The Dover Intelligent Design Decision, Part II: Of Science and Religion

Albert Alschuler
Albert Alschuler
December 23, 2005


The court and both parties in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District battled about whether intelligent design was science or religion. None of them showed any interest in the right answer – a little (or a lot) of both.

The experts who testified in favor of ID insisted that, as far as their theory went, the intelligent designer might be someone other than God. But come on.
If you discovered the intelligent designer of every life form on the planet (including you), what would you call him? Probably not Uncle Zeke.

The Dover court is wrong, however, when it says that anything that “implicates” religion also “endorses” it. The Constitution does not forbid all discussion of religion in the schools, especially when the proponents of religious ideas do not rely on faith or revelation or claim to “believe it because it is absurd.” The proponents of ID look to the evidence of their senses and respond on empirical grounds to a view of the world sharply different from their own, one that the public schools are already teaching.

Opponents of ID might ask themselves whether, if they did not regard ID’s scientific claims as junk – if they concluded that ID posed a serious intellectual challenge to Darwinism – they would nevertheless forbid discussing it in the schools because it is religious. Would the establishment clause demand the presentation of only one side of a genuinely debatable issue and impose the resulting ignorance on students? Whether ID should be banished from the schools because it’s about God is a different issue from whether it should be banished because it’s nonsense.

The Dover court argues that ID is “a religious and not a scientific proposition” because it does not follow “the ground rules of science” or the “scientific method.” As Einstein observed, however, "The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking." Human knowledge – all of it except the intuitive – consists of perceived patterns in experience. Pattern seekers in science and every other field use all the mental techniques that God or natural selection gave them. The claim of a distinctive “scientific method” is as conceited as my own profession’s claim of a distinctive method of “legal” reasoning.

The court argues that ID does not follow the ground rules of science because it is not “testable” or “falsifiable.” Like most writers on the subject, the court invokes the image of science associated with Karl Popper – a view still endorsed by many scientists but rejected for good reason by most philosophers of science. W. V. Quine (and before him Pierre Duhem) showed that paradigm-preserving explanations are always available. New data never require the abandonment of a particular belief when we are willing to sacrifice other beliefs. In that sense, no scientific proposition is ever falsifiable.

To be sure, the preservation of a proposition in the face of new experimental or other data may require the revision of so many other beliefs (or of such core beliefs) that, in practical terms, the proposition is effectively falsified. More important than the ultimate analytic falsity of the Popperian picture is the inaccuracy of that picture as a description of everyday science. As the Dover court recognized, “[R]eal gaps in scientific knowledge . . . indisputably exist in all scientific theories.” In practice, scientists do not abandon a paradigm whenever any contradictory evidence appears. Nowhere is the weakness of the Popperian model more evident than in evolutionary biology, the land of the “just so” story.

If a peacock’s tail were brown and blended nicely into the background, the tail’s colors would illustrate how random mutation allows genetically fortunate birds to elude predators. The colors would show natural selection at work. And when the male peacock’s tail is iridescent and multi-colored and stands out against the background, the tail’s bright colors signal the hen that the cock is resistant to parasites and desirable as a mate. The bright colors thus show natural selection at work. In other words, heads I win, tails you lose. Show a Darwinist an anomaly, and he will devise a story that fits it to his theory. As long as he can do that, the theory of natural selection cannot be falsified. New bits of evidence can merely shift the plausibility of this theory in one direction or the other.

When commentators on my December 21 post challenged other commentators to specify what evidence they would accept as falsifying Darwinism, the responses cited J. B. S. Haldane’s remark that discovering a rabbit fossil in a pre-Cambrian rock would do it. But the order of life forms in the fossil record indicates only of the emergence of some forms before others, a fact that ID does not dispute. What is contested is whether this ordering was the product of random selection or intelligent design.

Again, some questions should be disaggregated. “Evolution” is not at issue.
None of the principal spokesmen for intelligent design dispute “microevolution.” Scientists can breed fruit flies so that they have great big heads or teeny tiny heads, and when birds eat all the black moths, only the white moths will have offspring.

“Macroevolution” or “speciation” is somewhat more problematic. Setting aside the strange world of microbes, the evolution of one species into another does not appear to have happened in the laboratory, and the Cambrian explosion brought the sudden appearance of life forms without obvious precursors in the fossil record.

Many proponents of intelligent design question macroevolution, but I don’t.
Even if no obvious precursors of the first rabbit appear in the fossil record, it seems more plausible that the first rabbit had a mommy and a daddy than that God put the creature on the earth fully formed. Evolution was a familiar theory before Charles Darwin, and the idea raised few religious hackles. As I see it, the most important issue posed by intelligent design is neither microevolution nor macroevolution but Darwin’s explanation of how it happened. Is a mindless process driven by random mutation adequate to explain all life forms, or might the process of creation have a purpose?

Popperian images of science to the contrary notwithstanding, paleontologists rarely perform experiments or make predictions. They can’t. The dinosaurs are all dead. These scientists simply examine the fossil record in an effort to infer how life forms developed. Inference to the best explanation is the name of the game, and the proponents of intelligent design want to play.

The champions of intelligent design start with ordinary inference on their side. No biologist denies that, on first inspection, complex life forms appear to be designed. But ordinary inference can be wrong. I cannot be confident that the sun goes around the earth just because it seems that way at first glance.

The Dover court declares that “arguments against evolution are not arguments for design” and that “irreducible complexity is a negative argument against evolution, not proof of design.” In determining whether natural selection offers a more convincing explanation of biological complexity than ordinary inference, however, anomalies and gaps in the theory of natural selection obviously matter. Astronomers made the case for Copernican astronomy by pointing to the epicycles Ptolemaic astronomy required. If a Ptolemaic astronomer had been able to show that Copernican astronomy required equally inelegant stretches, ordinary inference probably would have triumphed, and the earth would have remained at the center of the planetary system.

The Dover court responds to the argument that “we infer design when we see parts that appear to be arranged for a purpose” by saying, “Expert testimony revealed that this inductive argument is not scientific.” Induction (pattern recognition), however, is what science is about. It is always useful to see whether a perceived pattern can be shaken or reinforced by experimental or other previously unobserved data, but if either experimentation or prediction were an essential part of the scientific enterprise, many notable scientists would have been drummed from the profession.

The fact that ID has ordinary inference on its side may justify its focus on the anomalies of natural selection and may explain why ID scientists do less laboratory research and publish less in peer reviewed journals than some Darwinist biologists. The academic role of the ID biologist is essentially negative – to challenge Darwinist explanations and look for phenomena that the Darwinists cannot explain or, more realistically, can explain only by stretching. This critical role (“look at all those epicycles”) cannot fairly be excluded from science.

The court writes that “ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation,” that “since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes,” and that “rigorous attachment to ‘natural’ explanations is an essential attribute to science by definition and by convention.” If the court’s point were simply that science excludes faith, mysticism, revelation, and appeals to unchallengeable authority, the proponents of ID would agree. But nothing can be said for a convention that excludes intelligent design by fiat if that is where the evidence leads.

The exclusion of ID from science “by definition and by convention” becomes particularly unfair when ID and natural selection provide competing explanations of the same phenomena. The court, however, insists that the perception of a conflict between natural selection and intelligent design is a “contrived dualism.” My third and final post on the Dover case will consider this “compatibilist” claim

Albert Alschuler is the Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and Criminology at University of Chicago Law School.