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Intelligent design and archaeology

One of the arguments repeated over and over by intelligent design advocates is the assertion that archaeology is a search for design. Like intelligent design, they say, archaeologists assume design once they have ruled out other possible causes, so why shouldn’t IDists? I have always found that analogy annoying – after all, it fails to take into account that archaeologists are working with known designers and known mechanisms. But I never really thought the whole point through. Luckily for me, archaeologist Christopher O’Brien has done just that in an excellent blog post (one of many, based on a quick look at his posts). O’Brien writes:

What Egnor and other ID advocates fail to recognize is that archaeology does not assume design…. In my archaeology class I show the students an “arrowhead”… Most students will recognize a projectile point as such, as would most ID advocates, and most will clearly infer a human designer. But then I ask, “How do you know that’s a projectile point?”… Most students will say that they have seen similar items, read about such things in books or articles, or even tried to make one themselves. As we walk through this exercise, students begin to realize that their assumption of human design is correct, but what on the surface seems obvious is in fact built on a large body of previous knowledge…. It took a long time (and a significant amount of written argument) before such design could be attributed to human intelligence.

Not only has O’Brien demolished the analogy, he also manages to draw in one of the fundamental dishonesties of the ID movement. While they continually argue that it is unscientific to speculate on the nature of the designer, archaeology only is able to attribute design as a consequence of a thorough study of the designer.

O’Brien goes on to draw the correct analogy between archaeology and intelligent design: Chariots of the Gods?, Erich von Däniken‘s book that asserts that many archaeological items are too complex to have been made by humans and are thus evidence of extra terrestrials (who were the “Gods” of ancient peoples). While I have a certain soft spot for von Däniken’s woo, since his books were a staple of my childhood (and a net positive element, since they introduced me to ancient cultures I had never heard of, and probably made me one of the few 9-year-olds who had heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh and its relationship to the bible), it really is the perfect comparison.

O’Brien’s closing line is one that deserves to be widely quoted:

Archaeological principles, like those in evolutionary biology, are backed by volumes of data from diverse disciplines. They are not analogous to intelligent design, unless taken out of context. Intelligent design has much more in common with Chariots of the Gods? than it does with Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of California and the Great Basin.

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