Intelligent Design: A Naturalism-Stopper, Not a Science-Stopper

A couple of months ago, on my general apologetics blog, I wrote an article arguing that if atheism is true, it doesn’t ultimately matter that it’s true. Yet, it has zealous defenders marching in organized protests against religion, penning mountains of books and articles in support of their “lack of belief” in God, filming documentaries, and even devoting their careers to the cause of convincing others that atheism is true. Curious.

Another idea that enjoys a very similar (if not identical) quasi-religious devotion is the theory of neo-Darwinism. By “neo-Darwinism” I mean the theory that life came from non-life by unguided, purposeless processes and subsequently diversified into the grand variety we observe today by way of natural selection acting upon random, accidental mutations. In this view, there is no designer behind the scenes–no master plan, no guidance of any kind. Life is a chemical accident. That is all.

Although neo-Darwinism requires the theory of common descent, the two are not synonymous. One can hold to common descent without embracing the broader theory of neo-Darwinism and its over-arching philosophy of naturalism. Even massive amounts of fossil, genetic, and morphological evidence that could be interpreted as support for common descent do nothing to bolster naturalism, despite the contrary claims of neo-Darwinism’s champions. What the neo-Darwinist must produce, in addition to evidence for common descent, is solid evidence that unguided natural selection acting upon random mutations is sufficient for explaining the origin of life and the creation of novel body plans throughout natural history. Thus far, there are only masses of convoluted just-so stories about how evolution could have happened without intelligent input. But, the assertion that natural history has certainly been unguided, has not developed according to any purpose, is an entirely philosophical claim.

Meanwhile, the theory of intelligent design (ID) is aggressively slandered as an insidious “science-stopper.” Design advocates cite reasons to doubt the sufficiency of natural processes alone, as well as evidence of intelligent influence on the natural world. Not necessarily intervention, mind you, just the minimal idea of nature (cosmically and biologically) bearing indicators of a transcendent intelligent agent. Essentially, ID is the philosophical opponent of neo-Darwinism; the former says that there is evidence that nature is planned, goal-directed, and purposeful, while the latter denies all of the above (naturalism). ID does not challenge credible evidence for the biological adaptability inherent to living organisms. It does say, however, that this natural ability has limitations. But to hear many neo-Darwinists tell it, ID denies scientific data, would be the downfall of science, and humanity would suffer veritable travesties should ID take root in the academy. Medical technology would come to a screeching halt and agricultural advances would cease.

It is a mystery to me how neo-Darwinists reach the conclusion that the recognition of design in nature warrants such absurd predictions. Interestingly, a few have openly admitted that there is little pragmatic value to neo-Darwinian theory, or even to the theory of common descent. Here’s what Dr. Jerry Coyne, professor of biology and outspoken critic of intelligent design has said:

Truth be told, evolution hasn’t yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say. Evolution cannot help us predict what new vaccines to manufacture because microbes evolve unpredictably. But hasn’t evolution helped guide animal and plant breeding? Not very much. Most improvement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of ‘like begets like’. Even now, as its practitioners admit, the field of quantitative genetics has been of little value in helping improve varieties. Future advances will almost certainly come from transgenics, which is not based on evolution at all.*

So, how, exactly, does intelligent design hinder the advancement of science whenever it casts doubt on a theory of undirected biological evolution, when the latter is essentially useless in the first place? Don’t hold your breath for a viable answer to this one.

What neo-Darwinists are truly defending is naturalistic philosophy, yet they portray themselves as champions of science. Coyne himself penned a book entitled, Why Evolution is True. Here’s the synopsis from Amazon:

In the current debate about creationism and intelligent design, there is an element of the controversy that is rarely mentioned-the evidence. Yet the proof of evolution by natural selection is vast, varied, and magnificent. In this succinct and accessible summary of the facts supporting the theory of natural selection, Jerry A. Coyne dispels common misunderstandings and fears about evolution and clearly confirms the scientific truth that supports this amazing process of change. Weaving together the many threads of modern work in genetics, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, and anatomy that demonstrate the “indelible stamp” of the processes first proposed by Darwin, Why Evolution Is True does not aim to prove creationism wrong. Rather, by using irrefutable evidence, it sets out to prove evolution right.

The “irrefutable evidence” offered in the book is, at best, evidence for common descent and the biological relatedness of organisms. This doesn’t undermine the possibility of a designer of life, and it doesn’t render naturalistic origins more likely than ID. Regardless, the text is promoted as a scientific refutation of ID. <Insert loud Family Feud buzzer here.>

The moral of the story is, neo-Dawinism does nothing to support the advancement of science and ID does nothing to hinder it. (It could, in fact, be argued that ID can make useful scientific predictions; the dramatic demise of “junk DNA” is a case in point.) So why all the fuss? The key is the anti-naturalism stance of ID. That’s what raises the hackles of neo-Darwinists. It’s important to recognize that everyone has philosophical commitments and will often vehemently defend them. The trick, then, is determining whether or not science can offer legitimate support for the worldview being promoted.

*Nature 442, 983-984 (31 August 2006)