“Intelligent Design Theory”

Plan and Meaning Versus Natural Evolution –

The Concept, the Response of Science, the Concerns of Theology

4-29-05

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This essay is only Part 5 of a larger essay. 

Read the full essay by going to “Evolution:  Understanding Physical and Mental Existence”

That essay is now available in the following separate sections:

1.  Cosmogony, Cosmic Evolution, Evolution of Earth

2.  Origin of Life, Molecular Biology, Natural Evolution, Humans

3.  The Origin, Evolution, and Function of the Human Mind

4.  The Origin, Evolution, and Functions of Societies and Cultures

5.  “Intelligent Design Theory”, Response of Science, Concerns of Theology (this essay)

6.  Extraterrestrial Intelligence?  What Could It Mean to Us?

7.  The Future and Expected End of Mankind and the Universe

8.  Closing Comments and Conclusions

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Content:

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Introduction

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1.  The Concept, the Controversy

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2.  The Response of Science to “Intelligent Design”

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3.  The Concerns of Theology with “Intelligent Design”

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4.  Some Philosophical Conclusions

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Introduction:

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When we pause for a moment in our busy life – at lunch, during a holiday, on vacation – we can perceive the wonderful and sometimes cruel existence we live in – the universe, nature on this planet Earth, our surroundings, our body, our mind.  In trying to understand this existence, we find that everything in our world is evolving – has always been evolving and will continue to do so.  If we want to understand our existence, we should attempt to understand this evolution.

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Not too many years ago, one of the early NASA space projects provided the very first and rather beautiful pictures of Earth as seen from outer space.  Astronomic telescopes had already provided excellent pictures of distant galaxies.  Now we could visualize how our own “Milky Way” galaxy would look with the tiny spot of our Sun as one of a billion others somewhere in its outer reaches – and a still smaller, blue planet, "Earth”, whirling around that tiny sun – about four billion times already since its appearance.  That small Earth is our only home, but our brains that evolved only a few ten thousand years ago allow our minds to span the universe in time and space.  What were the starting conditions, principles, laws, and forces of nature that let this evolution occur?

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Recent progress in astronomy has taught us how our universe originated in one spot some 14 billion years ago and has been expanding in all directions ever since.  What happened in time and space that, out of the original burst of energy at that time, finally we humans, with all our exceptional talents, came to exist and live on this tiny planet where we now are – and to develop the mental capabilities we now have?

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A few key aspects of Creation and evolution appear to be fundamental to the understanding of what occurred.  They are especially surprising and impressive [1]

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Come along on a mental voyage – to explore the existence we live in – from the vastness of the universe to submicroscopic molecular life, the virtual phenomena of the mind, and unfolding civilizations – from an origin in the distant past to an expected end in the distant future!

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This essay is only one part (Part 5) of a larger overview of all of existence in the essay “Evolution: Understanding Our Physical and Mental Existence”, to be found on the website www.schwab-writings.com in the Section, “Science and Evolution”.

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1.  The Concept of “Intelligent Design”, the Controversy:

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The very intricate design of some complex organisms – specifically, some of their organic systems consisting of the combination of several functions (see the discussions in the above indicated essay #2: “The Origin of Life, Molecular Biology, Natural Evolution, Humans” in the “Science and Evolution” section of the website www.schwab-writings.com) – has always led to the question of whether a higher, transcendental intelligence, God, is active in their evolution or design.  This question arises specifically also in regard to the origin of life and the appearance of the human mind and consciousness.  The resulting “religious theory”, known as “ID” (Intelligent Design), stands in opposition to the purely evolutionary, “scientific” understanding of “evolution” and theological concepts of God.

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On the one hand, the science of natural evolution shows the convergence of developments to fill available niches rather quickly and in the most efficient way.  For example, all swimming animals, whether fish or the mammals that returned to aquatic life (whales, dolphins, seals) assume similar hydrodynamic shapes and fin-like flippers within a short time of their evolution (called “convergence”).  Even the origins of the most intricate phenomena of evolution – the origin of life and of the human mind – are increasingly explained by natural, scientifically provable sequences in evolution.

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On the other hand, the exceptional complexity of some designs – and, mainly, the limited time within which these designs evolved – make it possible for the proponents of Intelligent Design (often abbreviated as “ID” in the literature) to doubt their evolutionary origin merely by randomly, and rarely, occurring changes in the genome.  This leads to their postulating a contributing divine intelligence. 

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For example, it is difficult to see how the appearance of the first feathers on the skin of some dinosaurs could have led to substantial survival or breeding benefits – leading subsequently to the capability for flight.  In another example, the human brain developed within the last 2 million years or so, corresponding to about 100 to 200 thousand generations in evolution.  Can the enormous complexity of the human brain have developed step by step through random variations and the selection of the fittest during such a short time?  Many other examples of surprising complexity in nature (as simple as the spider’s ability to produce its webs and as complex as the design of the ear and eye and, specifically, the operation of the human mind) could be mentioned, all leading to the same question of “Intelligent Design” versus natural evolution.  

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Another argument by the proponents of Intelligent Design is provided by the fact that science has never succeeded in synthetically creating a self-replicating molecule and that human consciousness still seems to elude the understanding by many thinkers, whether scientists or philosophers. 

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The “Intelligent Design” concept remains as a major issue in the on-going “Science and Religion” discourse, often as a controversy.  In essence, science owes an answer to the question how the rapid evolution of very complex biological systems can be explained.  But, also, theology has to look at the consequences of the Intelligent Design concept.

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2.  The Response of Science to “Intelligent Design”

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Presently, there are two answers of science to Intelligent Design, a rather defensive one and the beginning of a stronger, scientific explanation.

