The Man Behind the Curtain

What do people generally mean when they use the word evolution? Today that debate rages with heated intensity among academics, especially since the advent of a modified theory of evolution in the natural world called Intelligent Design, or simply ID. On the face of it ID seems to be a rather innocuous, common sense sort of approach to physical science, the development of life, and even the cosmos. After all, everything around us seems to exhibit certain intelligent patterns that are difficult to explain by theories of randomness, just as a visitor from outer space to our planet might observe automobiles, computers, and skyscrapers and realize that they are very different in structure and form from ordinary rocks, hills, and trees. Even assuming that humanity had gone extinct, our interplanetary alien would rightly assume that some intelligent agent played a part in developing these artifacts just as anthropologists infer that the presence of cave paintings and sharpened tools are sure indicators of ancient cultures. And our alien would be correct in his assumptions because we already know that intelligent human life is the only reason that cars, computers, and skyscrapers happened to come into existence.

Does Intelligent Design then attempt to prove the existence of God? Not really, it merely posits the possibility of a much higher intelligence somewhere in the universe capable of working out all the mathematics and engineering required to create something as astonishingly complex and beautiful as a living cell. Such a hypothesis stands in direct competition with the neo-Darwinian hypothesis that all life forms are the result of fortuitous, but otherwise undirected, accidents occurring in nature over a period of a billion years or so. Nor does ID deny some evolutionary process at work. Rather it candidly posits that cells and organic structures can change and undergo modifications over time. In fact that is exactly what plant and animal breeders do. They create new strains and hybrids. But here’s the real rub with the Darwinists. Breeders are themselves intelligent agents of change because they artificially select which traits they wish to emphasize. Breeders are intelligent designers! Darwin even used examples of artificial breeding in his book On the Origin of Species to buttress his case for Natural Selection (NS).

But while Darwin was willing to admit the possibility of human beings acting as intelligent designers he was not so willing to extend the concept further up the chain of command. For him material nature alone was sufficient to produce and evolve life into its myriad forms. But the natural world is hardly an intelligent entity, therefore he had to discover a way for blind, indiscriminate forces to design such a complex array of living things. That is where he hit upon Natural Selection. NS supposedly works in tandem with the purely random process of rare genetic mutations which occasionally produce some improved trait. Over time life forms gradually become improved and more complex because NS weeds out the deleterious mutations and preserves only the beneficial ones. No transcendent intelligence is required if enough time is allowed and Darwin believed that the recesses of geologic time were sufficient to account for all the composite mutations necessary to evolve basic living cells into complex animals.

A century and a half after Darwin postulated his theories, we have learned a great deal more about the actual mechanisms of evolution, about the workings of genes which Darwin had no idea even existed, and about the geologic fossil record which so perplexed him. His assumption that new fossil discoveries would eventually vindicate his view of gradually developing life forms, the so-called “missing links,” has proved to be overly optimistic, to say the least. In fact the fossil record has increasingly contradicted his gradualism mechanism by indicating a past filled with sudden appearances of new species and equally sudden extinctions on a devastating scale. We have discovered astonishing homologous patterns (things exhibiting the same relative forms or structures) in nature that go far beyond the biological. For instance the Fibonacci spiral, a geometrical pattern based upon the mathematical Fibonacci series, is exhibited in things as disparate as sunflower pods and spiral galaxies; the chambered nautilus and magnetized droplets in a viscous fluid. Mere coincidence, or evidence of some kind of intelligent design?

A brilliant scientist/philosopher named Stephen Meyer recently laid out the most compelling arguments for Intelligent Design in a book called Darwin’s Doubt. His spellbinding narrative methodically presents tested scientific reasons why neo-Darwinism continues to win new skeptics in the science community. And what has been the response of his critics? Rather than responding intelligently to his extensive critique of the Darwinian system many have engaged in ad hominem attacks. To me that says a lot about the shaky ground upon which neo-Darwinism rests today.

The “If you can’t refute the facts, shoot the messenger” crowd resorted to launching rhetorical darts and nasty name calling. Consider this gem of objectivity posted by blogger Nick Matzke: “Creationists/IDists are arrogant enough to call God down from heaven to cover for their ignorance.” Gareth Cook of The New Yorker sneers, “Here, at last, Meyer is not pretending to be a scientist,” (italics mine). Worse, such critics deliberately obfuscate the issue by repeatedly identifying Intelligent Design with Biblical Creationism which it decidedly is not. One critic hybridized the terms, calling it Intelligent Design Creationism, presumably to peg ID with “Young-Earth Creationism” which absurdly limits the age of the earth to about 7,000 years. Matzke even goes so far as to attribute absurd quotes to Meyer such as, “poof, God did it,” which, in fact, appear nowhere in the book. Such tactics belie a malicious propaganda campaign intended to ridicule Mr. Meyer and tar the whole ID theory to discredit it in the public mind, without ever engaging in rigorous scientific debate.

Intelligent Design resembles Biblical Creationism about as closely as a modern Boeing 777 imitates a boomerang flying through the air. The only thing the two concepts really share in common is that of the Intelligent Designer, which the Creationist would readily identify as God. By contrast, Intelligent Design carefully refrains from speculating on the identity of any purported designer. This cautious approach admittedly illustrates the chief gap in Intelligent Design theory, namely that it lacks a mechanism linking any such intelligent cause directly to its material effects, in this case a world filled with living things. ID readily admits that it has no way of determining how something purely mental, a so-called formal cause, can interact with physical matter to produce an efficient cause capable of generating life. This unknown mechanism poses one of the great mysteries in our universe. Neither science nor religion has been able to explain it satisfactorily. Nor does ID speculate on what such a mechanism may be.

