Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Paradigm Glossed: How to Make an ID Debate Worthwhile

The firefly (Photuris pyralis) is a wonder of nature. Its tiny body contains luciferin and luciferase, two rare chemicals that scientists have been unable to synthesize. Yet, as any child who has grabbed one of the slow-flying insects on a summer evening knows, those substances produce a remarkable and beautiful phenomenon: cold light.

Curiously, Photuris pyralis never came up in the Great “Intelligent Design” Debate held at winter’s end at Saint Paul United Methodist Church of Lincoln, Nebraska. Yet, somehow, the debaters — philosopher Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute and evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci of the University of Tennessee — managed to mimic the firefly’s trick: they cast much light with little heat.

Over the span of nearly two hours, they offered arcane details of biology and earthy, sometimes humorous presentations of their arguments. In the end, they inspired the Center for the Advancement of Rational Solutions (CARS) to consider new ways of resolving the public policy impasse over the science curriculum.

Considering the unsavory history of creationism/evolution debates, this amounts in our view to a minor triumph. And yet nothing miraculous took place. On the contrary, we believe what transpired in Lincoln could be replicated — with variations — around the country. To that end, we would like to share the story of our event and insights about what made it work. The debate centered on the question: “Is ‘intelligent design’ a valid scientific alternative to evolution?” At the start the audience of some 150 people who braved a blizzard to attend were told that although this was to be a debate, “the only winner will be those of you who are willing to consider a point of view or information you haven’t thought about before.”

That position was in keeping with our group’s outlook. Although the leadership of CARS is solidly in the evolutionary camp, the organization exists to promote rational reconciliation of religions with science and with each other. Its membership includes a variety of creationists, from biblical literalists to nonspecific ID advocates, whose views are welcomed within the group’s discussions.

Talking Points

The debate opened with PowerPoint presentations from each side. Nelson, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago, surprised many by conceding from the start that, strictly speaking, “intelligent design” is not a valid scientific alternative to evolution — at least not yet. “Intelligent design”, he admitted, has yet to demonstrate its validity or to be accepted by the majority of the world’s scientists. However, he argued, the really fruitful questions concern the nature of science. Its commitment to methodological naturalism, Nelson said, “leaves you with only that one tool in your kit.” Science would be “more honest” without this unnecessarily restrictive rule, he said.

Nelson introduced one of ID’s two main arguments with a humorous anecdote about “Mint Jelly Ridge”, a con man who faked injuries by pretending to slip on mint jelly in restaurants throughout the Midwest. Insurance companies who paid claims on behalf of restaurant owners detected a pattern that indicated design rather than accident, leading to Ridge’s arrest and conviction. This, Nelson said, was an example of the design inference, something routinely used in forensics and a method that Nelson’s Discovery Institute colleague William Dembski claims should be applied to features of nature.

In his presentation, Pigliucci offered a definition of biological evolution as both change in the frequency of genes and, historically, as the descent of species from common ancestors along the “tree of life”. He took pains to exclude the origin of life from evolutionary theory. Pigliucci defended evolution on the grounds that it offers a coherent explanation for our observations of biological diversity, and it makes predictions that can be empirically tested.

In contrast, he said, “intelligent design” offers only flawed arguments with no predictive value. Taking on one of these — Michael Behe’s argument for the “irreducible complexity” of certain microbiological features — Pigliucci said that it amounts to an “argument from ignorance”. If something cannot be explained by evolution at present, he said, some would have us believe that it must have been intelligently designed. Such a strategy, however, consistently fails as science progresses, he argued.

By the same token, “intelligent design” advocates should be prepared to explain numerous instances of poor design in nature, Pigliucci asserted. He offered the example of rabbits that depend on certain bacteria in their guts to supply necessary digestive enzymes. Unfortunately, Pigliucci said, the rabbits have no means to pass on the bacteria except by having baby rabbits eat their mother’s feces. He added that biological relatives of rabbits do have genes that produce the enzyme directly, so evolutionary theory would predict that remnants of the genes still exist in the rabbit, and, sure enough, Pigliucci said, the pseudogenes have been found.

Give and take

Up to this point, the arguments would have been familiar to anyone acquainted with ID–evolution disputes. Things got more interesting, however, when the debate moved into its free-flowing discussion phase. Nelson raised “Clarke’s Law” , the acclaimed science-fiction writer’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology would appear to be magic to a less advanced civilization. He asked Pigliucci how Aristotle would have explained a television remote control. His opponent responded that Aristotle would have assumed a naturalistic explanation: a supernatural explanation cannot be tested, he said. Nelson responded by musing on whether “supernatural” remains a useful category. Perhaps it is time to move beyond that concept and make testable predictions outside the bounds of naturalism, he suggested.

Later, Nelson raised a possibility for a specific ID prediction. Referring to “orphan genes” occurring uniquely in some microorganisms without analogs in related species, he said that ID advocates should be prepared to predict that similar anomalous genes will be found scattered throughout the zoological realm. He also pointed to the origin of life as a focus for ID. Reasoning that RNA could not have held together long enough to give rise to life, Nelson speculated that the fragility of RNA could be a “signature” of the intelligent designer. Pigliucci replied that the frequency of “orphan genes” is well within the limits of random phenomena, and that RNA’s fragility might have been solved by the “pizza model” of biogenesis, in which organic chemicals are thought to have self-assembled within stable films on rocks.


Most interestingly, each debater offered an unsolicited criticism of his own side. Pigliucci denounced “scientism” — the claim that science can eventually answer all questions — as indefensible arrogance. Nelson declared that teaching “intelligent design” in science classes would be wrong at this stage. Philosophy courses are the proper venue for the study of ID, he added, until it proves itself scientifically valid. This willingness to be self-critical and to trust in the civility of the other side contributed greatly to the thoughtful atmosphere. To be sure, there were skeptical and even emotional reactions from audience members during the question-and-answer segment that closed out the debate. But on the whole, it was a refreshingly high-minded occasion.

The lion’s share of credit goes to the debaters themselves, who eschewed rhetorical tricks, distractions, and combativeness in favor of a serious, accessible consideration of the issues. Still, the structure and sponsorship of the debate undoubtedly helped. Putting the focus on “intelligent design” helped to prevent the debate from becoming a mere rehearsal of attacks on evolution (not that Nelson would necessarily have conducted himself that way).

Response to the debate was uniformly positive across the ideological spectrum. At the request of members, the next meeting of our organization was devoted to follow-up discussion. Three members requested time to offer brief prepared presentations. Two were defenses of evolution, while the other was a defense of “intelligent design” and a call for opening up the public school science curriculum to alternatives on the grounds of democracy.

Interestingly, in the ensuing discussion, considerable support emerged for the idea of teaching “intelligent design” — but not in science classes. Rather, there appeared to be support in the group for the idea of introducing philosophy of science and religion classes into the public school curricula alongside regular science classes. With appropriate safeguards on neutrality concerning religion, this might represent an avenue to reconciliation, with the added benefit of exposing students to philosophical discourse and critical thinking at the high school level.

Call it the firefly option.

By Clay Farris Naff and Jim Bechtel, Center for the Advancement of Rational Solutions
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.