understanding, a complicated topic in depth. Here we have a fair number of people, the ID “theorists,” some with advanced degrees, some affiliated with respectable institutions of higher learning, with many of them producing voluminous writings, and supported by budgets in the millions of dollars—apparently legitimate scholars who have convinced pundits, senators, and presidents that they have made vital contributions to human knowledge, but with the entire edifice of their pronouncements based on absolutely nothing. Nothing! Rien! Nada! Nichts! This simply cannot be, one thinks. But it is so.

Basically, ID boils down to the old “Argument from Design.” In its most famous formulation, William Paley, in the early 1800s, used an analogy based on one’s coming across a watch lying on the ground. One would conclude that the watch was produced by “intelligent design” because of the intricacy of its parts and the fact that, for the watch to function properly, every single component has to be present and must have the proper interaction with certain other parts, all of which must have the appropriate size and shape to do so. If we must conclude that the watch was a product of intelligent design, then, the argument goes, we should similarly conclude, when examining the functioning complexity and arrangement of the parts in humans and other organisms, that they are also produced by an intelligent designer—that is, by God. (Although, when it serves their political purposes, the ID essayists will state that they make no claim that the design that they claim to find in nature was put there by the Christian God, even a small sampling of their rhetorical products will show that they talk out of both sides of their mouth on this issue.)

The conventional position taken by life scientists, however, is that there is no necessity for postulating “design” in the literal sense—natural selection, choosing among many genetic recombinations and mutations, and helped along by some newly discovered possibilities of self-organization, is, in principle, sufficient to explain what is only apparent actual design in nature.

The “Intelligent Design” Creationists, however, claim that they have proved that living systems, and especially at the molecular level, could not possibly have evolved by natural means and, most certainly, that life could not have first come into existence by natural, Intelligent-Design-free processes. They note that there are many intricate systems in living things such that (like that watch) if any single part were removed, the proper functioning of the system would cease. This they call “irreducible complexity.” They maintain that it is impossible for this “irreducible complexity” to come into existence through evolution. This argument, although not the terminology, has long been a staple of Creationism, including the Young Earth Creationism that has been declared unconstitutional to teach in the public schools. Another, related, concept is that which the essayists call “specified complexity”: non-random complexity of the sort that one finds in a particular component of a system such that that component could, for example, convey a specific and necessary “message” of the sort that DNA conveys. At least one ID essayist modestly claims to have discovered what would constitute a new law of thermodynamics — the “law of conservation of information.” This “law” supposedly proves that evolution of systems with “specified complexity” is impossible. Minus the obfuscatory mathematizing which keeps getting more and more complicated in each of his succeeding essays, there is also nothing new in this concept. The basic idea of the “law of conservation of information” was also a feature of the Young Earth Creationist apologetics which was declared to be unconstitutional to teach in the public schools.

Basically, as others before me have noted, the Intelligent Design essayists have produced an “argument from incredulity.” These essayists declare that they, for the life of them, can’t personally figure out how “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” could have evolved by natural means. (It should be noted that they don’t seem to be trying very hard to do so.) If they can’t do it, they argue, then certainly no one else can ever do it, now or in the future, regardless of what new discoveries might be made. It looks like they figure that they must be the brightest of humans and so surely the rest of us, all less intelligent than they, certainly couldn’t solve this supposedly insoluble problem. Therefore, they conclude that they’ve proved that Intelligent Design, not natural processes, must be responsible for the observed complexity of living systems. Any past or contemporary published and plausible accounts (in the actual scientific literature, not merely in essays) of how evolution might have brought about or did bring about this complexity are dismissed by the essayists through offhand ad hoc objections, by denial of their very existence, or simply by silence on their part.

Now all this ID business is merely one of the last remaining refuges for those who invoke the “God of the Gaps” argument. At one time, weather phenomena, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and the like were regarded as direct and purposeful acts of God—this viewpoint is still reflected in the use by insurance companies of the exact same phrase for the same sorts of phenomena. Plagues, the seasons, the motions of astronomical bodies, etc. were likewise attributed to a multitude of separate volitional Divine Deeds. With that way of looking at things, God was seen as exercising His all-powerfulness by constantly flexing His Divine muscles in carrying out all the everyday phenomena of nature. However, as time went on, more and more phenomena came to be explained by natural law. God was still allowed to do His thing directly when it came to the still-remaining but shrinking body of unexplained phenomena—that is to say, only in those cases where there were remaining gaps in our knowledge. As these gaps got smaller and smaller, however, guess Who also seemed to some to be getting smaller and smaller. Thus arose the ever-shrinking “God of the Gaps.” As scientific knowledge continued to increase, the arguments for God’s existence by one’s pointing to the supposed miracles involved in what eventually came to be regarded as the ordinary workings of natural laws resulted in embarrassment after embarrassment for what is now known as “natural theology” (and thus for Christianity).

