In a depressingly rare victory for rationality, a United States federal court has just ruled that a Pennsylvania school district may not teach “intelligent design” to high-school biology students as an alternative to the Theory of Evolution. At about the same time, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry informed us that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust is “a matter for academic discussion,” and “the West should be more tolerant of his views.” (Thanks for the tip, Eye Doc!) These two events have more in common that one might think.
“Intelligent design” is, of course, creationism-lite – that is, it’s the belief that living creatures are too complex and elegantly-designed to have come about by random genetic mutation and survival of the fittest, and thus that an unspecified “designer” rather than Darwinian evolution must be responsible for the cats that continually knock piles of unpaid bills from my dresser to the floor. (Thanks, Big Guy – or am I supposed to refer to you as Large Unspecified Entity now?) When the teaching of “creation science” was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 as an attempt to promote an explicit religious view, the creationists went back to their manuscripts, crossed out words like “creation” and “God”, and scribbled in “design” and “designer”. (Don’t believe me? See the Federal District Court’s findings, particularly pages 30-34.) Call it what you will, “creation science” is really just Biblical literalism; there was never any science there, despite the name. “Intelligent design” is an even less intellectually honest attempt to teach religion in the guise of science.
The reason that both “creation science” and “intelligent design” are illegitimate is that they advertise themselves as solutions to supposed “problems” (or “gaps”) in evolutionary theory, as if the “orthodox” version of biology were in the midst of some kind of crisis and only these “new ideas” provided a solution. In fact, evolutionary biology is doing quite well, thank you; evolutionists are happily discovering fossils of new types of extinct critter (including some lovely intermediate species – take a look at this and this if you’ve ever wondered how whales got that way) and playing with exciting new concepts like “evo devo”. Of course, science hasn’t answered all the questions yet – and here is where the “intelligent design” advocates attempt to wedge their way into our high schools. Their argument (such as it is) works basically like this:
- Living creatures are complicated and seem to be well designed.
- We don’t understand everything about how this came about. (Usually expressed as “Science can’t explain how this came about,” a more accurate version of which would be “Science hasn’t yet explained everything about how this came about.”)
- Therefore, some cause from outside the realm of science must be responsible.
Another way of expressing the same argument would be, “What I don’t know today is by definition unknowable” – which might work in a freshman-level theological debate, but hardly qualifies as scientific thought. The existence of open questions and even of vigorous debates does not constitute a scientific crisis; and in fact, there is virtually no creationism – disguised as “intelligent design” or otherwise – among practicing professional biologists.
All of this doesn’t mean that you, Dear Reader, must believe in evolution; it does mean, however, that you cannot promote Biblical creationism (or creationism by other supernatural means) and call it “science”.
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So what does all this “intelligent design” stuff have to do with Our Buddy Ahmadinejad? Simple: what “intelligent design” advocates are trying to do to biology, Ahmadinejad (and his many allies in the Middle East and elsewhere) are trying to do to history. Both “intelligent design” and Holocaust denial are attempts at “academic relativism”: the effort to defend a treasured-but-contentious belief on the basis that all views are somehow equally valid, regardless of the evidence to support one view over the other. If we allow this sort of advocacy to dictate what is seen as truth, it will ultimately mean the end of science as we know it, as well as history and any other fact-based intellectual endeavor.
I suppose it won’t be too long before the Holocaust “revisionists” discover the “intelligent design” movement; when they do, we’ll be presented with the ultimate solution (as opposed to the Final Solution) to the mystery of how one-third of the world’s Jews vanished in the early 1940’s, leaving distressingly few physical traces of their existence: Intelligent Disappearing. I’ll leave it to others to work out the details.
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President Ahmadinejad makes an easy target; after all, we Jews know about the Holocaust – not just as an abstract event that we read about in a book, but as something that happened to us and to our families. We have no trouble recognizing Ahmadinejad’s “revisionism” as pseudo-intellectual twaddle. But we should view his case as instructive and cautionary: how many of our own opinions do we defend despite factual evidence to the contrary?