Intelligent Design: Skeptical Thoughts about the Skepticism (1)

Never learned much biology. . . . But as time went on I came to understand that the accepted principles of a field of study contain, along with the true and profound, a certain amount of enshrined obtuseness bordering on stupidity. (The professions of academia and journalism are the chief examples in my catalogue, but there is no reason to believe that the sciences are exempt.) So there may be some advantage in looking at the Intelligent Design controversy from the outside.
When I looked at the controversy I expected to see the biologists and other scientists mounting impeccable arguments against Intelligent Design. After all, they claim to occupy the intellectual high ground, defending reason and science against the blind dogmatism of religionists. But I was disappointed. The scientists' arguments in some cases were shaky, and the scientists often seemed to expect the lay person to agree with their arguments simply because they came out of the mouths of scientists. In addition, a few objections to their position occurred to me independently, and I found no answer in what I heard. So I still have my doubts and skeptical questions, and these are what I will lay out in this column and the next one. I welcome good answers, if any are forthcoming.
I have no religious stake in the controversy. My only interest is clear and critical thinking, and I don't want to see one dogma attacked in the name of another.
First, a plague on both houses:
Evolution vs. natural selection. Evolution is one thing; natural selection is another. Evolution is the parade of the species through time, each species growing in some way out of what went before. Natural selection is the supposed means by which evolution comes about -- a process in which random mutation causes some slight change in a few individuals of a species and this change allows the individuals to thrive in its environment (nature "selects" these newcomers over their rivals) and eventually constitute a new and different species. Again, evolution and natural selection are two different processes, and the evidence that counts for one is different from the evidence that counts for the other. The evidence for evolution lies in the fossils of past species. The evidence for natural selection, as I understand it, lies mainly in the observable change in species in response to changes in their environment.
Furthermore, , Intelligent Design is compatible with evolution. (I.e., evolution could have been accomplished through Intelligent Design.) So the battle is not between Intelligent Design and evolution, but between Intelligent Design and natural selection.
That is why I am astounded and appalled to find evolution and natural selection thoroughly confused by those on both sides of the controversy. Generally, "evolution" is used to refer to both evolution and natural selection, with no effort to distinguish between the two, and no recognition that different kinds of evidence are relevant to the one and the other. So whether by intention or not, the evidence for evolution is used to support natural selection, or vice versa. The media follow along. For example, a recent article in The New York Times Week in Review spoke of "intelligent design as a challenge to evolution," and in several other places opposed evolution to Intelligent Design. (There are exceptions, to be sure. For example, Edward O. Wilson got it right when he spoke of "evolution by natural selection.")
To my mind, evolution is established fact, beyond any doubt. Not so natural selection. The basic question is: What has caused evolution? Is it natural selection? Or Intelligent Design? Or something else?
All of my comments and questions, therefore, refer to the battle between Intelligent Design and natural selection (not evolution). I begin with a claim that opponents of Intelligent Design see as settling the dispute once and for all, at least in the educational arena.

