Logo IMG


Design Flaw

Norman Johnson

Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology. William A. Dembski. 304 pp. InterVarsity Press, 1999. $19.99.

Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. Kenneth R. Miller. 338 pp. HarperCollins, 1999. $25.

After the Kansas school board's vote to delete evolution from its curriculum, Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe wrote in The New York Times that schools should teach Darwinian evolution not because it is correct scientific theory but instead to expose its weaknesses. Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, does not doubt the vast antiquity of life or that mutation and selection can yield some changes with time. According to Behe, however, the intricate biochemical systems of organisms cannot be explained by evolution because they are "irreducibly complex," wherein all of the individual components of a system are required for it to work. Thus, Behe contends, these systems could not evolve by stepwise progressions and instead were created by an "intelligent designer."

William Dembski, who holds doctorates in mathematics and philosophy, also defends intelligent design, or ID, as a scientific theory to replace Darwinian evolution. Behe, in his foreword to Intelligent Design, credits Dembski with determining a reliable test of detecting design. Dembski argues that the hallmark of design is "complex, specified information," or CSI. A list of the first 100 prime numbers is an example of CSI because it contains structure too complicated to have arisen by chance. Dembski argues that organisms have CSI and thus have been designed by an intelligent agent. Who is the intelligent designer then? Although Dembski claims that ID does not "presuppose a deity," he clearly believes that the Christian God is responsible for this design.

Dembski's argument has several antecedents. "Argument from design," a staple of introductory philosophy classes, was most prominently used 200 years ago by the British natural theologists to prove the existence of a creator. According to evolutionists, Darwin's theory obviated the need to invoke a designer because design features have evolved via natural processes. Dembski, who chronicles the decline of British Natural Theology early in his book, contends that we have dismissed the "argument from design" too hastily, because mutation and selection or any other non-intelligent process cannot bring about an increase in complexity.

Is Dembski's contention correct? No. His use of the law of "conservation of information" to argue against natural processes' ability to increase complexity recalls arguments against evolution based on the second law of thermodynamics and has the same flaw. Although the overall amount of disorder in a closed system cannot decrease, local order within a larger system can increase even without the actions of an intelligent agent. Dembski's conclusion that "whatever CSI mutation and selection generate must be generated in a single generation" is also false. Selection is a cumulative process and will continue as long as variation is generated (usually by mutation). The fact that we human beings so often have been able to select for traits not even present in the original populations demonstrates the cumulative nature of selection. Mutations are not restricted to changes in single nucleotides; insertions and duplications also occur. The combination of these mutations and selection can easily lead to increased complexity.

Is "irreducible complexity" a problem for Darwinian evolution? In Finding Darwin's God Kenneth Miller, a Brown University cell biologist, deftly and correctly responds to Behe's challenge, pointing out not just one but several examples of evolution creating not only the appearance of design but also the appearance of "irreducible complexity." These examples include demonstrations of bacteria evolving new metabolic pathways and the tracing of the vertebrate blood-clotting system's evolutionary history. The blood-clotting system, one of Behe's supposed prime examples of "irreducible complexity," evolved via the divergence of several related genes originally produced by a series of gene duplications. Miller concludes: "In a general way, we really do understand how nature works. And evolution forms a critical point of that understanding."

Is ID theory science? Dembski argues that it is, but his own philosophical stance displays the irreconcilable differences between ID and modern science. At the core of modern science is the principle of naturalism wherein explanations of the universe are based solely upon material and physical causes, without appeals to the supernatural. Dembski not only rejects naturalism but states: "Naturalism is the disease. Intelligent design is the cure." Dembski's extreme antipathy toward naturalism is the antithesis of the principles and methods of science.

Are evolution and religion compatible? Miller not only believes that they are but also professes belief in God. After discussions about the lawful yet indeterminate nature of the universe (the "anthropic principle") and the problem of evil, Miller concludes that it is "possible that the proud materialism of evolution is entirely compatible with a religious world of value and meaning." Of course, a literal reading of Genesis is incompatible with evolution (and many other fields of science), but Miller argues that Genesis and the rest of the Bible were not intended to be read as a scientific documents. Further, Darwinism's most ardent critics did not interpret Genesis with strict literalism either. Miller cautions both people of theistic faith and scientists that science can neither prove nor disprove God. Miller's stance illustrates that characterizing the creationism/evolution debate as a struggle between religion and science is a misleading and dangerous oversimplification.

That present-day organisms have evolved from a single common ancestor is about as well established as any other fact in science. Studies in biochemistry and molecular genetics, far from weakening evolutionary theory, have broadened and strengthened the science of evolutionary biology. Pharmaceutical companies, the agriculture industry and epidemiologists base their findings on Darwinian evolution and not intelligent design theory or any other form of "creation science" because evolution is the best explainer of nature. As Darwin mused and Miller reiterates, there is grandeur and beauty in a view of life where such wondrous diversity arises from a few forces of nature.— Norman A. Johnson, Entomology, University of Massachusetts

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:

Facebook Icon Sm Twitter Icon Google+ Icon Pinterest Icon RSS Feed

Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Latest Multimedia

Bishop with beehives

The disappearance of honeybees continues to make headlines in the news and science journals, but are their numbers still dwindling, and if so, what are the causes?

Dr. Jack Bishop, a researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and a hobby beekeeper, discusses the external influences that are linked to bee population decline, as well as ways to help honeybees thrive.

Click the Title to view all multimedia content!

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

  • Sigma Xi SmartBrief:

    A free daily summary of the latest news in scientific research. Each story is summarized concisely and linked directly to the original source for further reading.

  • American Scientist Update

  • An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns, Science Observers and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.

  • Scientists' Nightstand

  • News of book reviews published in American Scientist and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.

    To sign up for automatic emails of the American Scientist Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an online profile, then sign up in the My AmSci area.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: A “Simple” Piece of Plastic

Book Review: Quantum Metaphors

Book Review: Poetry in the Wild

Subscribe to American Scientist