Friday, August 12, 2005

Distributed Intelligent Design?

As I've said before, Intelligent Design (ID) is not a scientific theory. Interestingly, this view is shared by President Bush's scientific advisor, John Marburger. However, despite such enlightened advice, the President recently told reporters that "both sides ought to be properly taught, so people can understand what the debate is about". It would seem that Bush doesn't talk often enough to his advisor; or maybe he doesn't really listen. (Red State Rabble has an interesting analysis of the hypocrisy of Bush's statement when applied to other debates.)

So why do scientists remain unconvinced? Perhaps it's because ID is just the old argument from design warmed up, and this argument was demolished nearly 150 years ago with the publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species". Scientists don't particularly enjoy flogging a dead horse.

Alas, flog it we must until we succeed in removing its rotten corpse from science classrooms everywhere. (See, for example, what's going on in Kansas and Pennsylvania.) Today I won't bother to come up with any new arguments, but will, instead, attack ID by reheating another old argument -- indeed, I think there is a certain poetic justice to it. To do so, I turn to JBS Haldane's classic essay "The Argument from Design", written in 1944. I was recently introduced to it by my colleague Dan Graur, who is a great fan of JBS'. (And not just scientifically, as you might expect from a population geneticist. They also share a peculiar sense of humor -- you can get an idea of what this means by reading JBS' bizarre ode to rectal carcinoma).

In his essay, Haldane develops an argument that I haven't come across recently. He begins by conceding that we should consider arguments from design:

The chemical organisation of a cell is immensely complicated, and it is hard to see how an organism could work at all unless it were of extreme chemical complexity. I think, therefore, that a reasonable man should be prepared to examine arguments which assume a measure of design in living creatures, even though I do not personally think that they are cogent.

(Remarkably prescient of ID arguments, wouldn't you say?)

Next, he summarizes the argument from design, in the form of Paley's famous analogy:

Paley imagined an intelligent savage picking up a watch and concluding that it had been designed. He then argued that animals show far more evidence of design than watches. And he next argued that the designer had many of the characteristics of the God whom he worshipped.

JBS then points out a major weakness in the argument:

Now the most conspicuous features of animal organisation are those which are designed (if they are designed) for competition with other living creatures, and often for their destruction. All animals live by eating other animals or plants. They may kill them [...] or merely eat parts of them [...] The plants generally compete by pushing, rather than biting. [...] Though only a few higher plants [...] actually eat other living things, they are all engaged in a merciless struggle for life.

Of course biologists have devoted much of their time to the internal co-ordination of organisms. If this is attributed to a designer it shows very great ingenuity and no malice. However, a tank resembles a motor-car or a tractor in many of its features, buts its essential function is to carry a gun for the purpose of destruction. And when we consider animals, not in terms of the relations of their parts but of their relations to other animals, the same is true of them.

If, then, animals were designed, they were designed for mutual destruction. If there was one designer, he is or was a being with a passion for slaughter, like that of the ancient Romans, and the world is his Colosseum. A much more reasonable consequence of the hypothesis of design is Polytheism. If each one of the million or so animal species were the product of a different god, their mutual struggle would be intelligible. [...]

Wherever Paley's argument leads, it does not lead to Christianity. If pushed to its logical conclusion it forces us to believe in a malignant creator or, more probably, in a number of malignant creators. Certainly this creator or these creators are not wholly malignant. The world of life contains a great deal of beauty and pleasure, but one can admire the beauty only by closing one's consciousness to the pain and injustice which are bound up with it.

So the next time you hear a proponent of ID harping on about the "intelligent designer" (guess who they mean?), you should reply: "surely you mean designers!"