Intelligent Design, and Other Dumb Ideas

A few short years ago, nobody had ever heard of “Intelligent Design” (ID).  Today it is alleged to be one of the hot button issues of our times, the latest front in the culture wars.  The sudden prominence of ID is traceable, in my opinion, to two factors. 

One is that, even ten years ago, ID had enough confidence and honesty to go by its birth name, “Creationism.”   Whereas today, it has been dressed up in a lab coat and a mail order Ph.D. and is trying to pass itself off as a scientific theory, thus the sudden re-branding as “Intelligent Design.”

The other reason is that the mainstream media (and other spokesmen for the liberal establishment) love the idea of associating the conservative movement with ID, so ID has gotten much more than its fair share of press time. 

The Left believes, correctly, that Intelligent Design is a political loser, and so they gleefully attempt to hang it around the neck of every right-of-center movement from libertarian neo-conservatism to isolationist populism — shouting all the while “See, the American Taliban has come for your children!  Elect a Democrat before it’s too late!”

In truth, the proponents of ID are only a small part of the Conservative movement in America, and include many who have only instinctively supported the cause because it so eagerly casts itself as yet another victim of the very real leftist repression of religion in our nation’s public space.

I, for one, have religiously ignored the topic before now.  I have done this partly out of a sort of professional courtesy to its supporters, with whom I share most other beliefs (and in many cases a personal affection), partly out of a belief that the idea was too obscure to argue over, and partly because the idea is so patently ridiculous to me that I felt that pointing this out would be somewhat akin to telling a friend that they have really, really bad breath.  I mean – it would be an uncomfortable moment for both of us.  But then how will they ever know, if I don’t tell them?

So in light of the issue’s new prominence and with a desire to improve the mental hygiene of others, I would just like to say that Intelligent Design is a really, really bad idea –scientifically, politically, and theologically.  I say this as a dedicated conservative, who has on many occasions defended and espoused religion and religious conservatism.  I also say it as a professional molecular biologist, who has worked daily (or at least week-daily) for years with biological problems to which the theory of evolution has contributed significant understanding — and to which Intelligent Design is incapable of contributing any understanding at all.

Scientifically, attributing every aspect of biology to the arbitrary design of a divine tinkerer explains as much about biology as attributing the eruption of volcanoes to the anger of the Lava God would explain geology.  A theory, by definition, makes predictions that can be tested.  Intelligent Design predicts nothing, since it essentially states that every thing is the way it is because God wanted it that way. 

According to the mindset of ID leaves could have been green or they could have been blue.  But God chose green because he was feeling a bit green that day.  Or maybe he thought green would really bring out the color of Adam’s eyes; it’s hard to say really.  But it definitely had nothing to with the unguided selection of the chlorophyll molecule to best utilize atmospherically filtered sunlight as an adenosine triphosphate producing energy source.

Biology (already burdened with the study of the most complex phenomenon known to man) is reduced by Intelligent Design to a meaningless cataloguing service for divine handicrafts.  It can no longer seek to understand so much as a sniffle or a dandelion seed without endlessly recycling the same useless answer: must be how God wanted it!

But up close and personal, biology is far from perfect.  Perhaps I am biased by the fact that I spend most of my time as a pharmaceutical researcher thinking about how to correct the commonly occurring mistakes of our allegedly intelligent body design.  But when I look at the molecular workings of yeast or man or mouse, I don’t see much reason.  I see the most incredible collection of biochemical happenstance and half measures imaginable -a cobbled together assortment of “good enoughs” and “why nots.” 

Can you explain why an intelligent designer would create a species of live-bearing bipedal primates so large-headed that normal childbirth would be a major cause of death and disfigurement?  From an evolutionary point of view it makes perfect sense: the biomechanics of efficient two-legged walking require a narrow pelvis, while delivery of a big-brained child requires a broad pelvis.  The two reproductively favorable attributes are at odds with one another, so a compromise is reached in a mildly deadly, moderately efficient human pelvis.  Hey, whatever gets you through the Pliocene. 

Evolution works by modifying an existing structure.  It cannot come up with a whole new design, as an architect with a blank sheet of paper can.  The birth canal is routed through the pelvis in four-legged animals, because this works very well indeed.  When one of these animals evolves a two-legged locomotion (which offers advantages in some circumstances of course), the birth canal and its exit point cannot simply jump to a new and improved design. 

So an acceptable compromise results, neither perfect nor evidence of intelligence, but merely good enough for now.  Darwinism is usually described as “survival of the fittest,” but “survival of the sufficiently fit” might be a better shorthand.  Any biologist could give many such examples of flawed “designs”.  Blood vessels running in front of your retina decrease visual acuity.  Wouldn’t a designer have run them behind the retina, as wires in a camera are run behind the film?  Malaria resistance causes sickle cell disease.  Wouldn’t an omniscient designer have come up with a countermeasure to malaria that, say, wouldn’t kill so many innocent children? 

