The Bug with a Propeller up its Bum

by John MacDonald Smith

from Signs of the Times, No. 29 - Apr 2008

Imagine you are a bacterium living in a stream fast enough to demand a real effort to swim against the current. Just upstream of you is a pear tree dropping ripe fruit in the water and you have to get that because sugar is your staple food. Have you the energy to get there? Once there, will there be enough energy to replace what you used on the journey? Will there be enough to enable you to bifurcate (or breed)? If so survival is possible for one more generation.

Under circumstances like those you would be very happy if a nice man came along and fixed a sort of outboard motor to your rear end. Part of you now consists of some rather sophisticated engineering - a propeller with appropriate gears. (This animal does exist).

Bacterial flagellum
Bacterial Flagellum

That is a caricature, of course, of a dogma which asserts that random change allied to selection is incapable of producing some of the weird creatures which enhance our world. Therefore there must be some other agency which does this, and it must be an intelligent agency. That outboard motor, it is said, couldn't possibly have evolved, bit by bit, from a very primitive origin at the rear end of the bacterium, to the very sophisticated organ which, claims Intelligent Design has no purpose if it is not complete. It is, it is said, 'irreducibly complex' and as such is a product of intelligence.

So who or what is the intelligence which fills in for evolution, when evolution gets stuck? Is it God? No, says William Dembski, one of the movement's theoreticians, 'Intelligent design is not an evangelic Christian thing or a generally Christian thing or even a generically theistic thing '. So that alright then: it is science and we can search for the mysterious agency (perhaps it is extraterrestrial), applying the usual criteria (falsification and the like) to any data that is forthcoming.

But wait! Five years previously Dembski said that Intelligent Design is an 'evangelical Christian thing'; 'any view of the sciences that leaves Jesus Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient... the conceptual soundness of a scientific theory cannot be maintained apart from Christ...'

Well of course, we don't keep religion and science in totally watertight compartments but that sort of attitude can lead to the expenditure of millions of dollars on a theme park whish shows children playing with dinosaurs 6000 years ago. But we don't do science like that.

Now fast forward two or three billion years. You are no longer a bacterium, though you have every right to be proud of your ancestry, because it survived and therefore you are here. You are a not very important member of a flock of a large number of rabbits, living with your relatives on a spit of land jutting out into the sea from a large land mass. Gradually, over a number of years the movement of tectonic plates and erosion of the sea separates part of your peninsula from the mainland. With some of your relatives you are isolated from the rest.

Now fast forward another billenium. You have changed (as we say when we haven't seen our friends for some time). For one thing your surroundings changed with the changes in weather and temperature, ice ages and desertification, monsoon and flood. You have had to adapt and this means that hidden abilities which you only possessed in embryo initially, have had to be hoved and developed for survival. Those of your relatives who possessed them survived, and bred and passed on these developed skills to their offspring. By the way this is not about learning skills, which also occurs, but what your genes programme you to do. Without the right gene in the right place you won't survive and this is why after a long period of time in a different environment the animal is - a member of a new species. It really is changed. It cannot, that is, interbreed with its one time relatives of all those years ago across the sea. It has changed too much.

I.D. theorists won't accept this truth about speciation. Most certainly they won't accept it when applied to human speciation from the rest of the primates. One human species at least - Neanderthals - did go extinct and there's no trace anywhere, other than fossils of earlier versions of homo sapiens . Yet if a human generation is about 20 years, then during one million years of hanging out in a changeable environment, suffering one very small advantageous change in somebody every generation, ultimately homo sapiens will have gone through 50,000 small changes. Quite a makeover! Further, those changes must, taken together, make for increased survivability or we'd have gone extinct. Some of us did just that, because we did not undergo small adaptive change: perhaps we weren't up to it. The rest of us are very different now.

It might be thought that the Intelligent Design movement is the creation of a small group of oddball American biologists whose fundamentalism has pushed them way off message. This is not entirely so. Not only are there periodic lawsuits in America over what may be taught in schools about evolution which show that the movement has some influence; but it is also the recipient of considerable support from the well endowed Discovery Institute. If the science is inadequate, the outreach is very efficient indeed. I.D has not confined itself to the United States but has become well entrenched in the U.K. over the past decade.

The organisation's programme and terms of reference may be seen in some detail in the 'Wedge Document' which was leaked in 1999 to be at first disowned and later acknowledged by the Discovery Institute. This makes it very clear that claims by the Intelligent Design movement to be interested only in scientific matters is simply not true. The real target is the 'moral relativism' which 'still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology'. Western culture is seen as a tree and the 'Wedge Document' outlines a program which is thought of as a wedge hammered into the weakest part of the tree, to bring it down.

Despite what was said above, it is unlikely that this movement of reaction will prove to be scientifically significant. We are certainly unlikely to wake up one morning and find ourselves obliged to believe six impossible things before breakfast. But enquiries made of the Department of Education regarding inroads made by Intelligent Design in some UK schools, notably New Labour's City Academies, are met with an ambiguous response. It seems that the D.o.E. is not entirely clear that I.D. is not science at all, nor is it theology. But it is clear that formal discussion in class would not go outside the syllabus.

While not in itself scientifically significant, this could go far to undermine confidence in significant science, which many pupils will have only half-understood in any case. In turn, this could undermine a sense of trust that the universe is a rational and contingent creation whose nature is understood through the scientific method. This implies that the nature of God who created a rational, contingent cosmos will also be misunderstood.

Finally, in an age of post modernist multi-this-or-that, the idea that any madcap scheme can be invented on no grounds at all gets encouraged by somebody and so acquires publicity. Intellectual standards decline and the notion of truth is eroded. The real harm done by I.D. is that it is an item in a market place of shoddy ideas sold off to the easily-persuaded at knock-down prices.

John MacDonald Smith is a retired Anglican priest and MCU member.