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Karl Giberson, Ph.D Headshot

Intelligent Design's Coffin Is Still Empty

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Mark Twain once famously said, approximately, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

For some reason people love to pronounce as dead those ideas -- and perhaps people -- that they don't like, even while they are very much alive and walking around with great vigor. In 1972 America's greatest foe of evolution announced that the theory was dead in a book titled The Twilight of Evolution. Almost 40 years later The Death of Evolution repeated the claim. Another book with the same title will be published later this year.

The blogosphere is alive right now with eulogies about the death of Intelligent Design, the movement having been slain by biologist John Avise in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

In a recent Huffington Post blog, Michael Zimmerman put the case like this: "In case you had any doubt, the last nail was just placed in the coffin of intelligent design (ID)."

Don't believe it.

ID is alive and well and, if it is ever slain, its slayer will not be yet another account of how badly designed things are in nature. ID enthusiasts have sore backs and twisted knees just like the rest of us and understand that nature is not uniformly well-designed. Finding flawed blueprints in our genomes to go with the flawed mechanics of our bodies simply adds to an already long list of challenges to ID -- unsuccessful challenges, I might add.

ID's coffin is far from being nailed shut. Several things are propping it open:

1) The complex designs of many natural structures that have not yet been explained by science. As long as there are ingenious devices and intricate phenomena in nature (origin of life, anyone?) that we cannot understand, there will be ID arguments.

2) The remarkable, finely-tuned structure of the cosmos in which the laws of physics collaborate to make life possible. Many agnostics have had their faith in unguided materialism shaken by this, most recently Anthony Flew.

3) The widespread belief that God -- an intelligent agent -- created the universe. The claim that an intelligent God created an unintelligent universe seems peculiar, to say the least.

4) The enthusiastic insistence by the New Atheists that evolution is incompatible with belief in God. Most people think more highly of their religion than their science. Imagine trying to get 100 million Americans to dress up for a science lecture every Sunday morning -- and then voluntarily pay for the privilege.

ID's coffin will remain open -- and empty -- as least as long as these props remain. Science is working successfully only on the first prop above and is a long way from having explained all the mysteries of nature. The argument that because science has explained many things, it can explain all things, is not entirely compelling in a world as wonderful as this one. Many people think that sounds like blind faith. And long lists of bad designs in nature are not really more effective than short lists, especially when they seem attached to an anti-religious agenda.

Scientific arguments, unfortunately, often just do not work -- no matter what the subject -- if there are other factors involved.

Consider astrology. A 2009 Pew Poll showed that some 25 percent of Americans "believe" in astrology. President Reagan "believed" in astrology. Twenty million astrology books are sold each year. What is going on here? Didn't science thoroughly discredit astrology at roughly the same time it was establishing the motion of the earth? How can an idea so thoroughly refuted be so popular?

If the scientific community cannot successfully convince Americans to abandon belief in astrology -- which is not tied to any powerful religious tradition or even to belief in God -- what hope is there to refute an idea like Intelligent Design, which is so much more complex than astrology?

If the scientific community wants to dislodge ID, they need to start by admitting that their efforts have been an abysmal failure so far. And then they need to turn their considerable analytical skills on the problem of explaining that failure. If they do this, they might discover that enthusiastic pronouncements like "ID is dead" or "science has proven God does not exist" or "religion is stupid" or "creationists are insane" are not effective. They might discover that affirming that the universe is wonderful, despite our bad backs and the nonsense in our genomes, makes it easier for people to accept the bad design in nature.

And above all, they need to decide that it is OK for people to believe in God. For millions of Americans belief in ID is tied to belief in God. Unless people can find a way to separate them -- and not be told by agnostic bloggers this is impossible -- ID's coffin will remain empty.

Around the Web

Intelligent design - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Explaining the Science of Intelligent Design