Intelligent Design is often accused of being nothing but an attack on evolution, offering no positive theory of its own, and hence not a science. I want to do some thought-play with that. Certainly ID includes negative science, the attempt to demonstrate that naturalistic evolution cannot be correct, that it is inadequate to account for life as we see it. Without conceding that ID is merely negative, let’s do some what-if thinking. Suppose ID were nothing but an attack on evolutionary theory–what then?
Michael Denton’s 1986 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis was something very much like that. Without ever mentioning Intelligent Design and without any proposed solutions, it raised serious questions about evolution. Remove the inference to intelligence from Intelligent Design discussions since then (this is what-if, remember), and a very large proportion of what remains consists of an assault on the adequacy of evolution (from this point, by “evolution,” I specifically mean naturalistic or unguided evolution).
Michael Behe has proposed Irreducible Complexity as something that evolution could not accomplish, in principle. More recently in a book by the same name he described what appears to be a severely limited “edge of evolution.” Ralph Seelke is experimentally testing to see whether evolution can accomplish two adaptive changes at the same time, and has so far come up negative. These are quite candidly attempts to show that evolution cannot explain life’s complexity and variety.
We could cite other examples. That’s enough, though, to illustrate what ought to be obvious: even if one looks only at its negative aspects, ID involves scientists doing scientific investigations. Is Intelligent Design “A Science?” If your definition of “A Science” requires that it include a scientifically describable and testable theory, that’s a debatable question. One could argue that the inference to design is not scientific, that it’s philosophical instead; and that since it’s an argument by analogy, it’s not testable. For my part, I do see that inference on the other side of a line of demarcation between science and philosophy. Separating these disciplines is difficult, though, and answers are debatable.
Or maybe they are moot. Undeniably, when ID-sympathetic scientists conduct research to contest evolution, they are working in science. Note the heated discussion on Behe’s The Edge of Evolution. Behe says that in the case of malaria and HIV, trillions of opportunities for evolution have never accomplished more than a small number of adaptive changes. He makes his case on the basis of studying the actual organisms and their genomes. This is unquestionably work in the field of science. His disputants on the Amazon blog and elsewhere are primarily asking him scientific questions.
So why prolong this debate over whether Intelligent Design is a science? If it is not “A Science,” it certainly is “science,” the inference to intelligence notwithstanding.
But our what-if scenario here supposes that it’s all negative science, nothing but an attack on evolution, with no theory to propose in evolution’s stead. If that were so, the whole thing would need a new name; perhaps Evolutionary Skepticism in place of Intelligent Design. Other than that, what problems would there be with such a program? Based on my impression of the debate, mainstream science would still object on three points:
1. Evolution cannot be questioned. Where evolution sits, where no doubts can be voiced, no dissent raised, no questions asked. Evolution must be true.
2. All doubts raised toward evolution are religiously motivated, and religion ought to keep its interfering nose out of science’s business.
3. Evolutionary skeptics are not publishing in peer-reviewed articles; therefore they are not doing science.
No Other Answer Allowed
The first two objections interact. Evolutionary theory is mightily committed to philosophical and/or methodological naturalism. The first of these in particular is a strong version of atheism. Philosophical naturalism says that no matter what question you ask about the natural world, the only right answer is that all causes are strictly natural. Evolutionists committed to this include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Richard Lewontin, Barbara Forrest, and G.G. Simpson. Methodological naturalism is slightly different: it says that the only right scientific answer is that all causes are strictly natural. Careful thinkers can distinguish philosophical naturalism from methodological naturalism, but such careful thinking is far too rare.
Under naturalism, there is no other option but evolution, as this brief syllogism shows:
P1. No explanations can be proposed or admitted for any natural phenomena except such as are entirely natural.
P2. Evolutionary theory (in one of its forms) constitutes the only entirely natural explanation available.
C. Evolution is the only explanation we can propose or admit.
Given the premises, no contrary evidence could overcome the inexorable logic of the conclusion. Evolution is evidentially invulnerable. Any positive evidence it can garner is sufficient (little or much, it matters not), for it carries no obligation to overcome negative evidence.
Evolutionists might splutter in objection, “We’re not claiming we’re invulnerable! We know that if we ever found a human buried with a dinosaur, that would disprove everything! We’re open to the evidence!” Well, just how open are you? You acknowledge the appearance of design in everything, you admit the astonishing volume of information in DNA, you can show no other system that can assemble information like that by strictly natural processes, you have never produced observational evidence of evolution happening beyond the very narrow limits Behe described, you think a secretory system that likely developed after the flagellum may have been a step on the way to the development of the flagellum, and you think a mousetrap assembling itself one piece at a time is a good counter to Irreducible Complexity!
Religion Getting In the Way?
Regarding religious motivations for opposing evolution, several things could be said. In the first place, it’s irrelevant. Evidence against evolutionary theory is evidence against evolutionary theory, no matter what the motivation behind its discovery or analysis. To say otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. In the second place, science cannot simply slam the door on religion’s nose. Christianity in particular makes claims regarding origins, and these claims pose what philosophers of science call “external conceptual problems” for science. There is no reason an external conceptual problem cannot be brought into the domain of scientific investigation. That doesn’t mean that science must perform religious tests on the problem; science performs scientific tests. But external problems may certainly be brought in to science for its special kind of inquiry.
Beyond all that, it’s simply not true that all doubts are religiously motivated. Michael Denton’s doubts were not religiously motivated: he looked at evidence, and saw that some of it didn’t fit. Where’s the religion in that? Where’s the religion in running an experiment to see whether evolution can accomplish two things at once?
The third objection, that ID theorists, are not publishing in peer-reviewed journals, has been debated widely enough elsewhere. It would have considerably more merit if not for the obviously scientific discussion taking place around Behe’s Edge of Evolution. If it’s not science, why raise scientific objections? And then of course there is the chilling effect of the Sternberg affair; and just how good would an evolutionary skeptical paper have to be to get past Nature’s screens? Can’t we all just admit that no journal is going to publish anything skeptical of evolution in the near future, and quit fussing at ID for running up against that barrier?
Negative Science Is Science
To summarize, even if ID were purely negative science, it would still be science. If evolution were shown to be incapable of what has been claimed of it, that would be a scientific discovery. If ID proponents were the ones to lead in that discovery, they would be doing so as scientists doing scientific work. That would be so regardless of whether they were to propose an alternative scientific explanation. It would be so even if they had religious motivations behind their work.
Thus ends my what-if. Charges that ID is not science are at best sloppy: a little nuanced thought would acknowledge there is scientific investigation going on under ID’s auspices, whether or not it involves any positive scientific theorizing.