TCS Daily

The Real Intelligent Designers

By James Pinkerton - June 9, 2005 12:00 AM

The evolution vs. creation debate will never stop. But that endless wrangle is destined to take some new turns. How so? Because the evolution side of the debate, which is to say, the science side, is about to beget some serious creationism of its own -- that is, creations by human scientists.

No serious scientist believes the literal Biblical creation account, but many earnest and well-credentialed scientists do believe in Intelligent Design (ID), as a perspective on evolution. And ID, of course, is religiously inspired.

For instance, there's the Intelligent Design Network (IDN), a non-profit group headquartered in Shawnee Mission, KS. According to the network, ID is simply an approach to evolution which "holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection." But that "intelligent cause," which the IDN does not further identify, is by definition some sort of metaphysical -- or, if one prefers, divine -- Creator.

And while religion is at the core of ID, its proponents generate lots of science-y arguments. One of the best known ID-ers is Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and author of Darwin's Black Box. Behe argues that it just isn't possible that random evolution could have produced the flagellum -- the propeller/tail -- on a bacteria. Such an organ, he concludes, is "irreducibly complex," which is to say, only a Master of Complexity could have created it.

But it's a fallacy to argue that just because one person -- or even all the people of an era -- can't figure out how something works, therefore such mysterious workings are beyond any human comprehension, ever. To take one humble example, years ago I saw Siegfried and Roy perform their tiger-based magic in Las Vegas, and was frankly astonished at some of the illusions they generated at the aptly named Mirage casino. I had no idea how they did their tricks, but since I knew that they employed mechanics, not metaphysics, to do their show, I was content just to enjoy it, marveling all the while at human ingenuity. And of course, if one waits long enough, he will get a peek behind the conjuring curtain, learning how tricks are done and also that like the rest of us, Siegfried and Roy suffer from Murphy's Law, too. And so it is with science: eventually, some scientist will figure out how the "trick" of the bacteria's flagellum is done.

But the ID-ers can't wait. They say that they must "study" evolution now, because, in the words of the IDN, "it is a science that unavoidably impacts religion." So to defend their particular religious worldview, they must undercut the work of Charles Darwin.

Similarly, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (DI) presents itself as a serious-minded explorer of possible options. The DI's Center for Science and Culture, for example, presents itself as just another group of think-tankers committed to open inquiry, although clearly stating that it "supports research by scientists and other scholars challenging various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory" even as it "supports research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design."

But the true mission of the DI was fully revealed in a 1999 posting of an internal DI document called "The Wedge Project" -- a document corroborated recently by The New Yorker -- which described not only the DI's anti-Darwinian goal but also its plan for achieving that goal. The paper begins by decrying the "devastating" effect of Darwinism, Marxism, and Freudianism, upon the "bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built." These three fathers of "isms" were the propagators of a "materialistic conception of reality" that has "infected virtually every area of our culture." And so the DI mission is clear: "nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies." These heady fighting words certainly put the ID movement in its proper ideological and theological perspective.

There won't be much defending of Marx or Freud from me. But Darwin was nothing like Marx or Freud. Indeed, biological Darwinism spawned "Social Darwinism," an extreme form of libertarianism. As TCS's own Nick Schulz, a certified non-leftist free marketer, observes, "There's plenty of room for God in a Darwinian universe. Darwin operates on different plane altogether from theology." Provocatively, Schulz compares Darwin to Friedrich Hayek, the legendary opponent of central planning and proponent of free markets. "Both men, in their nuance," Schulz explains, "demand seriousness of thought, not sentiment; both respect complexity that defies simplistic engineering, biological or social."

And that's the problem with ID: it's simplistic. To argue that complex biological phenomena are "irreducibly complex" is to abandon the scientific quest. As Richard Dawkins, who boasts the bold professional title of Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, explains in The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design,

        To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural 
        Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of 
        the Designer. You have to say something like "God was always there," and 
        if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say 
        "DNA was always there," or "Life was always there," and be done with it.

So the better mission for the ID-ers, should they choose to undertake it, would be to identify the Intelligent Designer. That's a question that's been wrangled over by theologians for eons, with no firm conclusion yet. But of course, such inquiry has nothing to do with science.

As Schulz suggests, religion is simply on a different plane than science. The whole point is that you take it on faith: you either believe or you don't. In fact, the Catholics put Mysterium Fidei, the mystery of faith, at the center of their belief system. Which is fine, but once again, it's not science.

For those still interested in the ID debate, there's no shortage of material. And for those Darwinians in need of reinforcement, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has a special website. Or one could settle for H. Allen Orr's two-word description of ID in The New Yorker: "junk science."

So enough on what might be called RID, for Religious Intelligent Design. One can either believe in it, or not, but if one does, it must be taken on faith.

But here's something coming that's real, replicatable, and thus inarguable. Let's call it SID, for Scientific Intelligent Design -- that is, designed here on earth by mortal, tangible human beings. There'll be no need to take SID on faith, because it'll be visible -- in your face, even.

Indeed, early examples of SID have been visible for a long time. Plant and animal breeding, using mostly proto-scientific empiricism and intuition, reaches back probably 10,000 years. Consider, as one example of early SID in action, our best friend, the dog. Gazing down at a Chihuahua next to a Cocker Spaniel, it's hard to believe that those different breeds are the same species, Canis lupus familiaris. And all dogs, however cute, are descended from the fierce wolf, Canis lupus. Yes, these interconnections are hard to believe at first, but biologists can prove them.

But canines and crops, of course, were just an overture. The true SID-aceous Era is just beginning, and it will affect humans, as well as animals.

Broadly speaking, scientists are following three distinct paths toward human SID, which we can summarize as "hardware" (prosthetics and robotics), "software" (artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality), and "wetware" (cloning).

In most cases, the scientists involved aren't thinking grand thoughts about human evolution. Instead, they are thinking about helping the elderly and others regain motor functions, or about improving computational power, or about curing many wasting, chronic illnesses. In that sense, they are ironically akin to the "proverbial blind watchmaker" of nature; they are not consciously participating in anything so grand as evolution.

But a few scientists are "sighted watchmakers." They are, for better or for worse, visionaries. And there's nothing incidental or accidental about their advocacy of "transhumanism." In the words of one such scientist, Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute, "We will invent our successors."

But whatever the motivations, from all directions, SID is coming. In hardware, it's coming. In software, it's coming. And in wetware -- including the hot-button issue of stem cells from fetal tissue -- it's coming. (For those following the current legislative debate over embryonic stem cells in Washington, one might note that American legal restrictions are already being mooted by the world marketplace; fetal-based heart treatment, apparently effective, was recently dispensed in Ecuador, using embryonic stem cells supplied by an institute in Barbados.)

For as long as there are free minds and free markets, these innovations are going to keep on coming. Why? Because to envision things, to build things, to create systems of things -- that's deeply satisfying to many people, and so they keep on doing it, despite all the difficulties and dangers they might face.

So, leaving God or gods out of this, let's say it: human beings are the Intelligent Designers. That might seem sacrilegious to some, but it's true to others, and real to the world.

And in fact, we can always deal with the fruit of Design that's Intelligent. It's Unintelligent Design that we should be worried about. And oh yes, Malevolent Design. We should fear that.


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