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Friday, December 23, 2005 

Those who do not learn from history...

My favorite essay arguing against intelligent design isn’t one of Gould’s, or Dawkins’, or Sagan’s. Rather, it’s one that has portions I disagree with, but the eloquent prose simply can’t be beat:
"The analogy which you attempt to establish between the contrivances of human art, and the various existences of the Universe, is inadmissible. We attribute these effects to human intelligence, because we know beforehand that human intelligence is capable of producing them. Take away this knowledge, and the grounds of our reasoning will be destroyed. Our entire ignorance, therefore, of the Divine Nature leaves this analogy defective in its most essential point of comparison.

You assert that the construction of the animal machine, the fitness of certain animals to certain situations, the connexion between the organs of perception and that which is perceived; the relation between every thing which exists, and that which tends to preserve it in its existence, imply design. It is manifest that if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest, the human frame could not preserve its present mode of existence. It is equally certain, however, that the elements of its composition, if they did not exist in one form, must exist in another; and that the combinations which they would form, must so long as they endured, derive support for their peculiar mode of being from their fitness to the circumstances of their situation."
These come from an 1814 essay by Percy Bysse Shelley, analyzing the claims in William Paley's Natural Theology, a text which explores arguments very similar to those used by modern-day ID advocates. So similar, in fact, that although some of the minor details have changed, Shelley's refutation of it can be easily used today.

As this essay demonstrates, and as recently highlighted in this post, it behooves us to know our history—and none know this better than those who teach the subject. University of Iowa history professor Douglas Baynton wrote an interesting letter to the Washington Post this past Saturday, offering a unique perspective on the “controversy” regarding Intelligent Design by using 19th century geography texts to speculate about how a course using intelligent design might look. He cites three precendents: “Physical and Intermediate Geography” (1866), the 1873 “Physical Geography,” and “Elements of Physical Geography” from 1868. Baynton writes,
These textbooks seem also to have been intended to provide solace for the existentially anxious. All of them offered in one form or another the reassurance that “Geography eaches us about the earth which was made to be our home.” Earth by itself “could not be the abode of man,” advised one. “Therefore, two indispensable agents are provided—the sun and the atmosphere.” The entire vast history of the planet was summed up as the “gradual formation by which it was made ready for the reception of mankind.” The lay of the land had been thoughtfully arranged for our benefit: “As the torrid regions of the earth require the greatest amount of rain, there are the loftiest mountains, which act as huge condensers of the clouds.” Because the breezes that blew down mountainsides cooled the inhabitants below, the highest were located in the hottest pars of the world “for the same reason that you put a piece of ice into a pitcher of water in summer, rather than in winter.”
Of course, these are very similar to the arguments put forth in Natural Theology and a number of other texts over the centuries, reviewed briefly here.

Baynton continues,
Another book explained that all the plants and animals that lived and died for eons did so precisely because humans, during their industrial era, would need the coal. The author observed that “the wisdom of this Plan is further recognized in the fact that the coal is found, mainly, in those parts of the earth that are best fitted for human habitation—in the United States, Great Britain, Western Europe, British America, and China.”
I wonder what these same authors would say today if they were aware of our efforts to extract oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Siberia, Alaska, etc.-—not exactly the best fit areas for human habitation. This is the problem with correlating religious ideas to natural phenomena, and assigning purpose in a scientific setting. One may be able to make a theological argument outlining what God’s Plan is, but it’s not a scientific endeavor. Baynton notes this:
Design arguments…reverse such practical explanations, replacing natural causality with supernatural predestination. In doing so, useful answers that open up further questions are replaced by answers that are emotionally satisfying but intellectual and practical dead ends. After all, once you know that mountains exist because they were meant to exist, what is left to do but sit in your armchair and mediation on the wisdom of their design?
And this is a big reason why scientists are so frustrated with intelligent design—it doesn’t provide us with anything useful. When ID advocate Guillermo Gonzalez was asked at his talk at the University of Northern Iowa what the practical applications of ID were; how it could be used in a practical sense to explore avenues not possible with current scientific methodology? He answered (paraphrasing) that it was "a truth that can be known, leading us to ask more questions and examine the evidence more carefully"--but that's something scientists do, anyway. And sure, who can disagree that the pursuit of truth is a noble thing? But ID is not a scientific truth. It is a religious conjecture, identical to those pointed out by Baynton. Consider, for example, Gonzalez’s thesis in “The Privileged Planet:” that habitability and observability must correlate, because God (oops, The Designer) meant for us to be able to see the magnificence of the Universe. Isn’t this just as silly, and just as arbitrary, as the idea that coal was placed in the specific spots on this earth that “were most fit for human habitation?” Additionally, how does one ascertain the motivations of this mysterious Designer—-the central tenet of The Privileged Planet and other ID writings-- without first knowing their identity; a question which Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Johnathan Witt notes here, is religion.