“Intelligent Design” will not be the last gasp of the God of the Gaps argument (Creationists being what they are, there will never be a last gasp), but it sure looks to me like the final corner that the biological aspects of the argument have been pushed into. As is the case in every field of science, we still don’t know everything about how various metabolic pathways might have evolved and how life might have come into being by natural law. How could we expect otherwise? After all, if we treat the discovery of DNA’s structure as the birthdate of modern molecular biology, then the discipline has been in existence for only about 50 years.

ID Essayists and Other Theocrats—Irreducible Complicity

The arguments that the “Intelligent Design” essayists use are a heterogeneous and abstruse mix of molecular (pseudo)biology, (pseudo)thermodynamics, theology, probability theory, information theory, and philosophy. This is just another way of saying that the very, very great majority of people have absolutely no capacity to evaluate these arguments—certainly not the politicians, school board members, journalists and other molders of public opinion who the ID people are primarily interested in convincing. Because the majority of Americans already accept aspects of the Creationist position and the proposition that Creationism should be taught in the public schools, they are essentially already convinced that Creationism must be a legitimate alternative to evolutionary biology, and so just about any kind of obscurantist pseudoscientific apologetics will work just fine. Although ID is really, at base, an attack on science across the board, the essayists pick on evolution because, among all the disciplines, they find evolutionary science the most odious and the one that the public has already become most predisposed to doubt.

The power center of the ID movement is the “Center for Science and Culture” (formerly the “Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture”) of the Discovery Institute, a conservative “think tank” in Seattle. This outfit has stated that the eventual acceptance of ID in the schools is to be merely the first step in their “Wedge Project.” The cutting edge of the “Wedge” consists of the early publications of the ID essayists. The rest of the Wedge will be accelerated production of ID arguments and “research” to back up the all-important public relations campaign. The Wedge is to be used to split up a figurative tree trunk of “scientific materialism” (=science without miracles), which they blame for the hated secularist tendencies in our society. Thus the campaign against evolution is merely a means to an end, and the end is political—the rolling back of what they perceive as anti-Christian trends, which will lead to eventual establishment of a virtual theocracy. ID is not science but a political/religious movement. Nonetheless, the “Wedge Project” will supposedly lead to replacement of evolution by Intelligent Design. The scientific community will supposedly be converted and evolution defeated. It is difficult to know whether the ID essayists really believe this or if it is mere propaganda. In order to win over the scientific community (a futile hope) it will not be enough to simply argue over and over in essay after essay that organisms have “irreducible complexity” and that “life could not have evolved by natural means” (they can win political battles that way but not scientific ones). In order to win scientific battles, they would have to start doing science, that is, conducting and publishing actual research, the results of which would unequivocally support the ID position. As noted above, there has, as yet, been no ID research which has made any contributions whatsoever to science. ID is a fraud. Of course, in spite of what they may say on occasion, the ID essayists/activists are not really interested in science. Sometimes they actually come right out and admit this.

ID “Science”—There Is No There There

Although the most recent and most discussed writings advocating “Intelligent Design” have tended to concentrate on “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” at the molecular level, and especially in regard to how these matters might be involved in the origin of life, their authors have avoided discussion of major implications of their ideas for the prehistory of life on earth. In fact, at least one prominent ID proponent has stated that such fundamental matters as, for example, whether we have a young earth or an old earth need not be worked out until after evolution has been defeated. (This is putting the cart before the horse.) In contrast, however, the outspoken and unabashed proponents of explicit Fundamentalist Creationism have taken the trouble to develop a “model” of the earth’s past—one that they have tried, with some success in some places, to get taught side-by-side with the evolutionary “model.” To the extent that such a “model” can be constructed with what they’ve had to work with, they’ve paid their dues. The Bible Science guys didn’t simply spin their wheels year after year writing essays. They realize that the primary function of science is to explain things. That is the scientists’ job. If ID was real science, that’s what the essayists would be working at also.

The proponents of ID, of course, avoid, at all costs, any elaboration of a “model” or “models” compatible with their views. The excuse that they are hindered by the scientific establishment’s refusal to publish their (nonexistent) research in refereed mainline scientific journals won’t hold water. There is nothing, for example, to keep a formal proof of the supposed revolutionary “law of conservation of information” from being published in a legitimate journal—if, in fact, it made sense. Besides, the ID proponents could incorporate their “model” in their essays or, like the unabashed Bible-Science Creationists, found their own journals with themselves as reviewers and editors.

