Theories & Intelligent Design

The Kansas State Board of Education is currently debating whether a theory called intelligent design should be used to present criticisms of evolution in Biology classes. The board, which has an evangelical Christian conservative majority, is widely expected to approve a measure that requires criticism of evolution be taught in Kansas schools, but the exact nature and wording of the new policy is still in the works.

The current push for intelligent design as an alternative to evolution has its roots in the US courts striking down the teaching of creation science. Creation science is the teaching of the literal text of Genesis as scientific truth. US federal courts have consistently ruled that creation science is a religious doctrine, not scientific truth and its instruction in public schools is a violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which forbids the establishment of a state religion. Intelligent design skirts this prohibition by not advocating any specific creation story, but rather simply argues that the complexity of nature requires that there be a designer; many organisms and biological structures are too complex to have come about by chance.

Despite the current push for intelligent design being a response to the courtroom failures of creation science, intelligent design is the older of the two terms; it even predates Darwin’s concept of evolution by natural selection. The Oxford English Dictionary dates intelligent design to 1847, in an article in Scientific American:

The great store-house of nature—the innumerable and diversified objects there presented to our view give evidence of infinite skill and intelligent design in the adaptation to each other and to the nature of man.

The term creation science, on the other hand, is cited in the OED only as early as 1979, in a cite from the Los Angeles Times:

A law suit seeking to include ‘scientific creation’ as part of biological science classes has been filed by the Creation Science Research Center, a non-profit, San Diego-based group that publishes creation textbooks.

Like intelligent design, the term evolution also predates Darwin. Geologist Charles Lyell first used it in the current sense as an explanation for the origin of species in 1832:

The testacea of the ocean existed first, until some of them by gradual evolution, were improved into those inhabiting the land.

Darwin not use the term evolution himself, preferring the term natural selection, coined by him in 1857 to describe the process driving evolution.

Those who advocate for intelligent design or creation science or whatever the term du jour is, criticize evolution as being "only a theory." They argue that it is not a law and therefore not proven. This argument is at best ignorant and at worst disingenuous. The word theory, like most English words, has multiple meanings. One of these meanings is that of a hypothesis, an untested explanation. This may indeed by the most common use of the word, as in "I have a theory about that," but this is not the meaning used by scientists when they say the "theory of evolution" or the "theory of relativity." The OED defines this sense of theory as:

A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.

Theories do not become laws when they are proven. Rather a scientific law is something else entirely. The OED defines this sense of law as:

A theoretical principle deduced from particular facts, applicable to a defined group or class of phenomena, and expressible by the statement that a particular phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions be present.

Principles or laws flow from theories. The explanatory power of a theory allows for laws to be deduced.

This also points to one of the primary failings of intelligent design—it is not a theory as it lacks explanatory power. It cannot be used as a basis for further scientific work. Successful theories are predictive; they allow the conceptualization of natural phenomena long before they are actually observed. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, for example, postulated that gravity could alter the path of light a half century or so before astronomers actually saw objects behind stars because the light from those objects was being "bent around" the stars in its path. Natural selection predicted that adaptations like antibiotic resistant bacteria and changing camouflage patterns corresponding to long-term environmental change would be observed by scientists. Intelligent design simply states that a "designer" created life. It offers no mechanism for this creation, no predictions about future discoveries, no laws that can be deduced from it, nothing on which to build a basis for further inquiries. It is not science, but dogmatism.

Intelligent design lacks another primary element of science—it is not falsifiable. It cannot be proven to be wrong; it is untestable. One cannot prove that a designer does not exist. Science is founded on the principle of falsifiability, of being able to test whether or not something is true.

So what does this have to do with language? To be sure, we’ve examined the definitions and origins of a few words, but the debate over intelligent design has little to do with the subjects we usually address here. But it does have relevance to linguistics (and any other systematic form of inquiry). It goes to the integrity of science, not just the "hard sciences" of physics, chemistry, or biology, but to all forms of empirical inquiry.

I wrote a book on linguistic myths, myths propagated by those who do not apply commonly accepted standards of inquiry and evidence, just as the advocates of intelligent design fail to apply the standards of scientific inquiry to biology. The linguistic tales I debunked in my book are not of great consequence, but our understanding of biological world is and the prospect of a state school system deliberately turning its back on 500 years of scientific and technical achievements is not only appalling, but the abandonment of science is a grave threat to our continuing economic prosperity.

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