I suppose, however, that my suggestion that the premise of Gonzalez’s book is silly will be construed as a personal attack. A recent EvolutionNews article regarding a seminar led by Iowa State University professors Hector Avalos, Jim Colbert, and Michael Clough titled “Why the Overwhelming Consensus of Science is that Intelligent Design is not Good Science” contains another Gonzalez assertion that “Avalos and the other critics of ID on campus have to date resorted to misrepresentations of ID and personal attacks on me.” Rather ironic, considering Gonzalez's own attacks and accusations of lying, and the fact that ID is, in essence, little more than a giant misrepresentation of evolutionary theory.

Additionally, Witt complains that the authors of the Iowa State Daily article gave Gonzalez only one sentence: as they mention, “one sentence for the man at the center of the Iowa State controversy,” and call it “fishy.” My, my, what egos—and a bit of misrepresentation of their own. Though they’ve spun all of the activity in Iowa as an attack on Gonzalez, not once in the petitions that over 400 Iowa faculty signed is there a mention of “the man at the center of the Iowa State controversy.” It’s not an attack on Gonzalez, or Fred Skiff, or any other Iowa faculty who may support intelligent design. The Discovery Institute tries to play this as an “academic freedom” issue: that by criticizing ID, we’re scientific “McCarthyites”. So, where is *our* academic freedom to say that we feel ID is a load of garbage? No one has said Gonzalez shouldn’t be able to research ID, should he actually manage to find some way to do so. No one has said he can’t believe in it. No one has questioned his credentials as an astronomer. What has been said is that we don’t believe that ID is suitable for teaching in science classes, and that ID “theory” is intellectually vacuous. It’s a dead end. ID proponents have repeatedly said it’s not a theory of mechanism, so even once it has been established that something has “been designed,” there’s no way to determine *how* it was designed; and it’s a question of theology, not science, to ask “why” The Designer created it that way.

Baynton ends his essay with the thought:
The details have changed, but the fundamental habits of thought at issue have not. Do we want children to learn what is currently known and, more important, what remains to be discovered, about the physics of planetary motion? Or rather should they learn that “As the earth is round, only half of it can be lighted at once. In order that both sides may be lighted, the Creator has caused the earth to rotate”?
It may be, as Baynton notes, a solace to think that this is the explanation for the Earth’s rotation. It may even be a correct explanation; I’m not in a position to say. But either way, it’s a theological stance, not a scientific one.

A quote from Patrick Hazard states, "History in our kind of society is not a luxury but a necessity." Perhaps if more people were aware of the history of intelligent design "theory," less time would be wasted working to keep it out of science classes.

[Note: I'd planned to post this Tuesday, but didn't want it to get lost in all the Dover issues. I think, given the decision and the role the history of the ID movement played in that, it's even more relevant today that this history is considered.--T]


(Geography image from http://users.erols.com/ziring/povray.htm)

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About me

  • I'm Tara C. Smith
  • From Iowa, United States
  • I'm a mom and a scientist, your basic stressed-out, wanna-have-it-all-and-do-it-all Gen Xer. Recently transplanted from Ohio to Iowa, I've spent most of my life in the midwest (with 4 years of college spent out east in "soda" territory). My main interest, and the subject of my research, is infectious disease: how does the microbe cause illness? What makes one strain nasty, and another "avirulent?" Are the latter really not causing any disease, or could some of those be possible for the development of chronic disease years down the road? Additionally, I've spent a lot of time discussing the value of teaching evolution, and educating others about "intelligent design" and other forms of creationism. My interest in history of science and medicine is also useful as a way to tie all of the above interests together. [Disclaimer: the views here are solely my own, and do not represent my employer, my spouse, that guy who's always sitting by the fountain when I come into work, or anyone else with whom I may be remotely affiliated.]
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