Why the Court's Dover Decision Is a Triumph for Religion as well as Science

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Mr. Ogilvie teaches the history of science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is a writer for the History News Service.

Federal Judge John E. Jones IIIs December 20th verdict in Kitzmiller v. Dover that Intelligent Design is thinly-disguised creationism, and thus cannot be taught in public high schools, is a triumph for science and for the separation of church and state. But Christians should see it as a triumph for religion, too.

Supporters of Intelligent Design do not do science as its done today: designing experiments, collecting data, and submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals. They could try to do that. But if they're serious about their faith, they should have second thoughts. Christians troubled by evolution should not seek solace in Intelligent Design. Why not? Because Christianity is weakened, not strengthened, when it appeals to bad science.

Design arguments once had a respected place in science, though even then, they were motivated by a religious response to the threat of materialism. Seventeenth-century scientists like Galileo Galilei and Rene Descartes argued that the universe was made of particles of matter in constant motion. The daring Descartes claimed that a primal chaos would sort itself out into the cosmos we see now, with stars, planets, plants, and animals. In short, matter was self-organizing except for the human soul, which came from God.

Descartes knew that this idea contradicted the Genesis account of creation, so he posed it as a hypothesis: God, he said, did create the world in six days. But if He had not done so, it would have created itself identically.

Descartes offered an evolutionary theory of the universe, and like biological evolution today, his theory was hotly debated. Many of his followers, like modern Christians who accept evolution, saw no conflict between their science and Christianity. But other scientists, like Robert Boyle, were not so sure: they thought that Descartes's theory promoted atheism. These opponents of Descartes accepted that the world was made of particles in motion, but they denied that matter could organize itself. Like modern opponents of evolution, Boyle feared the moral and social consequences of such radical materialism.

Boyle and his contemporaries revived the ancient tradition of natural theology, the quest for evidence of design in the natural world. They found their evidence in anatomy. In his 1691 book The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation, the naturalist John Ray explained that intricate contrivances like the eye or the hand could not have arisen by chance. Instead, they were designed. And their perfection displays the wisdom and benevolence of the Designer.

Intelligent Design proponents today are coy about wisdom, benevolence, and perfection in their supposedly scientific publications. But like John Ray, they seek design that natural science cannot currently explain.

For a time, natural theology triumphed, because no scientist had found a convincing natural explanation for the fit between creatures and their world. But skeptics like the Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out that the world's design was far from perfect. Meanwhile, design arguments had little effect on how science was actually done. And as naturalists continued to catalogue the world's organisms, it became evident that they were related to one another.

Evolutionary theories had been proposed for decades before Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. But none had explained convincingly the apparent design in the world. Darwin's theory did just that, thereby undercutting natural theology's best arguments and paving the way to the broad scientific acceptance of evolution.

Natural theology had identified design as the best proof for God's existence. It had an optimistic view of design: this was the best of all possible worlds, the human eye the best of all possible eyes. This argument glossed over some obvious problems. Why do some people get cataracts? Why do our eyes have a blind spot where the optic nerve plunges through the retina? To natural theology, which argued that the Designer is perfect, just, and all-powerful, these flaws were embarrassing. Even before Darwin, they opened up natural theology, and the Christianity it supported, to skeptical attacks.

Darwin explained adaptation, apparent design, as the imperfect result of natural processes, of random genetic variation passed through the sieve of natural selection. To a Darwinian, anatomical flaws arise simply because natural selection selects merely what is good enough for survival. Indeed, many Christians find that evolution helps them reconcile their belief that God is perfect with the evidence of this messy, imperfect world.

Intelligent Design responds to Darwinian evolution the same way that natural theology responded to Descartes's materialism: by desperately seeking evidence of immaterial processes at work in the world. Though it draws on the new sciences of molecular biology and information theory, its goal is to turn back the clock to the days of natural theology. But the clock can't be turned back.

The seventeenth-century debate between materialism and natural theology was a debate within the scientific community of the day. Within the modern scientific community, there is no debate; biologists disagree on the precise mechanisms of evolution, but virtually all of them agree that evolution has occurred.

If, by chance, Intelligent Design develops a real scientific research program and identifies biological adaptations that evolution cannot explain, scientists will not become modern-day natural theologians in droves. Instead, they'll start seeking a better natural explanation. If Intelligent Design is a real science, its proponents should welcome this possibility. If they shudder at the thought, they should stop cheapening their religious beliefs by trying to pass them off as science.

Long ago, Saint Augustine warned Christians that spouting falsehoods about science would only make their faith seem ridiculous. Intelligent Design proves him right.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Lara Michelle Brown - 12/30/2005

As a political scientist, I know little about the chemistry or the microbiology involved in Dr. Ogilvie's comments.

I do, however, know that the most basic problem with ID is that you cannot test its central premise and that is why it is not science. How in the world do you test whether or not God had a hand in something? That is like trying to test whether or not luck played a role in USC winning their football games this season? It is not a variable that can be captured or observed through science because it is not one that can be seen, felt, heard, tasted, smelled--in a word--measured.

