Schneider Lab

Professor Schneider's thoughts on Evolution and Intelligent Design

Various public school boards have adopted policies to force science teachers to present intelligent design (ID) as a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution in the science curriculum. Dr. Michael Behe, a professor in our department, is one of the leading proponents of ID. Here are some answers to questions I often receive about ID and Michael Behe (please click the underlined links for more information):

The Twilight ZoneQ: What is the difference between ID and creationism?

A: Creationism purports that God designed life on earth. ID purports that life on earth was designed by an intelligent agent with the power to design life on earth. ...............................................................?

Q: Do you believe in ID or Evolution?

A : Neither. The first is a philosophical idea based on the ancient observation that living things appear, at first glance, to have been designed for a preconceived purpose. It is based on flawed logic known as the argument from ignorance ("if life is too complex to understand, it must have been designed"), and it is not supported by data. The second is a scientific theory. It posits that living things look designed because they were designed; not by an all-powerful being with a purpose, but, rather, by a natural process that involves a combination of natural selection and random events such as genetic drift. After Darwin's Origin of the Species was published, evolutionary theory was further supported by discoveries in genetics and molecular biology. The modern synthetic theory of evolution is a scientific theory supported by data, lots of data (even macroevolution is supported by data). As a theory, however, it remains open to continued experimental testing. I do not "believe" in it. I find it scientifically useful.

Noodly appendageQ: What do you believe in?

A: Beliefs and scientific theories are two different things. For example, I believe in, among other things, some basic moral imperatives common to the world's major religions: I should treat others as I would like to be treated, seek knowledge, respect the equality of all people, of all sexes, races and ethnicities, and minimize human suffering. I share these with you as examples of beliefs. I experience faith and spirituality in ways that I do not care to share with you (unless you were touched by His noodly appendage) . As I learned in catechism, I do not hold my moral and spiritual beliefs open to scientific tests. I have faith, and I believe; thus, I do not require scientific evidence.

Q: You say the theory of evolution is supported by convincing evidence. Does that mean that you are a materialist or biological determinist?

A: Absolutely not. Evolution is not a belief, and it does not preclude faith and spirituality. For example, I do not use evolutionary theory (or any scientific theory) to decide whether or not to commit murder, discriminate against anyone on the basis of race or gender, steal things, spank a child, or forgive an enemy. Evolutionary theory does not help me sense love and feel a connection with those around me (although it is a testable hypothesis that evolutionary processes molded our species' ability to feel love and connection). Scientific theories can change as more data are collected, but my moral and spiritual beliefs remain constant. Evolutionary biology does not promote atheism, racism, or sexism, and those who use some twisted version of evolutionary theory to support such ideologies are ignoring the limitations of the scientific method. Some evolutionary biologists are religious and spiritual, others are simply spiritual, and still others are neither.

Q: What's so great about evolution?

T. DobzhanskyA: The importance of the scientific method and evolutionary theory is that they are useful for learning about aspects of the natural world, and they form the foundation for all biological research and modern medicine. If there were no evolutionary (genetic) link between our species and all other organisms, then we would not concern ourselves with " bird flu " or HIV. If evolutionary change did not occur, we wouldn't have to worry about chicken viruses evolving into human killers. We wouldn't worry about bacteria evolving resistance to antibiotics. If our species were designed "intelligently," independently from all other organisms, their diseases would not be our diseases. Animal models would not provide so many cures for our own diseases. Because we see the evidence for the evolutionary link among all living species, we are able to manufacture insulin from bacterial cultures, antibodies from rabbits and monkeys, and understand our own nerve cells by studying the giant squid axon. As Theodosius Dobzhansky stated, " Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution ."

Even proponents of ID have admitted that it is difficult to refute the well-documented evolution of bacteria into new antibiotic resistant strains. To get around it, ID proponents call the part they like "microevolution," and now claim that the work of the intelligent designer is only evident in some larger evolutionary changes that lead to unique designs.

