Reports of the National Center for Science Education

"Intelligent Design": Wave of the Future or Ghost of the Past?

"Intelligent Design": Wave of the Future or Ghost of the Past?
Reviewed by
Norman Sleep

"Intelligent design" creationism
is the idea that our universe and particularly
earthly biology are so complicated
that creation by a deity is
the only rational explanation. Its
proponents claim to be nascent
Galileos stifled by an entrenched
establishment (as in the movie
Expelled). Perhaps ironically, "intelligent
design" was the establishment
... 200 years ago. Darwin and
his cohort were suckled on its concepts.
Yet design as a useful scientific
concept wilted beneath the
harsh lights of science: logic and

The watchmaker argument is
hallmark of "intelligent design": "If
we find a watch there much be a
watchmaker." It formed the centerpiece
of Natural Theology (1802;
Paley 2008) of William Paley
(1743–1805). Paley's watch was no
mere timepiece. It was a self-replicating
automaton, a consortium of
machines. He correctly reasoned
by analogy with life that an
automaton could reproduce without
being aware of its existence, its
original fabricator, or even the
functions of its component parts.
He had no need to cherry-pick
examples. Life does show a highly
ordered complexity that successfully
facilitates its reproduction.
The appearance of design is ubiquitous;
descriptive words for
organisms connote it: for example,
"body parts", "body plan", "skeletal
structure", and even "creature" in
its literal meaning.

Natural Theology, despite its
name, consists of descriptive natural
history that would later fuel
Darwin. Scripture makes a cameo
appearance only at the end of his
book, which in its day served to
interest people in science. Today, it
documents the worldview of sincere
early scientists struggling
with meager information and
nascent theory. Paley in practice
shared more with modern science
than with the professional creationists
who have resurrected a
debased form of his ideas as part of
a cynical "Wedge Strategy".

Just who was Paley? His worldview
arose from the science and
technology of his time: the start of
the industrial revolution. Innovators
put mechanical energy to beneficial
tasks. Anatomists understood
human and animal bodies as complex
machines with pulleys and
levers. Chemistry was becoming a
science; anatomists appreciated that
life involved complex chemistry of
which they were still largely ignorant.
Paley overtly eschewed chemistry
in his book for this reason.

The major lacuna in science in
1800 was geology. Next to nothing
was known about geological time.
The only "old earth" theory available
to Paley was Buffon's idea that
a comet crashed into the sun and
ejected the planets as red-hot
masses that subsequently cooled.
When Paley corresponded with
astronomers to obtain an understanding
of planetary orbits, he
learned that the idea simply does
not work; the orbit of an ejected
object returns to the surface of the
sun rather than to a circular distant
orbit (Paley 2008: 206).

What was Paley's attitude
towards an old earth? "It is easy to
say this; and yet it is still true, that
the hypothesis [of gradual biological
change over vast periods of
time] remains destitute of evidence"
(Paley 2008: 227). "[I]f not
in a million of years, perhaps in a
hundred millions of years, (for theorists,
having eternity to dispose
of, are never sparing in time,) [for
creatures] to acquire wings" (Paley
2008: 224, emphasis in original).
Paley made no reference to speculation
on the duration of any geological
process. Casual application
of geology may well lead one to a
young earth. In his time it was
known that the inland and coastal
landforms of England had been
shaped during a glaciation period a
few thousands of years earlier, so
application of that geological
knowledge supported the inference
of a young earth. Paley's comparison
of a stone having always
been in a road with a watch requiring
manufacture (Paley 2008: 7)
and his remarks that the Creator
had no "useful purpose" to mould
mountains into "Conic Sections"
(Paley 2008: 43) reflect his young-earth

Paley went to much effort
toward refuting the evolutionary
theory of his time. The ideas of use-and-disuse evolution and goal-driven
evolution were prevalent. Paley
doubted that there was enough
time for them to act, brought up the
lack of evidence of ongoing change,
and invoked the creationist staple: if
pouches are useful to pelicans, why
haven't many more birds evolved
them (Paley 2008: 227)? His only
other alternative to creation was
that given "infinite age" the current
situation would arise. He astutely
surmised that this concept
explained nothing. He did recognize
observations that became pillars
of natural selection, especially
that far more young are born than
can survive (Paley 2008: 247–50).