There is simply no way that ID can ever gain any semblance of scientific respectability without developing, among other things, a “model” of earth prehistory. Evolutionary theory, coupled with paleontology and the other sciences, has constructed an incredibly rich, detailed, powerful, predictive, consilient, and consensual account of the earth’s past. Evolutionary theory has actual content, and a lot of it. Until the ID proponents stop merely writing essays, garnering publicity, and engaging in aggressive public relations, and start developing a competing and superior account of the past, they will, justifiably, cut no ice with the scientific community. At present, their failure in this regard hasn’t hurt them politically, and theocratic power is, after all, what they’re after. Regardless of how politically powerful they may become, however, we can take some consolation in the fact that they’ll never convince the world’s scientists that their ID baloney makes scientific sense. In order to do that, they’d have to eventually come up with an actual scientific theory.

As I mentioned earlier, the ID proponents claim that they have come up with a theory in opposition to the theory of evolution—hence our being constantly exhorted to “teach both theories.” Actually, however, there is absolutely no ID theory whatsoever, only an ID assertion. When opponents of ID themselves use the term “ID theory,” as they often do, they are actually, although unintentionally, tacitly granting ID the very respectability that its proponents seek for it. These ID opponents should know better.

Misunderstanding on the part of most people as to what the word “theory” means in science has probably caused more trouble than anything else in getting it across to the public that evolution is as well-supported as any principle in science. In order to straighten out this business, a digression on the scientific meanings of the terms hypothesis, law, and theory follows.

Our high school students are constantly being taught that a hypothesis is a prediction. The word is consistently misused in this way by schoolteachers and in laboratory manuals, e.g., “Form a hypothesis as to how this experiment will turn out.” If this is what the word actually meant—if the word hypothesis were simply a synonym for prediction—then the only sensible course would be to simply eliminate the word “hypothesis” from the lexicon of schoolteachers and lab manuals, and always simply use the word “prediction,” because the word “prediction” is one which most people are already familiar with and understand the meaning of. Even “prediction” of how an experiment will turn out would, presumably, be more than a simple guess, or an answer chosen by a flip of a coin or the roll of the dice. The word “prediction” presupposes a reasoned response to a question, on the basis of what is known, thought to be known, or should be known. When asked, however, students frequently define “hypothesis” as a mere “guess” (a guess about just about anything—not necessarily a guess as to the probable explanation for a phenomenon), which is a different thing altogether.

The word “hypothesis” should be used, in science, exclusively for a reasoned, sensible, knowledge-informed explanation for why some phenomenon exists or occurs. An hypothesis can be as yet untested; can have already been tested; may have been falsified; may have not yet been falsified, although tested; or may have been tested in a myriad of ways countless times without being falsified; and it may come to be universally accepted by the scientific community. An understanding of the word “hypothesis,” as used in science, requires a grasp of the principles underlying Occam’s Razor and Karl Popper’s thought in regard to “falsifiability”—including the notion that any respectable scientific hypothesis must, in principle, be “capable of” being proven wrong (if it should, in fact, just happen to be wrong), but none can ever be proved to be true. One aspect of a proper understanding of the word “hypothesis,” as used in science, is that only a vanishingly small percentage of hypotheses could ever potentially become a theory.

Most people tend to think of the word “theory” as meaning pretty much the same thing as their concept of “hypothesis”—namely, a guess or surmise. A “theory” is thought of as a very tentative proposition. This is only natural, because that is the “ordinary English” meaning of the word outside of scientific contexts, and our citizens’ educational experiences have rarely done anything to disabuse them of this notion. As I define “scientific theory,” it is a great, overarching, explanatory scheme which explains a vast number of phenomena; which makes connections between phenomena that would otherwise be perceived as having nothing to do with each other; which makes wild, off-the-wall predictions which nonetheless turn out as forecast; which is supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence and has been tested countless times in countless ways without being falsified; shows consilience to a truly remarkable extent; and which is, for all practical purposes, universally accepted by the scientific community. A scientific theory has content, in spades. By this definition (and powerful arguments can be made against any other) there are only about a dozen scientific theories that I can think of right off the bat, and no scientific theories have ever existed which are not currently accepted. Examples would be the modern atomic theory, theory of plate tectonics, Einstein’s theories of relativity, the microbe theory of disease, the heliocentric theory, the modern synthetic theory of evolution, the gene/chromosome/DNA/RNA theory of inheritance/protein synthesis. (If you can think of more than a dozen, please let me know—I’m interested in coming up with an exhaustive list.)

Just because even some scientists may, on occasion, be careless or unthinking in the use of the word “theory,” is no argument for supposing that the word, in a scientific context, is to be taken to mean an untested, particularly questionable proposition. It would be helpful if someone could come up with an alternative term for scientific theory as I have defined it—a term to be used for that concept alone. Perhaps a word based on Latin or Greek could be manufactured or maybe one already exists in some foreign language and could be adopted into English.