Macroevolution is a complex puzzle that many evolutionary biologists are working diligently to understand. Like all real scientists tackling a difficult puzzle, they persist in using scientific methods to solve it (perhaps praying as they do so); they don't assume that the difficulty and complexity of the problem automatically implies the work of an intelligent designer.

ID or other forms of supernatural belief have not been useful for finding cures for disease, or for understanding the natural laws of the universe. Science is a method for examination of the natural world. ID, by proposing a supernatural designer, steps outside the realm of science. It is a valid topic for discussion in religion and philosophy, but not in science.

Q: Why couldn't intelligent design also be a scientific theory?

A : The idea of intelligent design might or might not be true, but when presented as a scientific hypothesis, it is not useful because it is based on weak assumptions, lacks supporting data and terminates further thought.

FLAWED ASSUMPTIONS: The main argument for ID is that some biological systems appear to be too complex to have arisen in a gradual, "step-wise" manner. Thus, because proponents of ID find these systems too complicated to understand, they leap to the conclusion that these systems were intelligently designed. The first logical flaw in "ID theory" is the assumption that if it's not gradual evolution, the only alternative must be ID.

ID theory also contains another common fallacy, the straw man fallacy, because it sets up evolution as necessarily gradual and stepwise. To the contrary, modern evolutionary thinkers acknowledge the possibility of nongradual, nonstep-wise, alternative modes of evolution , without invoking a supernatural designer. In addition, the components of complex systems are not necessarily without adaptive value when they are not part of an adaptive system. There are many well-known examples of components of complex systems that had other adaptive functions before they became part of the system we observe today.

Finally, proponents of ID are fond of quoting Darwin 's remark that "design" is a striking feature in the structure of biological systems. Darwin 's genius, of course, was in his ability to refine and reclaim the definition of design. He suggested that the traits we see in organisms were molded or designed by differential reproductive success, that is, by competition and survival of the fittest. This is quite different from the idea that an omniscient creator purposefully designed the traits of each organism. Thus, the current argument for ID is simply a regression to pre-Darwinian concepts, an embryonic notion that has not developed into a sophisticated, well-reasoned hypothesis supported by data.

The preponderance of evidence strongly supports the idea that living things were designed, not on purpose, but, rather, by a combination of natural selection and random events such as genetic drift. Sometimes the design seems rather elegant, other times it looks rather clumsy. Sometimes the design succeeds, whereas quite often, it fails miserably. In fact, 99.9% of the species that came into being eventually became extinct. How intelligent could the designer be?

TERMINATES FURTHER THOUGHT: Imagine that you were an early scientist who wanted to cure bacterial infections, and you began your work with the hypothesis that humans were designed as elegantly and as perfectly as possible by and intelligent designer. Why is our intelligently designed physiology susceptible to microscopic organisms? The eternal answer is that we can never know the designer's hidden agenda. Things are the way they are because they were designed that way. The end. Supernatural explanations terminate the quest for further exploration, whereas a good hypothesis stimulates further exploration.

Evolutionary theory, in contrast to ID, spawns many testable ideas, not only about why we are susceptible to these microorganisms, but about how to fight these infections. If we share a common ancestry with other organisms, perhaps we can use properties of their physiology and metabolism to cure our own infections. Careful experimental designs and data collection supported the idea that some microscopic organisms produce substances that kill bacteria, and as a result, we have antibiotics effective against many bacterial infections such as those that cause tuberculosis, pneumonia and strep throat.

Intelligent Design? image found at economist.comMy own field of research is concerned with understanding the mechanisms that control energy balance, and this research has relevance for understanding obesity and anorexia nervosa. ID is not useful for my research program. The idea that our energy balancing system was intelligently designed fails to inspire testable hypotheses for understanding overeating and excessive body weight gain. Evolutionary theory, in contrast, suggests many testable hypotheses that I have pursued. In contrast, evolutionary perspective on body weight regulation has led to useful hypotheses about the mechanisms that control body weight and body fat content, even for those of us interested in physiological mechanisms (see my review of this topic). The idea that our energy balancing system is intelligently designed flies in the face of the rapidly rising incidence of obesity and type II diabetes. Perhaps more significant, ID fails to inspire testable hypotheses about the mechanisms that govern body weight regulation. Your tax dollars help fund my research. Do you really want the guiding principle of my research to be that your physique was intelligently designed?

