Intelligent Design: Creationism Redux

It was must-see TV. Live from the KERA studios in Dallas: the Texas Lieutenant Governor Primary Candidates Debate!

Oh… you missed it?

The four GOP candidates (the Democrat candidate is unopposed) squared off on important issues – term limits, guns, abortion, legalization of marijuana.

Toward the end of the debate, the four men vying for what is arguably the most powerful state office in Texas were asked to respond to these questions: lt gov debate

Does creationism belong in schools? Would you like to see creationism in textbooks?

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Here are the responses from the two candidates who will face each other in the May 27 runoff:

David Dewhurst (the incumbent): I am fine with teaching creationism, intelligent design, evolution. Let students, with advice and counsel, decide for themselves which one they believe in.

Dan Patrick (the frontrunner): When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed, it should be heralded.

Gussied-up Creationism

For many people of faith, traditional young-earth creationism demands too high an intellectual price, primarily because it demands a 6,000 to 10,000 years old universe.  “Creationism” and “creation science” have been replaced in many circles with Intelligent Design (ID). The Intelligent Design model is infused with scientific vocabulary and complex concepts and has no objection to evidence from physics or geology.

Intelligent Design proponents contend that the theory of evolution is flawed because it cannot explain the complexity of living things. According to ID, an “intelligent designer” was required to step in and specially design (create) each organism, each aspect of life. Intelligent Design is creationism, just gussied-up and more science-y. Intelligent Design is old-earth creationism.

Intelligent Design proponents advocate for equal treatment with evolution theory in public schools.

The likely lieutenant governor of Texas agrees.  

 Teach the Controversy

teach_the_controversy_by_ex_leper-d2xgnkiSo what’s the harm, really? Don’t we want our students to be critical thinkers? Weigh strengths and weaknesses? Should we “teach the controversy” regarding evolution as many education bills are worded?

In other words, should Intelligent Design (old-earth creationism), by law, be given equal status with the theory of evolution in public schools?

Under the Microscope: Does ID Hold Up?

Advocates of Intelligent Design present ID as a valid, scientific approach to the study of biology. As such, ID should pass the tests required of any new science idea.

What happens to a newly introduced science concept?

TNBlog_Scientist

Ta-Daaah!!

Science is self-correcting. New ideas aren’t automatically accepted in the scientific community, no matter how big a splash they make. A couple of decades ago, cold fusion was all the rage. Scientists across the world jumped on board and began trying to replicate the process in their own laboratories, but no one was successful. It soon became apparent that the concept itself was flawed and cold fusion has since been relegated to “the scrap heap of junk science” (p. 45).

And – just a few weeks ago, a Japanese team published an important breakthrough in stem cell research. Almost immediately, scientists reported irregularities in the research and difficulties in replicating the results. The exciting new findings were discredited less than 40 days after their announcement.

If bad science is published in a peer-reviewed forum, it will not stand long. Science polices itself.

What happens when ID is put “under the scope” by the scientific community?

The basic principle of Intelligent Design is “irreducible complexity”. Irreducible complexity means that living systems are so complex all of their parts must be present in order to be functional. According to ID, gradual development (evolution) could not possibly produce these systems – complex systems had to appear “all at once” or they would have been useless. The mousetrap is the go-to example of irreducible complexity: all parts must be present in the mousetrap in order to catch a mouse.

Reduce the trap by even one part, and the mousetrap is useless.

Dr. Kenneth Miller, in a true story from his childhood (pp. 53-55) deconstructed the mousetrap analogy. Using a broken mousetrap with several parts missing, a classmate built a perfectly functioning spitball catapult, capable of launching a juicy one from the gym floor to unsuspecting students in the balcony.

spit-ball-custom

The “reduced trap” was not useless.

The “reduced” mousetrap caught no mousies, but it was still functional: it was an ideal spitball launcher.

The concept of irreducible complexity fails when it comes to mousetraps, but a mousetrap is not a living, biological system.

What about the biological darlings of Intelligent Design – blood clotting, the flagellum, the eye?

Blood Clotting Cascade. Intelligent Design proponents regularly cite the blood clotting mechanism of vertebrates (animals with backbones) as an example of irreducible complexity. Even the tiniest break in a blood vessel triggers a cascade (or pathway) of events, eventually resulting in a blood clot that plugs the leak. Each step in the cascade triggers and amplifies the next step. So precise is this clotting pathway that the absence of just one component in the cascade has a devastating effect (uncontrolled bleeding).