A scientific law is a mere statement of the way things happen to happen. That is, if you perform act “Q” under given conditions “Z”, then you will get result “R.” The “gas laws” are a good example. If you heat a given amount of gas by “X” amount, the gas will tend to exert increased pressure on the walls of its container by “Y” amount, etc. Laws are not explanations of anything, they just describe what happens or they acknowledge the existence of particular repeatable patterns of what happens.

Far too many of us have been taught in school that a scientist, in the course of trying to figure something out, will first come up with a “hypothesis” (a guess or surmise—not necessarily even an “educated” guess). After this “hypothesis” has been tested by an experiment or two, and it still seems to work and hold up after a fashion, then it can graduate to the next level of likelihood—it becomes a theory. Then, when the theory is finally “proven to be true,” it becomes a law.

No theory ever becomes a law. No law ever becomes a theory. They are apples and oranges. Also, neither theories nor laws are necessarily to be thought of as more tentative or “less proven” than the other. Theories explain why the laws exist in the first place—atomic theory explains why the gas laws “work.” A given theory will subsume/explain a multiplicity of different laws. A theory can cause a law to be discarded. Relativity theory has resulted in Newton’s law of gravity having been shown to be not necessarily so. Theories are bigger and more powerful than laws.

Although every scientific theory started out as a hypothesis or as a group of related hypotheses, only one hypothesis in a million (or so) has the potential to ever become a theory. This is because many hypotheses will be falsified, but, more important, the great majority of hypotheses are too specific to specific phenomena—they are not “general” enough.

A given hypothesis may be as universally accepted as a given law or a theory is. Any relative degree of tentativeness is not implied by the three terms.

Popper’s ideas concerning “falsifiability” tell us that no hypothesis and no theory can ever be “proved to be true.” In practice, of course, the evidence in support of some currently accepted law, theory, or hypothesis can be so vast, consilient, and convincing, that it will exceed, by orders of magnitude, the evidence needed to convict a person of murder; and for someone to refuse to give “acceptance” to such a law, theory, or hypothesis would be, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, “intellectually perverse.”

It should be quite clear, on the basis of the above discussion that there simply is no such thing as an ID theory. There is merely the ID assertion. The ID assertion has no substantive content.

ID’s Secret Baggage

As I see it, if one is to accept the contentions of the proponents of ID, then one must accept one of only five general explanations (historical “models”) for the biological world. Consensual advocacy, by the ID essayists, of any one of these “models” would, for the first time, give the ID assertion actual content, although not necessarily scientific content.

To see why these five possible explanations follow from the ID position, it is necessary to examine the fundamental ID tenet that a condition found in living organisms, and which they call “irreducible complexity,” is unevolvable.

Michael Behe, for example, claims that the blood-clotting mechanism in humans is “irreducibly complex” and therefore could not have evolved. He makes the same claim for the bacterial flagellum—a structure which allows bacteria to move about in a liquid medium. As far as I know, the ID essayists are unanimous in following Behe concerning the unevolvability of both the clotting mechanism and the bacterial flagellum.

The precise blood clotting mechanism of humans is found only in humans and, perhaps, in certain anatomically similar vertebrates. Likewise, the bacterial-type flagellum is found only in bacteria. Because the exact same blood clotting mechanism in humans is presumably found only in certain vertebrate animals, and the bacterial-type flagellum only in bacteria, and if each of these two characteristics has been (separately) designed by a Creator, then it might seem to follow that, at the very least, humans, along with their apparent vertebrate relatives on the one hand, and bacteria on the other hand, had to have been separately created. Now I am sure that by the criteria that the ID proponents have developed for what they call “irreducible complexity,” a nearly infinite number of examples of their “irreducible complexity” can be found in different living things. (By this I am by no means conceding that complexity of this sort is unevolvable.) Countless “irreducibly complex” structures and systems will each be found to be unique to one or to only a few of the world’s millions of species. Vast numbers will each be unique to only one or to only a few of the world’s genera, or families, or orders, or classes, or phyla. Now if one accepts the viewpoint that differential possession of specific “irreducible complexities” implies that humans, along, perhaps, with some similar vertebrates, must have been created separately from the bacteria, one should then conclude that the world’s organisms must have come into being by a huge number of separate miraculous creation events orchestrated by an Intelligent Designer. Actually, however, some conceivable ID-consistent schemes allow for some degree of lineage-thinking in regard to megadiversity, but a huge number of miracles is still called for. Let’s look at all the scenarios that I can think of by which the world’s biota could have come into being if one accepts the tenets of ID:

