Intelligent Design - Science education and design in the natural world

Intelligent Design - Science education and design in the natural world
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David Tyler
David Tyler David Tyler is Professor Emeritus at Manchester Metropolitan University.
01 June, 2005 5 min read

Judging by media interest, the concept of Intelligent Design (ID) is having a major impact in the USA. Several popular science journals (including National Geographic and Discover) have carried lengthy articles defending Darwinian evolution. Many peer-reviewed journals (including Nature and Science) have carried reactions to ID.

According to surveys, the overwhelming majority of US citizens are open to alternatives to Darwinism – nearly always because they are convinced that God has something more to do with origins than the advocates of Darwinism allow. Many involved with education want to see a broader curriculum that gives opportunities for introducing students to alternatives.

The most recent case to hit the headlines concerns Dover County, Pennsylvania. Decisions by education leaders there mean that, for the first time, ID has been made part of the science curriculum.

These leaders consider that ID is a scientific concept and that it deserves to be considered by students in science lessons. This policy decision is being challenged in the courts on the grounds that ID is a religious dogma, not science.

The BBC covered this issue in Breakfaston 7 February 2005. Following a report from Dover, PA., Francis Beckett (journalist and author) and David Tyler (Secretary of the Biblical Creation Society) provided discussion. Since four minutes of discussion was very short, an overview of key points is made in this article.

Scientific issue

Firstly, Intelligent Design is a scientific issue. Dover PA is doing us a service in setting the debate about ID firmly in the arena of science. Design is not subjective; that is, it does not consist in our response to an artefact, but in the conceptual work done by an intelligent agent when originating that artefact.

To say that something is designed is thus to make an objectivestatement. That makes it a matter of legitimate scientific interest – a fact already recognised in the practice of archaeology and forensic science, both of which study things done in the past by human design.

Although ID is properly considered within science, it necessarily has religious implications. But then, Darwinism also has religious implications – as has long been recognised.

Many leading evolutionists are on record as linking Darwinism with undirected ‘apparent design’ and atheism1. If these religious arguments are deemed legitimate within science, there can be no justification for excluding ID on the grounds that it has religious implications.

Scientific method

Secondly, Intelligent Design uses the scientific method of induction, in which conclusions are drawn from one or more pieces of factual evidence. While not itselfthe outcome of experimental science, ID is basedon experimental observations, being a logical interpretation of those -observations.

Science is not limited to experimental investigations. The inductive methodology is commonly applied withinscience to go beyondthe data gained by experimentation and theorise about their deeper -significance.

ID advocates argue, therefore, that inferences of Intelligent Design can be made within science using inductive reasoning. This approach seeks to consider the evidence and follow it wherever it leads, which is exactly what science claims to do.

Ideological opposition

Thirdly, opposition to ID is often ideological, not scientific. The quality of counter arguments has not been high, because ID is typically caricatured rather than taken seriously. Examples of such abuse are as follows.

1. Demarcation arguments are used to exclude ID. In a nutshell, science is redefined in such a way that ID is outside science. Thus, it is said, science is concerned only with undirected natural causes of phenomena, thereby excluding ID (along with archaeology and forensic science!).

2. ID is declared to be ‘god-of-the-gaps’ thinking – using ‘God’ to plug the gaps in our understanding of nature. But ID has never been articulated as a response to the unknown. It argues, rather, that the evidence compelsus to make the design inference. The terminology of ID (irreducible complexity, specified complexity, optimal design, etc.) negates the charge of arguing from ignorance.

3. ID is accused of being creationism in disguise. This charge is polemical rather than substantial. It implies that creationists are the ‘bad guys’ and that ID is guilty by association. Those making the charge never turn it round and suggest that denyingintelligent design is atheism in disguise.

The charge fails because ID is about making design inferences in science. People from a wide range of backgrounds can unite on this principle.

Not restrictive

Fourthly, it is completely misleading to suggest that ID undermines education by restricting teaching on evolution. If anything, ID seeks moreteaching about evolutionary theory, as the following show.

1. ID advocates seek greater clarity in education about the E-word. To say that ‘evolution is change over time’ is fuzzy thinking, for we are all advocates of change over time. We are not limited to ID books to explore this simple issue in a constructive way.

2. ID advocates want evidences against evolution taught as well as evidences for evolution. Professor Kerkut2 complained in 1960 that students were not aware of the evidences against evolution. The situation is still unsatisfactory – primarily because critiquing evolutionary theory is not perceived to be part of the curriculum.

3. More critical thinking is needed about the claimed ‘evidences for evolution’. In many cases, the arguments lack rigour and need unpacking and critiquing. Textbooks are not giving a balanced appraisal of evidences – for more on this, see Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution3.

Good practice

Fifthly, introducing students to design issues is good educational practice. A milestone in the controversy about design was when Darwin attempted to explain away purposeful design by undirected mechanisms of variation and natural selection. It was he who made it possible to be an ‘intellectually fulfilled atheist’ (Dawkins)1.

Darwin incorporated arguments about design in his book On the origin of species and similar thoughts have been expressed by evolutionary scientists ever since. -During the past fifteen years, the controversy has been revived by the advocates of ID, who argue that coherent responses to Darwin can be made.

Teaching the controversy

‘Teaching the controversy’ is a common educational approach that delivers good results when applied to other controversies in science. Yet there is a great reluctance on the part of evolutionary biologists to expose students to controversy about design.

Judging from one exchange on the subject4,5, objections to teaching the controversy are not well founded. The issue is not natural versus supernatural explanations but undirected versus intelligent causes.

Palaeolithic Man was not a supernatural agent, but it would be the height of folly to suggest that his stone tools were not intelligently designed. The real issue is whether the operative causes (whatever they are) exhibit marks of intelligence.

It is important to note that students are already introduced to design, but they are always taught to reject it! As noted above, Charles Darwin set the tone of this debate, referring to design over 100 times in his magnum opus, but always to reject it. It would appear that when design is introduced and rejected, that counts as science.

However, if the case for design can be considered within science and rejected, we should be able to ask what case for design is being considered? Did Darwin give us the last word on the subject, or is it permissible to consider modern defences of design made by people who are active in the academic world?

Powerful argument

A noteworthy event occurred towards the end of 2004. The leading philosopher Professor Antony Flew declared that he has been so impressed with the evidences of design emerging from science that he has renounced atheism. This testimony is in the Winter 2004 issue of Philosophia Christi, the journal of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.6

Flew writes, ‘I think the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it’. And again, ‘It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design’.

If these evidences are worthy of consideration by a professor of philosophy, why should it be deemed unacceptable and unscientific for students to consider this same evidence?

In the writer’s view, the principle of teaching the contemporarycontroversy on design, rather than the arguments on this subject fossilised in Darwin’s On the origin of species can only be a good thing for students and educators alike.

Students deserve better than to be exposed only to Darwin’s outdated critique of design. There is no scientific case for shielding them from current controversies.

David Tyler
David Tyler is Professor Emeritus at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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