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Intelligent design: More than dressed up Creationism

Creationism vs. evolution is no longer the only game in town. A new contender has arrived: intelligent design. Since its inception, naysayers have rushed to condemn the theory as warmed-over “creationism in a cheap tuxedo,” as Leonard Krishtalka, a professor at the University of Kansas famously dubbed it. The denunciations of intelligent design are again being pounded out by the hour on computers across the country as a lawsuit against the Dover, Pa. school board has brought the issue back into the light.

Schools within the Dover district teach intelligent design alongside evolution. But eight parents in the school district are suing the school board, alleging that teaching intelligent design is a violation of the First Amendment’s clause establishing separation of church and state. The case boils down to the question: “Is intelligent design a scientific theory or a religious belief?”

The traditional Darwinian bulldogs have been quick to dismiss the theory as non-science. Testifying at the Pennsylvania trial, Robert Pennock, a professor of science at Michigan State University, dismissed intelligent design as a form of creationism that fails to follow the scientific method. “As scientists go about their business, they follow a method,” Pennock said. “Intelligent design wants to reject that and so it doesn’t really fall within the purview of science.”

Pennock gives the standard response of those who attack intelligent design. They claim it isn’t science and so has no place in biology, much less as a competing theory to evolution within the public school system.

Despite the astounding popularity of this criticism of intelligent design, it stems more from ignorance than a cold factual assessment. Intelligent design promoters have offered two criteria to determine whether an organism is a product of design. First, Michael Behe posited the notion of “irreducible complexity.” In his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, Behe argued that certain organic mechanisms (like the bacterial flagellum) could not be produced through progressive random mutation and natural selection.

A flagellum requires all 40 of its parts to work; it would have had to evolve all of the parts at once in a giant leap, not through slow Darwinian steps. Any organisms or mechanisms that exhibit irreducible complexity could not be produced through evolution and become candidates for intelligent design.

While intelligent design’s first criterion is negative – showing the inadequacy of evolution – its second criterion explains how the theory can positively detect intelligent activity. In his 1998 book The Design Inference (Cambridge University Press), William Dembski introduced the concept of “specified complexity.”

An event or object that conforms to an independently identifiable pattern and has a low probability of occurrence is an example of specified complexity. For example, if you see a group of leaves on the ground arranged into your name, you assume it was arranged by something intelligent.

The probability the leaves just fell that way is infinitesimal, and the pattern is independently identifiable – it’s your name.

What’s more, scientists already use the principle of specified complexity. Archeologists use it to determine which stones are natural and which are tools created by humans. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) uses it to look for intelligent communication among the surrounding noise of radio waves. It is also used in forensic medicine and cryptography.

These two criteria – specified complexity and irreducible complexity – both provide intelligent design with a clear method. Scientists can test the theory by these criteria and see whether the evidence supports or refutes the theory the same way they can for other scientific hypotheses.

Notice that God hasn’t been mentioned anywhere in this piece. That’s because God is not a necessary part of intelligent design. Michael Denton, the scientist who jumpstarted the movement, was an agnostic when he penned Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.

Intelligent design is not just dressed up creationism. Those who continue to straw man the position undermine their own academic credibility. People who think dogma is only found in religion should think again. Just dare to talk about intelligent design with any of your science professors. You’ll get a case study in dogma real quick.

Zac Flowerree is a junior majoring in English literature and philosophy. He can be reached at zflowerr@mail.usf.eduà