Q: Are you embarrassed or ashamed to be in the same Biology Department as Dr. Michael Behe, a leading proponent of the movement to include Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution in public school science class?

The Flying Spaghetti MonsterA: I am ashamed and embarrassed by the fact that our government tortures prisoners at Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay. I'm also appalled and sickened by our government's response to impoverished people stranded by hurricane Katrina. I have no such response to Michael Behe. He is a person with an idea that I disagree with. The idea has so little substance or merit that it fails to interest or provoke me. The vast majority of scientists remain uncompelled by ID, but a certain segment of nonscientists are attempting to force public schools to teach ID in high school science classes as "the alternative" to evolution. Linked to the ID movement are organizations whose aim is to convince public schools to dismiss solid scientific evidence for evolution in order to quell their unfounded fears that the evolution leads to atheism. In the light of logical scrutiny by mature intelligent adults (whether conservative or liberal), the concept of ID self-destructs, as it did in the case of Kitzmiller V Dover Area School System. Sooner or later, even proponents of ID will realize that if you give equal time in science class to ID, you must also give equal time to astrology or any other belief system. This would not leave much time for teaching science in science class. Discussion of ID should not be suppressed, it is appropriate for discussion in a philosophy or religion class, not a science class. It is inappropriate to confuse students by presenting ID as a scientific theory on equal footing with evolutionary theory.

Q: What is Michael Behe, an enthusiastic spokesperson for intelligent design, doing in a university biology department?

A: He was tenured in the Department of Chemistry for his scientific research on unusual conformations of DNA (published in top journals and funded by the National Institutes of Health). It was not until later that he shifted his focus. Dr. Behe and I both joined the Department of Biological Sciences in 1995 (I came from psychology while he came from chemistry). Around that time, I eagerly bought and read Dr. Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box , anticipating that I would find his challenge to evolutionary theory intellectually stimulating and provocative. I did not. He graciously autographed my copy of the book, and I invited him to give a seminar in our department in the hope that lively, high-level intellectual debate would ensue. It did not. ID bored us in the first five minutes, and here we are, ten years later. We hesitated to make a public response because it seemed impossible, literally impossible, that anyone would see ID as a serious alternative to the theory of evolution. As we predicted, the overwhelming majority of scientists dismissed ID as nonscientific. What we failed to predict is that the creationists and their ID compatriots would take their case to America's children, local school boards and scientifically illiterate politicians.

We stand by our principle of academic freedom. Professor Behe maintains his position as a senior faculty member by teaching biochemistry to undergraduates and fulfilling other university service obligations. Our biology department, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Science agree that ID is not scientific and should not be presented as science in any science curriculum. We have made no attempt to suppress his points of view.

Q: What do proponents of ID hope to gain by having this taught in science classes?

A. I have NO idea. Given that the theory of evolution is not incompatible with faith and spirituality, it's hard to see how teaching ID in a science class would do anything except confuse children, set back scientific progress, and confirm the world's stereotype of ignorant Americans.

It is no wonder some people suspect a vast conspiracy behind the ID movement: Mark Maynard might be on to something.


Thanks to my colleagues and friends for their advice and comments regarding the draft of this statement.  

Michael Behe
Carolyn Buckley
Lynne Cassimeris
Matthias Falk
Daniel Harper
Murray Itzkowitz
Steve Krawiec
Tamra Mendelson
Tony Nunez
Colin Saldanha
Lloyd Steffen


Related Information

Summary of the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Discussion

Everything you always wanted to know about the "Creationism/Evolution Controversy"

Ken Miller's Evolution Page

Lehigh Department of Biological Sciences Statement on Intelligent Design

Cornell University Presidential Address on Evolution and Intelligent Design

Basic Info about Evolution

American Associate of the Advancement of Science Position on ID



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