December 2nd, 2006

The despairing nihilism of intelligent design – please keep away from schools

Oh dear…. the creationists have returned to planet earth and appear to be fanning out from their landing site in the United States. After a week away, I see a Newsnight podcast on creationism in schools, following a Guardian report, Revealed: rise of creationism in UK schools stating that 59 schools are apparently using new materials about ‘intelligent design’ that had been circulated by a British creationist group called Truth in Science. The language of the proponents of intelligent design is infuriating: it appropriates the ideas of challenge and open-mindedness to counter-argument, testing theories by evidence and examination of paradoxes, opposition to dogma and even offers a scientific justification for intelligent design (‘irreducible complexity’). In fact it is anything but scientific and anything but a useful or valid challenge to the alleged dogma of Darwinism and the theory of evolution. Let us examine this more closely. Darwin’s challenge to Darwin The creationists’ theory of intelligent design relies on Darwin’s own formulation of a credible challenge to his theory of evolution (see Origin of the Species p.90 – an admirable thing for a scientist to do, by the way, and completely lacking in formulation of intelligent design):

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.

Irreducible complexity – the creationists’ trump card This has given rise to the idea of ‘irreducible complexity’ – things found in nature that cannot have been formed through the process of evolution, namely incremental change brought about by mutation causing changed traits which face selection pressures which allow reproduction of traits that confer a survival advantage – see Wikipedia on evolution). If something that we observe today cannot have formed gradually, then evolution fails as a theory – enter the triumphant intelligent designer, who wanted it that way from the start. Some have cited the human eye or winged flight as examples (what use is half an eye, so how could it have evolved?). But they are wrong… in both cases it is possible to show that gradual increases in the ability to see (eg. starting with recognising nearby movement) or to fly (falling out of a tree in a more controlled way) confer survival advantages and suggest that highly complex organs like the eye and wings could have evolved gradually starting from these basic traits. A very strange organism – but is it evidence that it’s all been designed intelligently…? The current favourite of the intelligent designers to challenge evolution is the ‘bacterial flagellum‘ – a kind of pump and motor mechanism found in a single cell organism (article / animation). And it is indeed a remarkable microscopic structure! The school materials distributed to schools by ‘Truth in Science’ make much of this little machine. The Teachers Manual part 3, gives the game away… notice how prescriptive it suddenly becomes. Students will:

  • Understand the concept of “irreducible complexity” – that some machines are made up of many parts, all of which are necessary for function
  • Recognise the bacterial flagellum as an example of an irreducibly complex system
  • Understand that irreducibly complex structures cannot evolve by slight, successive, advantageous variations, because at certain points in their evolution they will lose function altogether

Note there is no question here of debating whether this mechanism actually is irreducibly complex – students will ‘recognise’ and ‘understand’ it to be irreducibly complex and ‘understand’ that it cannot have evolved. There are two problems here: first there are plausible explanations for how this amazing mechanism might have evolved gradually (see Pallen & Matzke, Nature Reviews of Microbiology, 2006 / more accessible account / blog devoted to this). Second, is that the fact that something is difficult to explain, doesn’t establish the counter theory – it means that it is difficult to explain and that it is a worthwhile challenge to test the dominant theory. Things I dislike about all this…

  1. It’s almost embarrassingly facile to point this out, but the intelligent design argument is circular – the intelligent designer (apparently labouring over the spec of everything from a strange bacteria to the human ability to smell a rat) must be more complex than anything imaginable. Sorry, but where did this come from? Who or what is the designer and how did it emerge?
  2. It denies the wonder of science and the power and elegance of Darwin’s big idea, replacing inquiry with a form of defeatism. Rather than seeing gaps in knowledge or evidence as legitimate challenges to evolution it has immediate recourse to a bizarre supernatural explanation.
  3. No evidence whatsoever is offered for intelligent design. Unlike evolution, its proponents offer no means by which the idea can be verified or falsified. It should not be dignified as a ‘theory’ as no test is offered to falsify it. Like an invasive weed, it just fills any gap in understanding of the world with a one-size-fits-all super-explanation. This is what religion has done through the ages – enabling priests to explain the unknown by invoking gods and the supernatural.
  4. Whatever they say, it is religious propaganda. Numerous biases and assertions of ‘truth’ can be found on the ‘Truth in Science’ pages, despite the PR effort to argue that this is all healthy debate. Eg. the news page somehow omits the Guardian’s searing article in favour of more favourable coverage.

Let me reserve some remaining concern for the attitude of Prime Minister Blair. In a recent interview with New Scientist he was asked about the teaching of creationism in schools. His reply…

If I notice creationism become the mainstream of the education system in this country then that’s the time to start worrying. As I’ve said, it’s really quite important for science to fight the battles it needs to fight. When MMR comes out, or stem cells, or GM, that’s the time to have a real debate

Doh!! If it becomes the mainstream, it’s way too late ‘to start worrying’. Blair’s complacency about the place in schools of one of the greatest ideas in human history is astonishing. Except as part of a discussion on bogus science and the failure of religion to offer any useful explanation for our origins, creationism and it’s slick alter-ego, intelligent design, have no place in schools.

6 comments to The despairing nihilism of intelligent design – please keep away from schools

  • Clive Bates

    Adrian – the trouble is all these heroic attempts to defend the scriptures – which are interesting by the way – (only 11 references to stoning to death!) don’t really address the main problem… which is that the central story just isn’t true, nor is it necessary or satisfactory as an explanation for why the world is as it is for our origins. Nor is there credible evidence for it – or many more would believe and the world religions would be far more mutually compatible than they are.

