Analysis of Dover Biology Curriculum

The Dover area schoolboard has released a press-release for the Biology Curriculum

It includes the following statement:

Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to Intelligent Design. The Origins of Life is not taught.

I will show that while there may be gaps in Darwin’s theory, it is not a theory in crisis. I will also show that by focusing on the gaps in Darwin’s theory, Intelligent Design is a ‘God of the Gaps’ theory which focuses on our ignorance rather than our knowledge. Finally I will show that there is no ‘Intelligent Design’ theory of evolution. Intelligent Design does not present any positive hypotheses to compete with scientific hypotheses but rather relies on scientific ignorance to makes it case. Finally I will show how the Intelligent Design approach is not only scientifically meaningless but also presents a significant risk to religious faith.

See also Dover School District Wades Into Troubled Waters by Ed Brayton who concludes that

The bottom line is that the Dover School statement is rife with contradictions and incoherencies, and that the disclaimer, because it specifically mentions Intelligent Design as the only alternative to evolution, is quite unlikely to survive a court challenge. Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Bd. of Education was a federal court case that struck down a similar disclaimer specifically because the only alternative mentioned to evolution was religious in nature. That ruling also noted that naming “intelligent design” specifically would be legally the same as the phrase “biblical concept of creation” that was used in the disclaimer that was deemed unconstitutional. The Dover School District is going to end up costing themselves (meaning the taxpayers of that district) an enormous amount of money in legal fees trying to defend what is clearly an incoherent and internally contradictory policy regarding the teaching of evolution and intelligent design. They will lose the legal battle, but more importantly, the children of that district will lose because the folks in charge of curriculum there are fumbling around in the dark trying frantically to justify their decisions and coming up only with the oxymoronic nonsense contained in the statement above.

Is evolution a ‘theory in crisis’?

Richard Colling, a professor at a Christian College and author of “Random Designer: Created from Chaos to Connect with Creator” is quoted by Sharon Begley in Tough Assignment: Teaching Evolution To Fundamentalists, Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2004; Page A15

“It pains me to suggest that my religious brothers are telling falsehoods” when they say evolutionary theory is “in crisis” and claim that there is widespread skepticism about it among scientists. “Such statements are blatantly untrue,” he argues; “evolution has stood the test of time and considerable scrutiny. [1]”

Is Intelligent Design a theory of evolution?

Ryan Nichols is the author of “Scientific content, testability, and the vacuity of Intelligent Design theory” published in The American Catholic philosophical quarterly , 2003 , vol. 77 , no 4 , pp. 591 - 611

In my argument against Intelligent Design Theory I will not contend that it is not falsifiable or that it implies contradictions. I’ll argue that Intelligent Design Theory doesn’t imply anything at all, i.e. it has no content. By ‘content’ I refer to a body of determinate principles and propositions entailed by those principles. By ‘principle’ I refer to a proposition of central importance to the theory at issue. By ‘determinate principle’ I refer to a proposition of central importance to the theory at issue in which the extensions of its terms are clearly defined. I’ll evaluate the work of William Dembski because he specifies his methodology in detail, thinks Intelligent Design Theory is contentful and thinks Intelligent Design Theory (hereafter ‘IDT’) grounds an empirical research program. Later in the paper I assess a recent trend in which IDT is allegedly found a better home as a metascientific hypothesis, which serves as a paradigm that catalyzes research. I’ll conclude that, whether IDT is construed as a scientific or metascientific hypothesis, IDT lacks content.

Denis Lamoureux, assistant professor of Science and Religion, writes in A Black Box or a Black Hole? A Response to Michael Behe:

I have with interest followed the development of the Intelligent Design movement over the last five years. They claim to be in the process of creating and ushering in what they term is ‘theistic science.’ Behe’s work is the scientific centerpiece in their program. However, the greatest problem with this movement is that it never clearly defines ‘theistic science’ or does it offer a model of origins.

and in The Phillip Johnson Phenomenon: Are Evangelicals Inheriting The Wind?

