Damage Control at the AAAS
February 14, 2003
The AAAS Board Resolution on intelligent-design theory represents the scientific establishment’s latest effort to insulate evolutionary biology from critique and discussion. The challenge of intelligent design for evolutionary biology is real. This is not like someone who claims that ancient technologies could not have built the pyramids, so goblins must have done it. We can show how, with the technological resources at hand, the ancient Egyptians could have produced the pyramids.
By contrast, the material mechanisms known to date offer no such insight into biological complexity. Cell biologist Franklin Harold in his most recent book, The Way of the Cell, remarks that in trying to account for biological complexity, biologists have thus far proposed merely “a variety of wishful speculations.” If biologists really understood the emergence of biological complexity in material terms, intelligent design couldn’t even get off the ground. The fact that they don’t accounts for intelligent design’s quick rise in public consciousness. Give us detailed, testable, mechanistic accounts for the origin of life, the origin of the genetic code, the origin of ubiquitous biomacromolecules and assemblages like the ribosome, and the origin of molecular machines like the bacterial flagellum, and intelligent design will die a quick and painless death.
But that hasn’t happened and shows no signs of happening. Nor has the “refutation” of intelligent design by scientists and scholars been nearly as successful as the AAAS resolution suggests. The discussion is ongoing and vigorous. A design-theoretic research program is now taking shape (see my article Becominga Disciplined Science). Moreover, the claim that no evidence supports intelligent design is false -- plenty of evidence supports it provided that evidence is not ruled inadmissible on a priori grounds (much as Kepler’s elliptical orbits were ruled inadmissible because science “knew in advance” that the orbits had to be circular).
The worst fault of the AAAS resolution is its historical myopia and the ill-effects that portends for biology education. From the start, evolutionary biology has invoked intelligent design as a foil. We don’t need to explain the structure of a random chunk or rock. We do need to explain the organized complexity of biological structures like the bacterial flagellum. Why? Because they bear the hallmarks of design (why else would cell biologists call them “molecular machines”). Engineering terminology is not optional here. Evolutionary biology itself makes no sense except in light of intelligent design.
Michael Ruse, as a historian of science, knows this full well even if he puts it less delicately: “Teleology is like masturbation. It's all well and good to go to philosophical mass on a Sunday and swear off it, but come Monday morning, there you go again....” (Reported by John Wilkins.) For Ruse to characterize intelligent design as “creationism lite” needs therefore to be viewed as a further exercise in damage control. Intelligent design is compatible with Ruse's "fact of evolution" as well as his requirement that science not invoke miracles. What's at issue is not whether evolution has occurred or the degree to which it has occurred but whether the role of intelligence in the evolutionary process is both indispensable and empirically detectable, thus bringing intelligent design squarely within the fold of science.
This articles is part of an exchange with Michael Ruse in the February issue of Research News & Opportunities in Science & Theology.
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