  1. Once upon a time God miraculously created a single, original, ancestral living thing that possessed every single irreducibly complex system and irreducibly complex anatomical structure that exists now in any present-day living thing or that ever existed in any extinct form that lived subsequent to the creation of the aforementioned original ancestral form. By some sort of devolutionary process, starting with this common ancestor, a devolutionary phylogenetic tree then gave rise to all other living things, with different suites of irreducibly complex systems and structures lost along the way on the various limbs of the tree. Or, if you like, you can start with two or more original miraculously-produced ancestral forms, each with a different conglomeration of irreducibly complex features to be lost differentially in the descendant forms. (As far as I know, no ID essayist has suggested this scenario, and the fossil record is certainly at odds with it. The original created kind is unimaginable and impossible in my view. I bring it up only for the sake of completeness and, besides, it is really no more preposterous than the other potential ID “models.”)

  2. Once upon a time God miraculously created a single, original, ancestral living thing that had, in its genetic makeup, hereditary material coding for each of the near infinitude of irreducible complexities, non-irreducible complexities, and simplicities that would appear, in various combinations, in all of its subsequent descendants (including the 99+% of them that became extinct after all the trouble involved in their creation). Genetic material being lost and/or being switched on or off in different branches of the devolutionary tree would result in the patterns we see in the fossil record over geologic time and the patterns that we see today. (Or maybe you could start with two, or a few more, miraculously produced common ancestors, each with only a partial complement of all the genetic material found in the sum total of all subsequent life forms.) This scheme has, incredibly, actually been proposed by one of the most influential ID proponents. It would work (as he must know) only if miraculous constant maintenance over geologic time kept mutational and other forms of degradation from disrupting the unused genetic material until it’s switched on. Creationists who keep arguing (as do the majority of the ID essayists) that (contrary to fact) there are no transitional forms in the fossil record should clearly be prejudiced against this scheme, because it predicts the existence of just such forms. Unless the proposed devolutionary process has now stopped, owing to exhaustion of all genetic possibilities inherent to it (and presumably because the intended end state of humans having arrived on the scene has occurred), then evidence of its operating at present or the potential for it to keep on operating in the future should be detectable, it seems to me. Of course, the ID proponents have done absolutely nothing to test or further develop this potential ID “model” any more than they have any other of their potential models. That would smack too much of doing actual science involving ID.

  3. Once upon a time God miraculously created a single or a few common-ancestors of all life and, subsequently, He carried out a near infinitude of miraculous tinkering continuously throughout geologic time in order to put in place (and often later miraculously dismantle) the countless irreducibly complex systems, countless non-irreducibly complex systems, and countless simplicities found at different times in all the different subsequent lineages of living things. This scheme differs from the previous one in that rather than all the irreducible complexity, non-irreducible complexity, and countless simplicities being genetically coded for originally and miraculously, and then being maintained unremittingly and miraculously, new designs are repeatedly and miraculously constructed more or less from scratch as time goes on. (As far as science has been able to discover, this process does not appear to be operating at the present.) A percentage greatly in excess of 99% of these creatures, miraculously created and miraculously tinkered with over billions of years, then ends up becoming (again miraculously?) extinct for some reason or other over geologic time. Here again, there should be (as there actually are, of course) transitional forms in the fossil record, and so the great majority of ID essayists, who deny the existence of transitional forms, would be, by such denial, arguing against this “model.” Of course, no actual testing or development of this potential ID “model” has been done or appears to be contemplated by the ID essayists.

  4. Once upon a number of times God separately and miraculously created all living things at the species level, or close to the species level, but in separate episodes of mass creation (Punctuated Creation) or spread out evenly or at random over geological time. For some reason (presumably the eventual miraculous creation of humans—the desired final objective), this process seems to have stopped and is no longer operating in the present. The intermediate forms that are actually found in the fossil record would have been, of course, also separately created (coincidentally at about the time we would expect them to have been present if evolution had actually occurred). This appears to be the scheme accepted by at least one of the most influential ID proponents. Here again, God thought it best that more than 99% of these specially created kinds should become extinct over geologic time. One wonders if, instead of dying out gradually, or suddenly, owing to those old abominable naturalistic causes, the disappearances from the fossil record couldn’t have been caused by miraculous instantaneous decreations. After all, if taking the fossil record at face value, as the ID essayists recommend, means that “sudden” appearances must have been miraculous, then “sudden” disappearances, by the same token, must have been as well. It is interesting to speculate on what one could see if this “model” should happen to be true and one had a time machine and could “return” to certain specified times in the prehistoric past. If one were at exactly the right time and place, for example, one might see one or two or perhaps a whole herd of brontosauruses suddenly appearing in puffs of smoke. Wait around long enough and then maybe you’d be able to see an extinction event in which all of their (completely unevolved) descendants would (poof!) disappear in puffs of smoke.