In the last ten years, a loosely defined group known as the Intelligent Design Theorists has appeared in American evangelical circles with Johnson as its leader. They introduce a unique twist to the notion of design–the concept of irreducible complexity. That is, Intelligent Design Theorists assert that certain biological structures are fashioned in such a way that it was not possible for these to develop through a natural process like evolution. To account for the existence of these irreducible complex structures, direct Divine intervention from outside the normal operation of the universe is claimed to have occurred at some point during the history of life. Therefore, Johnson and the design theorists are progressive creationists. Such a position is another version of the “God-of-the-Gaps.” The problem with this view is that once natural processes are discovered to account for the creation of a once acclaimed irreducibly complex structure, God’s purported intervention is lost to the advancing light of scientific research. The consequence of filling these gaps is that God appears to be forced further and further into the dark recesses of our ignorance.

On, David Talcott, a self proclaimed Christian, Protestant, Reformed and Evangelical and graduate student in Philosophy at Indiana State University, writes in The Fine Tuning Argument: A closer examination

In the past two decades Christian Biologists have attempted to revive a biological design argument, and now spearhead a movement known as Intelligent Design. This small community of scientists thinks that there are certain biological organisms, or mechanisms, or other features of biological life which cannot successfully be accounted for on the hypothesis of evolution alone. This movement has the potential to be very successful, but it is too early to tell if the science will turn out to be on their side.

Kenneth Miller, a practising Roman Catholic, professor of Biology at the University of Colorado, author of a series of high school and college textbooks and author of “Finding Darwin’s God” has an extensive webpage with resource about the failures of Intelligent Design. Kenneth Miller writes in the final chapter of his book:

Those who ask from science a final argument, an ultimate proof, an unassailable position from which the issue of God may be decided will always be disappointed. As a scientist I claim no new proofs, no revolutionary data, no stunning insight into nature that can tip the balance in one direction or another. But I do claim that to a believer, even in the most traditional sense, evolutionary biology is not at all the obstacle we often believe it to be. In many respects, evolution is the key to understanding our relationship with God.

Howard van Till, professor of Physics and Astronomy Emeritus at Calvin College, and theist, writes:

The Intelligent Design movement argues that it can point to specific biological systems that exhibit what ID’s chief theorist William A. Dembski calls “specified complexity.” Furthermore, Dembski claims to have demonstrated that natural causation is unable to generate this specified complexity and that the assembling of these biological systems must, therefore, have required the aid of a non-natural action called “intelligent design.” In his book, No Free Lunch, Dembski presents the bacterial flagellum as the premier example of a biological system that, because he judges it to be both complex and specified, must have been actualized by the form-conferring action of an unembodied intelligent agent. However, a critical examination of Dembski’s case reveals that, 1) it is built on unorthodox and inconsistently applied definitions of both “complex” and “specified,” 2) it employs a concept of the flagellum’s assembly that is radically out of touch with contemporary genetics and cell biology, and 3) it fails to demonstrate that the flagellum is either “complex” or “specified” in the manner required to make his case. If the case for Intelligent Design is dependent on the bacterial flagellum, then ID is a failure.

Del Ratzsch, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, in an online chat “Del Ratzsch: Nature, Design and Science” on ISCID, July 24, 2003 remarks:

First, I have no difficulty with gaps at all - I’m not nearly as frightened of them as some people seem to think that we all should be. I think that Bill’s filter has a lot going for it (and some pretty significant people in the past have held filter-like views). What I have reservations about, however, is the fact that designs produced by the deliberate setting of natural processes to produce them seem to escape the filter, and that means that all filter-relevant design theories become gap theories.

and when asked if ID has anything to offer science

I think that some are certainly too far in the materialist direction, and they claim that science backs them up on that. ID can at least serve a ‘keeping em’ honest’ function, even if nothing else. I think that ID may very well have things to offer science, but I think that it is too early for ID to claim that it has done so. I don’t think that it is just obvious that ID will contribute substantively to science, but I think it has that potential, and that it should be pushed as far as it can be made to legitimately go.

