The history of how humans came to view evolution is steeped in intrigue and the theory of intelligent design constitutes its latest chapter, writes Alan Coughlan
When Charles Darwin embarked on his five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, he left as a religious man. He quoted from the Bible as an authority on morality and did not doubt its literal truth.
The world now knows the conclusions he drew on biological science at the end of this journey but perhaps do not know that he personally struggled with some of his findings. In public he did not discuss his religious views. He tried to maintain a purely scientific approach to his work and never to write about religion. One can only wonder what he would have thought about some of the debate that his theories continue to stir up over 200 years later.
While the Biblical explanation for the origin of life is no longer seen as plausible by any rational thinker, one would then assume that creationism as a concept no longer has a place within scientific debate. However, the essence of creationism is still maintained in a relatively new theory known as intelligent design.
The theory of intelligent design has been described by David Attenborough as “fundamentally against every scientific principle I can think of”. What intelligent design puts forward as an explanation for the origin of life implies the existence of a supernatural creator. The idea at its base level is that life is too complex to have come into being simply by chance.
In 1859 Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ was published with a run of 1,250 copies that immediately sold out. The book went back to print several times and sold rapidly and in its wake left a maelstrom of disgruntled religious and scientific figures. The book was written in simple language with few technical terms that allowed it to be understood by all. Perhaps this is why the ideas spread so rapidly around the world and the debate and anger that they brought up still rage to this day.
In 1925 in Tennessee, a school teacher named John Skopes was arrested for the teaching the basic principles of evolution in the classroom. He was tried as a criminal, found guilty and was fined $100. While different schools in different states may have curricula that varied slightly, there was a constant in biology in that the biblical explanation for both the origin and the existence of life is what was taught. However, newer generations of scientists, having already rejected such ideas during their studies, began to question just what they should be teaching to the next generation.
In 1987, the American Supreme Court ruled that the teaching of creationism in schools was unconstitutional, as it violated the separation of church and state. It was decided that creationism was to be banned from the classroom. This should have been the end of a pseudoscientific explanation for the origins of life in schools, but in time, a new guise for creationism was formulated.
Professor Philip Johnson is a lawyer and not a biologist. He is also a born-again Christian who sought to take on Darwinism from a scientific standpoint. He decided to investigate exactly what elements of Darwinian evolution could be verified through experiment and observation. Through the course of his work, he teamed up Dr Stephen Meyer, philosopher of science, Michael Behe, a biochemist and William Dembski, a mathematician.
Behe formulated the theory of irreducible complexity; an idea that states that any complex organ composed of several interdependent parts cannot have evolved from simpler forms. His reasoning being that if any one of these ‘parts of the machine’ are removed, the entire system is rendered useless.
Behe used flagellum (fin-like structures that bacteria use to propel themselves through fluid) as an example. He said, at a microscopic level, there were 50 interdependent parts that made the mechanism of this flagellum work and that removing even one would make it all redundant. He deduced that the flagellum must have at some time in the past appeared in a fully-formed state. This could only point towards the existence of a designer.
Darwin himself did say that, in his own theory, there was an intrinsic weakness. He said that if a complex organ such as the human eye could be shown to have not been be put together by successive improvements, his theory would break down. However, we now know that the eye can of course have formed over a long period of time due to periodic changes and improvements.
From the light sensitive spots of microscopic single-celled organisms to light and shadow sensitive pits of snails, all the way up to a fully functioning human eye, it makes rational sense that the eye developed over a long period of time with each improvement bringing advantages.
Dembski, as a mathematician, took on Darwinism in the realms of probability. He stated that the mechanisms for the formation of life were beyond the realms of chance. He went about unravelling that most complex of molecules DNA, by retroactively calculating the probability if its formation by chance. He concluded that DNA, with its millions of connected sections each in their own precise locations, could not have come about by chance alone. Nevertheless, DNA exists and life is here today and therefore, he concluded that the maths implies the existence of a designer.
Professor Kenneth Miller has become a champion for rational scientific thinking by taking on intelligent design. Indeed, he sees a threat in the implications of teaching such theories. As he and many have noted, George W Bush stated that both sides of the debate on evolution should be taught in schools.
Miller’s work has centred on debunking the core theories of intelligent design. He was able to reveal through his own study of bacterial flagella that within the system of 50 parts was a bacterial syringe, a smaller system within with almost 80 per cent (40 of the 50 parts) missing. These ten parts were perfectly functional by themselves, proving that the flagellum could be broken down into simpler parts and thus, could have evolved from a simpler form.
Perhaps Miller’s most damning piece of evidence against intelligent design comes through an intuitive story that he relates about the maths that Dembski used. He likened it to a game of cards and how, once everyone has been dealt a hand, they could look back and say: “My God, isn’t it amazing that we got these exact cards in this exact order, we could play for the rest of our lives and they would never be dealt in this fashion again.”
Miller says that this is a legitimate conclusion to draw, but nevertheless the cards were dealt and that’s how the game went. The emergence of life is much the same. One cannot work out the probability of life evolving by calculating backwards. If such attempts are made, the odds are unfairly stacked and everything from a game of cards to the emergence of life will always seem impossible.
Care has been taken by the proponents of intelligent design not to identify a particular designer, but instead to say that a God is one of the many candidates. This concept reads almost like a scientific conclusion, as they are saying they still do not have all the answers. Thus, the existence in their theory of a designer implies a supernatural being.
Scientists in the modern world no longer resort to washing their hands of a mystery by claiming they don’t and cannot know the answer and say that God is responsible. This would achieve nothing, as it only says they don’t yet have the knowledge.
To the majority of scientists, intelligent design is not legitimate science and they try not to engage in debate with its adherents. Richard Dawkins continuously ignores them, as he says they do nothing but waste scientists’ time.
The general consensus is that there should be no place for them at the table of debate, as intelligent design has no legitimate scientific theories to bring with it. In a world where evolutionary theory can explain the vast majority of biological development, there is no longer a need for a creator. It would seem that, in essence, intelligent design is a thin veil that covers a modern theory of creationism, thus creating a situation that can only be counter-productive.