Unintelligent DesignBy JIM HOLT, New York Times Magazine, 2/20/05 - originalRecently a school district in rural Pennsylvania officially recognized a supposed alternative to Darwinism. In a one-minute statement read by an administrator, ninth-grade biology students were told that evolution was not a fact and were encouraged to explore a different explanation of life called intelligent design. What is intelligent design? Its proponents maintain that living creatures are just too intricate to have arisen by evolution. Throughout the natural world, they say, there is evidence of deliberate design. Is it not reasonable, then, to infer the existence of an intelligent designer? To evade the charge that intelligent design is a religious theory -- creationism dressed up as science -- its advocates make no explicit claims about who or what this designer might be. But students will presumably get the desired point. As one Pennsylvania teacher observed: "The first question they will ask is: 'Well, who's the designer? Do you mean God?'"
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.
Such disregard for economy can be found throughout the natural order. Perhaps 99 percent of the species that have existed have died out. Darwinism has no problem with this, because random variation will inevitably produce both fit and unfit individuals. But what sort of designer would have fashioned creatures so out of sync with their environments that they were doomed to extinction?
The gravest imperfections in nature, though, are moral ones. Consider how humans and other animals are intermittently tortured by pain throughout their lives, especially near the end. Our pain mechanism may have been designed to serve as a warning signal to protect our bodies from damage, but in the majority of diseases -- cancer, for instance, or coronary thrombosis -- the signal comes too late to do much good, and the horrible suffering that ensues is completely useless.
And why should the human reproductive system be so shoddily designed? Fewer than one-third of conceptions culminate in live births. The rest end prematurely, either in early gestation or by miscarriage. Nature appears to be an avid abortionist, which ought to trouble Christians who believe in both original sin and the doctrine that a human being equipped with a soul comes into existence at conception. Souls bearing the stain of original sin, we are told, do not merit salvation. That is why, according to traditional theology, unbaptized babies have to languish in limbo for all eternity. Owing to faulty reproductive design, it would seem that the population of limbo must be at least twice that of heaven and hell combined.
It is hard to avoid the inference that a designer responsible for such imperfections must have been lacking some divine trait -- benevolence or omnipotence or omniscience, or perhaps all three. But what if the designer did not style each species individually? What if he/she/it merely fashioned the primal cell and then let evolution produce the rest, kinks and all? That is what the biologist and intelligent-design proponent Michael J. Behe has suggested. Behe says that the little protein machines in the cell are too sophisticated to have arisen by mutation -- an opinion that his scientific peers overwhelmingly do not share. Whether or not he is correct, his version of intelligent design implies a curious sort of designer, one who seeded the earth with elaborately contrived protein structures and then absconded, leaving the rest to blind chance.
One beauty of Darwinism is the intellectual freedom it allows. As the arch-evolutionist Richard Dawkins has observed, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." But Darwinism permits you to be an intellectually fulfilled theist, too. That is why Pope John Paul II was comfortable declaring that evolution has been "proven true" and that "truth cannot contradict truth." If God created the universe wholesale rather than retail -- endowing it from the start with an evolutionary algorithm that progressively teased complexity out of chaos -- then imperfections in nature would be a necessary part of a beautiful process.
Of course proponents of intelligent design are careful not to use the G-word, because, as they claim, theirs is not a religiously based theory. So biology students can be forgiven for wondering whether the mysterious designer they're told about might not be the biblical God after all, but rather some very advanced yet mischievous or blundering intelligence -- extraterrestrial scientists, say. The important thing, as the Pennsylvania school administrator reminded them, is "to keep an open mind."