The Scientific Vacuity of Intelligent Design Creationism

The most potent technique ever invented for discovering the nature of the natural world has been the scientific method. It consist of (1) making observations; (2) proposing a theory to account for the observations; (3) making a testable prediction based on that theory; and (4) testing the prediction. The process can be repeated without end and we eventually get a better and better idea of what the universe is like. I would suggest that our scientific understanding of the universe is the greatest accomplishment mankind has made.

One integral part of science is modern evolutionary theory. However, there is a group of people primarily motivated by religious beliefs who find the conclusions of modern evolutionary theory so disconcerting that they would rather we go back to pre-enlightenment times in favor of some form of creationism. I include in this group the most recent form of creationism, intelligent design creationism (IDC).

Of course, IDC proponents would take issue with my categorization of them. They would say that they do not necessarily believe in the literal 6-day Genesis creation event. They would point out that IDC is not necessarily incompatible with a 4.5 billion year old earth, a 13.7 billion year old universe, or even with common descent (the idea that all life shares common ancestry). They would claim that they just follow the evidence and the evidence suggests that some aspects of the natural world are best explained as being the product of an intelligent designer.

However, there have always been young-earth creationists (YEC) and old-earth creationists (OEC). IDC takes no official position on the age of the earth. Why not? It is so they can fit both YEC and OEC within their “Big Tent” (their term). The Discovery Institute certainly has both YEC and OEC on their payroll. Furthermore, as best as I can tell of the IDC proponents only Michael Behe has publically accepted common descent. I don’t think that you can list that as one of the tenets of your theory if only one person believes it. But IDC is notorious for not taking any official positions other than some aspects of the natural world are best explained as being the product of an intelligent designer.

I think that IDC’s claims that is distinct from creationism is somewhat less than genuine. One of its leading lights, William Dembski, showed its biblical roots when he was quoted in an article directed at a religious audience as saying, “Intelligent Design is just the Logos theory of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory”. And rough drafts of their own “textbook” Of Pandas and People show the creationist roots of these cdesign proponentsists. Therefore, I will continue to refer to it as intelligent design creationism

One of the knocks that real scientists have on IDC is that its proponents publish nothing in the scientific journals in support of their “theory” nor is their “theory” of any use. By that they mean that it makes no useful predictions. IDC proponents fend off the first criticism by claiming that there is a conspiracy to keep these poor mistreated heros of pure uncontaminated science out of the journals. They say that if anyone tries to publish something favorable to IDC then their papers are rejected and their careers in science are ruined. And in our conspiracy-theory happy world, I think this excuse plays well with the public. The facts are that almost no papers supportive of IDC are ever submitted to the scientific journals. The ones that are, are usually rejected because they ignore 150 years of research and therefore bad. Bad papers are rejected without there being a conspiracy.

IDC proponents generally bring up two people as examples who have had their scientific careers ruined for advocating IDC. Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at Iowa State University, was refused tenure. However, many scientists are refused tenure. It is not that uncommon. The fact of the matter is that Gonzalez’s publication record, his inability to attract grant support, and his poor record of supervising students are what led his denial of tenure.

The second person is Richard von Sternberg, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Health (NIH) who had an office at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. As part of his fellowship he served a term as editor of a small journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. At the end of his term he published a paper from Discovery Institute member Stephen Meyer questioning whether or not modern evolutionary theory could explain the Cambrian explosion. Subsequently, Sternberg complained that the NIH was pressured to fire him and he was harrassed and driven out of his position at the Smithsonian. This is rather disingenuous.

The role of an editor at a journal like Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington once a paper is received is to determine if the paper covers an area that is of interest to the journal. If it is, he then determines the appropriate section chief to send it to. The section chief then decides who would be the best people to peer-review the article. Sternberg shorted the process. Instead of sending the paper to a section chief Sternberg, an IDC proponent, picked people to peer-review the article and accepted the paper without revisions. He had it published without any input from the rest of the staff. Furthermore, he did this as the last act of his term as editor.

This getting a paper in by the back door method DID create hard feelings. Even more so since Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington is normally a taxonomic journal that publishes descriptions of new species and Meyer’s paper was wholly inappropriate for that journal. But Sternberg was not removed as editor as some IDC proponents have claimed since his term was over anyway. The only thing that happened to Sternberg was that people at the Smithsonian turned a cold shoulder to him, as well they should. His actions were underhanded. If that made things tough for him, well it was his own doing. He was never fired from his position at the Smithsonian, for the simple reason that he never held a position there. He had an office there, but his position was with the NIH. He was never fired from that position either. Neither of these cases demonstrates any conspiracy to ruin IDC proponents. But regardless, judging from the responses on the internet I think the public is favorably disposed to believe there is.

