Wednesday, October 14, 2009

If you think about it, the concept of Intelligent Design really isn't all that threatening to science, or, in a larger sense, the honest pursuit of knowledge generally. If you trouble to disconnect religion from it, I think you will find this concept advanced as the basis for much of which is clearly valid research. For example, millions in public and private funds have been invested in Project SETI to search for unnatural "intelligently designed" patterns in otherwise naturally occurring radio waves. And no one it seems is clamoring for laws to keep discussion of this project out of science classes at public schools. I don't consider it much of a stretch to extend the search to terrestrial sources, including biology.

Intelligent Design has been around speculative fiction for decades. I could point to any number of works ( 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind), not to mention the pseudo-scientific Chariots of the Gods. So, as far as it goes, the idea of detecting evidence of purposeful design in nature is not only harmless, but occasionally amusing and useful.

With all of this fairly uncontroversial and accessible material on intelligent design, it should come as no shock that the public accepts the idea as worthwhile. Well, so far so good...

One place we run into trouble with a theory of intelligent design is where and when it is applied as an argument for limiting scientific inquiry. And what an irony this truly is. If I were to claim, as Michael Behe has, that the bacterial flagellum represents evidence of design, wouldn't I want, indeed welcome, the efforts of biologists to test this claim?

Years ago, Michael Behe asserted that the little flagellum represents evidence of design because it consists of several parts which have no use in nature other than to make a flagellum, which therefore renders the natural evolution of these parts to be virtually impossible. What better way to test this assertion than to go look and see if each of these parts could have evolved independently? Why, if I were Michael Behe, I would welcome this kind of research. In fact, I think I would be performing it myself.

But here we arrive at the sticky wicket - a phrase which originates from a British term for a wooden cricket ball (or "pitch") which has sweated tar and is therefore difficult to hit, much like a spitball in cricket's American derivative, baseball. Convinced once and for all by his own assertion, Michael Behe has stated publicly and under oath that any research into the natural evolution of a flagellum would be pointless.

Now this makes absolutely no sense. Let's do the math here. If Michael Behe is honestly convinced he is right, wouldn't he then have every reason to welcome, and no reason at all to shun, any amount of research which has the aim of proving him wrong? I mean, every time one test or another results in a dry well, wouldn't that add further credibility to his assertion?

That is how science proceeds. You come up with a theory and then you test it. The more times and ways you test it, the more valid the theory becomes. But the essential point here is you can't have one without the other. Progress in science is impossible without the constant input of fresh, new ideas - both large and small - and the constant, patient testing of them. And by the way this constant, patient testing part is what makes most scientists so boring in conversation - particularly when the ones doing the talking are patiently testing some new formula for paving.

Be that as it may, the public at large is generally not very receptive to long, complicated answers to profound questions, and Intelligent Design is a most attractive way of explaining nature's plainly implausible diversity. I once decided it would be easily possible for a person to know all which is known, or could ever be known, provided he lived in a society where language consisted of just one word. And that's just the point. Intelligent Design magically reduces the immense, sometimes frightening world of science to the easy comprehension of Everyman.

I am reminded of a passage from a book of science fiction I read years ago (I can't remember the title now). Two scientists, one a believer and one a non-believer, were contemplating a powerful microscope which could peer into the smallest possible constituents of matter itself. The believer said something like: "When we look, we will find nothing there. The only difference will be that I will have God to explain it and you won't."

Why of course God designed everything there is. Why wouldn't He?

But in another sense, Intelligent Design, as it is currently promoted, is as much an effort to limit God as it is to limit science. Of course God could have made the separate parts of a flagellum as having no other use than to be a flagellum. But how tawdry it is of Micheal Behe to claim that thelimit of God's brilliance. Why couldn't God have designed an even more sophisticated way of making a flagellum? Isn't Mr. Behe just saying God didn't know how - because he, Michael Behe doesn't know how either?

Eventually, scientists will probably discover exactly how the parts of this little biological structure came independently into being. As a matter of fact, they've made remarkable progress since Michael Behe made his original claim almost 20 years ago. But whereas Mr. Behe quit looking, and proceeded to make money by simply giving up - they didn't.

Yet just like "Big fleas have little fleas, upon their backs to bite 'em...", some later incarnation of Michael Behe will point to the parts of a flagellum and claim that those are composed ofsmaller parts which could not have evolved independently, "and so on ad infinitum...".

There may never come a time when scientists will ever be able to look deep enough into time and space to find nothing is there. But if they do, I think God would be standing right beside them, grinning with pleasure that these beautiful creations of His have the courage to look.

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