Frequently Asked Questions About "Intelligent Design"

Document Date: September 16, 2005
Affiliate: ACLU of Pennsylvania

Q: What is intelligent design?
A: Intelligent design (ID) is a pseudoscientific set of beliefs based on the notion that life on earth is so complex that it cannot be explained by the scientific theory of evolution and therefore must have been designed by a supernatural entity.

> The Case Against “Intelligent Design”

Q: Is ID a scientific theory?
A: No. A scientific theory must be testable and based on observable evidence. A scientific theory makes predictions about occurrences in the natural world that can then be tested through scientific experimentation. ID makes no predictions and cannot be scrutinized using the scientific method. So although proponents of ID couch their views in scientific terms, their assertion that ID is a scientific theory is false.

Q: How is ID like and unlike traditional creationism and creation science?
A: ID is the most recent incarnation of creationism. Unlike traditional forms of creationism, ID does not openly rely on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Nor does it take a stand on such issues as the age of the earth, in order to secure a broad base of support from creationists with differing views. Like traditional forms of creationism, it claims to have scientific evidence for the existence of design in the biological world; unlike them, it refrains from claiming that the designer can be ascertained to be God. Yet, although some proponents have suggested that the designer could be a space alien or a time-traveler from the future, such possibilities are not seriously entertained. In its scientifically unwarranted criticisms of evolution, ID’s arguments are a subset of those used by traditional forms of creationism.

Q: What is biological evolution?
A: Biological evolution is a scientific theory that explains how life on earth has changed over time. The belief that species have evolved existed before Darwin, and was first stimulated by finding fossils of animals that no longer exist. Evolution has undergone many important developments since Darwin’s time, most notably the incorporation of genetics.

Q: Why isn’t ID a possible alternative to evolution?
A: ID is not a scientific theory and therefore cannot be put forward as an alternative to the scientific theory of evolution. ID has no explanatory power or predictive power. It simply says that some things that seem very complex could not have happened based on natural causes. So where it sees complexity, it declares that it must have been created by a supernatural entity. This is not science.

Q: Who is behind the ID movement?
A: The ID movement is led by a small group of activists based at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (formerly Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture) in Seattle, WA. There are very few credentialed scientists among the group’s leadership, and those who are scientists typically studied in fields unrelated to biology. Their approach to religion is very different from the leading scientists in the United States who are religious. Most legitimate scientists who are people of faith accept the overwhelming evidence supporting the scientific theory of evolution and see no conflict between the two.

Q: What is the “Wedge Strategy?”
A: The Wedge Strategy is an internal memorandum from the Discovery Institute that was leaked to the Internet in 1999. Although ID proponents publicly declare that they are neutral on many questions related to their religious motivations, the Wedge document reveals in clear terms that their assertions are at best deceptive. The document specifically outlines plans to reverse prevailing scientific practices and methods, and makes clear that the motivations of ID’s main supporters are religious, not scientific. It is indeed curious that they would choose deception to advance their religious beliefs.

Q: Why not “teach both sides”?
A: This would be like teaching astrology in an astronomy course or alchemy in a chemistry class. There are not “two sides” to the science. Evolution is a scientific theory that seeks to explain how life on earth has changed over time, while ID is simply an ideology that attacks science and asks that its ideas be accepted as if they are true. Evolution and ID address different topics, employ different methods and certainly should be judged by entirely different standards.

Q: How does ID undermine science education?
A: Teaching ID as a so-called “alternative” to evolution would misinform students as to the scientific standing of the theory of evolution and the workings of the scientific method. In addition, it would improperly prepare them for postsecondary science education, placing them at a significant disadvantage to their peers. All scientists and physicians who study such diseases as SARS and AIDS, as well as those who trace how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, completely rely on evolutionary theory to understand the phenomena they are examining. We are certain that even ID proponents would prefer to rely on these scientists rather than a scientist who believes that SARS or AIDS was created by intelligent design and can be explained only by intelligent design.

Q: How does ID undermine religious freedom?
A: ID is attempting to insert its particular religious beliefs into science education – as if it were science. By trying to use governments to give the prestigious label of “science” to their controversial theories, they are misleading children and parents. By attempting to elevate a single religious viewpoint over others and situating religion in conflict with science, they are endangering the religious freedom of all Americans. In the words of Theologian John F. Haught, “If a child of mine were attending a biology class where the teacher proposed that students consider ID as an alternative to?evolution I would be offended religiously as well as intellectually.” (Haught, J, rep. App. 3, tab F, at 7.)

