intelligent design

Mattghg posted something about how Scott Adams, the Dilbert artist, doesn’t believe in evolution. I responded:

Scott Adams also thinks that gravity is caused by the fact that everything is expanding, and that if you write down something you want to happen several times a day, it will come to pass. While this doesn’t mean he’s necessarily wrong about evolution, I think he’s a contrarian who likes to throw out wild ideas about how the scientists are wrong. To deny evolution is on a par with the expansion=gravity idea: it’s only Americans who think there is a controversy, because of the wedge strategy of the creationists (now known as intelligent design advocates).

Matt has made another post about my last sentence, taking issue with my assertion that there is no controversy. He links to Jerry Fodor’s recent article in the LRB as an example of a someone who says that there is a controversy. He also objects to me lumping the Intelligent Design (ID) crowd in with the Young Earth Creationists.

I have at least two PhD biologists on my friends’ list. They know much more about this stuff than me, so I hope they’ll point out my errors in what follows. That said, I thought I’d have a go anyway. So:

I probably should have said that by “controversy” I mean the specific idea that ID-ers want taught in schools, namely that there’s some serious disagreement among biologists about whether an intelligent designer is required to explain some biological structures. I’m not saying all biologists agree on every detail of how evolution works.

That said, Fodor’s article is, I’d guess, a typical example of someone from outside the field misunderstanding the details of debates within it (hence my hope that my biologist friends will correct me where I’m wrong). He talks about the constraints of embryology and existing forms as if this were breaking news to people like Dawkins. As it happens, I’m reading Climbing Mount Improbable as the moment, where Dawkins, writing back in 1996, talks about the evolution of the eye. He tells us that “Once a good eye has started to evolve with its retina back-to-front, the only way to ascend [the fitness landscape] is to improve the present design of the eye… the vertebrate retina faces the way it does because of the way it develops in the embryo, and this certainly goes back to its distant ancestors”. A recent entry by davegodfrey, a paleobiologist, addresses some of the other oddities in Fodor’s essay.

But biologists do disagree. ID-ers like to see this disagreement, because it allows them to tell the biologists that the resolution is right in front of their noses: God did it! (if you doubt that the ID-ers’ intelligent designer is God, read their own strategy document, which lays out the aims of the movement). This is just the sort of “me too Daddy” helpfulness that you get from New Agers about quantum physics. Unfortunately it loses its charm when grown-ups do it (and it’s not made any more convincing by the fact that some very distinguished scientists go along with it: there’s no idea so silly that you can’t find a PhD, or even a Nobel prizewinner, who’ll agree with it). No wonder the biologists are annoyed by this sort of thing.

ID-ers assume that if there is a disagreement among biologists, evolutionary theory is in crisis, and that the solution must be ID. As the ID-er linked to by Matt said “Of course, one of those alternatives, not mentioned by Fodor, is ID.” There’s a reason by Fodor didn’t mention that alternative. As Dawkins and Coyne said in their Guardian article: “The other side is never required to produce one iota of evidence, but is deemed to have won automatically, the moment the first side encounters a difficulty – the sort of difficulty that all sciences encounter every day, and go to work to solve, with relish.”

On the point of what “creationism” means, it’s clear from the Discovery Institute’s own documentation that their aim is to provide a stepping stone to creationism while sneaking around the American restrictions on the establishment of religion, specifically on the teaching of creationism in schools. This is so well known that I suspect ID will need to reinvent itself soon in its continual game of cat-and-mouse with the US court system. Wikipedia links to Panda’s Thumb, which claims that “critical analysis of evolution” is the new buzz phrase. We’ll have to see how that one works out for them, I suppose.