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Wednesday, October 19, 2005  

News: Intelligent design defense fails

Several recent articles have captured the reasons why intelligent design, a 'scientific' dust cover for creationism, fails the smell test for anyone with a human nose, an imperfect organ certainly. But before we consider a couple of them, let's revisit the definition of creationism. The defense in the Scopes II trial would like us to conveniently forget that creatonism is the issue, claiming intelligent design is something else. However, the claim does not hold water much better than the human bladder.

creationism |krēˈā sh əˌnizəm|


The belief that the universe and living organisms originate from specific acts of divine creation, as in the biblical account, rather than by natural processes such as evolution.

• another term for creation science.

Note that creationism has also been presented as 'science,' just as intelligent design is by its advocates currently. But calling a belief system, the most charitable term for creationism and intelligent design, 'science,' does not make it science. To be a science, a field must rely on analysis of the natural world by observation and experimentation. When one relies on some other type of analysis, one is no longer practicing science.

Observing the trial for Slate, Hanna Rosin has a seat for a shock and awe defense. The dispenser of both is Martin Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, and the star of the intelligent design movement. Behe, bespectacled because of faulty eyesight, one presumes, has attempted to convince the judge presiding over the trial that when he spoke of belief in God as an integral part of intelligent design in the past, he was speaking as a philosopher.

Just over a year ago, the Dover [Pa.] school board voted to require ninth-grade biology teachers to tell students about "problems in Darwin's theory" and to mention intelligent design as an alternative theory of evolution. Eleven parents sued the district in federal court. The case has played out like an adult education class; the plaintiffs have called to the witness stand biologists, paleontologists, textbook writers, and science historians. All have reiterated the plaintiffs' main point: Intelligent design is just creationism hiding behind a lab coat, Genesis posing as science, a Trojan horse of the religious right. But it's obvious from Monday's testimony that this is an oversimplification. Perhaps the old creationists and the ID people share a common ancestor, but the ID folks have undergone so many stages of evolution that they are now a barely recognizable subspecies.

...Thank God for cross-examination. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that states can not require schools to teach creationism alongside evolution. So, the plaintiffs are intent on proving ID is just another form of creationism. To do that, Eric Rothschild, the sharp ACLU attorney, does the courtroom equivalent of "This Is Your Life," trotting out all of Behe's more embarrassing friends and relations. To give students a fuller understanding of ID, Dover's ninth-grade biology teachers are now required to read in class a statement referring them to a textbook called Of Pandas and People, which the schools will keep in their libraries. Behe wrote sections of the textbook and has called it an "excellent reference for students." But the book is not nearly as careful as Behe is to avoid the old creationist lingo: "Intelligent Design means that various forms of life began abruptly with distinguishing features already intact: fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks and wings, etc," Rothschild reads out loud from the book. Behe can manage a defense of why that statement is still consistent with certain well-accepted evolutionary principles, but it's a stretch. The passage sounds an awful lot like Genesis.

Rothschild then points to some of Behe's own writing in a magazine called "Biology and Philosophy," where Behe mused about the identity of the Great Designer. What if the existence of God is denied at the outset? he asks himself in an article. Well, yes, he admits, for those who deny God's existence, ID is much less plausible. Finally, he gets to what so far counts as the smoking gun in this trial: a 1999 article in "the Wedge," a publication of the Discovery Institute (the main outlet for ID research), where Behe is a fellow. In it, ID theorists plot their "five-year strategic plan" with Behe as the crucial tool to "reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."

The creationist movement decided to drop 'creation science' in favor of 'intelligent design' as part of a longterm strategy after efforts to convince courts creationism is science failed. Other than the name, the only other distinguishing feature between the two terms is that, of late, inteligent design advocates are not supposed to explicitly say the designer of the natural world they have in mind is God. However, as the plaintiffs' attorneys have demonstrated in Scopes II, the effort to cover up the obvious is so new that even the star witness for the movement has been explicit about the designer being a Christian God relatively recently.

The York Daily Record/Sunday News examined another attempt to present intelligent design as a science that will merely balance another science -- evolution.

HARRISBURG — Michael Behe testified on Tuesday that he considers God the intelligent designer, but that the scientific concept he supports doesn’t require the designer’s identification.

The distinction made by Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University, is a significant point of contention between plaintiffs and defendants in the First Amendment case in U.S. Middle District Court.

Several supporters of intelligent design, including two court spectators, Alina Kline and the Rev. Jim Grove, agree with Behe that the concept is scientifically based, and that the designer is a Christian God. Supporters of the statement say it does not violate the Constitution’s establishment clause because the designer doesn’t have to be a religious figure.

But, implying that there is a God responsible for the creation of life is the raison d'etre for intelligent design. Without the appeal to the supernatural, the religious, intelligent design lacks any reason to be at all. We have a fairly plausible theory to explain the development of the natural world -- evolution. Only if one is seeking something different does a need for creationism or intelligent design arise. Nor does the 'silent' designer pretext convince. It closely resembles 'silent' prayer, the practice in which a moment of silence replaces overt prayer. The courts have held that silent prayer cannot be used to evade the constitutional barrier to practicing religion in public schools.

Last, but not least, as you may have gathered, I'm far from impressed by intelligent design's emphasis on the perfection of the natural world. It makes me wonder if the advocates pay attention to their own bodies. If they did, there would be no doubt in their minds that though the human body is mostly functional, it is not the work of a perfectionistic designer.

Reasonably related

The Washington Post is also covering the intelligent design trial. In its coverage, Behe disputes the theory of natural selection.

9:55 PM