On the sixth day man created God in his image.
There is an ongoing debate around the issue of intelligent design, creation science or creationism and the theory of evolution. People who profess to hold one of these views usually discard all arguments presented by the other side. Whether you’re a proponent of Intelligent Design (e.g. Dembski) or it’s opponent (e.g. Dawkins, Dennet), your best arguments seem to be those of ridiculing the other side. When preaching to the converted, each side presents its case to the best of their abilities, but when it comes to debate reason is tossed aside and appeals to emotions and beliefs are made.
I am a biologist, thus my views on the theory of evolution are quite favorable, but I can quite easily understand the reasons why some people find it lacking and unsatisfying. The main view standing in opposition to Darwinism is that of Intelligent Design, more specifically that of the design inference.
The inference of intelligent design states that some things, which we observe in nature are not explainable by the theory of evolution through natural selection. If such an entity does indeed exist, a living organism, which clearly did not arise by natural selection, then the theory of evolution will be falsified. This incidentally makes evolution a scientific theory, subject to test and falsification.
The design inference further states that the vast complexity of life around us shows clear signs of being more then the sum of multiple random events happening over a long period of time. It has attributes exhibiting signs of an intelligence, and thus evidence of a Designer. Similarly, if a being from another planet encountered one of our inventions floating out in space (the Viking space probe for instance), they would have to assume, that an intelligent being designed that piece of equipment, that an intelligent designer exists, or existed somewhere out there and produced this device.
By the same rationale, if we find entities on this planet, which are complex beyond random chance and unexplainable by evolutionary processes, then we have to infer that a designer was responsible for the complexity which we encounter.
The evolutionary history of certain living entities has not been elucidated. Ultra-Darwinists of the Dawkins stripe hold endless discussions about every such example and they stipulate numerous scientific theories about how their evolution could have preceded. Their arguments however never truly satisfy the proponent of intelligent design and whenever one mystery seems solved multiple others come into view in an endless chain of more and more complex explanations. The deeper we begin to understand evolution, the more questions we have and the less understandable the theory becomes to a lay person.
Ultimately we may arrive at certain questions which we will never be able to answer, because they lie beyond the scope of history and any answer we give will be an untestable, unfalsifieble, unscientific speculation. The origin of life on Earth may be one such question. Whether or not science can truly be applied to the explanation of ultimate beginnings is an open question, which I do not wish to address in this text.
My critique is that of the intelligent design inference and I shall try to address it from an unusual angle… Let’s go back to the Viking craft floating out in space. Let’s say that we are this alien race which recovered the Earth probe. There would be those amongst us who would try to explain it as an natural phenomenon and those who would stipulate an intelligent designer at work. Let’s also assume that we had all technologies available to us, whether they are possible or not, which would allow us unlimited travel through time and space. If those who supported the design idea wanted to find evidence for their theory, they would set out on a quest to find the Designer.
If they were clever and lucky, they would arrive on Earth circa 1970 and discover a team of engineers at NASA using their intelligence to design the probe. They would be designing the engines, the shielding, the scientific probes, the radio transmitters, etc.
Upon close scrutiny however, our alien friends would discover that not all technologies used are being designed by the NASA team. The metal alloys used in the shielding were perfected elsewhere, the radio technology used was developed not only elsewhere, but by another person living over a hundred Earth years previously. If they went back to talk to Heinrich Hertz, they would discover that he was basing his work on the ideas about electromagnetism developed even earlier by James Maxwell, and so on.
Upon completing their mission the alien team would have to conclude that the Viking space craft was not designed by a single being but by a whole race of beings inhabiting a planet over the space of millennia.
They would conclude that intelligence definitely was involved, but it was not an intelligence of a single being, rather the intelligence of a long process of diligent scientific study and technological advancement. It was an intelligence of these historical processes, rather then any single person, that allowed Viking to be sent into space.
When we consider these problems which the alien race would have with answering such a simple question as “who designed the Viking space probe”, we realize the gross oversimplification of the design inference. The problem with “intelligent design” comes not from the word “intelligent”, but with the word “design(er)” itself. When we think about it, nothing we design or discover is truly due to our inventiveness or genius. It’s a consequence of our needs, the available knowledge and technologies, prevailing fashions, etc.
Our intelligence is collective and includes equally our acquired knowledge, our consciousness and our unconscious processes. What makes us act and create is equally that which makes us uniquely human and that what is animal within us. No starving people are working on the design of the next iPod… I don’t want to get into Maslow here.
What some call Intelligence is the very process of evolution. Fist simple ideas are formed and accepted and then more complex theories can be formulated on their basis. No single first designer needs to be inferred to begin the process. The process develops gradually over time, from simplicity to complexity.
It is only our need to anthropomorphize all processes we observe and assign each action to an actor, which makes us stipulate an ultimate Designer. The same processes cause us to always find some group of “them” responsible for everything in the world. On top of this, our vanity makes us forget that none of us is a true designer, but just a part of the design process. These mental states create our need for the ultimate designer a designer like us, a god in our image.