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The defensive answer states that not all gaps in scientific understanding should be quickly and simplistically filled by statements about “divine interference” or “intelligent design”.  History shows that religious theories concerning the natural world collapse as science progresses and, sooner or later, provides explanations.  A readily available Intelligent Design answer to open scientific problems would preempt all scientific effort and would bring all further scientific research to an end.  Take, for example, the struggle against newly appearing complex diseases.  Science is built on the confidence of a world adhering to the laws of nature – actually, another form of confidence in God – allowing further growth in knowledge and the eventual resolution of remaining scientific questions.

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The beginning of a scientific explanation of rapid genetic evolution sees a variety of factors contributing to rapid changes in evolution: 

-        The multiplicity of appearances of the same gene within the genome

-        Gene splicing and gene combinations – leading to a very large increase in gene expression options without changes in the actual genes

-        Gene conscription – the use of a gene in an area unrelated to its general area of expression – see the recent findings about the evolution of snake poisons

-        Reduced error correction in DNA replication in certain limited areas of rapid gene evolution – resulting in a larger number of mutations within a shorter time

-        The often large variation in size of organic elements (size of limbs, number of seeds, etc.) – a question of tissue growth and of growth inhibition – as used in animal and plant breeding

-        The origin of new genes

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3.  Theological Concerns with “Intelligent Design Theory”.

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A number of religious or theological concerns appear in opposition to the Intelligent Design theory or belief, which postulates ongoing, divine intelligent design interference:

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-        The cruelty of some designs would lead to a correspondingly cruel image of a “designing” God.  For example, worms in the drinking water of some African tribes evolved to live in human eyes, rendering those innocent, poor people blind.  The polio virus has led to the crippling or death of millions of children.  The present-day HIV virus devastates not only the “guilty” ones (drug users, sex abusers), but leads to the suffering of many innocents.  The weakness in gene design and gene expression leads to a certain number of birth defects of body or mind, with consequent severe suffering of children and their parents.  The list of cruel “designs” is long.

-        There is an unfair distribution of predatory advantages and prey defenses.  It is often the stupidity or the disadvantageous design of prey animals that allows predators to kill them, preferentially their calves.  Minor redesigns of the prey animals could correct that – if there were fairness in design.

-        There is a surprising lack of “obvious” design advantages in some areas – for example, metallic conductivity in nerves, capability of digesting cellulose or wood in mammals, and resistance against virus infections.

-        There often occurs senseless destruction in consequence of new designs – for example, new plagues, bacteria, or viruses destroying recently “designed” higher organisms.

-        If divine interference by intelligent design is assumed, how about the historic consequences of such design events?  Would that not constitute interference with history or constitute the divine guidance of history (e.g., the plague that afflicted Athens and killed Perikles) – consequently, the assumption of “Intelligent History”?

-        This would lead to the observation of unfairness in history.

-        The assumption of “intelligent design” or “intelligent history” should lead to the concept of a God willing to interfere when being appealed to in justifiable situations by the morally “good”.

-        Observation does not show a pattern of divine response to appeal or of fair compensation.

-        A key Christian question for the Intelligent Design theory:  Why were humans created “sinful”?

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4.  Some Philosophical Conclusions

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An acceptance of divine interference in natural design would lead to a questioning of human counteraction against such designs, e.g. a questioning of medical research and medical care – a totally unacceptable position in our modern world or when confronted with suffering, mostly of the innocent.  

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An assumption of “intelligent design” and “intelligent history” could even lead to a questioning of “free will” and, consequently, personal responsibility.

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The question of “Intelligent Design” is connected with the question of a divine plan in evolution and, consequently, a meaning of evolution and existence.

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Are the steps of evolution generally plan- or goal-attracted, or are they forward-driven by starting conditions, probability distributions, and random events, though within the limits of the laws of nature and the given opportunities – consequently, converging on the most efficient filling of niches for prospering – still leaving a wide variety of possible implementations – as the multitude of different flowers, birds, or fish indicates? 

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Those niches result from the astrophysical evolution of the universe based on the laws and constants of nature.  Consequently, the appearance of the niches is a result of the given structure of the universe, possibly founded on a transcendental spiritual essence, the “Creator”.  In this sense, this Creator preconditioned the universe for the appearance of life in all its forms of evolution.  This may occur through the process of attaining higher complexity in the course of time to the extent that the genome of some few species grows and their protein processes become more complex

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On the other hand, one should realize that it is inevitable that catastrophic extinctions will occur again, as they have occurred before.  All the stars will ultimately fade, and the universe will find its end – in a big collapse, in some Black Holes, or in forever expanding and cooling radiation. 

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If the latter is the case, there is no other meaning to existence but to be there, for the time being – for “the pleasure of God”, the original “Creator” and initiator of the evolution of existence.  This still leaves direction and meaning for individual human lives in the fulfillment of personal potential and pursuit of general values – in growth, in service, and in appreciation of beauty – for the very limited duration of our presence in this existence.  Instead of passively accepting the world as inscrutable and destiny as preordained, we must assume responsibility to understand and improve the world as best we can.

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4-29-05



[1] An excellent presentation of cosmic and planetary evolution – also covering the origin of life on Earth, going into detail and a depth considerably beyond this essay – is presented in Peter Ulmschneider’s book, “Intelligent Life in the Universe”, published by Springer in 2003/4, ISBN 3-540-43988-9, 250 pages.  Additionally, the swift progress of astrophysics, astronomy, and molecular biology requires ongoing awareness of the newest leading publications in that field.