Thursday, January 24, 2008

Teaching Intelligent Design

What is the basis of "Scientific Intelligent Design"?

Intelligent Design (ID) is a teleological (purpose-driven) explanation of the origin and development of biological life on Earth. In its more recent "scientific" form, ID makes use of science-based arguments, mainly "irreducible complexity", to argue that some designer must have created the first biological cells because they could not have originated on their own.

Some ID proponents are prepared to believe that, after the origin of those first cells, something like neo-Darwinian evolution and natural selection took over and resulted in the wide diversity of life forms on Earth. However, they believe the evolutionary process is not without purpose. The intelligent designer had some purpose in mind when the initial biological cells were designed. Even if the various species were not designed per se, the designer of the original biological cells knew the laws of nature and how those cells would inevitably evolve into current-day species. Mainstream science is critiqued for believing advanced life forms evolved by undirected, blind chance and for no purpose at all. If there is no purpose what is the reason for life, for ethics? Why should we continue to live? See: and

What is the basis of Darwinian Evolution?

The basis of Darwinian evolution is that more complex life forms originate when a random mutation or crossover of genes occurs and the resultant life form happens to be both more complex and have a higher survival/reproduction rate than the less complex form. Darwinian evolution and natural selection are central to mainstream science and all standard science courses

What is the basis of "Irreducible Complexity"?

"Irreducible complexity" argues there is no viable life form below that of the most basic biological cell. Therefore, there is no way that that first biological cell could have evolved from something simpler. Thus, there must be some "intelligent cause" rather than the "undirected process" of evolution, at least for the origin of the most basic biological cells. ID proponents demand scientific study of what they call "origins science". The want ID to be included in science classes.

Why not teach both Darwinian and ID explanations in science classes?

ID rejects any purposeless explanation, at least for the initial origin of the most basic biological cells. ID concludes there must have been some "intelligent designer" and the clear implication is an intelligent supernatural being (e.g., "God"). Mainstream scientists reject ID as a religious belief that has no place in a science class.

I accept mainstream science ...

I totally accept the mainstream scientific explantion of both the origin and evolution of life on Earth. Although no scientific experiment has completely duplicated the process of origin of life, I accept the current explation that traces origins from random mixing and chemical reactions in self-reproducing autocatylitic cycles that happened to be confined in porous rock or clay or lipid (fat) molecules. Autocatylitic cycles have been demonstrated in the laboratory.

As a result of the autocatylitic cycle process, some primitive type of self-reproducing RNA originated and that lead to the origin of RNA's first cousin, self-reproducing DNA. Given RNA and DNA, even in their primitive forms, it is possible for a life form that is not yet a biological cell to survive and reproduce in porous rock or clay or lipid molecules. RNA codes for the production of proteins and this must have lead to the first biological cells that produced their own membranes and were thus freed of dependence upon porous materials. At that point, standard Darwinian evolution and natural selection took over.

but ... I favor mention of ID in science classes

Although you might expect me to oppose teaching ID in science class, I think it deserves some mention. Why ???

1) According to Gallup polls, over 40% of our fellow Americans believe God created human beings pretty much in their current form as recently as 10,000 years ago. An additional nearly 40% believe God guided evolution over a longer period. That means four out of five Americans accept God as Creator, Designer, and/or Guider. Fewer than one in seven accept the mainstream scientific explantion that God had no part in the process. Hard as this is to believe, it is a fact to be contended with. "Head in the sand" won't work!

2) What better place than a science class to demonstrate use of the scientific method to evaluate ID vs Darwin? Give the best possible arguments for ID, using examples directly from their textbooks. Do the same for Darwin and then ask the hard questions. For example:

  • If ID is true, the first biological cells on Earth were designed and brought here by alien space travelers or by God.

  1. If the former, how did the alien space travelers originate? Perhaps they evolved through a Darwinian process on some other planet? If so, Darwin got the process right but the planet wrong! Perhaps meteors harboring live biological cells were flying through space and seeding life on various planets including Earth? How did life originate on the meteors? If not by some Darwinian process, life always existed on those meteors! Does that make any sense?

  2. If the latter, how did God come into existence? Did God design and create Himself or was it a Super-God who created Him, and so on with Super-Duper-Gods all the way up? You say God always existed? Does that make any sense?
3) Even though flogiston was a discredited idea, I learned about it in science class! It was a great lesson in the scientific method! Early scientists weighed a piece of wood, burned it, and then weighed the ashes. Sure enough, the ashes weighed less than the original wood, which proved that the fire and heat was due to the flogiston leaving the wood. QED. Then, some smarter scientist repeated the experiment in a closed chamber. The results were just the opposite. Oxygen from the air combined with the carbon from the wood producing energy and carbon dioxide, which is why the ashes plus the smoke weighed more than the original wood.

4) Same story about the discredited idea the Sun and stars rotated about the Earth or that maggots were generated spontaneously on dead meat or that alchemists could change lead into gold and all those other early science myths. The best way to demonstrate the scientific method is to ... uh ... demonstrate the scientfic method!

5) Given the Gallup poll results, it is highly likely a student will be exposed to "scientific" ID by his or her family, friends, neighbors, religious leaders, and even some politicos running for president of the USA. Shouldn't they understand what is behind the ID concept and know the pros and cons? We push sex education in the schools to counteract information students are bound to pick up on the streets. Isn't understanding Darwinism as important?

6) Any responsible social sciences curriculum should include information about alternatives to democracy, including discredited forms of government such as monarchies, theocracies, fascism, communism, and so on. In each case, a fair presentation should be made of the arguments for that form of government, historical examples of widespread prevalence of that form, and examples of problems.