Bill Wimsatt, who on the back cover of Dembski’s “The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities” wrote

Dembski has written a sparklingly original book. Not since David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion has someone taken such a close look at the design argument, but it is done now in a much broader post-Darwinian context. Now we proceed with modern characterizations of probability and complexity, and the results bear fundamentally on notions of randomness and on strategies for dealing with the explanation of radically improbable events. We almost forget that design arguments are implicit in criminal arguments “beyond a reasonable doubt,” plagiarism, phylogenetic inference, cryptography, and a host of other modern contexts. Dembski’s analysis of randomness is the most sophisticated to be found in the literature, and his discussions are an important contribution to the theory of explanation, and a timely discussion of a neglected and unanticipatedly important topic.

William Wimsatt, philosopher of biology, University of Chicago

now strongly speaks out on the YAHOO Evolutionary Psychology group:

I could not in conscience fail to respond to the ad for Bill Dembski’s new book, ““No Free Lunch”, and to the general tenor of the political push generated either within or by others using the so-called “intelligent design theory”. This is not a theory, but a denial of one, and a denial whose character is widely misrepresented, at least in the press.

… Unfortunately “popular” presentations of “Intelligent Design” have tended to give the impression that it rested solely on mathematical demonstrations. Anyone who could have succeeded in showing that natural selection is incapable of generating biological structures according to standards from mathematics or logic would have constructed a mathematical proof that would have dwarfed Godel’s famous Undecideability theorem in importance. As one who read Dembski’s original manuscript for his first book, found much to like in it, and had appreciative remarks on the dust jacket of the first printing, I can say categorically that Demski surely has shown no such thing, and i call upon him as a mathematician to deny and clarify the implications of this advertising copy.

The key issue for intelligent design is to apply a mathematical apparatus [which is nice, but not entirely without problems in its application] to probability estimates that come from elsewhere. The Neo-but-still-pseudo-scientific creationists take probability estimates that are problematic at best, and commonly just irresponsible or unfounded [and in any case, not accepted by any reputable natural scientists I know who are speaking about their own subject matter], and run them through Dembski’s apparatus.

So does the fact that the argument has a mathematical component validate it? No. The answer is found in the computer programmer’s lament: “Garbage in, garbage out”. A deductive argument with faulty premises shows nothing at all.

Note: Arguments, even successful arguments that evolutionists have not (yet?) succeeded in showing that natural selection can produce or explain a phenomenon is NOT equivalent to, would not entail, and even, would not add significant inductive support for the MUCH stronger claim that Natural selection is incapable of producing it. [I would also say, as a teacher and student of evolution for 35 years, that I have not yet seen any arguments of even the weaker former variety that I accept. That is not to say that the evolutionist’s task is yet complete.]


Wimsatt is quoted by Mark Vuletic:

I am an evolutionist to the core, and am not at all bothered by Dembski’s book.” Furthermore, he wrote, “I think [the book] is a double-edged sword, and–properly understood–should give no comfort to Creationists! i.e., I don’t think, by proper interpretation of the evidence that we have anything like evidence for intelligent design, but instead evolution emerges by far as the best explanation of the data.

Del Ratzsch explains the limitations of the ‘Design Inference’:

“I do not wish to play down or denigrate what Dembski has done. There is much of value in the Design Inference. But I think that some aspects of even the limited task Dembski set for himself still remains to be tamed.” “That Dembski is not employing the robust, standard, agency-derived conception of design that most of his supporters and many of his critics have assumed seems clear.”

Del Ratzsch in “Nature, Design, and Science:The Status of Design in Natural Science”, SUNY Press, 2001.

Edward B. Davis writes in Of Gods and Gaps: Intelligent Design and Darwinian Evolution (A shorter version of this essay was published in The Christian Century 115 (20) (15-22 July 1998), 678-81.)

Despite the desire by some in the ID movement to have potentially enlightening discussions of very interesting philosophical and scientific questions, however, thus far ID appears to be little more than a highly sophisticated form of special creationism, usually accompanied by strong apologetic overtones that tend to keep the debate at the ideological level. All too frequently science becomes a weapon in culture wars, denying in practice the clean theoretical distinction between science and religion that is otherwise widely proclaimed.

