Is There A Place For Evolution In Intelligent Design?



Why can’t intelligent design include evolution? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Suzanne Sadedin, evolutionary biologist, on Quora:

Intelligent design and evolution don’t have to be opposed. Most versions of intelligent design (other than some kinds of Young Earth Creationism) these days acknowledge some evolution, at least within species. So clearly intelligent design can include evolution. Many people are content to believe in some sort of intelligent, powerful but largely hands-off creator, who might have given evolution a nudge here and there. There’s no way anyone can prove them wrong (though I think there are good reasons not to share their beliefs).

However, when people say they believe in intelligent design, what they are usually claiming is that biology requires an intelligent designer. This goes beyond the claim that current evolutionary theory is inadequate to explain everything in biology (which any biologist could agree with). It is the claim that there can never be an adequate theory of biology without an intelligent designer.

This claim irritates biologists. But not because we are all hyper-aggressive New Atheists (we’re not). It’s irritating because the fundamental purpose of science is prediction. If adding an extra element to a scientific theory doesn’t improve its predictive power, we leave that element out. Thus, until intelligent design advocates can demonstrate that adding an intelligent designer to the theory of evolution improves our predictions, biologists will go on leaving the intelligent designer out.

So when people propose that we add an intelligent designer to evolutionary theory, what we think is, this person doesn’t get the point of science at all.

It’s like if you were trying to design a more efficient power plant, and somebody, let’s call him Michael, comes along and says: “This can’t be right! There’s nowhere to put the giraffe!”

So you try to explain to Michael that your power plant doesn’t need a giraffe, and in fact works better without one. Michael replies that your power plant can’t possibly work at all. So you show him the power plant working. And he goes quiet.

You go back to talking with your colleagues about how to improve the power plant, noting some system bottlenecks, potential for improvements with modern materials, and areas that could be streamlined. Every time someone points out an imperfection, Michael jumps up and screams, “See! It can’t possibly work! I told you, it needs a giraffe!”

Many of us try to be more or less patient with Michael. But we are not going to add a giraffe just to placate him. And for Michael, this is intolerable. He feels he is not being treated as an equal. Why do we listen to one another’s ideas and not his? If we’re willing to add generators, condensers and pumps, why not a giraffe? Clearly, we must have something against giraffes. Maybe we’re frightened of them. Maybe we hate them. Maybe (oh horrors!) we’re working for the elephants.

It is much easier for Michael to justify feeling angry at us than it is for him to question his premise. Self-righteous anger feels virtuous and powerful, whereas questioning his own beliefs would make him feel small, sad and lost.

So intelligent design advocates are stuck. Their refusal to question the need for a designer in biology is the exact reason why biologists can’t take them seriously. But if they did question that need, they wouldn’t be intelligent design advocates — they would be normal, somewhat religious people who are okay with uncertainty about God’s precise role. That transition would be humiliating and painful, especially for those who have made strong public statements of their faith. It’s far easier to go on believing that evolutionary theory is a conspiracy to suppress their beliefs, which in turn means that any attack on evolutionary theory is justified.

This question originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

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