Unguided Evolution vs. Intelligent Design: Paradigm Smackdown!

Clerk’s Log, MJDate 55179.26: They say, “Don’t mess with success,” and it’s true that this is the most heavily commented article at the Scriptorium. But I’ve made some revisions anyway, for reasons I’ll report shortly. In the meantime, enjoy — and applaud scientists who search for the truth.

It’s like watching one of those sitcoms where the lead buffoon is running around making lives miserable because he/she is working from a false premise. Frustration is sure to ensue, for him/her because a facial egging is inevitable, and for the viewer because you really hate to see someone screw up so badly, especially when it just isn’t necessary.


You all know by now that Kansas has revised its Science Curriculum Standards so that naturalistic evolution is no longer the exclusively approved doctrine of universal origins. The response … well, you could’ve heard an atom split.

  • Jason Kottke of kottke.org screams, “Teaching pseudoscience as real science, that’s like asking the math teachers to tell the kids that 2+2=5 because God said so.”
  • A mournful P. Z. Myers of Pharyngula declares, “It’s a sad day for American science. We’ve lost Kansas.”
  • And Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing — a man whose writing I’ve enjoyed and who is certainly smart enough to know better — repeats the clichéd condemnation of an alternate scheme, Intelligent Design, as “Biblical Creationism tarted up in scientific dress.” He then praises a writer who proposes that other origins schemes be taught, such as that the universe was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
  • In addition, we have shots fired by religious sources such as The Revealer, which announces: “ID is not only bad science, it’s bad religion.”

Okay, what’s really going on? We’ve got three elements here: Kansas, Intelligent Design, and science.

Yes, Toto, we are still in Kansas

Check out the source — a rundown on Kansas’s standards changes, by the eight board members who proposed them — and you’ll find that Kansas did not enact anything with regard to Intelligent Design. The working draft of the recommendations contained a paragraph emphasizing that Intelligent Design was not part of the Science Curriculum Standards, although it would not be prohibited either. That paragraph — and with it the mention of ID — was deleted. So the only way the new standards might have mentioned ID would have been to deny it any particular status.

What the revised standards do say is this:

Evolution is accepted by many scientists but questioned by some. The Board has heard credible scientific testimony that indeed there are significant debates about the evidence for key aspects of chemical and biological evolutionary theory. All scientific theories should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered. We therefore think it is important and appropriate for students to know about these scientific debates and for the Science Curriculum Standards to include information about them. In choosing this approach to science curriculum standards, we are encouraged by the similar approach taken by other states, whose new science standards incorporate scientific criticisms into the science curriculum that describes the scientific case for the theory of evolution.

To the thirty-eight Nobel laureates who apparently didn’t read the changes, didn’t attend any of the hearings that discussed them, but called for their rejection nonetheless, the board members who proposed them replied, “We believe the Laureates’ letter, which clearly seeks to suppress any criticism of evolutionary theory, powerfully illustrates the need for the Changes. We believe education should inform, not indoctrinate.”

Makes sense to me.

May I see some ID, please?

“Intelligent Design isn’t just bad science,” says The Revealer, “it’s bad religion.” A nice, punchy subhead (and I’ll blame the editors rather than the author). But calling ID bad religion is like calling CSI: Crime Scene Investigation a bad sitcom.

We can nitpick, of course, by saying that the article should have said “theology” rather than “religion.” Strictly speaking, theology (from theos, god, and logos, word or discourse) is to gods what anthropology is to human beings: it’s what you know about them. Religion is what you do about it. Intelligent Design carries no intrinsic ethos or imperative, no “we ought (not)” or “thou shalt (not),” and therefore shouldn’t be called a religion as such.

Theology, then. Article writer J. M. Tyree makes the point that ID is not, by itself, a good Christian theology — and he’s right. It tells us nothing about the Intelligent Designer — singular or plural, natural or supernatural1 — and if we’re confined to observation of the world around us, we have to deal with the fact that there’s a lot about the universe that’s just plain nasty. We could conclude, with Mark Twain, that “If there is a God, he is a malign thug.” For all we know, says Tyree, the god of the universe might be H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and his cosmic design not only intelligent but malevolent. “Is there anything inherent in ID,” Tyree asks, “that tells us for certain who let the dogs out? If not, is ID really much use as a Christian theory, or is it simply another spacecake philosophy that suggests, like The X-Files, that ‘something is out there’?”

And there we have the flaw in his argument: the assumption that because ID is advanced by evangelicals, it’s considered to be a self-contained evangelical theological system. It isn’t — and it’s not intended to be (as the various Jewish, Muslim, and other scientists in the ID movement — including atheists — will freely tell you). All it says, when you get it down to basics, is this:

  1. Either intelligence was involved in the formation of the world around us, or it wasn’t.
  2. Darwinism chooses the latter option, affirming that life on our earth came into its present forms, change by tiny change, through unguided natural processes including random mutation and natural selection. No influence outside those processes existed.
  3. To paraphrase CSI: investigator Gil Grissom, the evidence argues otherwise. The evidence is not atheist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Flying Spaghetti Monsterian. It is simply the evidence. What we see bears more resemblance to the complex systems that arise from our own intelligent design than to random occurrences.
  4. We conclude, therefore, that Mind was involved in the development of the earth’s lifeforms. Exactly how Mind was involved, and what we can learn about it apart from its being intelligent and (at least once) active, are the next questions — not the first.