The greatest part of Darwin's evolutionary theory is that it can be tested, observed, and measured. It is a falsifiable theory because it is based on the assumption that evolution is a naturally occuring phenomenon. This means that even if we don't have the technology to watch the process of evolution in higher level organisms (because it takes a long, long, long time), we can see the process in lower level organisms and make the assumption that what happens for fruit flies happens for us. This means that it is not an ideology (a set of beliefs that often are not as consistent in practice as they are in theory). It is a logical inference that we have commonalities with other organisms on this planet.

Though just to share, I will say that last semester, I engaged with my students (100 of them in Intro. to American Govt.) in a Blackboard dicussion about ID vs. Evolution and the results were interesting. First of all, the majority of them believed in ID and not in evolution. Second, most felt that ID should be taught in schools - side by side with evolution in science classes. Third, most were shocked by the actual definition of science (falsification and the like). Fourth, most couldn't figure out why teaching ID in public schools would even be challenged as possibly being unconstitutional. It was a fascinating semester-long discussion.

Jeff Thomas Dube - 12/29/2005

You're right they have published in peer reviewed journals. It's just that they haven't published any articles that are specifically about ID. As far as your assertion that "evolution has no more tangible proof than ID," I'm afraid that is entirely false. My formal education is in the field of microbiology and I can say, without a doubt, that evolution by means of natural selection is an observable phenomenon. For, example, mankind has produced many toxic xenobiotics - man made chemicals never before seen by nature - which were thought to be virtually indestructable due to the lack of any natural means by which they could be biodegraded. However, if you isolate bacterial cultures from various xenobiotic spill sites you will find some "bugs" that have adapted to feed on these new chemicals that they have never seen before in nature. Additionally, if you repeatedly challenge a culture of bacteria in the lab with such harmful substances they will eventually development resistence through the mechanisms of genetic mutation (if you control for conjugation, transformation, and transduction by using bacteria deficient in these processes). They adapt and evolve at an alarming rate because they reproduce at an alarming rate. This is why they develop anti-biotic resistance faster than we can invent new classes of anti-biotics.

That being said, such processes are difficult to observe in higher organisms. Nevertheless, take a look at any dog, my dogs for example - a husky and a chihuahua. A phylogenetic study will reveal that they are both descendents of the wolf, but they have diverged from each other in physical form due to directed evolution by means of artificial selection as carried out by humans.

The most serious flaw I see in the proposal of intelligent design is it's very premise (that evolution cannot account for the complexity of biological organisms and structures such as the eye or the bacterial flagellum) which is put forth without any evidence as to it's validity except a subjective human perception of the scope of the problem. On the other hand, any decent computer programmer will tell you that the evidence that evolution could in principle accomplish such complexity has been around for over a decade. It’s the practical application of the theory of evolution in a subfield of artificial intelligence known as evolutionary computation. It entails iterative progress, populations, and random processes all of which are often biologically inspired and where candidate solutions to a problem play the role of individuals in a population, and a fitness function determines the environment within which the solutions "live". Evolution of the population then takes place after the repeated application of an evolutionary algorithm. Its been used for the automated design of electronic circuits and systems, as a tool for integrated circuit optimization and has enjoyed success in such fields as diverse as engineering, art, biology, economics, genetics, operations research, robotics, social sciences, physics, and chemistry. It's becoming an eloquent tool for solving complex problems that man would not be able to solve otherwise. In the molecular biology, this line of thinking has created exciting new avenues in the field of protein engineering. Here, the strategy of directed evolution, which mimics natural evolution, has proved superior to the rational design approach in method and in results. Indeed, the results of directed evolution experiments are often surprising in that desired changes are often caused by mutations that no one would have expected and sometimes surprising changes in protein function take place, in one case allowing an enzyme to digest certain polychlorinated hydrocarbons that were thought to be non-biodegradable. Already, its been used to improve laundry detergents, specifically the enzyme additive subtilisin with regard to enhancing alkaline and heat stability and activity in polar organic media. Personally, I find that it begs the question of why the intelligent design people don't embrace evolution as God's eloquent solution to survival in a constantly changing environment.

Sam Walker - 12/28/2005

A major flaw in this article is that ID does not stand up to close examination and therefore scientists from this group do not post in peer reviewd journals. Mr. Ogilvie is quoting an oft used argument that actually does not stand up to scrutiny.

In order to not violate any copyrights, I'll post 2 links on this subject showing the falsehood in this statement.


There are numerous other false stements but since most of his argument hinges on ID not being valid science, these will do for now.

As for comparing ID to natural theology, this is a very antiquitated viewpoint and is not in line with the current state of affairs.

The true crux of the matter is that evolution has no more tangible proof than ID, but is more widely accepted because it's been taught as fact for decades. Thus, no matter which side you choose, it becomes a battle of ideologies NOT science.

The truth of the matter is that both sides are based on an ideo;ogy that can not be proven. Neither approach even warrants classification as a theory by the scientific definition of the word. Because of the lack of proof and the ability to create experiments yielding predictable results, both viewpoints should be classified as a hypothesis at best.