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The “theory of intelligent design”

Wired recently published a very bad article on “junk DNA”. This prompted a lot of crowing from IDists, who made the claim that modern discoveries about non-coding DNA vindicated predictions made by “the theory of intelligent design“:

“It is a confirmation of a natural empirical prediction or expectation of the theory of intelligent design, and it disconfirms the neo-Darwinian hypothesis,” said Stephen Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.

Of course, the idea that non-coding areas of DNA were important pre-dates ID by decades. But the most interesting thing is Meyer’s statement that there is a “theory of intelligent design“. Funny that they haven’t shared it with anyone – is it somewhere under Bush’s desk alongside the WMDs?

I have heard mention of this mythical beast from time to time. But there is no such thing. As Elliott Sober has discussed*, there are several ID hypotheses. The broadest one is what he calls mini-ID, the idea that “that the complex adaptations that organisms display (e.g., the vertebrate eye) were crafted by an intelligent designer” (Sober, 2007). This minimalistic idea allows the “big tent” to function, allowing various stripes of creationists to coexist.

Within the “big tent” there is room for literal 6-day YECs and people like Behe, who believe that the world is billions of years old, and organisms share common ancestry. Of course, it wasn’t until Behe published his latest book, The Edge of Evolution, that I realised how strange his ideas were…he asserts that the “edge” of what evolution can do lies somewhere above the level of the species, but not very far. Creationists who believe that current species descend from the “kinds” that were on the ark would be comfortable with Behe’s vision of evolution (except that, in order to produce several hundred species per “kind” since the Flood, evolutionary rates must be much, much higher than what any scientists assert).

Still, Behe’s views of evolution do not seem to be in agreement with those of Jonathan Wells, who doubts common descent at all. Wells’ idea of ID seems to focus on design – pure teleology. He asserts that sub-cellular “machinery” resembles real “machinery” because both were “designed” to do a certain task. Of course, this idea is totally blown out of the water by an examination of the way that morphogenesis actually works. Gene expression shows clear signs of being hacked together by an incompetent designer (or, perhaps, a blind one).

More important than all of this though is the fact that there is no theory of intelligent design. ID consists of an incredibly poorly constructed** core hypothesis (which makes no predictions and is unfalsifiable) and a number of unrelated anciliary hypotheses which are, in general, demonstrably false. Intelligent design predicts nothing. Since it chooses not to speculate about the nature of the designer (another ploy), it cannot predict what he/she/it/they would have done. Goddidit (but his motives are ineffable) is a hypothesis which, by design, can make no predictions.

* E.g. Sober, Elliott. 2007. What Is Wrong with Intelligent Design?. Quarterly Review of Biology 82 (1): 3-8.

**Saying that the mini-ID hypothesis is “poorly constructed” assumes that it was constructed as a scientific hypothesis. It was not. It’s actually quite well constructed, but not for the purpose of furthering science.

H/T mark in the comments to Ed Brayton’s post at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.


2 Responses

  1. I will have to read that Salon article but I wonder what is bad about it. Like you say scientists have known about junk DNA for a long long time and it bolsters evolution rather than detracts from it so I’m not sure what Meyer’s statement is all about (but then again, what shoudl oen expect from someone promoting the B.S. of I.D.?)

  2. For a different take on the great mystery of organic evolution I recommend my blog –


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