The Failure of Intelligent Design Creationism

On Monday I attended the talk given by intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocate Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box) at Strosacker. The program consisted of a talk for about an hour by Behe followed by a 20-minute response by Professor Hillel Chiel of the Biology Department at Case.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am quite familiar with the IDC program, having read Behe’s book and other IDC literature, written about the topic extensively, and debated Behe and other IDC advocates in 2002 in Kansas and again in Michigan. So I was curious to see what new developments had occurred since my last encounter with him.

Michael Behe gives good talks and the full auditorium had an enjoyable evening. He has an engaging manner, good sense of humor, and presents his ideas in a clear way. But I already knew that having heard his talks before. What disappointed me was that there was absolutely nothing new in his talk, which was entirely a rehash of the same things he was saying five years ago. The examples he gave in support of intelligent design were the same as in his book that was published in 1996. The only new things since that book were his rebuttals of some criticisms of his book, but even those were things that he said in his 2002 talks. I recognized all the quotes and examples.

Behe made the familiar line of argument of IDC: 1. We immediately know when we see designed systems. (The Mount Rushmore example, a standby of IDC advocates, was once again evoked. See here and here for my earlier postings about this.) 2. There seems to be clear appearance of design in many biological systems. 3. Some of these systems are “irreducibly complex” in that if you take away any single component, the system fails to function. (He brought out the familiar mousetrap analogy and the flagellum and the blood-clotting examples). 4. Evolution by natural selection and its gradual approach to change cannot explain these phenomena and evolution advocates resort to implausible and hand-waving explanations. 5. Hence the existence of such systems implies a designer.

In his brief response, Chiel addressed all these arguments. Chiel said that the reason IDC is not science is that it does not provide any hypothesis to be tested and thus does not provide the basis for any research program. (The very fact that IDC has not produced anything new for over a decade is evidence of that.) On the other hand, evolution by natural selection is the basis of research in almost all of biology. He gave the example of his own research and also how bacteria, in order to develop drug-resistant strains, actually generate more random mutations so that there is a greater chance of producing a resistant strain that will survive due to natural selection. Scientists try to prevent these mutations from occurring as part of their struggle to prevent these strains from emerging. Thus Darwin’s theory provides the basis of such scientific work.

Chiel also made a very important point about the whole irreducible complexity argument. Behe’s “irreducibly complex” systems are those that have many interlocking parts so that taking any one component away destroys the functionality of the system. Since it is unlikely that all the parts could have evolved separately and then come together in one fell swoop to create the functioning system, Behe infers that they must have been designed in some way.

Chiel pointed out the flaw in this argument. How a system gets built cannot be inferred from what happens if you take away something from the system after it is built. It is quite possible for a complex system to be built gradually, piece by piece, such that when you take something away from the final object, it fails completely. To use an example of my own, it is like a house of cards. You build it up carefully one card at a time. But once built, take away almost any card and the whole system collapses. This is because in the process of constructing complex things, some parts initially play the role of scaffolding or some other auxiliary purpose. But with a change in functionality in the final system, a part that was initially an option can become essential.

For another example, take cars (this is also my example, not Chiels’s). They have evolved gradually to be the complex machines we now have. Currently, GPS guidance systems in cars are an auxiliary device that are sometimes installed as a convenience but are not essential. If you have one in your car, you can remove it and the car is still functional. But in the future we could have a transport system where cars do not need drivers but run under their own remote controlled navigation and steering systems. Suddenly the GPS device is no longer an option but becomes crucial to the functioning of the car. Chiel said that complex biological systems are like that, co-opting things as needed to perform desirable but optional functions which can later become essential components.

Kenneth Miller’s review of Behe’s book provides a detailed example of how systems that satisfy Behe’s description of being “irreducibly complex” actually evolved.