The answer to Tyree’s question, then, is threefold:

  • No, it doesn’t tell us who let the dogs out (and this alone should make it abundantly clear that, contra Doctorow and others, ID is very different from biblical creationism).
  • Yes, it does tell us something is (or was) out there.
  • It is not a Christian theory. But neither is it necessarily incompatible with Christianity — unlike Darwinian anti-supernaturalism.

Christianity does say, in the words of Romans 1:19–20, “What can be known about God is plain to [humans], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” According to this passage the Creator’s power and deity are discernible in nature, and that should provide a reasonable starting point for thinking men and women, but for more specifics (like God’s personality or the origin of human evil) they must go elsewhere — specifically, to the Creator’s self-revelation in Jesus the Christ and in the words of the Bible. Biblical creationism takes this route, going from the scriptural text to the physical illustrations. Intelligent Design, which works only with the physical data, would be bad theology indeed — if you tried to shoehorn it into that category. The physical sciences alone will take you only so far.

Which brings us to the third, and critical, element in the discussion.

What’s science, Daddy?

Let’s look at what’s really happening here. What we are witnessing with this whole Darwinism-vs.-ID business is a classic Kuhnian paradigm clash.

Scientific tsunamis

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the late Thomas Kuhn proposes a model of what happens when generally accepted science changes.2 It isn’t a gentle metamorphosis but a radical transformation. Like a tsunami, the change transforms a terrarium into an aquarium. One moment it’s California, the next it’s sub-Pacific.

Roughly sketched and simplified, what happens is this:

  1. Starting out with no scientific structure, we observe a quantity of events.
  2. Orderly creatures that we are, we try to put together as unified an explanation as we can for what we see happening.
  3. Finally someone comes up with a theory that seems to fit most of the evidence, and
    < • click • >
  4. Knowledge crystallizes around that theory, like rock candy on a string in sugar-saturated water. Behold: Science1. (I told you this would be a rough sketch.)

Congratulations! It’s a paradigm

Knowledge accumulates further, but from that point on it’s less a matter of opening up new territory than of filling in the missing areas of the now-established matrix of knowledge. We may call the principles that give structure to that matrix — the string in the sugar-water — its paradigm, a term Kuhn borrows from linguistics. (A paradigm in language is a representative sample of a conjugation or declension; for example,

I think we think
you think you think
he/she/it thinks they think

is a paradigm that also reflects the way we conjugate sing, drive, eviscerate, and so forth.) Kuhn defines “normal science” as scientific activity within the established matrix, and describes it as “puzzle-solving” rather than exploration. The difference is rather like the difference between the “original” and “next generations” of Star Trek: Captain Kirk’s Enterprise boldly went where none had gone before, whereas Captain Picard’s Enterprise spent more time ironing out social or political problems within Federation borders.


But all is not completely settled. Here and there events pop up that don’t fit the accepted paradigm. These anomalies are few at first, but over time they accumulate. Some of them find acceptance as the paradigm is slightly altered to fit, while others are considered to be errors. Eventually enough “errors” pile up to challenge the paradigm, and a state of tension exists until someone comes up with a new set of theories, and — continuing the Star Trek imagery — a mighty “Genesis wave” sweeps through the scientific establishment, replacing one knowledge-matrix with another: a “paradigm shift.” Behold: Science2.

And that, says Kuhn, is how scientific revolutions take place. What’s more, a scientific revolution often involves as much emotional upheaval as its military counterpart. Scientists who hold to the one paradigm disagree heatedly with those who hold to the other, and rarely does the “old guard” change its mind. Eventually it just dies out.3

Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas …

This upheaval is what we’re seeing in the Kansas hullabaloo. Two paradigms are at war, with the random-natural paradigm (Sciencen) determined to see to it that the intelligence-allowed paradigm (Sciencen+1) not only doesn’t win the day, but gets laughed out of court.

The Science Curriculum Standards’ definition of science reads: “Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory-building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.”

No one seems to have a problem with that clause. In fact, according to the Evolution News & Views blog, this definition “is nearly identical to the definition of science adhered to in 40 states across the country (nine states do not define science at all). Kansas is the only state that did not have a traditional definition of science.” Now it does, and it’s in good company.

The problem lies with the clause that (as reported by the Red State Rabble blog) previously followed that one but is now eliminated: “Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.”

In other words, before the changes science was defined as excluding all un-“natural” elements. Now it isn’t. And that’s what all the hoo-ha is about. Because for the dominant paradigm, naturalism is the starting point for scientific inquiry, the continental divide between science and pseudoscience.4 Allowing Mind into the discussion, it is feared, will inevitably lead to talk of God. And that cannot be tolerated if the discussion is to remain scientific. Science must of necessity remain a-theistic.

Kansas now disagrees. Its Science Curriculum Standards do not mandate that science be theistic. But neither do they mandate that it be atheistic either. What they do encourage, along with the standards of other states, is attention to the evidence.

