Randomness versus Intent: the Lure of Security in Darwinian Evolution and Intelligent Design
The debate between advocates of intelligent design and Darwinian evolution is one that not only permeates modern legal arenas, but also reflects an underlying dispute about the nature of science, and the innate appeal certain scientific stories over others. Randomness is at the heart of biological evolution. It is integral to natural selection and genetic mutation, two of the cornerstones of the modern understanding of the evolutionary process. While the bulk of scientific observations seem to support such randomness, many people find it unnerving and even improbable. In an article in the New York Times in 2005, Christopher Schönborn articulated a position held by many people both inside and outside the scientific community, "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science” (“Science as a Story”). This stance on the evolutionary process has come to be recognized as “intelligent design,” a subtle mixture of Darwin and religion. It is compelling that both explanations seem to provide security to some and anxiety to others. While many are reassured by the “hard facts” that support biological evolution, others see this enforced randomness as lacking in meaning and thus undermining human purpose. Conversely, the supernatural beginnings of intelligent design provide security through order, while causing some people to question its narrow view of human potential and attending religious connotations.
Intelligent design avoids the pitfalls of creationism by allowing for the existence of evolution, even over a very long period of time. The essential difference is the assertion that initially, the whole process was put into motion by a designer, some say God, others leave it more open ended. This claim is very difficult for Darwinians to fully refute since it deals with an occurrence billions of years in the past for which there would be no discernable evidence, accept life itself. What evolutionists can do is continue to demonstrate the randomness inherent in the natural world that supports strictly biological evolution. The random process of genetic mutation is essential to the modern understanding of evolution. Errors in DNA replication, chromosomal inversions and transpositions affect the genotype and often the phenotype of an organism (Mayr 96-97). These changes in turn can affect the organism's reproductive success and ability to adapt to its environment, thus altering the course of natural selection. Despite its significant impact on the evolutionary process, genetic mutation is completely random, an observation that supports an overall pattern of randomness instead of design.
The other major factor is natural selection itself. While Ernst Mayr points out that in some ways natural selection is “an antichance process” (120), the result of a particular pattern of survival, there is still a great deal of randomness involved. What characteristics that will prove favorable through natural selection are not predetermined, and easily change as the environment or population changes. There is no drive towards a certain goal involved in natural selection; those organisms that are reproductively successful are essentially picked at random from the group based on countless circumstantial factors. Though natural selection can be predicted within one set of circumstances, the “design” is constantly changing. This fluidity and randomness is difficult to reconcile with intelligent design, as the designer would have to have taken all of these factors into account and created an ever-changing and largely unpredictable plan.
For staunch evolutionists like Mayr, these observations are all that are necessary to assume its validity. As he says, “Who does the selecting? ... strictly speaking, there is no such agent in natural selection” (117). Inherent randomness manifested in genetic mutation and natural selection is the most secure explanation for many who view the world in this way. It might be assumed that these observations and the processes they suggest would be difficult to ignore, however, there is still a large contingent of people who choose to view the world alternatively. Intelligent design provides a different kind of security. Instead of the concrete, observable “facts,” intelligent design relies on untestable assumptions that suggest a higher purpose, a very compelling combination.
A prime example of the differences between advocates of each explanation is the legal dispute and subsequent ban on teaching intelligent design in the town of Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005. The Dover school board had decided to teach intelligent design in biology classes and present Darwinian Evolution as an alternate theory ('Intelligent Design'). Several parents were incensed, sued the school board, and succeeded in banning intelligent design from being taught in Dover. The trial exposed many issues dealing specifically with how different people find both stories equally valid. The significant reasons given to support intelligent design were the “gaps in Darwin's theory” and “whether life at the molecular level could have evolved through natural selection” (School Defends). Evolutionists have answered both questions to their own satisfaction, but admittedly not without room for doubt in some cases. Ultimately, it was the inability of intelligent design to be separated from religion that rendered the verdict in favor of evolution, not because of absolute certainty about evolution itself.
The conflict between intelligent design and Darwinian evolution is a dispute over what observations constitute a secure picture of the universe in the minds of different people. Those who prefer to interpret the basic biological “facts” accept the randomness of Darwinian evolution as an accurate way of describing the world. Others find the comfort of a higher purpose and plan of intelligent design more appealing and use the complexity of biology to support their views. There may never be a defining observation that will undermine either theory, because people will always choose what to believe based in part on their own personal inclinations and perspectives.
“Intelligent Design teaching ban.” 20 Dec 2005. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4545822.stm>.
Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
“School defends teaching Intelligent Design.” 18 Oct 2005. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4353524.stm>.
“Science as Story and Story Revision.” 23 Jan 2007. <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/evolit/s07/23jan07.html>.