Some issues seem so contemporary, but turn out to have a pedigree dating centuries. The “evolution or intelligent design” argument is one such topic. Close to half of American adults reject evolution in any form. This summer, President Bush weighed in on the matter as well, advocating that a theory of intelligent design (ID) should be included in public school science curricula. It is worth considering a bit of history in this matter.
ID theory proposes that if a phenomenon cannot be explained by chance or by natural laws, then it should be attributed to intelligent action. For example, astronomers monitor radio waves emanating from space. Random emissions need no explanation and regular patterns have a variety of known causes. However, if a series of prime numbers were detected, one could conclude this was a signal from an intelligent extra-terrestrial source. Relating ID to biology, if a structure is too complex to occur by chance, lacking a natural explanation, its existence should be considered evidence of intelligent design.
This argument is not new; it was once the dominant view of biologists. This previous incarnation of ID was known as Natural Theology, and it was the major scientific argument for the belief in God in the early 19 th century. Other fields of science had previously emphasized Natural Theology, but astronomy and geology discarded it when theories for the origin of the solar system and earth’s geological features were developed. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection simply extended the reach of scientific explanation to include complex biological structures. It also provided scientists with a powerful reason to suspect arguments for intelligent design.
Darwin’s writings gave careful attention to both the content of his theory and its gaps in understanding. One and a half centuries of subsequent investigation have fleshed out many details of a comprehensive theory of biological evolution. Research in paleontology, genetics, cell biology and ecology has answered many of the questions that puzzled Darwin and his contemporaries, but at the same time it raises a host of new questions. For example, even the simplest forms of life are immensely more complex than any 19 th century biologist could have imagined. This poses a great challenge to any natural theory for the origin of life.
The divide between adherents of ID and mainstream science is a replay of that perennial optimist/pessimist conundrum: is the glass half full or half empty? ID advocates focus on the empty space of unexplained phenomena. The great majority of scientists focus on what has been explained by evolutionary biology. To make this analogy workable, it is necessary to view the glass as continuously expanding in size to accommodate the growth of scientific understanding. Darwin’s original 19 th century theory — the partially-filled glass — has become a major reservoir holding thousands of acre-feet of water deposited by myriads of scientists investigating in their respective fields. The new questions raised by these investigations become the empty space behind the dam, which is much larger than the empty space in the original glass.
The field of evolutionary biology is not “a theory in crisis,” as it is often portrayed by its critics. Unanswered questions are a significant aspect of any dynamic research program. In fact, the easy acceptance of ID explanations actually discourages scientific investigation because it implies the search for natural explanations is hopeless. The history of science gives ample reason to be cautious about this approach.
For people of faith, there is an additional reason to regard an “evolution or intelligent design” approach with caution. The unspoken assumption is that natural explanations eliminate the presence of God from their workings. When the interaction between science and religion is arranged in this fashion, conflict is inevitable. Every new explanation that fills a gap in natural history becomes an excuse for atheism.
Science education should help students understand the history and process of science. It should clarify what is known with confidence from what is poorly understood. But it should not suggest to students that they must choose between natural scientific explanations and a belief in God.
Michael Kunz is a biology professor at Fresno Pacific University. He has given presentations on the subject of intelligent design and evolution.