    Of course, no ID essayists have attempted to do any actual research concerning this potential ID “model.”

  5. Once upon a time God created all living things separately and miraculously and simultaneously (or nearly simultaneously—three episodes of organism creation over a period of four 24-hour days would do), with the separate creations all being at the species level or close to it. How long ago this might have occurred is up for grabs but some would favor a figure of about 6,000 years. In its most specified form, this is the position taken by Fundamentalist pseudoscientists—the standard Creation Science “model.” Here again, way, way over 99% of the specially created kinds then became extinct. Were they created in vain? As will be noted below, huge gaps in the fossil record argue strongly against this scenario.

    The ID essayists, of course, will not touch this “model” with a ten-foot pole—at least not in their official pronouncements. After all, it’s been declared unconstitutional to push openly Fundamentalist Creationism in the public schools. Some of the ID proponents institutionally associated with the movement do actually adhere to this “model,” however. The Wedge strategists have never officially repudiated this “model” because it would alienate their numerous Fundamentalist supporters. If the ID advocates/Wedge strategists were actually interested in advancing science (and really had anything whatsoever to offer along those lines), then instead of pushing their religious/political agenda, they would have to officially, collectively, and categorically take a stand, one way or another, on Young Earth/Flood Geology Creationism. I challenge them to do so.

Or I guess that we could have some combination of two or more of the above scenarios. If you can think of any additional ID-consistent schemes, other than one of these combinations, then let me know.

Thus we see that the real problem for the ID advocates may not be difficulty in finding enough examples of what they call irreducible complexity but in an embarrassment of riches. Once one comes to appreciate the huge number of separate miraculous creation events and/or almost constant “miraculous tinkering” and/or “miraculous maintenance” that would seem to be required to fit their doctrine, the less “scientific” it begins to appear. We’re essentially back to where every breeze, every raincloud, and every thunderbolt was a direct act of God. Assuming that the list of possible ID-consistent scenarios that I’ve given above is exhaustive, or that all possible additional ones that I haven’t thought of (if any) are equally as ridiculous, then it’s easy to see why the ID essayists have no desire to openly develop them further and openly advocate them only to have them critiqued by the world scientific community or even by the great unwashed (but presumably not completely idiotic) public.

Actual science has made the political “mistake” of developing a massively impressive, workable system of actual knowledge and explanation concerning the earth’s past (and present). The ID essayists continually point out what they represent to be fatal flaws in the accepted scientific scheme of things, using all the same tired old arguments found in the Young Earth Creationist literature. On the other hand, it’s pretty hard for legitimate scientists to poke holes in the ID “model” because there isn’t an ID “model” (and never will be). There’s nothing but the ID assertion. Why can’t certain politicians, various “opinion molders,” and the like, see that there’s a big fat double standard at work here in evaluating actual science versus ID?

Well then, as just noted, true science has developed an enormously powerful, highly predictive, detailed, extremely consilient, and highly consensual “model” of the biological past and present. The young-earth/flood-geology advocates knew that to be taken seriously by anyone, including fellow Fundamentalists, they’d have to develop a competing “model.” They produced a contradictory, discordant, inconsistent, incoherent, pseudoscientific, mishmash of a “model” full of innumerable specially pled for, ad hoc “explanations” that fly in the face of the evidence (to put it mildly), but at least they have a “model” (model no. 5 above) or claim to have. And they worked hard to produce this “model.” These “Bible-Science” Creationists wanted both “models” (the “evolutionary model” and the “young-earth/flood-geology model”) to be taught in the public schools and for the two “models” to have had “equal time.” Pushing their “model” has largely failed because it is too clearly based on Genesis. Specificity (that is to say, actual content) got them into trouble. The ID essayists will not themselves make such a mistake. The steps that have been taken to avoid this mistake constitute the only real difference between ID Creationism and standard, garden variety Creationism.

To illustrate, in detail, the kinds of problems that the ID essayists would bring on themselves if they ever started getting specific, I will here deliver a partial critique of “model” no. 5. The ID proponents will cry “foul” at my doing so because they’ll claim that I’m trying to tar them with the same brush as unabashedly Genesis-derived Creationism. This is, however, the only critiqueable Creationist “model” that currently exists. Thus it is fair to criticize them, through this “model,” by default. Furthermore, it has yet to be demonstrated that the flood geology “model” is somehow more refutable and more ridiculous than any given alternative ID-inspired “model” of the sort that the ID essayists must but refuse to produce. Also, as noted above, the Discovery Institute’s essayists have never formally repudiated young-earth Genesis-inspired Creationism, and, until they do so, they’re fair game on this score.