But that second criticism … IDC makes no useful predictions … is hard to dismiss as being a part of the evil evilutionist conspiracy in science against IDC. It obviously isn’t the responsibility of the evolutionary theorist to come up with useful predictions concerning IDC. It is the responsibility of the IDC proponent to do so, and either he can or he can’t. If he can’t then IDC is a science stopper. If you can’t make a testable prediction then you can’t use the scientific method, and if you can’t do that then you can’t do science.

I have just come across an IDC proponent’s attempt to remedy the problem. Denyse O’Leary has come up with nine predictions that she claims that IDC makes. Here is her list:

1. No good theory will be found for a random origin of the universe, either by the Large Hadron Collider or anything else. The universe will consistently behave more like a great idea than a great machine.

Positive prediction: An end to unfalsifiable ideas about zillions of flopped universes and a focus on how we can best explore our own universe, as per The Privileged Planet .

2. No good theory will be found for a random origin of life, though there will be plenty of huffing and puffing in favour of bad ideas. All theories that exclude purpose and design fail because they leave out the key driver – the purpose that life should come into existence.

Positive prediction: We will learn more about the real nature of our universe and our place in it, and how best we can explore it when we accept the fact that it didn’t “just happen.”

3. Complete series of transitional fossils will not usually be found because most proposed series have never existed. Eventually, researchers will give up on ideologically driven nonsense and address the history that IS there. They will focus on discovering the mechanisms that drive sudden bursts of creativity.

Positive prediction: Discovering the true mechanisms of bursts of natural creativity may be of immense value to us, especially if we need to undo some significant harm to our environment.

4. The environment will prove far more resilient than eco-doomsayers believe. People forget that the Permian extinction wiped out 90% of the marine life forms on this planet. Life seems to want to exist on this planet, even at the South Pole (cf March of the Penguins). Note: I have no time for environment destruction, and personally gave up keeping a car, as the simplest and most economical way to reduce my environment footprint. But I am NOT waiting for enviro-apocalypse!! – I don’t believe it will happen. There will be changes. That’s all. Not the end of the world or anything like it.

5. No account of human evolution will show a long slow emergence from unconsciousness to semi-consciousness to consciousness, let alone that consciousness is merely the random firing of neurons in the brain. However consciousness got started, it appeared rather suddenly and it permanently separates humans from our genetic kin, however you want to do the gene numbers and however much time researchers spend coaxing monkeys to stop relieving themselves on the keyboard and type something meaningful.

Positive prediction: We will focus on what consciousness can do, especially in treatment of mental disorders. Yes, a drugged up zombie is better than a suicide, but only because the zombie isn’t technically dead. Why stop there?

6. Claims that the human brain is full of “anachronistic junk” will be falsified, just as century old claims that there are hundreds of vestigial organs in the human body were falsified. The human body will be recognized as suitable for the purposes for which we exist. (Not in all cases perfect, to be sure, but in general suitable.)

Positive prediction: We will discover the functions of many brain areas whose functions we did not know before.

7. No useful theory of consciousness will demonstrate that consciousness is merely the outcome of the random firing of neurons in the brain. All useful theories will accept that the mind and the brain exist in a relationship. Research will focus on delineating the relationship more clearly. That will greatly benefit medical research, especially research on difficult mental disorders such as phobias, depression, etc.

Positive prediction: We can have a better grasp of what consciousness does and how it relates us to our environment.

8. No useful theory of free will (human volition) will demonstrate that it does not really exist. Free will (which includes using the mind to help heal bodily injuries) will become an important tool of medicine, especially for helping aging people toward a better quality of life. For example, the fact that a drug only need perform 5% better than a placebo to be licensed for use will encourage the development of mind-based treatments for people who would otherwise be forced to take antagonistic drugs.

Positive prediction: Better health care for people with complex illnesses

9. No useful theory of human psychology will be founded on claims about what happened in the caves of our ancestors (= evolutionary psychology). That is because there are no genes that simply “cause” behaviour in a clinically normal human being. The mind is real and humans create their social environment by mental effort. Information is passed on from mind to mind, not through genes or physiology.

