Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Intelligent Design

The Middle District of Pennsylvania has rendered its opinion in the Intelligent Design case, Kitzmiller v. Dover School District. For those who have been living under a rock this year: the case challenged the constitutionality of a local school board's decision requiring science teachers to read a brief statement about the theory of "Intelligent Design" (or "ID" for short) before teaching evolution.

I confess, before reading the opinion, I was a bit surprised by the outcome. What I had heard about ID seemed to indicate that it was a reasonable middle ground, supported by a small minority of scientists, and based on my own knowledge of constitutional law (I am a law librarian with a law degree) I thought it could have passed constitutional muster. However, after reading the opinion, it appears that that a borderline scientific theory has been hijacked by people with an agenda that cannot pass constitutional muster.

Let me preface this discussion by saying that I have no theological committment to Intelligent Design, and I have no objection to the idea of studying evolution. The Creator, if He is so inclined, is perfectly capable of designing a universe in which his involvement is completely transparent. If He chose to do so, no proof could be found, so there is no need to try to find any. As to evolution: whether it is truly the means by which life on Earth came about is largely irrelevant, but if the Divine created the world with the appearance that it works this way, then we can undoubtedly learn valuable lessons by studying the pattern he put in place.

What is Intelligent Design?

I first heard about ID while watching a morning news show. A scientist explained the theory with an analogy: if you look at Mount Rushmore, even if you've never heard of it before, you can tell that somebody created it. You may not know who or how or when, but the complexity of it suggests that there was an intelligence behind it. Those faces on the mountainside didn't get there by themselves! There is nothing irrational or unscientific about this conclusion. ID likewise looks at the complexity of life on the planet, including the complex interactions of interdependent species, and concludes that random mutation and natural selection are not sufficient to explain what we see. The complexity suggests an intelligence behind it.

Of course, when we are talking about an intelligence that designed life on this planet, we're talking about something outside of the scope of life on this planet. It does not, however, necessarily mean the One Judeo-Christian G-d. It definitely does not necessarily mean that the universe was created in 7 days some 6,000 years ago. The designer could be gods the Greco-Roman pantheon. It could be aliens. It could have occurred 1500 years ago or 15 billion years ago. Intelligent Design does not give answers to these questions. As I understood it, ID is not a complete alternative theory of the creation of life on Earth or in the universe; it is at most a footnote on the theory of evolution that says, random mutation and natural selection alone are not the end of the story.

There are legitimate scientists -- not merely religious fanatics -- who would agree with this understanding, and who have been quoted as saying these sorts of things. They are, admittedly, a small minority, but when did that ever become a reason to ban teaching something?

Under my understanding of ID, somewhere in the course of teaching evolution, the teacher would inject a statement along these lines:

A small minority of scientists believe that Darwin's theory of evolution through random mutation and natural selection is not sufficient to explain the complexity and complex interactions we find in nature. These scientists believe that there may be an intelligent designer involved in the process.

This could perhaps be followed up with an example or two of the kinds of complexity that these minority scientists believe cannot be sufficiently explained by Darwin.

What was wrong in the Dover School District?

The concepts I explained above are apparently not what was taught in Dover. The school, driven by an evangelical Christian agenda to put G-d back in the classroom, had the teachers read a statement that basically said, "The law requires us to teach evolution and to test you on it, so that's what we're going to teach, but there's another theory that explains the origins of the universe, and you can read the book Of Pandas and People to find out about it."

I confess, I have never read Of Pandas and People, but the court's opinion in Kitzmiller indicates that it is nothing more than thinly-veiled "creation science," a theory promoted by evangelical Christians some 20 years ago that used scientific terminology to claim that the literal words of the Bible were objectively provable scientific fact. The teaching of "creation science" was found to be an unconstitutional establishment of religion in Edwards v. Arkansas, 482 U.S. 578 (1987). The Kitzmiller court indicates that Of Pandas and People was originally written as a "creation science" text, but after the Supreme Court's decision in Edwards, it was edited to substitute the words "Intelligent Design" for words like "creation," "creationism" and "creation science."

The court also emphasized the contrived dualism of Dover's intelligent design proponents, characteristic of their creation-science predecessors. They set up the idea that there are two complete and independent theories: Evolution and Creation. If there is the slightest flaw found in the Theory of Evolution, then in their minds this proves Creation beyond any doubt. The logical flaw in this premise is obvious: they assume that the two possibilities are mutually exclusive and mutually exhaustive, but they are not. In the theory of ID as I originally understood it, the two theories interact -- not mutually exclusive, but supplemental. And of course, there is always the possibility that some other theory not yet developed could explain any limitations in the Theory of Evolution, so they are not mutually exhaustive.

Of course, the setting up of a duality with a straw man is a typical evangelical Christian tactic. I have had many interactions with fundamentalist Christians who insist that they can prove that Jesus is the messiah because "either he was messiah or he was a complete lunatic." Of course, there are many other possibilities: he could have been honestly mistaken; his followers who wrote about him could have been honestly mistaken; etc., etc. etc. But they set up this false duality like a magician setting up a force in a card trick: they give you two choices, and the one that disagrees with their position is debunked. The same trick is apparently going on in Of Pandas and People.

What does Judaism have to say about ID/Creationism?

In this as in many other things, there is a wide range of opinions. My impression is that the non-Orthodox are not bound by biblical literalism, and accept evolution without qualm or question. But even within Orthodoxy, there are many who have no problem with Evolution. Rambam, a medieval Jewish scholar and physician, believed that science was a way of better understanding the Divine, and that any conflicts between science and the Bible arise from either a lack of scientific knowledge or a defective understanding of the Bible.

There are many within the Orthodox movements who believe that the Bible is literally true, but cannot be proved and must be accepted on simple faith. According to this point of view, the universe was created in a way that appeared older to allow mankind the free will to choose whether to believe. After all, how could you choose whether to believe if carbon dating proved that nothing on the planet was more than 5800 years old and the fossil record showed that all species were complete in their current form over the span of seven days? Contrary evidence must exist to give people the choice what to believe. Creation Science/Intelligent Design would be irrelevant for them, because these theories claim to prove something that should be taken on faith.

Many within Orthodoxy, however, take a harmonization approach, believing that the Bible is the word of G-d, but it was written in language that could be understood by the simple desert nomads it was originally written for and is not necessarily literal. It is indeed often striking how well the biblical text metaphorically expresses scientific discoveries: I remember reading about astronomers viewing the "Big Bang" and describing what they saw as "energy separating from matter" ... now where have I heard that before? Genesis Chapter 1 speaks of creation beginning with light separating from darkness. Light is energy; matter is dark. The order of creation is also much in line with what the Bible would suggest, albeit not the timing.

On the Orthodox educational website, you will find several articles on the age of the universe and on evolution. I list a few below, which seem to take a middle road.

Articles from