The fossil record, in particular, presents serious problems for at least some, if not all, of the conceivable prehistoric scenarios listed several paragraphs back, and, especially, for openly Bible-Science-type Creationism.

Let’s take up the creation of all living things as separate species, or creation of the necessarily extremely numerous and “created kinds” which the Creationists say need not always correspond to species. The Creationists refer to a “created kind” as a “baramin,” from the Hebrew bara min, meaning, logically enough, “created kind.” (The plural in Hebrew would be bara minim, but we’ll regard the agglutinated “baramin” as a newly coined English word and, accordingly, write the plural as “baramins.”) One of the primary problems with standard Young Earth/Flood Geology Creationism is the well-known huge gaps in the fossil record. Taken at face value, as the ID essayists urge us to do, the fossil record would seem to imply that countless species (many, many millions of species), vast numbers of genera, a legion of families, orders, and even some entire phyla, all of which exist today, must have been created, in effect, just yesterday, rather than, say, about 6,000 years (or more) ago. This is because no known fossils of these groups have been found in any rocks of any age whatsoever. One example of this is the present-day coelacanth, a fish belonging to the genus Latimeria and to the family Latimeriidae—a genus and family totally lacking a known fossil record. If all living things were created in three episodes over four days about 6,000 years ago (or at any time farther back than that), then we should expect to find fossils representing the present-day biota throughout the fossil record, and certainly not totally absent. Among other animals, I study a genus of a fair number of species of weird little mouse- or shrew-sized pouchless short-tailed opossums. They, like the very, very great majority of genera of living things, are totally unknown in the fossil record. As far as phyla are concerned, I know of no fossils whatsoever, of any age, of the phyla Mesozoa, Gastrotricha, Rotifera, Kinorhyncha, Acanthocephala, Nematomorpha, and Pentastomida, among others.

How can conventional Young Earth/Flood Geology-type Creationists explain the total absence of the “advanced” fin-ray fishes (a group making up probably about 99+% of the fish species found today, and over half of the species of vertebrates)—a total absence from vast expanses of rocks otherwise rich in fossils of water-living animals? These so-called teleost fishes live today from the very bottom of all seas up into mountain streams in the Himalayas. All of the familiar fishes that you’re likely to know of, excluding sharks and sturgeons, belong to this group. Many species of teleosts are very poor swimmers. Why this huge gap in the occurrence of these fishes in the fossil record? Why are 99+% of all genera of living things known today totally unrepresented in that record? How do we explain the enormous gap in the fossil record of the flowering and fruiting plants (the so-called angiosperms), which make up the vast majority of plants found today? Although the fruit-bearing plants were supposedly created before any water animals or flying animals or land animals (and even before the sun and moon), there is an enormous gap in their temporal distribution, from the beginning of the fossil record until sometime in the age of the dinosaurs—and that is late in the fossil record, long, long after the first appearances in that record of numerous water animals, flying animals, and land animals. This goes not only for flowering plants that live on land but mangroves, eelgrass, water hyacinth, waterlilies, duckweeds, etc., which live in water. Surely these should have been among the first true plants to be swept up and deposited by the Floodwaters. Please keep in mind that I’m not choosing special and unusual cases. If you decide to get up some morning and go for a day-long walk in the country, it’s likely that every single organism that you see, from flowering plants and conifers to squirrels, field mice, rabbits, snakes, lizards, birds, bees, moths, flies, ants, and beetles will be sorts of plants and animals completely unknown from at least the first 90% of the fossil record, and, for many of these, completely unknown for considerably more than 90% of that record. Those are big gaps! Certainly nothing that you would think was anything like these organisms occurred at any time in the Cambrian, the period when the Creationists tell us that there was an “explosion” of all the “major groups” of animals. As for the plants and animals that you do see on your walk, they will probably all belong to genera which, if they are known as fossils at all, do not appear in the first 95% of the fossil record, at the very least. If you walk down to the beach, the dead fish, crabs, lobsters and the like that you will find will also represent groups unknown as fossils for the first 90% of the fossil record (although today, for example, crabs of a myriad of species, genera, and families are found from mountain freshwater streams to the deepest depths of the oceans and the very, very great majority cannot swim at all). You may also find jellyfishes, sponges, seashells, and corals and the like on the beach, but these will be sorts of jellyfish and sponges, etc. different from any known from the time when organisms of these general sorts first appeared, and none of even the latter occur in about the first 80% of the fossil record. Gaps, gaps, and more gaps!

