Teachers in Focus Magazine, 2000

The World of Design


By Mark Hartwig

Is "intelligent design" legitimate science? Or is it just religion in disguise? Here's a beginner's guide to the world of intelligent design.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is keeping its eye on biology teacher Roger DeHart. His offense? Teaching his students a theory called "intelligent design."

For more than 10 years DeHart has taught a two-week segment on evolution in his biology classes at Burlington-Edison High School in Burlington, Wash. At the end of the segment he would spend a class period discussing problems with naturalistic evolution and presenting the view that living organisms arose not from blind natural processes, but from an intelligent source.

When a student complained anonymously to the ACLU of Washington State, the group filed a complaint with DeHart's district accusing him of "presenting the discredited and illegal theory of creationism." It also alleged that DeHart "worked hard to persuade the students that a religious-based theory was a 'better explanation' than the scientific theory of human evolution presented in the district-approved textbook."

A district investigation, including interviews with students, found nothing to substantiate the allegations. But the ACLU pressed its complaint and went to the media, sparking a local furor. A group of citizens opposed to DeHart placed a full-page ad in the local paper warning that the "religious right" was using "intelligent design" to circumvent the law and teach creationism in the classroom.

In response to the pressure, the district forbade DeHart from teaching intelligent design and required him to obtain district approval before teaching anything critical of evolution. The district even rejected his request to distribute articles from such mainstream journals as Nature, Natural History and The American Biology Teacher.

DeHart's case is far from unique. In Kanawha County, W.Va., a panel of science teachers drew fire when they unanimously recommended that the district buy 47 copies of the textbook, Of Pandas and People, which presents an intelligent design perspective. Though the text was being purchased only for teachers, the panel was slammed for promoting creationism. Similar efforts elsewhere have been denounced as an attempt to bring religion into the science classroom.

What is it about intelligent design that is stirring such controversy? Is it really "a smoke screen for creationists who have lost in the courts," as the Washington ACLU alleges? Or is it legitimate science? Here are the answers to some basic questions about intelligent design.

What is Intelligent Design?

Intelligent design is a concept all of us understand, though we may not call it by that name. We use it every time we distinguish between things that "just happen" and things that happen "on purpose."

In his book, The Design Inference, mathematician and philosopher William Dembski introduces the notion of intelligent design with the example of Nicholas Caputo, the "man with the golden arm."

For decades Caputo, a Democrat, was county clerk of Essex County, N. J. In county elections, part of his job was to determine the order in which candidates would appear on the ballot. Although the order of the candidates' names was supposed to be determined randomly, Democratic candidates took the top spot on the ballot 40 out of 41 times.

Did these results just happen or do they show evidence of design? Most of us would have no trouble deciding. Similarly, we would have no problem detecting design in, say, letters written in the sand or a row of trees trimmed to look like Disney characters. Though we might have problems distinguishing an arrowhead from a rock, archaeologists make a living by drawing such distinctions--that is, by detecting design.

The theory of intelligent design takes this notion and applies it to the living world. It looks at an organism or biological system and asks: Is this the result of undirected natural processes, or is it the result of design?

How do you Judge? Isn't that Pretty Subjective?

Until recently, yes. Since the time of ancient Greece, prominent scientists, theologians and philosophers alike have noted that the natural world looks very much as if it were designed. But they never had any rigorous standards for making that judgment.

Over the last few decades, however, advances in biology, mathematics and information theory have made it possible to nail down what we mean when we say an object or organism is designed. In particular, design theorists look for the presence of specified complexity. Wherever we find this, they say, we have found design.

What is specified complexity? Let's look at an example.

Imagine that a friend hands you a sheet of paper on which the first sentence of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is written:

FOURSCOREANDSEVENYEARSAGOOUR
FATHERSBROUGHTFORTHONTHISCON
TINENTANEWNATIONCONCEIVEDINLIB
ERTYANDDEDICATEDTOTHEPROPOSI
TIONTHATALLMENARECREATEDEQUAL

As you read it, your friend tells you that he wrote the sentence using his Scrabble game: "I put a bunch of Scrabble pieces in a paper bag and shook it. I took out a piece, wrote down the letter, put the piece back in the bag and shook the bag again. Then I took out another piece, wrote down its letter, and so on."

Would you believe him? Probably not. But why?

One reason is that the odds against it are just too high. We all know that some things don't happen by chance. Stones don't turn into arrowheads by natural erosion. Writing doesn't appear in the sand by the action of waves. And English sentences don't come from drawing letters out of a bag.