Q: What’s wrong with the claim that evolution is “just a theory”?
A: Calling evolution “just a theory” is deeply misleading because it confuses the everyday meaning of the word “theory” (a “hunch” or an “opinion.”) with the scientific meaning (requiring an explanation that is testable, grounded in evidence and able to predict natural phenomena better than competing theories). The scientific theory of evolution is one of the most robust theories in modern science. It has been corroborated by hundreds of thousands of independent observerations and has succeeded in predicting natural phenomena in every field of the biological sciences, from paleontology to molecular genetics. No persuasive evidence has been put forward in the last 150 years to contradict the theory of evolution. In the words of Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the most prominent geneticists of the 20th century, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.”

Q: Does the scientific theory of evolution deny the existence of an intelligent designer or God?
A: No. Since the question of God’s existence is outside the realm of science, the theory of evolution is silent on it. Darwin himself openly wondered about the existence of a supreme designer throughout his life, but kept these questions separate from his scientific work. Accepting evolution and belief in God are not mutually exclusive. Many scientists hold personal religious beliefs, including Dr. Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Protestant, and Dr. Kenneth Miller, a Catholic and a prominent biologist who was called as an expert witness in Kitzmiller v. Dover .

Q: Aren’t there controversies among scientists about evolution?
A: There are many debates within science about aspects of any theory, and scientific theories are constantly being revised as new and compelling information is learned. In evolution, as in all areas of science, our knowledge is incomplete. There are many important debates within evolutionary theory. For example, what features of animals are due to sexual selection as opposed to natural selection? How much of evolutionary change occurs because of the need to adapt to changing environments versus random genetic change? Does natural selection occur only at the level of the individual organism or can it occur also at the level of groups or even species? The list goes on. None of these debates, however, undermines the scientific standing of evolution itself. In fact, each has added to our understanding of the ways in which evolution works, and strengthened the core elements of the theory.

Q: Why not teach ID as just one controversy about evolution along with others?
A: Unlike real scientific theories, ID cannot provide any evidence in favor of its conclusions – meaning that it is an ideology and not science.

Q: But what about gaps in the theory of evolution that cannot be explained by scientists?
A: Most important scientific theories have gaps that need to be filled, and unanswered questions do not render a theory invalid. Doubters of Galileo’s theory of the earth’s rotation around the sun asked, why, if the earth is spinning, don’t we all fly off it? It took roughly a half-century for Isaac Newton to develop the theory of gravitational pull, which answers this question. A scientific theory is not disqualified simply because it raises new questions; in fact, the ability of a theory to inspire new questions and experiments is a measure of its quality. Furthermore, most of the so-called “unexplainable gaps” pointed out by ID proponents have in fact been answered by scientists. For many years “creationists” argued that there were serious gaps in the “fossil record” and that there was no fossil record of transitional species. During the last twenty years several such transitional species have been found — something that ID people are reluctant to admit — making the original assertion more and more dubious.

Q: Have the ID critiques of evolutionary theory been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals?
A: Peer review is the standard process by which scientists judge each other’s work and deem it acceptable for publication in scientific journals. Only one article supporting ID has ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal – the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington – and it was later disavowed by the Society’s governing council. The writer was a philosopher of science, not a practicing scientist, and the article reported no original data. Other scientific publications by authors affiliated with ID were on subjects other than ID. Aside from this one instance, proponents of ID have published their work in the popular press, avoiding review by experts.

Q: What do ID proponents mean by “irreducible complexity” and how do they argue that this concept implies design?
A: Michael Behe, a Discovery Institute fellow, coined the term “irreducible complexity” as a description of organisms that are so complex that they could not come into existence gradually. He uses a mousetrap as an example: a mousetrap has many different parts, and if one of them did not work, you wouldn’t have an inferior mousetrap, rather your mousetrap would not work at all. Therefore, the mousetrap couldn’t work at all until all the parts were in place. In biology, structures that don’t function are weeded out by natural selection, so Behe concludes that complex biological systems must have been designed with all their parts in place as well. However, evolution does not necessarily occur in a linear progression, with each new part being added on, one at a time. Instead, structures develop for one purpose, and then get co-opted for a different task. Scientists have been able to chart these changes in many organisms that seem irreducibly complex in their current form, showing how natural selection can produce stunning variety from the same building blocks. The failure of Behe’s irreducible complexity argument is a perfect example of ID’s failure as a whole: misunderstanding how evolution works, ID’s proponents reject it in favor of divine intervention.

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