    I do recommend Richard Dawkins’ book, though I could see why his tone would be annoying to the devout. If not, how about Daniel Dennett’s – Breaking the Spell? Much more measured than Dawkins and more philosophical – I’m reading it now.

  • Clive Bates


    Merry Christmas to you too. Maybe I’m a “fundamentalist unbeliever” if that means that I’ve applied rational inquiry to the theory of God and its explanation of the world and concluded these beliefs – most of what you have set out – are extremely unlikely to be true.

    I don’t think that is ‘fundamentalism’ in any useful sense of the word – which to me means blind adherence to an ideology unsupported by by evidence or experience. In fact, my approach is sceptical and curious – wanting to know more and understand better, and changing what I think when I hear a better argument and evidence. I find religious ideas like those you have kindly articulated rarely stand the slightest scrutiny. God is not needed to explain most important things – and for many of the facts of religion to which you subscribe, there is not one shred of evidence or plausible explanation – other than recourse to the all purpose clincher that “God willed it” – an approach which is just too easy and the enemy of curiosity and open-mindedness (which is why I don’t want to see it featuring in schools).

    The moral code of the Bible is very flimsy (find the Biblical basis for abolition of slavery, for universal suffrage and equal rights for women, or for freedom of speech) and often intolerant for example in what Sam Harris calls the ‘tiresome immensity’ of the religious concern about private matters between consenting adults.

    It actually helps with few modern ethical problems. No less than 4 of the 10 commandments deal with God’s demands for an exclusive franchise and the rest – stealing, murder etc. – have underpinned all societies religious or secular for virtually all time. There just is no added value and plenty of contradiction, given the willingness with which Old Testament prophets require killing, stoning, rape and sex slavery. Search on the words ‘stone to death’ in Deuteronomy and you’ll see what a monster God is, at least when communicating through Old Testament prophets. If these books aren’t the word of God, then why are they held in such esteem? And how do you tell when it’s God and when it is just some old guy trying to tell you not to eat diseased meat.

    It’s also odd that God’s chosen people should be so geographically confined. The misfortune of being born a Hindu on the Indian sub-continent seems to be a passport to Hell (we need not go into what heaven and hell actually are…). But then the all-powerful and loving God is prone to be a bit arbitrary in his distribution of temporary, fatal and eternal suffering, as we have seen throughout history and up to the present day.

    Adrian, I find these beliefs just too implausible with nothing at all to support them, except an old book, which you concede needs to be viewed in context.

    I wonder have you examined why you believe these things? What causes you to invest in this belief system rather than some other, or none? It can’t be direct experience, and certainly not direct evidence (which I think you concede)? So if not these things then what? If you had to stand in front of a class of kids and persuade someone, how would you make the case?

    Regardless of all this, I hope you are enjoying the festive season as much as I am (and not allowing the Roman / Pagan origin of Christmas / Yuletide ruin the fun).



  • Clive Bates

    Adrian – why resort to analogy and, dare I say it, sarcasm? Can we just discuss what it is you actually believe, rather than house builders or baseball? For example…

    Do you believe there is a supernatural all-powerful being that controls, or could control, what happens in the world?

    Do you belive God created the earth? If he did, was it 6,000 years ago or longer? Did he do it in seven days?

    Do you think the power of prayer can heal sick people or make other changes in the real world?

    Do you believe Jesus was born to a virgin, performed miracles, died on a crucifix and was resurrected?

    Do you agree with the kind of rules laid down in Deuteronomy, Judges and Leviticus? If not, how do you decide what to accept in the Bible and what to ignore?

    Do you think the ten commandments are a good moral code and should be obeyed? For example, do you reject the concept of a just war or self defence?

    Do you think intelligent design is a real explanation for the origins of species?

    Do you think people go to heaven or hell after they die?

    Do you think Muslims and Hindus worship false icons and will go to hell?

    These are rather ‘traditional’ beliefs – if you don’t believe in these things, what do you believe in?

    This is the trouble… you seem quite angry about me wanting to get to the bottom of what is being claimed by supporters of religion, but without actually defending it or presenting an alternative perspective.


  • Clive Bates

    Dear Anon… agree with you completely about conflating faith schools and creationism. Creationism and ID are a problem if taken seriously in any school. There are different reasons to oppose faith schools.

  • Clive Bates

    Adrian – I don’t think I’ve got an extreme view. I think that religion exists in a place that is very sheltered from criticism, and when it is criticised in straightforward terms some people can feel this to be an extremist attack. But really it isn’t – it’s just the sort of questioning we apply to most other things such as: was it right to invade Iraq? Does the PFI work? Is Casino Royale a good film? People apply incredibly direct and challenging language to voice their opinions on most things, but it seems to grate when done for religion. We even reserve 5 minutes of breakfast radio so that religious views can be aired without the normal standards of criticism and challenge applied to everything else – Thought for the Day. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were eloquent on this in letters to the New York Times this week 3rd December letters.

    You referred to ‘fundamentalist atheists’ in your first post – Is it possible to be an extremist in NOT believing in something?



  • Clive Bates

    Adrian – many thanks for your post… but I don’t think the builder versus bricks & mortar analogy really works with the origins of life and development of species. Species are self-replicating in a way that houses aren’t.

    Sorry if you are annoyed by the cross thing… it’s just that I think we let religion off too lightly in modern society and that its supporters need to make their case for the moral and intellectual leadership they claim more convincingly (which I believe it can’t do). Alternatively, they could play a more private and personal role. For me, it’s one thing to respect a person’s right to their private beliefs, no matter how much you disagree with them, but I think it’s quite an aggressive act on the part of the religious ‘Truth in Science’ people to mail educational materials grounded in creationism to science departments of schools. Don’t you?

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