Positive prediction: For example, if one culture decrees that “God says you SHOULD beat your wife” and another culture says that “God says you SHOULDN’T beat your wife”, the observed instance of wife-beating will be lower in the second culture than in the first. Human nature may be the same everywhere, but human behaviour is predicted by culture. So culture matters.

Let me number the problems with this list of “predictions”:

(1) The terms are not defined sufficiently well to be useful.

What does a “good theory for a … random origin of the universe” entail? What is even meant by “random” here? If the universe came about by laws of nature then is that random? Ms. O’Leary needs to be more specific. “A theory concerning a naturalistic origin of the universe will never be found to be consistent with the facts”, would be a specific “prediction”. Except the problem is that one is already refuted. There are many naturalistic theories of the origin of the universe that are consistent with known facts, and do so better than any IDC hypothesis.

The exact same problem goes for “good theor[ies]” concerning “the random origin of life” and “useful theor[ies]” concerning consciousness and free will. Nor does Ms. O’Leary tell us what she means by a “COMPLETE series of transitional fossils [emphasis mine]”. What is so incomplete about the numerous ones we already have?

(2) The “predictions” do not come from IDC.

Ms. O’Leary says, “The environment will prove far more resilient than eco-doomsayers believe”. For the sake of argument, let’s assume it is. Suppose we find in the future that anthropogenic global warming has little effect. How does that in any way come from IDC? If Ms. O’Leary wanted to make an IDC specific prediction, then she say, “Once conditions get to a certain point (and yes, she should specify what that point is) then the intelligent designer will personally intervene to prevent a catastrophe”. That is a prediction that could only be made from an IDC paradigm.

(3) The “predictions” are unfalsifiable.

With terms like “good theory”, “useful theory”, “not the end of the world or anything like it” having no specified criteria at what point can one claim that the prediction has been falsified?

(4) The “predictions” are non-sequiturs.

They contain material that are irrelevant or wrong. It is not true that vestigial organs in humans has been falsified. They have been confirmed.

The fact that the Permian extinction caused the death of 90% of the marine organisms is irrelevant to global warming. No serious climatologist has ever claimed that anthropogenic global warming will lead to the death of every species on earth. They claim that it will have a severe effect. Human activity has already led to an extinction rate that approaches the extinction rate of the earth’s major extinction events. If global warming accellorates it then it will have a monumental effect over the long term. But life will come back … over millions of years EVOLUTIONARY THEORY predicts that naturalistic evolution will lead to diversification that will fill the niches left empty by the extinction event.

(5) The “predictions” ignore historical reality.

Ms. O’Leary says that IDC will lead to a better understanding of “our universe and our place in it”; better “treatment of mental disorders” and; “better health care for people with complex illnesses”.

But IDC is not a new theory. The idea of an intelligent designer has been around since the beginning of civilization. The insights we got from that paradigm were that the earth was young (6,000 years old), flat and at the center of the universe. If that paradigm is so useful, then why did we not get a better picture earlier?

Our insights into mental disorders under an IDC paradigm was that they were caused by demons. It was not until post-enlightenment and we had discarded the IDC paradigm that we actually got better health care. If we go back to IDC what will change?

(6) None of these “predictions” are useful; and they are all science-stoppers.

I think this is by far the most crushing problem. None of the nine predictions give us anything that can be used in science. They do not suggest any fruitful lines of research to follow. What they all suggest is that what we are doing now will be useless. We wont find anything. If that is so, then why try? … That is a science stopper.

I want to finish this blog by looking at a couple of useful predictions, and predictions that were made under the paradigm of modern evolutionary theory. I want to use these examples to show the difference between a scientifically testable prediction and the “predictions” made by Ms. O’Leary.

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Chimps, gorillas, and orangutans have 24 pairs. If modern evolutionary theory is true in that we share a geologically recent common ancestor with these apes then something must have happened since our branch split off that reduced our chromosome count by a pair. Since we know that loss of a chromosome is almost always fatal, by far the most likely explanation is that two chromosomes fused together to form a single chromosome. That is the prediction that modern evolutionary science makes.