But there's more to design than low probabilities. When you think of it, any long sequence of letters is highly improbable. (If you don't believe that, try coming up with the same sequence twice.) Yet if our friend had showed us the following string of letters, we would probably believe his story:

ZOEFFNPBINGNQZAMZQPEGOXSYFM
RTEWZNYGRRGNNFVGUMLMTYQXTX
WORNBWIGBBCVHPUWMZLMN
HATQUGOTFJKZXFHPPXNGOSBJGODKN
MLXTQONIFKDGBVWKHNDCJY
WDXLUPDISLZMGDDMLG

Why? Because of the sequence we see. The first string fits a recognizable pattern: It's a sentence written in English, minus spaces and punctuation. The second string fits no such pattern.

Now we're in a position to understand specified complexity. When a design theorist says that an object is specified, he's saying that it fits a recognizable pattern. And when he says it's complex, he's saying that there are so many different ways the object could have turned out that the probability of getting any particular outcome by chance is vanishingly small.

Thus, our first string of letters is both specified and complex. Our second string of letters is complex but not specified. And if our friend had shown us a string of letters like "FOUR" we would have said that it was specified but not complex. Although it fits a pattern, its occurrence is not that improbable because the sequence of letters is so short. Four slots don't give you as many possible letter combinations as 143, which is the length of our Gettysburg sentence.

But You're Talking about Writing and Human Implements. How Does that Apply to Biology?

To answer that question, let's turn to the world of biochemistry, which studies life at its simplest level--the level of molecules. One of the things that biology has discovered in the last few decades is that living cells are extremely complex. In a recent issue of the biology journal Cell, Bruce Alberts, a leading cell biologist and president of the National Academy of Sciences, observed:

The entire cell can be viewed as a factory that contains an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of large protein machines. ... Why do we call the large protein assemblies that underlie cell function protein machines? Precisely because, like machines invented by humans to deal efficiently with the macroscopic world, these protein assemblies contain highly coordinated moving parts.

Intelligent design theorists hypothesize that these protein machines were designed--and that the concept of specified complexity can help us test this hypothesis.

One relatively "simple" machine is the flagellum, a rotary outboard motor that some bacteria use to swim around in their environment. Is this system designed?

Contemporary evolutionary theory (neo-Darwinism) would say no: All biological systems were generated by an accumulation of random genetic mutations that are preserved by natural selection--or survival of the fittest. Existing systems are simply modifications of earlier systems, which were modifications of even earlier systems, and so on.

The answer given by intelligent design, on the other hand, is yes--if the system exhibits specified complexity.

How do you test these answers?

Both sides agree that the system is complex. It's made up of about 20 different proteins, and another 20 proteins are needed to construct it. The proteins themselves are as complex as sentences with hundreds of letters.

The question, then, is how specified the system is: How broad is the pattern for a working system?

One way to answer this question is to tinker with the system by systematically tweaking or knocking out proteins and see how far we can get before the system stops working. If the system can tolerate a broad range of variations, then the system isn't very specified, and an undirected, stepwise process is plausible. But if the system can tolerate only a very narrow range of variations before it stops working, then the system is highly specified--and the likelihood of producing it by such a process becomes so remote that we reject it.

If a system cannot tolerate the loss of even a single part, a stepwise explanation is impossible because there are no "steps." Such a system exhibits not only specified complexity, but irreducible complexity.

As it turns out, the flagellum exhibits a high level of specified complexity. In fact, we can say it exhibits irreducible complexity, because it cannot tolerate the loss of even a single protein. If any protein is missing, the flagellum doesn't work. Its function isn't merely diminished. It disappears altogether.

Haven't Scientists Shown That These Systems Evolved Naturalistically?

You will often hear that contemporary evolution theory is supported by overwhelming evidence. But much of this evidence is unimpressive unless you're already convinced that naturalistic evolution must be true.

For example, following the news last June that the human genome had been sequenced, Nobel laureate David Baltimore announced in a New York Times opinion piece that the discovery "confirms something obvious and expected, yet controversial: our genes look much like those of fruit flies, worms and even plants. ... [t]he genome shows that we all descended from the same humble beginnings and that the connections are written in our genes. That should be, but won't be, the end of creationism."

Such "evidence" is not remotely decisive--unless you've already assumed that only naturalistic causes could have created such organisms as fruit flies, worms and humans. But that's precisely what is at issue.

In fact, there is substantial evidence against contemporary evolution theory. But there's not enough space here to review it. If you'd like to follow up on this, see some of the resources listed at the end of this article.