Therefore, Intelligent Design says that the blood clotting cascade was put into place, “as is” and all at once. According to ID, evolution (a gradual process) could not have produced it.

But that is not what the evidence shows.

Simpler systems work. Some vertebrates are missing parts of the clotting pathway, yet the pathways are useful and are able to successfully form a blood clot.

Scientists have known for years that dolphins and whales are missing one of the clotting factors, and their blood clots just fine. In 2003, it was discovered that the puffer fish is missing three of the factors, yet it also has a working system.

In fact, many vertebrates have clotting systems simpler than the systems of mammals, yet they clot quite nicely. Dr. Russell F. Doolittle has extensively documented that the number of components in blood clotting systems increases and decreases as you move up and down the evolutionary scale from jawless fish to advanced mammals.

If a simpler clotting system is able to work, then blood clotting is not irreducibly complex.

Going back further. If we go back to even earlier ancestors, less complex than the vertebrates (animals with backbones), what would we find?

CionaSea Squirts do not have a backbone, so they are not vertebrates like us. Sea squirts do, however, have a nerve chord. Sea squirts are descended from organisms that split off from the line of animals that eventually lead to vertebrates (including us).

In 2002, the complete genetic code of the sea squirt was determined and the results were spectacular. No genes for vertebrate clotting factors were found, but scattered throughout the genetic code for the sea squirt were genes for all but two of the protein domains that build the vertebrate clotting factors. In other words, almost all of the nuts and bolts and spare parts needed to piece together the clotting factors were there, 400 million years ago (p. 66).

It appears that clotting systems evolved from a simple mechanism that could handle the low-pressure, low flow blood systems of less complex animals. Over long periods of time, more and more elements of the cascade were recruited, evolving into the complicated systems needed by mammals with high pressure cardio-vascular systems.

Yet Intelligent Design advocates assert that the blood clotting cascade was created from scratch, “as is”.

But if that were indeed the case, then why do we find the raw materials for clotting exactly where evolution tells us they should be, in the last group of organisms to split off from the vertebrates before clotting appeared? (p. 66).

The Bacterial Flagellum. Your body is host to billions of helpful bacteria that zip around your gut driven by their own little outboard motors – the flagella. Flagella are microscopic whip-like structures powered by a complicated chemical motor. As many as thirty components must be securely in their places in order for a flagellum to operate properly.

Intelligent Design says that the components should have no function whatsoever until all thirty are in place.

Most bacteria are harmless, even helpful. But the bad guys – the bacteria that cause disease – threaten living organisms in a variety of ways. Bacteria can pump poisons directly into a host cell using a protein pump known as a TTSS (type III secretory system).

Studies of proteins in the TTSS pump revealed a remarkable fact: the proteins in the TTSS are almost identical to the proteins in the base of the flagellum. About ten of the thirty proteins in the flagellum function perfectly well as a TTSS pump.

…the TTSS is just like my spitball catapult – a small part of a larger system that works just fine for an entirely different purpose (p.59).

In fact, nearly all of the proteins in the flagellum are like proteins found elsewhere in the bacterial cell.

The flagellum isn’t a made from scratch, all-at-once structure. Rather,

It’s much more like a collection of borrowed, copied, and jerry-rigged parts that have been cobbled together from the spare-parts bin of the cell. In short, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from evolution (61-62).

Intelligent Design proponents also claim that evolution could not have produced the eye or the middle ear. According to ID, these too, are irreducibly complex. But – multiple lines of research have demonstrated that both the eye and the middle ear could have been generated in a step-by-step, gradual process. (If you’d like to read more about the evolution of the eye, the middle ear, the bacterial flagellum, and the blood clotting cascade, check out these BioLogos links).

Unfortunate Choice of Words

Many believers want a faith-affirming approach to science that is also intellectually honest. At first glance, Intelligent Design seems to offer what Creationism cannot. On the contrary, when we inspect the claims of ID we simply find an old-earth version of Creationism.

It is unfortunate that the “competitors” to evolution appropriate the terms creationism, intelligent, and design. When used with capital letters, the terms are loaded with suppositions about the universe and life that contradict all of modern science.

But using small letters, they become descriptors, not dogma. It is possible to acknowledge God as creator of all, source of all intelligence, and author of all physical laws – and still speak the truth about what his creation reveals to us.

This series is a chapter by chapter overview of Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory, with my discussion and commentary.

Previous posts in this series:

Big Tex, T-Rex, and the American Scientific Soul

Just a Theory

Design: The New Playbook

I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.

I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.

I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

CatsDinosaurs

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