Jack Collins, professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St Lousi, writes in his article Miracles, Intelligent Design,and God-of-the-Gaps published in “Perspectives on science and Christian faith”, Volume 55, Number 1, March 2003


To claim to have detected a miracle, or an instance of design in the natural world, renders one liable to the charge of committing the “God-of-the-gaps” fallacy.22 That is to say, suppose we come upon some object or event for which we do not have a naturalistic explanation, and then say, “See, God must have done that,” and then proceed to base either our own belief or our apologetic for belief on such an instance. This involves us in a risk. Let us suppose the sciences provide a natural-process based explanation. Then where does that leave God’s involve ment in the matter? Are what once were grounds for believing in God now made an argument for disbelief?23

Collins later argues that

I do not consider here whether the empirical case made by Behe is adequate. However, it deserves consideration, and can not be ruled automatically invalid for committing the God-of-the-gaps fallacy. This is because it is based on the claim of having discovered lacunae naturae causâ.

Patrick Frank is the author of “On the Assumption of Design”, published in in Theology and Science, Volume 2, Number 1, Apr, 2004 writes:

The assumption of design of the universe is examined from a scientific perspective. The claims of William Dembski and of Michael Behe are unscientific because they are a-theoretic. The argument from order or from utility are shown to be indeterminate, circular, to rest on psychological as opposed to factual certainty, or to be insupportable as regards humans but possibly not bacteria, respectively. The argument from the special intelligibility of the universe specifically to human science does not survive comparison with the capacities of other organisms. Finally, the argument from the unlikelihood of physical constants is vitiated by modern cosmogonic theory and recrudesces the God-of-the-gaps.

Intelligent Design responds

In Top Misconceptions about Intelligent Design (ID)

Intelligent Design states that objects that exhibit specified complexity have only one known cause and that is intelligent agency. We can be confident in this association because we understand the limited number of probabilistic resources in our Universe. We understand what chance can do in the 13.7 billion years that the Universe has existed, thanks to physicists.

And unless our fundamental understanding of the Universe changes, Intelligent Design is on solid ground scientifically. Claiming that it is based on scientific ignorance is tantamount to saying that physicists are wrong about things such as the finite nature of the Universe and the number of particles in the Universe.

First of all Intelligent Design ‘asserts’ that specified complexity is limited to intelligent agency. But how is specified complexity ‘calculated’? Not by showing a positive hypothesis of design but rather by showing that based on our present understandings, a particular event has a low probability of being explained by chance and we have no explanations based on law like regularities. In other words, specified complexity is not positive evidence for design. Additionally, while ID may claim that it can infer intelligent agency (design), the step which concludes intelligent agents is an inductive step and cannot exclude natural processes such as natural selection as its agent. This seems awkward to have natural selection be labeled an ‘intelligent designer’. In fact, Intelligent Design has been moving from design by intervention to a design by proxy where the designer uses natural processes to ‘design’. Wesley Elsberry in What does “Intelligent Agency by Proxy” Do for the Design Inference? shows that while design by proxy may save the design inference from a logical collapse, it does so at a significant cost since it now has to accept apparant and actual specified complexity since ID now has to propose how to distinguish between the two concepts. In other words, ID has moved from apparant and actual design to apparant and actual specified complexity but failed to provide any tools so far to distinguish between the two concepts.

Dembski is clear, the conclusion of design may be because of a gap in our knowledge (apparant specified complexity) or an actual gap in our knowledge (actual specified complexity)

The “gaps” in the god-of-the-gaps objection are meant to denote gaps of ignorance about underlying physical mechanisms. But there’s no reason to think that all gaps must give way to ordinary physical explanations once we know enough about the underlying physical mechanisms. The mechanisms may simply not exist. Some gaps might constitute ontic discontinuities in the chain of physical causes and thus remain forever beyond the capacity of physical mechanisms.

William Dembski, How Can an Unembodied Intelligence Interact with the Natural World?

However, Dembski does not provide us with any tools to distinguish between the two concepts.