The Grand Locus / Life for statistical sciences



Lessons from Intelligent Design

The first time I heard a friend of mine — a clever guy — claim that he does not believe in Evolution, I was speechless. Over the years I realized something important: he is not alone. As much as 40% of US citizens believe in strict creationism, while only ~ 15% believe in Evolution (source: Gallup polls).

The latest incarnation of creationism, Intelligent Design, received some media attention during the trial of the Dover Area School District. Following the annoucement that Intelligent Design will be taught side by side with Evolution at the biology classes, a group of parents sued the public school district and finally convinced the judges that this constitutes a breach of the First Amendment of the constitution.

In essence, Intelligent Design claims to build on scientific observations. The rationale of the argument is that biological organisms, human beings in particular, are too complex to be the product of chance. They are designed. And if there is a design, there must be a designer.


If you have read George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, you will perhaps remember the fictive language Newspeak. By removing words from the English vocabulary, the powers that be gradually enclose the freedom of thought of their citizens within narrow boundaries. The ultimate goal, revealed in the book by the concept of crimestop (one of the few words that were added to the vocabulary), is to bridle the mind, abolish the nuances between distinct thoughts for lack of words to think about it. Everything that you don’t understand moves under the umbrella of a single concept, much easier to grasp: evil. The following passage explains crimestop with the author’s words.

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.

You may recognize here a common tool of propaganda, one that was recently used to crystallize terrorism as supreme evil. The point is not that terrorism should be defended. Terrorism cannot be defended. The point is that you should have the freedom to wonder what exactly is terrorism and who is a terrorist. The fact that there is no clear definition (at least according to Wikipedia) should be a warning sign that some sort of crimestop is at work.

Purpose and consciousness

I did not introduce crimestop in order to claim that Intelligent Design is a worthless propaganda. Quite the contrary. To most biologists (me included), Intelligent Design elicits a strong crimestop reaction. We know Intelligent Design is wrong because... we simply know it is wrong. However, this lack of curiosity is dangerous because it can turn into myopia.

Probably we could glean some biological insight by looking into Intelligent Design, but this is not what I want to discuss. I am more interested in the communication strategy of creationists, revealed by the leak of a secret document in 1999. The wedge document as it is called — the name evokes a wedge inserted in a cracked log, once inside it is a matter of time before the log breaks —, explains how they will overthrow materialism altogether. One of the key ideas is to present the scientific facts that support the faith and introduce creationism in the academic world by dressing it up as a science. Philip E. Johson, a spokesperson of Intelligent Design is very direct:

Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools.

But how do you shake the foundations of the scientific edifice from the inside? That is quite simple, really. You just have to face Science with its failure to explain purpose. For faith, it is an easy win, because as Saint John puts it in the Bible (1:1)

In the beginning was the word. In the beginning was intelligence, purpose, and wisdom.

And this is what Intelligent Design is about: a purpose that was there from day zero. I believe that creationists have identified the theory of Evolution as a weak point, because it is particularly sensitive to the notion of purpose. We experience purpose every day (I open the fridge in order to grab the bottle of milk, my actions have a purpose). But we find it nowehere in the theory of Evolution. Isn’t that disturbing? For Darwin, variability is the product of chance alone. Natural selection acts upon it so that only the fittest individuals of a generation pass on their genes to the next. In that sense, the only purpose of Darwinian Evolution is reproduction. But is that really a purpose?

Underpinning the whole discussion is the fact that purpose is usually understood as a conscious phenomenon. God as depicted in the Genesis is conscious, so the real question is whether or not there is a consciousness guiding Evolution. Clearly, there is none in the Darwinian view. The discomfort of this absence is an easy entry point for doubts (or for a wedge if you will).

And the problem with consciousness is that it is hard to say anything about it. You only have the assurance that you are conscious, but it takes a leap of faith to grant consciousness to anyone else (this is known as the problem of solipsism). So how do we decide who is right about Evolution?

Just like for solipsism, you are free to choose. Just like for solipsism, one option is much more interesting than the other. Perhaps you are the only conscious person out there but this assumption is simply plain boring. This idea leads nowhere, and nothing can be built on it.

Daniel Dennett presents a similar argument against dualism (the idea that mind and body are dissociated). In Consciousness Explained he writes:

This fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.

Likewise, scientists reject creationism not because it is false, but because there is no hope to understand Evolution and the emergence of consciousness once it is postulated. Regarding these questions, Intelligent Design is a dead end.

Does that mean that biological purpose is a nonsense? Does that mean that every theory of purpose should be crimestopped? Another hypothesis broke the taboo of purpose in the 1970’s, and this is what I will talk about in my next post.

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