Aren't You Really Talking about Something that's Supernatural?

Let's go back to the flagellum.

A flagellum is a flagellum. It remains a flagellum no matter what its origins. We can take it apart, we can examine its components, we can figure out how it works. And we can do that whether it evolved over eons or popped into existence two seconds ago.

In the world of human technology, this is called reverse engineering. And it's done all the time in biology.

"That's basically what everybody at the bench is doing," said Scott Minnich, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho. "We don't have the blueprints in the true sense. We have the DNA code for a lot of organisms, but in terms of the assembly of these molecular machines, it's a matter of breaking them apart and trying to put them back together to figure out how they function."

Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, echoed that assessment when he commented on the human genome breakthrough last June: "The important thing is having pieces of DNA in your hand, and being able to figure out how they work by modifying and mutating them. That's where the game is now."

Fittingly, the metaphor he used was a clock: "You can take the clock apart, lay the pieces out in front of you, and then try to understand what makes it tick by putting it back together again."

No matter how a system originated, then, biologists can study it. And they can ask, "Does this system before me exhibit the hallmarks of design? Does it exhibit specified complexity?"

Legally, Though, Isn't "Intelligent Design" Another Name for "Scientific Creationism"?

No. These are two different animals.

Legally, scientific creationism is defined by the following six tenets, taken together:

Intelligent design, on the other hand, involves two basic assumptions: that intelligent causes exist and that they can be empirically detected--by looking for specified complexity.

"This is a very modest, minimalist position," Dembski said. "It doesn't speculate about a Creator or his intentions."

In one federal court case, Freiler vs. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, intelligent design has been equated with scientific creationism. But according to David DeWolf, a law professor at the Gonzaga University School of Law, this finding came in a tangential statement in the judge's decision.

The case wasn't about intelligent design, DeWolf said, but whether a disclaimer about evolution constituted an establishment of religion: "The judge was simply laying out the general landscape of creation theories. In one sentence, he said intelligent design is another name by which you may know creationism."

The judge struck down the disclaimer, and his decision was upheld by a panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. But in the appellate opinion, intelligent design is never even mentioned.

"There's no finding in which you can say, 'Aha! See, the courts have found that intelligent design is just the same,' " DeWolf said. "If you cited that as your authority in a lawsuit, a judge would be pretty mad at you for having misled him into thinking that this proposition had been established."

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the apellate court's decision.

How Many Scientists Take this Stuff Seriously?

Intelligent design is still a minority position, but even many scholars who disagree with it are intrigued by the idea--and can't seem to get it out of their minds.

Elliot Sober, for example, is a distinguished philosopher of science at the University of Wisconsin, and was recently president of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association. Although he is skeptical of intelligent design, he nonetheless spent much of his 1999 presidential address grappling with it. He also took the time, along with two of his graduate students, to write a long review of William Dembski's book, The Design Inference.

Others have also become intrigued. This spring, eminent philosophers and scientists--including two Nobel laureates--traveled from as far away as Switzerland and France to attend a conference at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, where the main topic was intelligent design. Although many were skeptical of intelligent design, they clearly thought it warranted serious attention--and enjoyed the give-and-take with intelligent design theorists.

Biologist and philosopher of science Paul Nelson, who participated in the conference, observed, "These world-class scientists came to the conference, had a great time, good interaction and, almost to a person, thought the conference was worth doing."

Despite opposition in the culture and in science, Nelson said, the intelligent design movement will continue to grow.

"It's not the kind of thing you change overnight," Nelson said. "But there's a steady, healthy growth of the intelligent design community. We're bringing in a lot of people of diverse backgrounds and diverse viewpoints."

In short, Nelson said, "the little plant of intelligent design continues to flourish."

Resources on Intelligent Design

Want to learn more about intelligent design? Be sure to check out the following resources:

What's Darwin Got to Do with It? A Friendly Conversation about Evolution. A simple, lighthearted introduction to Darwinism and intelligent design. A great resource for teens.

Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. This high school supplemental text provides comprehensive coverage of the scientific issues surrounding Darwinism and intelligent design.

Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula: A Legal Guidebook. A compact, thoroughly researched work, written by two legal scholars and a philosopher of science. A must-read. Available in booklet form from the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, or on the Web at www.arn.org/docs/dewolf/guidebook.htm.

For a list of other readings, check out the Access Research Network's Recommended Origins Reading List as well as their online product catalog.

Mark Hartwig is editor of Teachers in Focus magazine.