The three smallest bones in the human body, the malleus, incus, and stapes, carry sound vibrations across the middle ear, from the membrane-like tympanum (the eardrum) to the oval window. This five component system fits Behe’s test of irreducible complexity perfectly – if any one of its parts are taken away or modified, hearing would be lost. This is the kind of system that evolution supposedly cannot produce. Unfortunately for “intelligent design,” the fossil record elegantly and precisely documents exactly how this system formed. During the evolution of mammals, bones that originally formed the rear portion of the reptilian lower jaw were gradually pushed backwards and reduced in size until they migrated into the middle ear, forming the bony connections that carry vibrations into the inner ears of present-day mammals. A system of perfectly-formed, interlocking components, specified by multiple genes, was gradually refashioned and adapted for another purpose altogether – something that this book claims to be impossible. As the well-informed reader may know, creationist critics of this interpretation of fossils in the reptile to mammal transition once charged that this could not have taken place. What would happen, they joked, to the unfortunate reptile while he was waiting for two of his jaw bones to migrate into the middle ear? The poor creature could neither hear nor eat! As students of evolution may know, A. W. Crompton of Harvard University brought this laughter to a deafening halt when he unearthed a fossil with a double articulation of the jaw joint – an adaptation that would allow the animal to both eat and hear during the transition, enabling natural selection to favor each of the intermediate stages.

Chiel also debunked the notion that there is a “controversy” over Darwin’s theory and that therefore the controversy should be taught. He said that there was no scientific controversy among scientists and that therefore neither IDC nor “the controversy” belonged in any science curriculum. However he said that IDC should be taught as part of a humanities or social sciences curriculum

He pointed out that scientists practiced methodological naturalism as a necessary element of their work but that did not entail philosophical naturalism (which is atheism). (See here for an earlier posting on this.) He pointed out that if in the future Darwinian evolution turns out to be an inadequate theory, there was still no requirement to adopt IDC because there would be other alternative naturalistic theories.

In his talk he also made the point that IDC is not only not science, it is also bad theology because linking one’s religious belief to one scientific theory is dangerous. He posed the hypothetical question of what would have happened to someone whose religious belief was based on Newtonian physics (or to its flaws). When relativity and quantum mechanics came along, their faith would have been seriously undermined.

What was interesting is that Hillel Chiel, in addition to being a first-rate scientist, is a very observant Orthodox Jew, who is extremely knowledgeable about the Bible and its commentaries. I have known him for many years and he and I are in almost perfect agreement on almost everything about the nature of science. This illustrates my point that amongst scientists, their position on religious beliefs (or philosophical naturalism) is totally irrelevant. All that is required of a scientist is a commitment to methodological naturalism in their work. Some scientists like Chiel choose to reject philosophical naturalism and are devoutly religious, while others (like me) choose to accept it and become atheists. But those choices have no effect on the scientific work of either group. Chiel is far more religiously observant than most scientists I know, including (I suspect) Behe. And yet I think Chiel and I have far more in common that Behe and me, because we both share a commitment to methodological naturalism in science, which Behe does not.

The problem with IDC is that it is a sterile theory, producing no mechanisms or predictions or research programs. I suspect that most of the people who were in Strosacker Auditorium on Monday probably agree with Behe that god somehow acts in the world in some mysterious way that they do not know. Where Behe gets into trouble is in trying to assert that this belief has a scientific basis. That claim is simply not credible.


  1. says

    Thanks for the review. I wanted to go, but was not well enough for the long drive. I heard Chiel speak last year when Ohio Citizens for Science sponsored a talk by Eric Rothschild, lead attorney in the Kitzmiller case, and he’s a good advocate for honest science.

  2. says

    Intelligent Design & Vestigial Organs
    Dr Umesh R. Bilagi
    Associate Prof of Medicine
    KIMS Hubli

    Topic :-Vestigial organs not necessarily proof of evolution for Darwin

    I would postulate that it is possible to have a vestigial organ [ananatomical structure in organisms in a species, thought to have lost its original function through evolution] without the process of evolution. Let me illustrate this idea using an analogy drawn from popular computer software.