7) Darwinism has nothing to fear from ID! The arguments for a naturalistic chemical origin of life (autocatalytic cycles, RNA, DNA, ...) and neo-Darwinian evolution and natural selection are very strong. Scientists have been studying the laws of nature and properties of energy and matter for quite some time and are always discovering new things about them. We believe the laws of nature are Universal, the same in every corner of the Universe. We believe those laws and material properties guarantee that, over billions of years and with billions of stars and planets, life was bound to come into existence without any external intelligent designer. So, it is quite natural and totally expected that life came into existence, and here we are on Earth to prove it. Where did those complex laws of nature and matter/energy come from? How did they originate? Well, they always existed! (OOPS)

Ira Glickstein


Howard Pattee said...

Ira, I agree. Here are a few questions and facts I would use in teaching your evolution class.

1. Of all the millions of species that have evolved over 5 billion years, only a few percent survive. All the rest have become extinct. This fact is what you would expect
according to competitive Darwinian natural selection. Is that "intelligent design"?

2. All living organisms depend on a predator-prey food web. Except for the simplest bacteria that live entirely on non-living matter, every organism eats other organisms to stay alive. Every organism eats other organisms and is eventually eaten by other organisms. This is what makes Darwinian evolution work. Is that "intelligent design"?

3. The lifetime of species varies enormously from hundreds of millions of years to thousands of years. The group with external skeletons has done the best, the crustaceans and insects (Phylum Arthropoda). Shrimp and cockroaches will probably survive long after humans are extinct. This led Haldane to remark that if God created the species he must have had an inordinate fondness for beetles. Does that sound like “intelligent design”?

4. Humans are the first species that can use their brains to control their evolution (by artificial rather than natural selection). It is not at all clear that this ability to control is intelligent enough to beat natural selection. We have not yet controlled population, pollution, disease, or genocide, each of which is likely to lead to extinction. Humans kill each other faster than any other species kill each other. Humans also kill other species more carelessly and consistently than any other. Is that “intelligent design”?

5. Mutations are always partially chance events, but are not entirely random. The search process is very sophisticated. Critics of Darwinism often use the "needle in the haystack" metaphor where the haystack is too large and the needle too small to expect any success. But it turns out that there are many needles more or less uniformly distributed throughout the haystack, so successful mutants are more likely. (This can be instructively simulated.)

6. All organisms use the same basic materials and have evolved very similar genetic information (DNA base sequences) for survival. Even though there is a vast diversity in the shapes and sizes of organisms, the molecules that form the building blocks are very similar. Very small changes (mutations) in DNA sequences can produce very large effects. There are no “missing links” as creationists claim. The biggest differences are not in the parts but in the way they are put together (called "development" in multicellular organisms). For example, over 95% of human genes are exactly the same as chimpanzee genes.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard for your kind Comments. All your facts, as far as I know, are true, however you seem to set what would be expected from Darwinian processes against what some "intelligent design" would call for.

If the Intelligent Designer was a "loving God", I agree the Design would be quite different. However, if the Designer was an intelligent but disinterested System Engineer, I think He (or She) would Design things quite like they are. (Einstein famously asked if God had any choice in the design of the Universe, implying a Spinozian Pantheistic God would not.)

Your item (1) notes most evolved species go extinct after some time. True enough. However, most inventions of undoubtedly intelligent humans also go extinct. For example, most ancient weapons and defenses, old forms of transportation, farming tools, food preparation and preservation and so on. In our lifetimes, several generations of radio and TV and phone technology have gone, or are going extinct, and we are now on our fourth or fifth generation of computer technology and software languages. Any evolutionary process, even one undoubtedly the work of the most intelligent human minds, works much like Darwinian evolution. So, extinction is not a strong argument against intelligent design.

Item (2) implies the predator-prey food chain is not an example of intelligent design. Again, a good, environmentally-sensitive System Engineer designing a civilization would attempt to recycle and reuse the byproducts of society. While a loving personal God would be distressed by the terror inflicted on prey by predators, a disinterested Pantheistic God would not care.

Item (3) notes the great success of external skeleton bug species. (Bugs are not the most successful since the majority of Earth's biomass consists of single-cell life - bacteria.) I don't think a personal God would get much pleasure communing with bacteria or bugs, but an intelligent, disinterested Pantheistic God would choose the best combination of life forms for maximum throughput of matter and energy.

Item (4) notes the imperfections of humans and the likelihood we will propell ourselves to extinction. IMHO Pantheistic God evolved humans to do things He (or She) could not do naturally, like genetic engineering to mix the genes of species, like fish and tomatoes that cannot mate naturally, and invent robotic androids with capabilities beyond ordinary biological capabilities. That is an intelligent design strategy and, when the human species finishes our task, the Pantheistic System Engineer will be quite content with our android successors (or whatever).

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

I'm pretty much in agreement with the scientific aspects of both your presentations. There are other dimensions that need to be taken into account before changing public policy in the classroom. One dimension is "consider the source." The primary authors of I.D. have long been involved in the goal of teaching of creationism in science classes. Intelligent design appears to the court as being a way of getting around court decisions promoting separation of church and state rather than serious science. Another dimension is locus. A plan exposing students to both evolution and creationism as science might be carried out to the benefit of the students in a cosmopolitan area, where curriculum designers are of diverse backgrounds. In homogeneous small towns all over the US the situation may be otherwise. Darwinism could well come out on the short side of the argument in a biased community. The children in such a community are already subject to religious conformity pressures without adding to their burden by making creationism part of the official public school curriculum.

You both didn't seem to be too concerned with telling the truth when it came to African intelligence quotients. People's perceptions were more important. Could the same be true to some degree when it comes to evolution? It's an inconvenient truth. Maybe we should sweep it under the rug until college biology courses out of respect for people's religious sensitivities. Think how much strife that would save. With respect -Joel