For weeks now, a York County courtroom has provided a nationally staged debate about whether "intelligent design" -- the belief that life is so complex a supernatural designer must have shaped it -- should be taught in public schools.
But after reading the testimony in the case, I no longer think that's the question. The real debate is whether intelligent design (ID) can be taught in schools. Because as critics like Slate's William Saletan have observed, ID has almost nothing to teach.
Let's say this right up front. Though evolution has more than a century of evidence undergirding it -- ranging from million-year-old fossils to the rapid mutations of viruses in germ labs today -- gaps remain. As Michael Behe, the Lehigh University professor whose work is a bedrock for the ID movement, pointed out in court, scientists have yet to capture some of those processes in nature, or replicate them in the lab. For example, there's the flagellum, a tentacle-like extension that propels bacteria around like an outboard motor. As Behe testified, science has yet to show how such a complicated mechanism could have evolved by random mutation and natural selection.
Fair enough. But Behe's testimony made it obvious his theory doesn't have any answers either.
Assuming there really is a designer, ACLU attorney Eric Rothschild asked Behe, how does he/she/it carry out the design? All at once, or over time? Behe's response: "The designer would also have to somehow cause the plan to, you know, go into effect." More than that, he could not say.
Most scientists would be unsatisfied by such vagueness. ID advocates, however, practically boast about it. ID doesn't say anything about who the designer is or how he operates, they note, so you can't accuse ID of introducing religion into science classrooms.
But does ID introduce science into science classroom? A theory that tells us nothing about the designer's methods, abilities and motivations is so broad as to be useless. You could just as plausibly say that the flagellum was designed by invisible flying elves. And Behe's standard of evidence is remarkably low.
Speaking once more of his beloved flagellum, Behe asserted that "this is a machine that looks like something that a human might have designed." And since humans didn't design it, someone else must have: As Behe put it, "When you see a purposeful arrangement of parts, that bespeaks design." No need to go beyond that, because "That's what science has to go on: what we can see, what we can measure, and so on."
This is the scientific equivalent of seeing the face of Jesus in a tortilla. You observe a pattern -- the flagellum of a bacteria or the face of Jesus in baked flour -- that looks like it just couldn't have arisen by mere chance. Then you contend this "pattern" proves the presence of a supernatural power.
Thus does "the designer" become a god of ignorance, the name we give to everything we don't yet comprehend, all that goes bump in the night? A god built on ignorance can only shrink as our knowledge grows. If it were otherwise, church leaders never would have persecuted Galileo or prosecuted Scopes.
Indeed, to read Behe's testimony is to realize that ID isn't just the basis for a lot of bad science; it's also the basis for bad religion. ID offers the kind of theology that the ancient Aztecs would recognize, a belief system in which you simply ascribe to "God" those things science can't (yet) explain. Do the rains not come? Tlaloc must be angry. Are the precise origins of a bacteria's tail obscure? Then you best bow your head not over the microscope, but in prayer.
God is -- or ought to be -- bigger than any test tube. And there's something desperate and sad about a faith that looks to bacteria, or tortilla shells, for confirmation of that which should suffice us in our souls. Teaching ID may well shrink our children's minds, as the scientists believe. But by conflating God with our own ignorance, it may shrink their hearts as well.