TCS Daily

Intelligent Decline

By Robert McHenry - May 19, 2005 12:00 AM

"What's all this I hear about Intelligent Decline? Decline isn't intelligent; it's sad. Sad or tragic. Who could think that it's intelligent? That's just...".

"Excuse me, Miss Litella, but the phrase is Intelligent Design. Not Decline; Design."

"Intelligent Design? Oh, you mean that so-called alternative to Darwinian evolution. I see. Never mi....wait a minute! That's still sad; sad or tragic."

Of course, the late, great Gilda Radner, aka Emily Litella, never actually did this sketch on "Saturday Night Live", but I like to think she might have, perhaps prompted by the present recurrence of "debate" over the "theory" of Intelligent Design. (Style mavens generally deprecate the use of shudder quotes, but when dealing with a movement that is built on using common words in unconventional or undefined ways, they are unavoidable.)

The ID party holds that certain aspects of the world, especially details of the anatomy and biochemistry of living beings, are simply too complex to have evolved without guidance. The approved phrase is "irreducible complexity," a "concept" to which we will return.

ID partisans have trained themselves not to be too specific about the Designer, either, for they have learned the lesson left by the political failure of their predecessors, the Creation Scientists, namely, that too much frankness in the matter of Who the Intelligent Designer is does not pay. So, carefully avoiding anything that sounds like theology, while all the time the butter remains quite firm in their mouths, they simply aver that there is a Design and that it prima facie evidences Intelligence. "God? Oh, heavens, we're not talking about God. It might just be his next-door neighbor Wilson."

Philosophically this is old ground, of course. William Paley's argument for the existence of a watchmaker, given a watch, is the best known example of the type. Not surprisingly, Paley assumed in his analogy that the watch in question was well made and actually kept time. So the naturalist's response to this form of theism has taken a standard form. He points to the very considerable amount of relevant contrary evidence: black flies, killer asteroids, the vermiform appendix, acne, tsunamis, hiccups, and Jerry Springer, not to mention death and disease and a hundred other varieties of human depravity, all of these suggesting if they do not prove that ours is perhaps not the very best of all possible worlds.

But -- correct me if I'm wrong -- this is creation as we actually know it. Any objective observer must report that the universe, if it is the product of conscious design, is clear proof that the designer is incompetent, a blunderer, an all-thumbs amateur who should not be allowed back into the workshop. (As a lad I read a science fiction story whose premise was that the universe is the product of a young Being-in-training, a kind of test piece by an apprentice not yet ready for journeyman status. For the life of me I can't recall the title or author of the story.) Unfortunately, however well Not-Quite-Bright Design might fly as an intellectual position, it lacks market appeal.

The duplicity of the ID party as to theology is all quite transparent. What seems to be less so, at least to some, is the violence the ID party does to the work of the intellect. Consider "irreducible complexity." What does it mean to say that a given degree of complexity is irreducible? And who gets to say it? Has the ID party discovered a scale by which this question can be answered? Up (or down) to a certain point complexity is open to naturalistic explanation, but beyond that point it is not? "We don't know this yet, therefore it is unknowable." And further, "If you do happen to find it out anyway, don't tell me, because if you do I'll stick my fingers in my ears and go La-la-la-la-la really loud." The "debate" whose current installment is playing out in Kansas is a debate in just that sense and no other.

Then there is the simple fact that the "theory" of ID is no theory at all, not in the sense that the word is used in science. It is not based on the best available evidence; it enables no predictions; and it is thus not testable. It is, at best, a paltry substitute myth that incorporates some of what actual science has learned or theorized but spurns not only scientific rigor but any intention to perform science. It is not, as claimed, a legitimate criticism of a scientific theory but a criticism of having such a theory at all. No less than the Creation Scientists, and no less than dear Bishop Wilberforce in 1860, though far less forthrightly, the proponents of ID wish to draw an arbitrary line and use the force of the state to declare that science shall not cross it.

Had that watch been found, not by the good Rev. Paley -- equipped as he was by culture and training not only to recognize in it the work of a human artisan but to judge his competence according as it got him to tea on time or not -- but by, say, a mud man of New Guinea, the conclusion drawn would have been quite different. The mud man instantly recognizes what could only be the work of a god, its materials unfamiliar, its intricacy beyond imagining, and its purpose utterly occult.

The difference between the mud man, gazing in awe at the watch, and the ID man, coolly regarding the bacterial flagellum, is that the mud man acts in good faith. The ID man is heir to a culture of knowledge-building that has evolved over millennia, and, for quite private reasons that have nothing to do with the rest of us, he declines the legacy. To be sure, he has every right, for himself, to decline whatever, and however far, he chooses. It only remains for the rest of us decline to decline with him. That would be intelligent.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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