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Thursday, February 16, 2006
Intelligent debate
Stabroek News

Media reports about court battles in America over the legality of teaching students about the theory of intelligent design (ID) are causing a stir around the world and have also made some impact in this country. Although proponents of ID have taken pains to explain that ID is not biblical creationism in disguise, a lot of the debate to be found in the local and international media mistakenly focuses on the opposing principles of creationism and evolution.

Many critics of ID argue that it is but a re-labelling of creationism, a faith-based alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution. They should be careful, for in their zeal for scientific truth, they run the risk of being treated by rational minds with the same distrust reserved for religious bigots.

ID advocates are capable of arguing, quite reasonably, that ID is not an idea based on religion, but an evidence-based scientific theory about life's origins. Professor Stephen C Meyer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle and one of the architects of the theory of ID, states that, for Darwinists, the appearance of design in living systems is "illusory", since the intricate structures found in living organisms are the result of an "undirected process of natural selection acting on random mutations." Not so, counters Professor Meyer, propounding that "there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by a designing intelligence." ID, according to Professor Meyer, does not challenge the idea of evolution defined as change over time, or even in terms of common ancestry, but "it disputes Darwin's idea that the cause of biological change is wholly blind and undirected."

In support of this argument, Professor Meyer and his ID colleagues cite the micro-complexity of cell design and organic constructs, DNA for example, akin to the sophistication of computer nano-technology. This is what fellow ID champion, the Lehigh University biochemist, Professor Michael Behe, calls "irreducible complexity" in his book, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. As Professor Meyer explains further, "there is simply too much information in the cell to be explained by chance alone." This can only be attributed, according to all the scientific evidence, to a "designing intelligence."

ID is therefore not a philosophical preference or theistic belief. For this reason, the rallying cry of the ID battalions is the advice made famous by the University of Reading philosopher, Professor Antony Flew, who caused a stir when he repudiated a lifelong commitment to atheism and affirmed, on the basis of ID theories related to DNA in particular, the reality of some kind of a creator: "We must follow the evidence, wherever it leads."

Even if we are willing to accept that ID is not based on religion, but on scientific discoveries and our experience of cause and effect, the basis of all scientific reasoning about the past, and that unlike creationism, ID is an inference from biochemical data, we must also accept that ID may provide support for theistic belief. But that should not be grounds for dismissing it. Those who do are confusing evidence and theory.

Perhaps though there need not be any conflict between evolution and ID or indeed, any incompatibility between science and religion. If there is a creator or intelligent designer, then it might be reasonable to assume that evolution is the methodology by which the creator allowed for the species to survive and develop.

If people want to believe in a supreme being or force as the origin of all life, then they should be allowed to do so unhindered. That is an article of faith, not science, which is perhaps responsible for allowing people to cope and survive when the random cruelty of life defies all logic. After all, it is generally accepted that religion protects most members of the human species from doubt. By the same token, one need not be an adherent of a religion or a proponent of ID to be left cold by the assumption that science may one day explain everything.

But even for those of us who accept the validity of Darwinian theory over all else, there should be no need to revert to a medieval mindset that seeks to ban all discussion of ID from the classroom. ID is, in effect, only a critique of Darwinism. It offers no evidence for its validity beyond the assertion that evolutionary theory has not yet answered every question concerning the complexity of life.

It's all a bit like the age-old questions about the chicken and the egg and whether God created Man or Man created God. We may never, through science, religion or philosophy, fully comprehend the meaning of life, but at least we can pursue answers through intelligent debate rather than put all our faith in scientific or religious dogma.