Demands for equal time cut both ways.

Armies of the night, science-writer and novelist Isaac Asimov once called them. He was referring to the countless millions of evangelicals who believe the book of Genesis to be literally true and therefore reject any evidence to the contrary.

President Bush is one of them. So is Michael Drake, principal of Auckland’s Carey College.

As reported in the Weekend Herald (27 August), Drake believes that one can provide dates for the main events in the history of the universe by adding up all the ‘begats’ in the Bible. The date of creation turns out to be just over 4000 BC, and that of Noah’s Flood about 2400 BC.

What can these young-earth creationists say when confronted by scientific evidence that the universe began more than 12 billion years ago, that life began over 4 billion years ago, that dinosaurs became extinct some 63 million years ago, or that fossils of our hominid ancestors are shown by potassiumargon dating to be more than three million years old?

Their best ploy is to say that God created the universe with all this contrary evidence built into it. This, says Drake, is “perfectly possible”. It seems not to bother him that this hypothesis makes God, not just a Great Designer, but a Great Deceiver as well.

And what about the ancient civilisations whose historical and archaeological records spitefully ignore the Flood and the death of all living creatures, other than the inhabitants of the ark? Clearly, God must have even more tricks up his sleeve. After all, as Drake points out, tautologically, “God is God.”

Most mainstream Christians outside the US would reject this version of intelligent design. Like fifth century St Augustine, they would say that biblical literalists deserve to be “laughed to scorn” for their “utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements.”

Adopting Augustine’s figurative interpretation of Genesis, liberal Christians believe they can accommodate the findings of science and history. Thus those who call themselves theistic evolutionists can, without contradiction, accept Darwin’s laws of natural selection as one of the laws of nature — along with those of physics and chemistry — with which God endowed his creation at the outset. No need for him to intervene on this account.

Enter a third version, one that reintroduces elements of evangelical creationism into the evolutionary story. Michael Behe, in his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, claimed that although evolutionary mechanisms can explain a lot, they can’t explain the emergence of certain highly complex biological systems. His examples include the flagellum of E. coli, and the human immune system.

These systems, Behe argues, are “irreducibly complex” in the sense that none of their simpler parts would have survival value until they were assembled in the right way by the intervention of a supernatural deity. Unlike theistic evolutionists, Behe believes God has to tinker with his initial design.

How scientific is all this? Well, Behe himself is a scientist. And scientists certainly do find complexity in the biological world, especially at the molecular level.

But is there scientific evidence that this complexity is irreducible? Scientists can literally see complexity. But they can’t see irreducibility. Behe has to argue for it. And his arguments have been found wanting by both philosophers and scientists.

Philosophers disparage his argument’s form: “We don’t yet understand how these complex forms could have emerged, so God must have created them”. It is a rehash of the ‘God of the Gaps’ fallacy. Flawed faith-based reasoning. Not sound evidence-based science.

Meanwhile scientists continue to plug those gaps with accounts of the evolutionary pathways that generated these supposedly irreducible systems. What becomes of Behe’s argument for an intelligent designer if all the gaps get filled?

Now to the important question: Should intelligent design be taught in schools? If so, which version?

Mary Chamberlain, curriculum manager for the Ministry of Education, says science classes should allow for some version or other. She seems to echo Bush’s recent call for ‘equal time’ for those who oppose evolution.

Equal time counts both ways. If equal time is to be given to those who think there are arguments against evolution, then it should also be given to those who think there are arguments against intelligent design. But then we get into what philosophers call “the problem of natural evil.”

If you think an intelligent designer designed the universe, then think about the unsavoury aspects of his design. Think of diseases like Alzheimers, cancer, smallpox, and those caused by Behe’s favourite, E. coli. Think of disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes. If complex design demonstrates intelligence, then by the same token the “god-awful” nature of much of God’s design demonstrates defective or malevolent intelligence.

On reflection, do its promoters really want intelligent design analysed and evaluated in schools? And if so, by whom? Do they really want to open Pandora’s box?

Recommended Posts