How do we explain huge fossil beds full of corals and sponges of all conceivable sizes and densities but none of which are corals and sponges of the sorts found today? How can we explain fossil coral reefs and other kinds of fossil animal-constructed reefs, all of them right-side up and containing enormous varieties of species—reefs at various levels one above the other in the geological column—and with those reefs not including a single organism closely related to anything found today, and with no overlap in species even between the fossils in the reefs at different levels? Reefs don’t swim. They also don’t sort well in turbulent water. I bring this up because the absolutely undeniable zonation of suites of fossil kinds has been, in part, “explained” by Creationists as reflecting differential abilities of different kinds of animals to swim and thereby escape being killed and fossilized in the early stages of Noah’s Flood. Also, “sorting” in the Flood waters, by the size and density of the animals involved, has been invoked to explain zonation of kinds in fossil beds.

Again, the ID essayists say that we should take the fossil record “at face value.” When we do so, we see totally extinct fossil assemblage after totally extinct fossil assemblage replaced time and again. A good example of this (among many, many others) is provided by the sequence of separate faunas of the late Precambrian and early and middle Cambrian, over a period of many millions of years—let the essayists explain that, the actual fact of the matter, instead of feeding us that chronic lie that all of these animals appeared simultaneously in some kind of “explosion.” As the fossil beds get younger, their assemblages of extinct kinds look more and more like the present-day assemblage of non-extinct kinds. Accepting the ID position, then either millions of new species, on average looking more and more like those of today (and each species with its unique suite of irreducible complexities, non-irreducible complexities, and simplicities), were created in toto and ex nihilo episodically, randomly, or at a constant rate through time, along with concomitant extinctions of millions of the Designer’s artifacts going on; or, perhaps, as noted above, there were actual continuous lineages of descent over hundreds of millions of years, with unremitting miraculous tinkering putting in new irreducible complexities, new non-irreducible complexities, and new simplicities. At least this last “model” is consistent with the demonstrated presence of intermediates in the fossil record and with the presence of the huge gaps involving the present-day forms in that record.

You pays you money and you takes you pick.

One of the interesting side issues of the Flood Geology scenario is that Biblical Literalist Creationists believe, following Genesis, that there was no death of any animal before Adam’s Fall. All animals ate plants and were immortal. Presumably, if Adam had just kept putting off eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, there would have been no death up until the present moment. The consequences of all this are interesting to contemplate. Certainly, reproduction of the world’s creatures would have had to be curtailed—and how a ladybug could survive being stepped on by an elephant at any time before the Fall, or if there had never been a Fall, is beyond me. Perhaps there were to be separate paths for ladybugs and elephants.

Thus, supposedly, no animal ate another animal or killed another animal for any reason before the Fall. I think that the innumerable irreducibly complex killing structures, such as the venom-delivery apparatuses, and associated biochemical pathways for producing venom, of poisonous snakes, certain lizards, and various fishes, mollusks, predatory wasps, spiders, scorpions, jellyfishes, etc., and the irreducibly complex defensive systems of, in particular, bombardier beetles and the like—all of which I have collectively referred to elsewhere as the “organic arsenal,” were either all created before Adam’s Fall—waiting in the wings, so to speak, for the inevitable (in other words, Adam’s fall was predestined—but that would argue against his free will, wouldn’t it?), or all were created after the Fall in a sort of mini- (but multiple) creation event. Also, considering those animals almost every part of which seems to be adapted for killing, eating, and digesting prey, one wonders how they made a living as vegetarians before The Fall.

This brings up the matter of parasites. I am sure that a search of the literature will reveal innumerable irreducibly complex systems in various pathogenic parasites that feed only on humans—systems that allow these parasites to identify the host they’ve found to be a human and additional systems that allow them to live comfortably in that human host (to the exclusion of all other species) until he/she dies from their attentions. Because it appears that, on average, for every species of non-parasite there are at least several species of parasites that afflict it alone, it stands to reason that the very great majority of species of living things today and in the past must be/must have been parasites. (I’ve never seen this consideration taken into account in estimates of the world’s total biodiversity, by the way—estimates ranging up to 80 million or more species.) Curiously, I have been unable to find the word “parasites” in the index of the Creationist texts that I’ve consulted. It’s interesting to contemplate the Designer having lovingly built all the irreducibly complex systems enabling parasites of humans to do their number on you and me and our children. The number of kinds of parasites attacking only humans is actually quite large; counting only the nematode worm species of obligate human parasites, for example, gives us a figure of over 30. All because Adam ate that fruit... .

Continued in Part 2...

Ronald H. Pine

Ronald H. Pine's photo

Ronald H. Pine, Ph. D., is a Research Associate at the Field Museum, Chicago, and Permanent Visiting Scholar, Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, University of Kansas.