    Assuming, I have a reasonable amount of storage space on my computer hard disk, if I first create an unformatted document using Microsoft(MS) Word, and then a second MS Word document that I format very rigorously, I do so because I consider MS Word software to be the best option for my purposes, as opposed to using, say, the less sophisticated Notepad software, where little formatting of documentsis possible.

    Now, if you argue that there is a vestigial structure to the first MSWord document (the capacity -- in this case, unused -- for formatting)and that this only became functional in the second document,ultimately concluding that the first document evolved from the second document, you would be incorrect, since I am the creator of both documents.

    Similarly, I would argue that vestigial organs do not necessarily confirm evolution; they only point to what tools -- improvable overtime -- the creator used while making the species. This same principle is seen even in electronic gadgets today.

    Most probably, such an explanation did not occur to Darwin given that, in his time, there were no common tools to carry out varied, complex,seemingly disconnected jobs. So he concluded that unless a creator planned to mislead us, vestigial organs should not have existed

    It is tendency of creators of to make some useful common tools, which can be used to carry out multiple jobs (or to make machines). so by virtue of this comman tools (if tools get fitted into machines), vestigenesity will come up.

    Vestigial organs can be classified in to verticle & tranverse ones

    Verticle ones are like appendix which are inherited from ancestor to next species

    Tranverse one are in which one sex has fuctional capacity & in opposite sex it is vestigineous

    Vertiginous Male breast can be better explained tools of intelligent design than Darwin evolution now look at male nipple which are functional in female. Male & female have come much before mammals, so presence of male nipple in mammals can be explained by theory of tools of intelligent design better than Darwin evolution.

  3. says


    I know you know the arguments well and in a sense that almost makes this boring-you have answers that you almost must use in order to keep your world-view valid in your own mind (I understand this). I am sure you have already considered the following before-again, there is almost no original thought throughout all of this. Please point me in the right direction though.

    What about the anthropologist or whoever, who sifts through piles of rock or sand to look for early human tools or devices used by other animals used as tools? What is this process called? I have seen such scientists claim that the “tools” found next to the “hobbit” found in Asia are signs of certain cognitive capabilities for example-to me and maybe to you they look like rocks but to these scientists they are tools? What are your thoughts on this?


  4. says


    I don’t know the technical term for what archaeologists do whn they look for stuff like tools. I just use the word “excavation” but you must be looking for something more specific than that.


  5. says


    I guess what I meant was is this science (trying to figure out if the rocks were designed to be tools by humans or animals or not). I guess my position is that they are practicing science. It isn’t so much to try and argue that ID is science (or draw parallels although I guess there is one to some degree) as much as it is just a thought that I thought (is that proper english?) may be interesting. No need for you to define it. Don’t sweat it. Thanks.


  6. says

    Dr. Bilagi,

    Thank you for your interesting comments. While I see what you are driving at, I think the point that Darwin and others are making is not that they have definitely ruled out a god-like designer but that that they have removed the necessity for postulating a designer at all. People can, and do, continue to believe in a designer but the evidence in the natural world does not force us to do so.

  7. says

    Dear Mano
    I am very happy to receive your comment

    I want add different look to your comment different from what I replied you through previous email

    I think vestigial Organs made scientific men think that ID is not at all a possible by that No one in main stream has made serious look in possibility of design in evolution even some tried I think administration must not allowed a team work Of coarse this is my vision As I see through Net. Theory of ID are treated as not scientific straight away not taken seriously by main stream people.
    As You only put there is evidence in Darwin theory but this every body knows is not complete so There is still big possibility of Id interacting Darwinian process which must balanced life for more than 3.8 billion years this is how I look at it.
    I Just Say with some great hope that as I show that vestigial Organs can also be found in creator made systems so ID should not be considered as impossibility this is also possible.
    Every one knows that ID is not supported by scientific community on prefixed bias that it is not possible(probably drawn vestigial organs) with out good team work on this project How any body should expect good amount of evidence.
    DR bilagi

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