Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Is 'Design' Used Intelligently?

In the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature, Richard Sever turns his focus on the word "design" (Nature 454, 27 (3 July 2008)). He argues that many biologists use a lazy linguistic shorthand when they mention the word in describing something that occurs in nature. For instance: "The bird's wing is designed for flight."

Of course we all know that it wasn't actually designed. Design is a word used for purposeful planning. In order for there to be design, as Ray Comfort and his lot are always pointing out to unsuspecting passers-by, there must be a designer.

We have a very good understanding of biological diversity, and even know, in some detail, the mechanisms by which evolution continues to operate. So by simple necessity, there is no such designer. Evolution requires us to realize that biological diversity is not the result of any form of "intelligent design."

This is the gist of Sever's argument, and he will find no substantial disagreement here. Especially when talking with the public, we must be extremely careful about the words we choose to use. But I think more important than the fact that "design" is used only as a sort of intellectual shorthand, is the question of why we must be so damned careful about it in the first place.

And the answer is simple: creationists, and lots of them. They are always eager to quote biologists out of context to make it seem like real scientists support their intellectually suicidal position, even though the truth is quite the opposite. The creationists are quite fond of quote-mining, as it is one of the few things they are actually able to do with some efficiency (they've failed completely in all other intellectual pursuits).

For instance, in 1980, Stephen Jay Gould wrote: "The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and notes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils."

This is quoted out of context in countless creationist books, websites, videos, etc. But they either completely fail to grasp what he's talking about, or they're deliberately lying about it to prop up their own position. Gould did not argue that there are no "transitional forms." He argued that transitions between SPECIES are rare (not that none exist). Transitions between larger groups, however, are quite common. The fossil record is rich with them. You are encouraged to read Donald Prothero's book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia, 2007) for more examples than you know what to do with.

If creationists are going so far as to quote Gould out of context, even though he's one of the most famous paleontologists of recent years (largely due to his--somewhat controversial--contributions to evolutionary biology), surely they will have no hesitation to quote anyone else out of context if any of us dare to use "design" as a bit of lazy shorthand.

So strategically, I'm in complete agreement with Sever. His assessment of the situation is quite accurate as far as I can tell. So you're warned: if a biologist does happen to mention "design," he doesn't mean "intelligent design." And if a creationist quotes a real scientist, I'll bet you my lunch money that it's out of context (or an outright fabrication).

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