Unamerican Activities

Adam or Steve

“Intelligent Design” didn’t emerge through a scientific process of natural selection. It was invented; as a stalking horse to infiltrate religious teaching into American public schools. The overall plan, known as the Wedge Strategy, became public when a document from the Discovery Institute was leaked onto the Internet.

The objective of the plan was described as achieving acceptance of a “broadly theistic understanding of nature” in American education and life. That is, God did it.

One of the more amusing aspects of the story happened when the Discovery Institute’s forthcoming anti-evolution book “Of Pandas and People” was hastily edited to remove overt religious references. With the power of the word processor, all occurrences of “creationism” were replaced by “intelligent design”, “Creator” became “intelligent agency”, and “creationist” changed to “design proponents”. But the change to one appearance of “creationist” was bodged, with only the central part of the word substituted, so that the result read “cdesign proponentsists”, and the book went to press that way.

The basic concept of Intelligent Design is “irreducible complexity”, the idea that some biological systems could not have evolved because no simpler or more primitive versions can be conceived of, and therefore must have been “created” all at once. In formal rhetoric, this is known as argumentum ad ignorantiam (“appeal to ignorance”), argument by lack of imagination, or argument from personal incredulity. It’s a logical fallacy, in other words.

In fact, Intelligent Design could turn out to be a big mistake for the creationists. The wedgie might work in reverse. For one thing, in order to pretend to be scientific, Intelligent Design has to admit that evolution occurs. It is only in cases of claimed “irreducible complexity” that The Creator is invoked. While straight creationism simply denies evolution, Intelligent Design actually teaches it.

But the big weakness of Intelligent Design is theological. It is a version of the “God of the gaps” argument, which has been discredited in Christian theology for over a hundred years. As religious writers of the nineteenth century observed, if you took the unexplained as evidence for God, you could be sure that this “evidence” would be eroded as human knowledge grew.

bacterial flagellumFor example, one of the prime “gaps” that Intelligent Design latched on to was the biological mechanism of the bacterial flagellum. This is a beautiful little nanomachine that turns chemical energy into rotation: it’s a motor or engine, in other words. “Too complex and perfect to have emerged through evolution”, the cdesign proponentsists said. But the probable evolutionary path of the structure has now been worked out in detail. It’s amazing, but not miraculous; or at least no more miraculous than the dragonfly’s wing or the giraffe’s neck.

Taking logic to its extreme then, as all gaps become closed, Intelligent Design would have to become simply the theory of evolution. In reality, that isn’t going to happen, of course. In religion, belief trumps logic. My own guess is that Intelligent Design will fade away, and creationists will become creationists once again, because when the argument is lost, you can only take refuge in denial.

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