Since we discovered the difference in chromosome number between humans and chimps we have discovered that Robertsonian translocations do lead to chromosomal fusions. They are relatively common. And in some cases the offspring are phenotypically normal. Furthermore, a technique using Giemsa dye was developed that showed a banding pattern on chromosomes that allow us to uniquely identify specific chromosomes. All human chromosomes have unique homologues with the chromosomes of chimps, gorillas and oranguatans, except human chromosome 2. It appears to be a combination of two of the ape chromosomes. And finally DNA sequencing has shown that chromosome 2 has two centromeric sequences and an interior telomeric sequence (normally found only at the ends of chromosomes). This is exactly what we should see if chromosome 2 was made by the fusion of two chromosomes by a Robertsonian translocation.

Note how the prediction, humans must have undergone a chromosomal fusion event, could only have been made from evolutionary paradigm. If we do not share common ancestors with chimps, then there is no reason to suspect we should have similar chromosomal structures. Note also how that prediction led to a very productive line of experimental evidence.

Finally, if modern evolutionary theory is correct then amphibians evolved from lobe-finned fish. We had a lot of paleontological evidence indicating that was so. We had fossils of a lobe-finned fish whose fins seemed to be preadapted to forming forelegs, Panderichthys, dated back 385 million years ago. We also had bonified tetrapods with fish-like structures, Acanthostega and Ichthyostega dated back to 365 million years ago. But the gap between Panderichthys and Acanthostega/Ichthyostega suggested there was more than likely other transitional forms between them. Acanthostega and Ichthyostega were found in Greenland in strata suggesting that they were formed on river bottoms. Neil Shubin knew of strata in Greenland that dated back to 375 million years ago. He went there specifically looking for river bottom formations in that strata. The result was Tiktaalik, a nearly perfect intermediate between the two. Again the prediction was that an intermediate fossil should be found in strata of a specific age from a specific environment. That was a prediction that could ONLY have been made from an evolutionary paradigm. It led to a fruitful line of research.

What makes a theory a good scientific theory is that it leads to fruitful lines of research. Modern evolutionary theory has been more successful in that than any other theory in the history of mankind. The reason I can make that statement is that more papers are published on evolutionary theory each year than on any other scientific theory. The implications that one can derive from modern evolutionary theory is absolutely astounding. As technology develops for molecular studies, and our knowledge of the geology in different parts of the world improves, more and more of these implications can be put to the test. This is why evolutionary studies produce as much science as they do. The reason IDC produces none is not because of some scientific conspiracy against it. It is because the theory is useless. It says that some unnamed and undescribed intelligent designer created something. It doesn’t ask how, it doesn’t ask why then … there is no place to go. It even says that the mechanism behind it is probably one that requires suspension of natural law in order for it to be achieved. If that is true, then we have no hope of ever finding it out. Ouila … science stopper.

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8 responses to “The Scientific Vacuity of Intelligent Design Creationism

  1. Excellent, in-depth response! Thanks.

  2. Yep. Creationism by any other name is still NOT science. Evolution does not rule out God, and the Bible doesn’t rule out evolution unless YOU say it does based on YOUR limited understanding. Check out the song on my web site I wrote some years ago. “You’re related to a monkey!”

  3. I need to add this to my bookmark and show it to whichever creationist gets in my way 🙂
    Thanks for spending the time and effort!

  4. First of all, very interesting blog.
    Secondly, I think that a comparison of science and religion always has to fail. Science tries to make predictions on daily life processes and our future, like you said. Whereas, religion tries to give us a reason for our life and furthermore.

    Both is important, but for everyone individually. If anyone says science good – religion bad (or the other way around), it’s just plain ignorance!

    I for myself don’t need a god or afterlife to ‘work’. Nevertheless, I would never say these things are ridiculous (well, I do sometimes, but only to defend myself against no-sense-making extremist-views). It is interesting to study what things push individuals to what efforts.

    ..all I wanted to say is: don’t ever get blinkers.

    Kind regards,

  5. Science may have to address the purpose of life question in order to put creationism theories to rest.

  6. OK, it took me a while to read through, but well written and thought out.

    Thanks for stopping by my place. I’ve responded to you on my post to a question that came up for me while reading this.

  7. I just realized that someone else may have linked to this post on my blog. I apologize if I have messed up on who’s who.

    You are welcome to come by if you’d like.

  8. I think the problem arises when the religious folks try to mask their religious believes with a “science” coat and try to sell “creationism” as a scientific theory. This attempt is non-sense, as this blog entry painstakingly shows.

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