But neo-Darwinism exhibits a far more serious, and potentially fatal, flaw in its failure to distinguish between the process (random mutations filtered by Natural Selection) and any real cause. It basically treats the process as if it were a sufficient cause. Neo-Darwinism therefore postulates a “god of the rolling dice,” called Blind Random Chance. Creationism, likewise wraps up its formal cause (God) and the subsequent process into one tidy bundle, resorting to a deus ex machina solution derived literally from the Biblical account of the creation, including every form of life proceeding thereby. So ironically, in one sense, neo-Darwinism and Biblical Creationism share more in common with one another than either does with Intelligent Design.

Young-Earth Creationists assume that when God said, “Let it be,” countless life forms suddenly sprang into existence on those eventful fifth and sixth days of creation. These included dinosaurs and yes, even man, who apparently shared the earth for a time with those towering fleshly behemoths. For the Creationists, God simply provided both causation and a quick, direct manipulation of the process to instantaneously introduce every life form ever known to man. Voila! Intelligent Design does not confuse those decidedly different functions, causation and process, with one another. In ID theory a cause is recognized as being necessary (even if unidentifiable) and yet distinct from the process which it nonetheless oversees. ID theorists acknowledge, for instance, that dinosaurs may well have evolved (but from what remains a mystery) and existed 65 million or more years before we showed up at the party. Dinosaurs were somehow a part of a long evolutionary process, but they didn’t just happen to show up because one group of genes got lucky at roulette. ID theory has no quarrel with a long established fossil record, nor does it feel any need to interpret things through some Biblical lens which might entail calling into question the many various scientific dating mechanisms available to science today.

Again, Creationists frequently resort to the Biblical account of Noah’s flood to explain away those inconsistencies in the empirical record that can not be accounted for by other means. For them, that great flood presumably reshuffled the world’s geology around willy nilly, allowing everything from fossils to geologic strata and hydrocarbon deposits appear to be turned upside down. ID makes no such ridiculous assertions. It candidly acknowledges that mankind has been on the scene long enough to have experienced the more recent Pleistocene ice ages when enormous glacial lakes such as Lakes Agassiz and Missoula would have released epic torrential flooding, with similar occurrences in many other parts of the world, as the last ice age waned. Many cultures have orally passed down such stories relating catastrophic flooding we now know to have occurred 11,000 or more years ago (practically before the earth even existed for most Creationists). That is not to imply that the Biblical account of a great flood is flawed or lacking veracity. In fact, in this case, the geologic record actually lends credence to the story. The facts do suggest however that the Bible is a rather sketchy source for explaining earth’s entire geologic record, which is to be expected considering that the Bible was not written as a geology textbook. It has a more noble purpose, but that purpose is not related to the physical sciences.

Deliberate attempts by critics to tar ID with the same brush as Young-Earth Creationism are both dishonest and underhanded. By painting ID as a religious teaching they conveniently eliminate any need to debate it scientifically. That way they can get courts to throw any mention of ID out of the classroom in favor of the neo-Darwinian spin, which then is awarded a monopoly in the textbooks as “fact.” It feels like we are currently reliving the Scopes Monkey Trial all over again but this time in reverse. But when did censorship and stifling debate become a part of academic freedom or civilized scientific inquiry? Isn’t that the very same criticism that the secularists and neo-Darwinists love to level against the Catholic Church for silencing Galileo 400 years ago? Yet those same critics now readily impugn and rebuke credible scientists like Stephen Meyer and Richard Sternberg who dare to use two words like Intelligent and Design in the same sentence. Shouldn’t we be teaching young minds to think critically instead of thinking “by the textbook?”

A famous movie line goes, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” aptly describing the attitude of too many contemporary chemists, physicists, biologists, neuroscientists, judges, and teachers who will not open their minds to even considering the possibility that perhaps there is real purpose and a plan in the natural world. Intelligent Design simply posits that the incredible order, economies, diversity, and beneficial inter-dependencies manifested in the physical universe may in fact be the consequence, not of random chaos, but of intelligent agency. Is such a hypothesis too unreasonable to be considered relevant to scientific minds? If so then St. Paul was speaking directly to our age when he wrote, “For a time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers, and will stop listening to the truth and be diverted by fables.” (2Tim. 4:4)

Francis J. Pierson


1 thought on “The Man Behind the Curtain

  1. Fran, Again an excellent post. I’m glad I went to school when I did. ‘Learning’ the basics of science now seems to include adding the student’s and teacher’s political views (biases, opinions and so on) to all information provided. It should neither be encouraged or required. Science is what it is. It’s man trying to understand the world we have.
    Once the information is presented then discussion is encouraged. The history of science includes many examples where the introduction of emotion muddies the waters quickly which obscures the value of the work. Let’s ‘shout ’em down’ and hopefully the ideas (and they) will go away. We all lose as a result. We just get dumber as a whole which seems to be the intent of many. They think it makes them look brighter when everything around them becomes duller.
    We become a society of midgets. Midgets of mind. The great race to the bottom.
    You don’t hear the word ‘scientist’ much any more. A new label has cropped up – science activist. Credentials and background become meaningless. Science becomes meaningless. If you can run a computer or talk then you’re in the game.
    There are rules that have been created over time on how to do research, how to present it and how it is to be received and acted upon by others. If you don’t follow the rules then you expose yourself as a charlatan. That mattered once. Now it is being applauded.
    A few words typically says a lot and a lot of words typically says little. I’ll quit.
    Keep ’em comin’ cowboy.


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