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Intelligent design is pseudoscience


Should the University of California be required to accept, as appropriate preparation for a UC education, high school biology courses that teach creationism instead of evolution? This is one of the issues at stake in a federal lawsuit filed last month against the UC. Although the suit alleges anti-Christian discrimination, it is, in this respect, atypical of the recent nationwide barrage of lawsuits and legislative initiatives aimed at legitimizing alternatives to evolution in K-12 education.

Most of these efforts eschew explicitly religious arguments in favor of the supposedly scientific theory of “Intelligent Design” (ID). The central claim of the ID movement echoes the argument made by William Paley more than 200 years ago: that some pieces of organic machinery are too complex to be explained as anything but the work of an intelligent designer. Why are biologists and mathematicians unimpressed by ID theorists’ portrayals of themselves as the Isaac Newtons of our time? Because the “Argument from Design” is much less convincing now than it was back in 1802.

Scientific theories earn their keep as guides to discovery. We know far more about the organic world today than we did in 1859, the year Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published, and most of this knowledge owes its existence to the work of scientists guided by his theory of natural selection. To take two examples from my own field, animal social behavior, we know that animals are generally more likely to cooperate with, and less likely to mate with, close relatives compared to nonrelatives.

ID theorists’ critiques of Darwinism rest entirely on the “A rgument from Ignorance” — for them, any unsolved puzzle in evolutionary biology is a crisis threatening the collapse of the entire field. Using the same criteria, much of physics would also be treated as fatally flawed. In reality, a science with no remaining puzzles is a dead science.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for ID theory to inspire even one empirical discovery. It can’t, because it generates no testable hypotheses, and that’s because it refuses to specify, even vaguely, the capabilities or motivations of life’s designer.

The reasons for this evasiveness are obvious. If ID theorists were to posit an omnipotent, omniscient, supernatural designer, they would have to admit that they’re doing theology, not science, and they would have to confront such embarrassing cases of unintelligent design as the Cubist body shapes of flounder and the prevalence of noncoding (“junk”) DNA in our genomes.

But if the proposed designer were natural rather than supernatural (ancient extraterrestrials?), ID theorists would find themselves facing an infinite regress (what process produced the extraterrestrials?). More importantly, they would lose the political and financial support of their constituency, which consists of religious fundamentalists, not SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) fans.

As the final and most effective card in their hand, ID promoters ask for equal time in the classroom as a matter of fairness. Don’t alternative viewpoints deserve to be heard? In politics, yes. But in the design of scientific curricula, popular interest can’t substitute for logical consistency and empirical validation. No matter how many Americans were to swear by the efficacy of astrology or numerology, those beliefs would remain pseudoscience. And the same goes for Intelligent Design.

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