Intelligent Design -- A Scientific, Academic and Philosophical Controversy
December 6, 2005
Many Americans are focused on what should be taught in the schools regarding our universe and the Earth – how life as we know it has come to be. This has become a hot-button issue, igniting controversy in Kansas over what should be taught in the public schools and in Pennsylvania, where a high profile trial is taking place over a local school board decision. NEWSWEEK featured Charles Darwin on its cover and the current SMITHSONIAN prints a story on Charles Darwin. The controversy is unlikely to fade soon, in large measure because a new school of thought is gaining increasing acceptance within scientific and academic circles.
Intelligent Design holds that nature shows more “design” than many academics in the sciences, education and philosophy are willing to acknowledge. Neo-Darwinists view changes in life forms as happenstance, dictated as much by changes in environment as serendipity. A PBS television series, Evolution, asserted that “all known scientific evidence supports [Darwinian] evolution” and that the scientific community was four-square in support of his theories. No doubt many scientists hold firm to their belief in Darwin but it cannot be asserted credibly that there is only one school of thought – evolution – accepted by the scientific profession.
Many scientists are breaking from Darwinian orthodoxy. The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, issued “A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism” several years ago featuring this statement: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” Four hundred scientists now have expressed support for this statement, including Dr. Stanley Salthe, Visiting Scientist in Biological Sciences at Binghamton University and Associate Researcher for the Center for the Philosophy of Nature and Science Studies of the University of Copenhagen. Dr. Salthe had specialized in Darwinian evolutionary theory and now criticizes its reductionism, which essentially claims that all changes derive from the effects of competition.
Salthe does not appear to be a conventional conservative thinker. He states: “My opposition to [Darwinian evolutionary theory] is fundamentally to its sole reliance on competition as an explanatory principle (in a background of chance). Aside from being a bit thin in the face of complex systems, it has the disadvantage, in the mythological context of explaining where we come from, of reducing all evolution to the effects of competition.” Salthe considers this to be a “myth” that is morally destructive but “congenial to capitalism.”
Salthe is not the only scientist who takes exception to the no-questions-asked treatment of Darwinism. So does quantum chemist Henry Schaefer at the University of Georgia, a Nobel Prize nominee and recipient of prestigious scientific awards. Dr. Schaefer is a fellow at the Discovery Institute. Biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University, microbiologist Scott Minnich of the University of Idaho and mathematician William Dembski of Baylor University are other prominent supporters of Intelligent Design theory.
Dr. John G. West, Associate Director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, commented this summer that “The fact is that a significant number of scientists are extremely skeptical that Darwinian evolution can explain the origins of life. We expect that as scientists engage in the wider debate over materialist evolutionary theories, this list will continue to grow, and grow at an even more rapid pace than we’ve seen this past year.”
The doubters of Darwinism are not confined to the scientific community.
Dr. Antony Flew, a famous philosopher who adhered to atheism, in his later years has come to accept the likelihood of Intelligent Design. He counts himself as a supporter of Darwinism in general but he sees something more compelling behind the creation of the universe. Flew, now more of a Deist, does not acknowledge God as having created the universe, but sees intelligence behind its formation. He is quoted in the Winter 2005 issue of Philosophia Christi (a publication of Biola University, in California): “It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.”
What is Intelligent Design?
Intelligent Design holds that the universe and its living things are not simply the product of random chance; an intelligent cause is behind their existence. Intelligent Design does not conflict with Darwinism’s belief in evolution – that living organisms will change over time. It does run counter to the new school of Darwinism that holds random selection drives evolution. Chance mutations occur without reason. Intelligent Design challenges this direction head-on based upon its belief that changes occur due to a reason.
One useful definition of Intelligent Design can be found in the book, Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, edited by Stephen C. Meyer and John Angus Campbell. The definition presented in this book holds that Intelligent Design is “the theory that certain features of the physical universe and/or biological systems can be best explained by reference to an intelligent cause (that is, the conscious action of an intelligent agent), rather than an undirected natural process or a material mechanism.”
It is too easy for undiscerning critics to lump Intelligent Design in with creationism. Analysts such as Charles Krauthammer, undoubtedly brilliant, have made that mistake. Krauthammer asserted that Intelligent Design is “today’s tarted up version of creationism.” There is a significant difference. Creationists view the Bible’s word to be the equivalent of scientific text. Believers in Intelligent Design come to their conclusion by the evidence they find in nature. They understand the complexity of the cell; they see the vastness of the universe. Belief in Intelligent Design stems from reason, not revelation. Christians can hold true to belief in God and Intelligent Design. The King James Bible in Romans 1:20 says: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” Intelligent Design can be accepted by an Antony Flew, who is not a believer in the Christian God.
Creationism has not been taught in most, possibly all, the public schools since the 1987 Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v Aguillard. The decision held that creationism was not science and therefore had no place in the curriculums of public schools. Intelligent Design is quite different in that it is gaining increasing acceptance by scientists who view Darwinism as an insufficient explanation for how our universe was created and how life on Earth started and has developed.
The Discovery Institute takes an interesting position on what should be taught in the public schools. It advised the Dover School Board, now the focus of the court case in Pennsylvania, not to push the teaching of Intelligent Design. Discovery Institute maintains that it is more important that Intelligent Design gain acceptance within the scientific community and academia first. The Institute argues that schools need to present a full picture of Darwinism, treating it as theory – one with noted flaws -- rather than established fact. That is starting to occur and if it continues Intelligent Design should earn respectful treatment in school curricula.
It is not mixing apples and oranges to note the vituperation of the Darwinists who cannot stand having a competing theory discussed. One professor at the University of Kansas called Intelligent Design “mythology.” The overheated reactions remind me of the slings and arrows faced by conservatives as we fought to have our ideas, the importance of traditional social values and a strong defense that included a space-based missile defense system, gain ascendancy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We prevailed in many cases based upon our persistence and the soundness of our ideas. Intelligent Design can stand on its merits despite the attempt by Darwin’s true believers to label it as sheer creationism. Many scientists who study the universe or cellular biology are increasingly intrigued by their complex processes. It takes more than chance to create such complex systems. Remember it was Einstein who said, “God does not play dice with the universe.”
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