Paley devoted a full chapter to
comparative anatomy. He began
with Arkwright's mill for spinning
cotton. By the time of his book, the
contraption had evolved into
devices for spinning wool, flax,
and hemp. Yet Paley did not recognize
this progression as an example of descent with radiation and
modification. Rather, given the lack
of time available for biological
change, he credited both
Arkwright and the Creator with an
"economy" of design where a single
invention worked remarkably
well for numerous purposes.

Geology became a science shortly
after Paley's death, providing the evidence
he lacked. James Although
Hutton's old-earth geology was published
in 1788, John Playfair's popularization
Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth did
not appear until 1802 along with
Paley's work. The Geological Society
of London was founded after Paley's
death in 1807. William Smith's geology
map gave raise to the paleontological
time scale. By the publication of
the Origin of Species in 1859, it was
patently evident that geological time
is vast and that the fossil record
shows a sequence of increasingly
modern forms, with a lot of extinctions
on the way. The evolution of
vertebrates from a common ancestor
with a backbone explained their
obvious similarities. We do not find
unworkable organisms for the simple
reason that they would not emerge in
the first place and would die out if
they did. The rapid change of domestic
animals and plants by artificial
selection provided analogy to the
slower change by natural selection.

After Darwin, geologists and
biologists abandoned recourse to
divinity and the search for higher
purposes as unproductive. Any conceivable
observation can be attributed
to divine intervention and, like
saying the present state of affairs
will arise given infinite time, nothing
is actually explained. Yet the
implications of the mother of all
sampling biases did not sink in until
the space-age interest in astrobiology.
We have to be here to observe.
No event incompatible with our
collective or your personal existence
can have occurred.
Philosophers of science call this
concept the weak anthropic principle.
As a successful wide-ranging
species, we see the illusion of providence;
personally we experience
the illusion of miracles if we survive
in especially trying circumstances.

Several of Paley's providence
arguments can be turned into still
unresolved "rare earth" or "rare universe"
arguments, especially in his
chapters on astronomy and the elements.
The earth's orbit is nearly
circular and the mild and stable tilt
of its axis gives rise to modest seasons.
There are no giant planets
near the sun that would make its
orbit unstable. There is the right
amount of water to get oceans and
dry land. Water has properties that
make it an excellent biological
fluid. Newton's laws and physics in
general work out so that planetary
orbits can be stable.

There is no way that the earth
and its inhabitants in their present
state could have been formed in a
few thousand years by natural
processes, so in order to insist on a
young earth, it is necessary to have
recourse to the supernatural. Paley
(2008: 26–7) allowed supernatural
processes for creation but rejected
overt deviations from the general laws of physics. This history is a
prime example how the unscientific
practices of invoking divine
intervention and seeking purposes
in nature were phased out and how
science consigns constructs into
the dustbin as new evidence
becomes available. Paley in part
acted like a modern scientist. He
gathered the available data and
consulted with experts. He willingly
and correctly examined Buffon's
hypothesis with physics, not
Scripture. His young-earth constructs
arose from the lack of evidence
for an old earth.

There is a good analogy
between Aristotle's unchanging
geocentric heavens and Paley's
young earth populated by
unchanging species. Both constructs
started with valid observations:
we all sense terra firma and
well functioning organisms in our
daily lives. Paley's examples of
designed contrivances became
Darwin's examples of evolutionary
adaptation, much as well-documented
geocentric epicycles were
transformed into heliocentric
orbits. Galileo pointed out forcefully
throughout the Dialogue that
Aristotle lacked evidence, including
the appearance of "new" stars
that pointed to changeable heavens
and telescopic observations that
supported the Copernican system;
Paley lacked our vast knowledge of
geology and molecular biology.
With regard to K–12 instruction,
we do not hide the existence of
geocentric astronomy from students;
we should not conceal that
biology began as a study of design
and a search for God's plan. The
movement away from that emphasis
was not a matter of rejecting
theological positions as much as it
was embracing scientific ones.

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