Intelligent design debate defined by 10 errors
Intelligent design debate defined by 10 errors
December 9, 2005 - original

Pennsylvania has been the center in the political and judicial battle over the teaching of evolution in public schools. One problem is that many people draw incorrect conclusions from evolution. To illustrate these points, I've identified 10 incorrect ideas that are often heard:

1. There is debate within the scientific community about the truth of evolution.
Lehigh Valley personalities notwithstanding, there is no real debate. Federal agencies do not have programs that focus on alternatives to evolution. One can identify scientific gadflies who support a hypothesis that HIV does not cause AIDS. Such exceptions do not constitute a genuine challenge to the scientific consensus.
2. If something about evolution can be shown to be wrong, the entire law of evolution collapses.
Science does not work this way. We do not reject gravity because a helium balloon appears to defy it.
3. Evolution is tentative since many Americans do not accept it.
Science is not a democratic venture. The vast majority of Europeans once believed that the sun revolved around the earth. The minority Copernican position was correct; the majority position incorrect.
4. Evolution explains the creation of life on earth.
When biologists talk about evolution, we are referring to mechanisms of genetic change over time to explain biological diversity. Prior to the first living thing existing, there can be no evolution since there can be no genetics without life. Evolution cannot be introduced to explain beginnings, only what happened after that.
5. There is nothing harmful about examining "alternative ideas" about evolution.
We ignore our understanding of the natural world at our own peril. President Bush embraced intelligent design this year, but weeks later implicitly embraced evolution when he marshaled scientific resources to fight the possibility of a new influenza virus causing a pandemic. Why didn't he ask the intelligent design folks for help?
6. Evolution demonstrates that God does not exist.
It is unfortunate that atheists and materialists have used evolution as evidence that counts against the existence of God. This is not a logically defensible position. Simply because a natural process requires no supernatural intervention does not mean that no supernatural being exists. Evolution is no threat to God any more than gravity or electricity.
7. Evolution cannot be proved since we cannot go back in time and test.
If this were true, astrophysics would collapse as well. Those who make this argument confuse history and science. History concerns itself with what actually happened. Science concerns itself with identifying the fundamental natural rules that govern what happened and what will happen.
8. Intelligent design provides an alternative to evolution.
Intelligent design provides NO alternative to evolution. The proponents of intelligent design do not provide a mechanism for biological change. Their method is to offer evidence that they argue counts against evolution to try to demonstrate that evolution is in doubt and that the existence of a creator is the alternative. But, there is no "how" offered, only a wink about "who."
9. Intelligent design reveals "holes" in the law of evolution.
Proponents of intelligent design favor the tactic of using examples that evolution "cannot explain," like the creation of complex structures and biochemical pathways. Scientists have long recognized the special problems of gene complexity, anatomical complexity, and biochemical complexity. These observations have led to specific predictions for evolution that have been upheld by decades of research.
10. Evolution and intelligent design demonstrate an inevitable conflict between science and religion.
This is wrong on at least two counts. First, it conflates the diversity of religious thought into a single position and defines it as "religion." In fact, most mainline American Protestants sects and the Roman Catholic Church have accepted evolution. Pope John Paul II wrote in favor of evolution, as did Pope Pius XII. Second, thoughtful academics, such as John Polkinghorne and Ian Barbour, have shown how biology and theology can inform and enrich each other. There need be no contradiction.
I am an optimist and I hope to see the intelligent design era end in a good place. It is my hope that the "great center of American politics" (whatever that is) will see this as an opportunity to reject both the false science of intelligent design and the logical sloppiness of materialist conclusions from evolution.

Bruce Wightman, Ph.D., is associate professor of biology at Muhlenberg College.