A sharp debate has been raging for quite sometime in some high schools in the U.S.A. with regard to the teaching of evolution as science. It is contested by some religious conservatives that evolution is only a theory and not a scientific fact while almost all scientists regard evolution as a fact of science. It is proposed by some sections of teaching faculty to add word “may” to the assertion that “gradual change… over many generations may have resulted in variations among populations and species.” They would like to tell the students that “in many cases fossil records are not consistent with gradual, unbroken sequence stipulated by the principle of natural selection in the biological evolution of species.”
None of these propositions may be entirely false; but at the other end of the scale the theory of creationism proposed by some, to replace evolution is nothing more than a fairy-tale. However, some conservative Christians who support the idea of Intelligent Design wish to give it equal treatment with the theory of evolution.
Another interesting aspect of this debate in the U.S.A. is that the controversy around teaching evolution is raging only in schools while there is no such debate at university level biology curriculum studies.
The term “Intelligent Design” derives its force from an early 19th century explanation of the natural world given by an English Clergyman, William Paley. He was the person behind the famous water-maker analogy. He wrote in 182 that if you found a watch in a field you would conclude that such a fine and intricate mechanism could not have been produced by unplanned, unguided natural forces and that such a complex object could have been made only by an intelligent being. This view that the complexity of an organism is evidence for the existence of God prevailed until 1859, when Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” showed how natural selection could indeed “explain so many classes of acts”, as Darwin put it.
Proponents of intelligent design are renewing Paley’s argument with a new gloss from molecular biology. Darwin himself acknowledged that “if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” Michael Behe, whose book “Darwin’s Black Box” is one of the bibles of intelligent design, argues that complex systems will work only if all the components operate at once. He argues that you could not get such a thing from “successive, slight modifications”. Hence the molecular machines inside living beings are evidence of an intelligent designer God.
Intelligent design asks interesting questions about evolution, but since all its answers are usually “God”, scientists have rejected it. As the National Academy of Sciences has said, intelligent design “and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life” are not science because their claims cannot be tested by experiment and propose no alternative hypotheses of their own.
Intelligent Design (J.D.) theory uses the language of sciences to argue that will never understand nature unless we take supernatural into account. Thus the I.D. advocates argue that various biological structures are too complex or intelligent to have been created by natural selection and so must have been designed by someone. To stress their argument they introduce tow concepts. The first is irreducible complexity which proposes that some molecular systems, such as one that triggers blood clotting in humans, cannot be broken down further into smaller functioning units, and so could not have been created by natural selection. Second, the “specified complexity” uses probability theory to show that certain biological structures are so unlikely to have emerged through natural process that they must have been designed. They claim there must be a designer or creator to explain the intelligent design of the complexity biological processes and species.
These ideas may look plausible on surface, but with the scientific understanding it does because clear that they are fundamentally flowed. Crucially they cannot be tested in any meaningful way and hence cannot be justified as science. It may be appreciated that the clever analogy of a mechanical or electronic watch cannot be applied to molecular biology.
It should be obvious that if the idea of I.D. ever came to be accepted it would stop all research in the entire molecular biology and associated sciences. Science as an open-ended pursuit would come to an end and halted by an impenetrable barrier which would say, the designer did it and this designer can only be God since no man can be said to have invented these things.
Further, some advocates of I.D. in the name of fairness and balance argue that at least students should be taught the controversy surrounding evolution and the theory of I.D. Some non-scientists may but this argument in the spirit of even-handedness. But it is dangerous as we should not teach children half-baked or clever challenges to the established scientific principles, without such theories standing the test of scientific scrutiny.
Hence, still worse is the idea, “teach the controversy” to the students which would lead them to think that there is something fundamentally wrong with Darwin’s idea of evolution. Evolution by natural selection has survived 146 years of scientific scrutiny and has been called the most important concept of modern biology. This fact cannot be dislodged since some people feel uncomfortable about the concept of evolution as it is against the story of creation given in the Bible or other religious texts.
Evolution has helped us to interpret the fossil record, understand how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, and described the rapid changes in species taking place before our eyes. It explains some spectacular examples of mal-design, such as cave-dwelling species with functional eyes that are covered by skin flaps, We know children are born every now and then with physical and mental deformities and I.D. cannot explain such flaws. If God is the designer of biological machines that human beings are, there is no room for children being born with deformities; since the Divine cannot get it wrong. natural selection idea has even been harnessed by the biotechnology industry to create new drugs. by contrast, I.D. has produced not one prediction of value. Evidence against it is mounting form many branches of science, while supporting evidence comes only from a small group of committed and clever I.D. advocates who are trying to bring religious teaching into science classes through back-door. There is no scientific controversy between I.D. and evolution. The case for teaching them as valid alternatives is no stronger than the cause for teaching students about some supposed controversy between astrology and astronomy.
The whole debate about evolution gets its steam from the fact that there is no control model in nature to prove creation as an objective fact in the manner, as most of the science is done in a science lab. Yet, I.D. may qualify only as a religious belief, but it cannot be called science. We can teach it in philosophy or sociology, though its proper resting place would be history.
V.P Gupta, Director
Rau’s IAS Study Circle, New Delhi