-- Intelligent design is not and cannot be science, because science is concerned solely with natural, observable events, not the supernatural. This is probably the scientists' most sweeping contention. It is clearly false, though the scientists might have a point behind the point.
Science is the fruit of scientific method, so we must take a close look at what the scientific method is. It begins with a hypothesis - a statement, or principle, that generates observable and specific predictions. If the predictions turn out to be true, the hypothesis itself is considered to be true (i.e. verified), and becomes part of established knowledge. If the predictions turn out to be false in whole or part, the hypothesis itself is thereby falsified. When a hypothesis is verified it is often accorded the status of a law. The term "theory" may apply at any stage of verification. (Thus to say that evolution is "just a theory" means nothing and betrays an ignorance of scientific method. The significant question is not what label is applied, but only the degree to which the hypothesis, law or theory has passed the test of verification.)
For example, the law of gravity states that all bodies attract one another. That, along with subordinate principles that specify how strong the attraction is, generate predictions about falling bodies. One of these is that freely falling bodies on the surface of the Earth will accelerate downward at a certain rate (32 ft. per second/second, if I remember correctly.) This prediction can be verified by observation, that is, we can look at freely falling bodies, measure their rate of acceleration, and determine whether the prediction is true or not. As a matter of fact, the predictions have turned out to be true. Thus the law of gravity has been verified. It is part of our body of knowledge.
But please note that the law of gravity itself is not an observable event, not part of nature. It is a principle, an idea. It resides, if anywhere, in the minds of those who think about it. The observables are the bodies falling at a certain rate in accordance with gravity, not the law that explains their fall.
The same holds true for an Intelligent Designer as explanation for the evolution of the species. One could formulate a hypothesis about the Intelligent Designer and draw predictions from it; if these predictions turned out to be true the Intelligent Design hypothesis would be acceptable as proven science. Of course, the Intelligent Design hypothesis would be different from the law of gravity in that the cause it appeals to would be a supernatural entity, rather than an abstract principle as in the case of gravity. But what of it? The sole function of science is to explain observable events. How the observable events are explained - as long as the explanation is adequate and consistent - is irrelevant. To exclude any possible explanation from consideration before it is tested is simply bad science.
What would an Intelligent Design hypothesis look like? (There might be a classroom exercise here.) It would of course assert that an Intelligent Designer exists and would generate predictions about the Intelligent Designer's effect in the world. These predictions would have to concern the future, not the past (otherwise they wouldn't be predictions), and for all practical purposes they would have to be general in form. Here's a rough possible example: "An all-powerful Intelligent Designer exists and has designed all the species so that every living creature enjoys complete happiness." To test the predictions generated by this hypothesis we would need a definition of "complete happiness" in terms of specific observable events. This is a tall order, but it's no more a challenge than the science of psychology faces (thus behaviorism). In any case, the point is irrelevant because on any conceivable definition of happiness, the hypothesis is false. But it gives some idea of what an Intelligent Design hypothesis might look like.
To my knowledge, no Intelligent Design proponent has formulated such a hypothesis, much less tried to verify it by testing its predictions. And in the absence of such an effort Intelligent Design remains only incipient science, or pseudo-science. But the mere fact that such an effort hasn't succeeded (or even been tried) doesn't mean that it couldn't be tried and couldn't be successful. Intelligent Design is not inherently or essentially unscientific.
But here's the point behind the point: It might be that intelligent design advocates don't care about predictions of observable events, because they just presume that an intelligent designer has caused all evolutionary changes. If that is the case, the Intelligent Design theory surely is unscientific, for its advocates are substituting their religious beliefs for the scientific method. So we need to be clear about what Intelligent Design advocates claim.
So far they seem to be content with the argument from irreducible complexity, which holds that living organisms are so complex that they couldn't possible have arisen through natural selection. This, as far as I can see, is not an effort to propose a hypothesis and test it; rather, it's an attempt to knock down someone else's hypothesis. Furthermore, the scientists seem to be doing pretty well in refuting it. In any case, it refers to the realm of observables, and can't be counted out as inherently or essentially unscientific.

Here are two more arguments made on behalf of natural selection:

-- If we abandon the doctrine of evolution through natural selection, we abandon the basic framework of all biology. This seems to be an extravagant claim, but even if it is true, so what? So much the worse for the basic framework of all biology if it must rely on a blind (should I say religious?) faith in evolution through natural selection.
Furthermore, it has become a truism that science advances through "paradigm shifts," the old framework being abandoned in favor of the new - e.g., the Newtonian paradigm replacing the Aristotelian. If this is true, then the true enemies of science are those who cling without justification to the old paradigm.

-- We see natural selection occurring all around us, as seen in the evolution of viruses and bacteria under attack by medications. This is true. When we take medication to combat viruses or bacteria - and especially when we stop taking the medication before we should -- some of these pathogens survive the medication Perhaps a random mutation serves to protect them, though I don't see how anyone can tell, and since the surviving pathogens are better suited to the environment than their fellow organisms, they survive and thrive. Thus we have a new strain that is resistant to our medication.
But what does this have to do with the evolution of species? The battle of the bacteria may offer us a rough illustration of how natural selection works, but it offers little if anything by way of proof. For we have one particular type of situation - and an artificial one at that, in which the agent of selection and evolution is introduced by human agents. (Ironically, human agents in this case play a role somewhat analogous to that of the Intelligent Designer.) To take this as evidence for a process of natural selection occurring in radically different environments, thousands or millions of years ago, involving quite different kinds of organisms, is a gross overgeneralization.

In the next issue I will bring up a few more questions and questionable points, including the story of the manipulated moth.
Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 1, Issue 13, Posted 12.54 PM / 30th December 2005.