A modest, common-ground proposal

Jason Kottke suggests the following instruction to teachers:

Teach your students about evolution, and then tell them about intelligent design, just as the state curriculum says. Then spend some time going over what science is, what a theory is, and so on. Apply the definition to each. That way, you’ve taught ID by the books and then demonstrated its relationship to science.

Although I realize that Mr. Kottke is arguing for the naturalistic-science side, I like his wording (well, most of it; we’ve already seen that “the state curriculum says” no such thing). Children should indeed be taught what science is, including whether or not it must operate from naturalistic assumptions. They also need to know what a hypothesis is, what a theory5 is, and what constitutes experimental evidence. Then all the definitions should be applied both to Darwinian evolution and to Intelligent Design. If either one quacks like a duck, paddles like a duck, and flaps its wings like a duck, then it deserves to be called a duck.

But first let’s be sure about what a duck is.


Meanwhile, the paradigm clash goes on, and although science is popularly held to be an open-minded quest for truth, some adherents of the naturalistic paradigm seem determined to prove otherwise.

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered for 10 November 2005 included a story on Dr. Richard Sternberg, editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, and the — harrassment seems too mild a word — the punishment he has received from his colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution, where he is a research assistant. His crime? Simply that he published in the Proceedings an article by Stephen Meyer supporting Intelligent Design.

This was hardly a case of a zealous editor proselytizing his colleagues. The article had been approved through the proper peer-review process. Dr. Sternberg notes, furthermore, that he himself is neither an evangelical, a fundamentalist, a young-earth creationist, nor a theistic evolutionist. Nevertheless, his publication of Dr. Meyer’s article has subjected him to a campaign of abuse that, were it in some foreign country and the Meyer article on the other side of the naturalism/ID aisle, would be strongly denounced by U.S. organizations dedicated to intellectual freedoms.

This, not “losing Kansas,” is a sad day for American science.

Discussion continues with “Intelligent Design and President Tilghman.”

  1. Here I call “Shenanigans!” on Carl Sagan, who in his television series Cosmos casually sweeps away the idea of a cosmic “watchmaker,” saying basically, “We have an idea we like better,” namely naturalistic evolution. But what is his novel Contact all about? An encounter with the engineers — the intelligent designers — of our universe. And he’s comfortable with the idea. []
  2. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). []
  3. Here we see a rationale for Clarke’s First Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist says that something is possible, (s)he is almost certainly right. When (s)he says it is impossible, (s)he is very probably wrong.” The scientist in question is simply on the other side of the paradigm shift. Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, Millennium ed. (London: Victor Gollancz, 1999), 1–2.

    The alert reader may wonder — since Kuhn does not claim truth for any particular paradigm, and indeed the issue is not whether it is true but whether it best fits the data at the time — how I, who believe in absolute truth, can support his model. Simple, really: Kuhn speaks of our finite minds and senses, and the fact that our observations are colored by our perspectives. And he’s correct. The only way we can know absolute truth, therefore, is for it to be revealed to us from outside ourselves. And so it is. The self-authenticating nature of God and his Word is a classic Christian doctrine. []

  4. A typical overstatement is one by Pat Hayes of Red State Rabble: “They don’t just want an alternative (teleological) explanation for evolution taught in biology. They now challenge the naturalistic explanation for what happens when students add aqueous ammonia to a beaker containing a few drops of aqueous copper sulfate in chemistry class. Maybe, it wasn’t the chemical properties that turned the solution blue, maybe it was God or some unknown designer.” Clearly Hayes has overlooked the difference between direct and indirect causes; also, he evidently denies that science looks for patterns in natural phenomena, thinking instead that every event is treated as a special case.

    One other factor in the debate: As it happens, the eight board members who supported the changes to the standards also support Intelligent Design. Opponents seem convinced that even though the revised standards do not even mention ID, the changes are part of a strategy to replace evolution with ID as the “authorized” theory of origins. I leave it to the reader to judge whether this is truly the revelation of a sinister conspiracy, or a fallacious ad hominem argument. []

  5. Note here the definition of theory as used in scientific circles. One doesn’t use the word to suggest that a theory isn’t realistic (as opposed to the way we commonly say “in theory” versus “in practice”; if it doesn’t work in practice, it’s bad theory). Instead it refers to a body of hypotheses that have been tested and proved by experimental data to the point that they’re accepted as the basis for further action. In other words, “this is as certain as it gets.” In our scientific understanding, a theory does interpret actual reality. (The difference between theory and law is not certainty but breadth — a theory covers much broader territory than a law, which deals with a specific situation.) Indeed, the whole knowledge-matrix represented by a paradigm can be labeled “theory.”

    The fact that evolution is a theory does not mean it’s wrong, any more than the theory of special relativity is wrong (assuming it isn’t) or the theory of gravitation is wrong (ditto). A reasonable response to “Evolution is a theory” is, “So is everything else. So is Intelligent Design.” It all originates in hypothesis and is tested experimentally.

    The question then becomes: to what extent has either evolution or ID been proved by experimental data? And here I yield to the lab people. []

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