We have recently received a wakeup call. A new survey finds that two-thirds of Americans agree with some of our political leaders that “intelligent design theory” should be taught as an alternative scientific explanation of biological evolution. What does this mean? According to intelligent design theory, supernatural forces acting over time have intervened to shape the macromolecules in cells, thereby forming them into the elegant protein machines that drive a cell’s biochemistry (Alberts, 1998). In other words, at least from time to time, living things fail to obey the normal laws of physics and chemistry.
Teaching intelligent design theory in science class would demand nothing less than a complete change in the definition of science. This definition would give those of us who are scientists an “easy out” for the difficult problems we are trying to solve in our research. For example, why spend a lifetime, constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry, trying to obtain a deep understanding of how cells accumulate mutations and become cancerous if one can postulate a supernatural step for part of the process? Yet we can be certain that, without the deep understanding that will eventually come from insisting on natural explanations, many powerful cancer therapies will be missed.
The idea that intelligent design theory could be part of science is preposterous. It is of course only by insisting on finding natural causes for everything observed in nature that science has been able to make such striking advances over the past 500 years. There is absolutely no reason to think that we should give up this fundamental principle of science now. Two-thirds of Americans might seem to have no real idea of what science is, nor why it has been so uniquely successful in unraveling the truth about the natural world. As I write, the Kansas State Board of Education has just changed the definition of science in revisions to the Kansas State Science Standards to one that does not include “natural explanations” for natural phenomena. What more proof do we need for the massive failure of our past teaching of biology, physics, chemistry, and earth sciences at high schools, colleges, and universities throughout the United States?
Intellectually, I must admit the possibility that God did step down and zap the primordial ooze to create the first cellular life, and that he later interfered to add eyes, legs, lungs ears, and brains to the critters that resulted. I certainly cannot claim to have proof that God does not exist, any more than I can prove there are no flying saucers or no Loch Ness Monster. Science has no position on the matter.
But while I knew the basic reasons why ID wasn't real science, I didn't quite get what was so bad about teaching it in a science classroom. This article solidified that for me. Science, if it is to find answers to difficult questions, must have high standards for what answers are acceptable. And those answers must be natural phenomena. If science can just sit back and ascribe phenomena to magic, miracle, or just ‘space aliens’ doing things that we are too primitive to understand, then we’ll never keep seeking until we find an answer that we can understand.
The cornerstone of science is universality and internal consistency. If a theory applies in one situation, it cannot be contradicted in another. Therefore if ‘then a miracle occurs’ is an acceptable answer in one branch of science, then it must be accepted in all branches. And if that happens, then no scientific theory can be supported. There will always be doubt as to whether to believe observation, because it may be the result not of natural processes, but of supernatural meddling.
For science to be valuable, we've got to explain everything that can be explained. Intelligent Design is the theory that some things cannot be explained. While this might ultimately be true, it defeats the purposes of science, and undermines the scientific understanding that supports medicine, engineering, and most of the other disciplines that create our modern world.