Intelligent Design

"Intelligent design" creationism is not supported by scientific evidence.

Some members of a newer school of creationists have temporarily set aside the question of whether the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe are billions or just thousands of years old. But these creationists unite in contending that the physical universe and living things show evidence of "intelligent design." They argue that certain biological structures are so complex that they could not have evolved through processes of undirected mutation and natural selection, a condition they call "irreducible complexity." Echoing theological arguments that predate the theory of evolution, they contend that biological organisms must be designed in the same way that a mousetrap or a clock is designed - that in order for the device to work properly, all of its components must be available simultaneously. If one component is missing or changed, the device will fail to operate properly. Because even such "simple" biological structures as the flagellum of a bacterium are so complex, proponents of intelligent design creationism argue that the probability of all of their components being produced and simultaneously available through random processes of mutation are infinitesimally small. The appearance of more complex biological structures (such as the vertebrate eye) or functions (such as the immune system) is impossible through natural processes, according to this view, and so must be attributed to a transcendent intelligent designer.

However, the claims of intelligent design creationists are disproven by the findings of modern biology. Biologists have examined each of the molecular systems claimed to be the products of design and have shown how they could have arisen through natural processes. For example, in the case of the bacterial flagellum, there is no single, uniform structure that is found in all flagellar bacteria. There are many types of flagella, some simpler than others, and many species of bacteria do not have flagella to aid in their movement. Thus, other components of bacterial cell membranes are likely the precursors of the proteins found in various flagella. In addition, some bacteria inject toxins into other cells through proteins that are secreted from the bacterium and that are very similar in their molecular structure to the proteins in parts of flagella. This similarity indicates a common evolutionary origin, where small changes in the structure and organization of secretory proteins could serve as the basis for flagellar proteins. Thus, flagellar proteins are not irreducibly complex.

Evolutionary biologists also have demonstrated how complex biochemical mechanisms, such as the clotting of blood or the mammalian immune system, could have evolved from simpler precursor systems. With the clotting of blood, some of the components of the mammalian system were present in earlier organisms, as demonstrated by the organisms living today (such as fish, reptiles, and birds) that are descended from these mammalian precursors. Mammalian clotting systems have built on these earlier components.

Existing systems also can acquire new functions. For example, a particular system might have one task in a cell and then become adapted through evolutionary processes for different use. The Hox genes (described in the box on page 30) are a prime example of evolution finding new uses for existing systems. Molecular biologists have discovered that a particularly important mechanism through which biological systems acquire additional functions is gene duplication. Segments of DNA are frequently duplicated when cells divide, so that a cell has multiple copies of one or more genes. If these multiple copies are passed on to offspring, one copy of a gene can serve the original function in a cell while the other copy is able to accumulate changes that ultimately result in a new function. The biochemical mechanisms responsible for many cellular processes show clear evidence for historical duplications of DNA regions.

In addition to its scientific failings, this and other standard creationist arguments are fallacious in that they are based on a false dichotomy. Even if their negative arguments against evolution were correct, that would not establish the creationists' claims. There may be alternative explanations. For example, it would be incorrect to conclude that because there is no evidence that it is raining outside, it must be sunny. Other explanations also might be possible. Science requires testable evidence for a hypothesis, not just challenges against one's opponent. Intelligent design is not a scientific concept because it cannot be empirically tested.

Creationists sometimes claim that scientists have a vested interest in the concept of biological evolution and are unwilling to consider other possibilities. But this claim, too, misrepresents science. Scientists continually test their ideas against observations and submit their work to their colleagues for critical peer review of ideas, evidence, and conclusions before a scientific paper is published in any respected scientific journal. Unexplained observations are eagerly pursued because they can be signs of important new science or problems with an existing hypothesis or theory. History is replete with scientists challenging accepted theory by offering new evidence and more comprehensive explanations to account for natural phenomena. Also, science has a competitive element as well as a cooperative one. If one scientist clings to particular ideas despite evidence to the contrary, another scientist will attempt to replicate relevant experiments and will not hesitate to publish conflicting evidence. If there were serious problems in evolutionary science, many scientists would be eager to win fame by being the first to provide a better testable alternative. That there are no viable alternatives to evolution in the scientific literature is not because of vested interests or censorship but because evolution has been and continues to be solidly supported by evidence.

The potential utility of science also demands openness to new ideas. If petroleum geologists could find more oil and gas by interpreting the record of sedimentary rocks (where deposits of oil and natural gas are found) as having resulted from a single flood, they would certainly favor the idea of such a flood, but they do not. Instead, petroleum geologists agree with other geologists that sedimentary rocks are the products of billions of years of Earth's history. Indeed, petroleum geologists have been pioneers in the recognition of fossil deposits that were formed over millions of years in such environments as meandering rivers, deltas, sandy barrier beaches, and coral reefs.

The arguments of creationists reverse the scientific process. They begin with an explanation that they are unwilling to alter - that supernatural forces have shaped biological or Earth systems - rejecting the basic requirements of science that hypotheses must be restricted to testable natural explanations. Their beliefs cannot be tested, modified, or rejected by scientific means and thus cannot be a part of the processes of science.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence for creationist positions, some advocates continue to demand that various forms of creationism be taught together with or in place of evolution in science classes. Many teachers are under considerable pressure from policy makers, school administrators, parents, and students to downplay or eliminate the teaching of evolution. As a result, many U.S. students lack access to information and ideas that are both integral to modern science and essential for making informed, evidence-based decisions about their own lives and our collective future.

Regardless of the careers that they ultimately select, to succeed in today's scientifically and technologically sophisticated world, all students need a sound education in science. Many of today's fast-growing and high-paying jobs require a familiarity with the core concepts, applications, and implications of science. To make informed decisions about public policies, people need to know how scientific evidence supports those policies and whether that evidence was gathered using well-established scientific practice and principles. Learning about evolution is an excellent way to help students understand the nature, processes, and limits of science in addition to concepts about this fundamentally important contribution to scientific knowledge.

Given the importance of science in all aspects of modern life, the science curriculum should not be undermined with nonscientific material. Teaching creationist ideas in science classes confuses what constitutes science and what does not. It compromises the objectives of public education and the goal of a high-quality science education.

From Science, Evolution, and Creationism, National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine. © 2008 National Academy of Sciences