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Published Reactions to Intelligent Design

For thoughtful and readable articles on science, we recommend both American Scientist and New Scientist; for subscription information, see their websites.

American Scientist, the magazine of Sigma Xi (the science honor society)

From: Being Stalked by Intelligent Design by Pat Shipman, Nov-Dec 2005 (see complete article on the American Scientist website)


Of Questionable Intelligence

The main premise of ID is that the living organisms on Earth are so complex and so intricately constructed that they cannot plausibly have arisen through the unguided action of natural selection, so there must be an "intelligent designer." (This entity is usually identified as God, but in a deposition taken January 3, 2005, Dover Superintendent  Nilsen suggested that the "master intellect" described in an ID textbook might also be an alien.)

In rhetoric, the line of reasoning used by ID advocates is known as an argument by incredulity. Because what is entirely plausible to one person is ludicrously unlikely to another, arguments by incredulity are inherently weak. ID is not a scientific theory amenable to testing, but an opinion, a philosophical preference, a belief. That fact made it easy for me to dismiss the ID movement as scientifically unimportant.

I might have settled back into complacency had I not learned that students in the public high school in my town—a town dominated by a major university—can "opt out" of learning about evolution if their parents send a letter to the school. Allowing students to "opt out" of learning the basic facts and theories of biology is about as wise as allowing them to "opt out" of algebra or English: It constitutes malfeasance.

Do not mistake my objection. If my neighbors and their children wish to believe in Intelligent Design as a matter of faith that is fine with me. What I object to most strenuously is the presentation of a religious belief as a scientific theory in a science class.

New Scientist Magazine
Recent issues of New Scientist, a weekly magazine published in Great Britain, have contained several feature-length articles on "Intelligent Design" and the associated politics.  Complete articles are open only to subscribers; excerpts are presented below. 

Excerpted from: Survival of the Slickest, by Lawrence Krauss, 9 July 2005

. . .In the interests of fair play, [ID advocates say], public schools should "teach the controversy" over Darwinian evolution. This phrase has become the mantra of the ID movement. It is a brilliant manoeuvre, because it implies that there is a scientific controversy. In this sense the ID movement has already won the PR battle. Most Americans believe that Darwinian evolution is controversial - more so than relativity or quantum mechanics, say. By contrast, ID is neither well-defined nor debated in the scientific literature.

Who could disagree with fairness and open-mindedness? These qualities are vital to education and science. But this is not really the ID movement's aim. One of my debating opponents was Jonathan Wells, a fellow of the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank in Seattle, who has a PhD in biology. He claimed his attacks on evolution follow from his years of studying biology. But in an essay entitled "Darwinism: Why I went for my second PhD", he says that as a follower of the Unification Church's founder, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, he was given a mission to undermine Darwinism. Only then did he decide a degree in biology would boost his credentials.

At a recent debate, Stephen Meyer, also at the Discovery Institute and my other debating opponent in Ohio, indicated that one of the reasons why humans and chimpanzees cannot share a common ancestor is that humans have immortal souls and chimps do not. Comments such as these underscore the theological rather than scientific nature of the Discovery Institute's attacks on evolution. .

Excerpted from: A Sceptic's Guide to Intelligent Design, by Bob Holmes and James Randerson, 9 July 2005

...[ID advocate William] Dembski argues that the odds against getting complex structures from chance mutations are insurmountable. For two proteins to interact to perform some new function, for example, their shapes would have to fit together. So in principle, he says, we can calculate the probability that one protein could change by chance to fit perfectly with another. Two such studies have been done. In both cases, Dembski claims the odds were so long as to rule out an explanation based on chance events.

But these calculations are logically flawed because they focus on a single, specified outcome, says Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, a leading critic of ID. "It's what statisticians call a retrospective fallacy." It is like equating the odds of drawing two pairs in poker with the odds of drawing a particular two-pair hand - say a pair of red queens, a pair of black 10s and the ace of clubs. "By demanding a particular outcome, as opposed to a functional outcome, you stack the odds," Miller says. What these calculations fail to recognise is that many different protein sequences can be functional. It is not uncommon for proteins in different species to vary by 80 to 90 per cent, yet still perform the same function.

The "improbability argument" also misrepresents natural selection. It is correct to say that a set of simultaneous mutations that form a complex protein structure is so unlikely as to be unfeasible, but that is not what Darwin advocated. His explanation is based on small accumulated changes that take place without a final goal. Each step must be advantageous in its own right, although biologists may not yet understand the reason behind all of them.

There is also evidence that "irreducible complexity" is an illusion. Take, for example, the bacterial flagellum with its 40 proteins. One species, the stomach bacterium Helicobacter pylori, has a flagellum with just 33 proteins - "irreducibility" reduced. More tellingly, a subset of flagellar proteins turns out to serve an entirely different function, forming a mechanism called the type III secretory system, which pathogenic bacteria use to inject toxins into their host's cells. Similarly, jawless fish accomplish blood clotting with just six proteins instead of the full 10.

So while it is true that no biologist has worked out the precise series of events that resulted in a flagellum, that in itself is not a refutation of natural selection, says Miller. It has long been argued that natural selection works by adapting pre-existing systems for new roles. The evidence so far points to exactly this process for the flagellum.

Crucially, ID does not make testable predictions. Its prediction that we should find evidence of a designer is actually nothing of the kind, say scientists: rather, it is a catch-all that takes up anything that natural selection cannot - so far, at least - explain. Dembski admits as much in his 2004 book The Design Revolution: "To require of ID that it predict specific novel instances of design in nature is to put design in the same boat as natural laws, locating their explanatory power in an extrapolation from past experience." . .

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