TCS Daily

Descent of Man in Dover

By Sallie Baliunas - October 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania has been billed as a test of whether teaching intelligent design in a science class amounts to a state establishment of religion. Some parents in the Dover district and the American Civil Liberties Union raised the objection when the district's school board set science curriculum guidelines in October 2004 that stated in part:

        "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory 
        and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent 
        design. Note: Origins of life will not be taught."

From this scientist's perspective, parents have good cause to object. For the Dover district shortchanges students on two scientific matters in those guidelines: first, by characterizing intelligent design as a theory of biological evolution to be taught in science classrooms, and secondly, by foregoing what science says about the origin of life.

Let's start with intelligent design, which challenges the key scientific concept in life science, namely biological evolution (commonly called "Darwin's Theory").

One of intelligent design's strongest proponents, Discovery Institute in its press release concerning the trial claims definitional authority ("Discovery Institute is the nation's leading think-tank researching intelligent design"):

        "The leading scientists and scholars researching and advancing the 
        theory define intelligent design as: The theory of intelligent design 
        holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best 
        explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as 
        natural selection. Intelligent design theory does not claim that science 
        can determine the identity of the intelligent cause."

That already introduces a serious misreading of Darwin's concept of natural selection as an "undirected process." Let's leave that aside for a moment, and pick up the thread that intelligent design espouses a designer of inestimable intelligence. Before calling it God or gods, however, we read further in Discovery Institute's press release, quoting Casey Luskin, the institute's program officer for public policy and legal affairs:

        "All intelligent design can do as a scientific theory is try to identify 
        whether certain features of the natural world are the products of intelligence. 
        ... We're researching whether things were designed, not who the designer was."

What does it mean, though, to research "whether things were designed" except to determine there was a designer? What the Discovery Institute seems to claim is that it is conducting scientific research on whether an intelligent designer exists, and sidesteps intra-religion debates on the nature of such a designer. Presumably such an inquiry would establish not only one or more strong insufficiencies in science's description of the evolution of life, but pointing beyond known and knowable processes governing matter and thus, by elimination, to the immaterial or supernatural.

There is one logical exception to this. It would be a hypothetical, advanced alien who designed life on earth and left it here to incubate, perhaps meddling with it now and then, with methods not yet known to the human state of scientific knowledge. That alien intelligence would hold an incredible technological control over matter, far beyond sci-fi imaginings like the Technomages in the television novel Babylon 5 . However, the hypothetical, intelligent alien would be a material creature and would work in advanced ways with matter and energy; ergo such scientific concepts would ultimately be knowable. We close this unlikely option for lack of any scientific evidence.

Once that is done, then, by logic, the intelligent designer -- either a process or being -- would be extra-material, or supernatural. And by definition the designer or process is beyond the bounds of science, which is a tool to investigate the material universe.

In a most generous interpretation, intelligent design is seeking a way to investigate the possibility of so-called gapped processes in the material universe. By a gapped process I do not infer something as yet scientifically unknown, but rather something established as impossible for science to ever know. What methodology or tool of science can be used to do so is deeply opaque to me. Lacking such a tool or methodology, it is not, contra the press release claim, scientific research.

Let's return to the release's claim that Darwin's concept of natural selection is undirected, which is often misinterpreted as giving rise to new species by chance.

Natural selection has two steps, in evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr's description (What Evolution Is). First is the largely random variation of genes within a population. Second is the largely non-random reproductive success of individuals whose generations of offspring survive to keep particular genes (and thus traits) in the population.

An individual's genetic material is carried by the molecule DNA in nearly all organisms. The chemical instructions that would be passed on to offspring, though, are subject to random change during reproduction, when copy errors or a mixture of parental DNA or both occur. The offspring contains gene mutations that happened largely by chance.

The genetic mutations in an offspring may or may not affect the reproductive success of that individual in its environment. But environments change, and a previously neutral mutation that has been inherited by generations of successors may pose a disadvantage to individuals in a changed environment. Those individuals achieve less reproductive success and their genetic material less representation in subsequent populations. Over many generations deselection acting on genetic variations among a population may lead to species extinction and appearance of a new species.

Thus, natural selection operates with elements of random and non-random processes. Importantly, natural selection has no directed goal, and no designer imbedded in it.

Now let's revisit the Dover Area school board's reluctance to discuss in science class the "origin of life." Although the science of life's origin is in its infancy, it is an interesting scientific topic and should not be shunted aside, as the school board insists ("Note: Origins of life will not be taught"). More pertinent is that the board's statement contradicts its stated basis for teaching intelligent design:

        "Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life (emphasis added) 
        that differs from Darwin's view."

Beyond the logical inconsistency is the historical and scientific misinterpretation of Darwin's work -- publicly Darwin lay square in the question of the evolution of species, not life's origin. In Descent of Man (1871, Chapter 2) Darwin acknowledges:

        "In what manner the mental powers first developed in the lowest organisms, 
        is as hopeless as how life itself originated. These are problems for the 
        distant future, if they are ever to be solved by man."

To ethical monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Catholicism, Islam and Protestant sects, an extra-material being of superior morality and intelligence working to great purpose is their God. (One sect, Mormonism, believes God remains at least in part a material being, stepwise-advanced from a man, apparently Homo sapiens.) An intelligent designer and questions like the purpose of life or the cosmos reside in the realm of theology or philosophy, and beyond the bounds of science.

Researcher Robert Pennock, in a clear expert witness report for the plaintiffs traces in detail the history and meaning of intelligent design from its proponents' writings. Intelligent design is a form of creationism. By invoking a supernatural process, intelligent design foregoes and all but forbids scientific questioning, and is thus antithetical to science.

The intrusion of religious explanations into life science is what prompts concerned parents and the ACLU to go to court in Pennsylvania. Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, while billed as a debate over religious views being taught in public school science classes, is ultimately about science v. ignorance.

Reading and references

Ernst Mayr 2002 What Evolution Is Basic Books 336pp

Web resource on biological evolution


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