Tuesday, February 22, 2005

There is an excellent piece on "intelligent design" in the New York Times magazine this past week. In it the author, Jim Holt, lays out the implications of intelligent design when it is looked at critically.
From a scientific perspective, one of the most frustrating things about intelligent design is that (unlike Darwinism) it is virtually impossible to test. Old-fashioned biblical creationism at least risked making some hard factual claims -- that the earth was created before the sun, for example. Intelligent design, by contrast, leaves the purposes of the designer wholly mysterious. Presumably any pattern of data in the natural world is consistent with his/her/its existence.

But if we can't infer anything about the design from the designer, maybe we can go the other way. What can we tell about the designer from the design? While there is much that is marvelous in nature, there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre. Some nonfunctional oddities, like the peacock's tail or the human male's nipples, might be attributed to a sense of whimsy on the part of the designer. Others just seem grossly inefficient. In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.
Holt goes on to list some of the other rather questionable design decisions as well as some troubling moral implications for intelligence design advocates.

It is hard to swallow the argument that intelligent design is intended to do anything other than implicitly provide some cover for creationist-style teachings.

Evolution theory and its study is not a theological pursuit. It and every other theory are tools to help us better understand ourselves and the world around us. Theories are inherently replaceable, they are supposed to be. If information disproves a current theory, the theory is disposed of and the information is integrated into a new theory that provides a more accurate explanation.

The purpose of scientific study and its use of the theory of evolution is not to reveal god, but to understand creation.

Perhaps if more conservative christian groups understood this there would be less insistence on its imposition in the classroom. In a country that is routinely out-scored in testing in areas of science and math, that is seeing a decrease in students willing to study the hard sciences and is seeing a growing number of technology-based industries moving abroad, I don't think bad science is something we can afford wasting our children's time with.

- Murphy

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