And if I may make an entirely non-scientific criticism of ID, have you ever thought about what sort of God it implies we have?  Everyone loves the idea that God made flowers and puppies.  But do you like the idea that he made the AIDS virus, smallpox, and polio — and is busy at work on bird flu?  ID takes us back to an age when our best explanation for disease was divine will.  The middle ages were nice in their way, but surely we can now move on.

Viruses also provide an answer to one of the common ID-associated criticisms of Darwinian evolution — that it is an un-provable theory because it occurs over a time period that no human being can directly observe.  This may be true for the evolution of wildebeest and baobab trees, in which the changes of even a few hundred thousand generations (small potatoes, evolutionarily) would take many millennia.  But it is not true for viruses and bacteria, with generation times measured in hours.

AIDS was unknown just thirty years ago.  HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, did not exist fifty years ago.  It evolved from a relatively harmless virus of lower primates.  A new species evolved within our own lifetimes, before our own eyes.  We developed drugs to combat it.  It then went on to evolve drug resistance, again while we actually watched it happen and documented the timelines and intermediate forms. 

The same story has been played out with antibiotic-resistance in bacteria.  When we develop a drug that kills 99.99999999% of a particular species of bacterium, we simultaneously create a niche for the evolution of an antibiotic-resistant mutant strain of that bacterium — that one in a trillion shot that can defeat the drug. 

Believe, if you must, that God designed us to discover penicillin, and then designed a new bacterium to defeat penicillin.  But that seems a bit iffy to me, especially when we have a perfectly workable theory that explains things without resorting to an unknowable, unseen, all powerful deity designing every bout of dysentery and flour weevil on Earth.

Or consider yet another verifiable example of evolution that dogs every molecular biologist in the world.  We commonly engineer bacteria to express recombinant foreign proteins for various experiments.  We do this by inserting into the genome of the bacteria a gene of interest attached to one of the many antibiotic resistance genes that bacteria have evolved over the years (or that God designed, if you prefer).  By growing the bacteria in an antibiotic-spiked nutrient solution, we ensure that the only cells that grow are the ones that took up the antibiotic resistance gene — and thus also took up our gene of interest.

But as the bacteria are cultured over time, at a low frequency and in an entirely random fashion — ust as Darwinian theory predicts — one of the cells will inactivate our gene of interest, but keep the antibiotic resistance gene.  Having less work to do at each replication, it will then grow to take over the entire culture — again, just as Darwin’s theory predicts.  This ruins the experiment, of course.

The proponents of ID may claim that evolution is an un-provable abstraction that cannot be witnessed in real life, but for some of us, evolution is real enough to harass us at work on a fairly regular basis. 

And as a matter of religion, ID is offensive to me in the lack of faith it demonstrates on the part of its proponents.  I believe in God.  My belief in Him is not dependent upon his being the motive force in developing shorter dandelion varieties for lawns and longer varieties for roadsides.  I am not sure what God is.  I am not sure what His role in this world is.  But I am sure He is.  I don’t need to have that belief enshrined in “theory” and validated by the approval of a county school board. 

St. Thomas Aquinas said, “In the end, we know God as unknown.”  That is why religion really boils down to faith.  You believe or you don’t.  If you need me to find God for you in a layer of sediment or the curve of a bird’s beak, you have no faith.  Faith is a mystery.  That is why, during communion, the Priest sings, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.”  Note that he does not sing, “Let us proclaim the verifiable scientific certainty of faith.”

I don’t need God to make sense.  I just need God.  And besides, I have Darwin and Newton and their like when I need mundane things to make sense.

Finally, I do not understand why many ID proponents are so easily threatened by the idea that man evolved. Personally, I don’t see any reason not to believe that we are only slightly removed from animals (but then I watch a lot of Congress on C-span).  And I also don’t understand why that makes our having found God with our recently acquired humanity less remarkable than if God had just handed us our humanity.

In the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as having said, "If the flesh came into being because of the spirit, that is a marvel, but if the spirit came into being because of the body, that is a marvel of marvels.”  “Yet I marvel at how this great wealth has come to dwell in this poverty.”

To believe in both evolution and God is truly to believe in the marvel of marvels.

To believe in Intelligent Design is something less than the marvel of marvels –quite a bit less. 

Intelligent Design is The DaVinci Code of Biology — an emotionally attractive conspiracy theory that seems to explain the most amazing facts and coincidences.  But in the end, it’s just not true, and worse yet, it gets one no closer to God.  That’s all fine for an entertaining diversion, but it’s a poor base upon which to build either a factual or theological worldview.

Intelligent Design is a bad idea, and the otherwise intelligent men that are espousing it would do well to re-examine their beliefs, before they corrupt both science and faith –and the amazing progress that conservatism has made during the last forty years.