Books and Arts

Nature 442, 355-356 (27 July 2006) | doi:10.1038/442355a; Published online 26 July 2006

Design flaws

John Tyler Bonner1

Destroying the argument that intelligent design has a scientific basis.

BOOK REVIEWEDIntelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement

edited byJohn Brockman

Vintage Books: 2006. 272 pp. $14

'Intelligent design' — the idea that life was shaped by an intelligent creator — has caused a stir in education circles in the United States. Its protagonists have pushed it as an alternative explanation to evolution and are demanding equal time for it in the classroom (see Nature 416, 250; 2002). The idea is considered ridiculous by almost the entire scientific community, and so far the legal challenges to introduce it in schools have failed.

Advocates of intelligent design have tried to invent a new definition of science that includes religious beliefs, with the clear intent of circumventing the strictures separating church from state, and allowing creationism to be taught in schools. This is an important constitutional and legal issue, and a serious question for the US educational system, but it is hardly a scientific one.

John Brockman's edited volume Intelligent Thought is largely a series of essays by scientists that make clear, often eloquently, how untenable the scientific basis of intelligent design really is. In some ways it is like shooting fish in a barrel. When giving his decision at the trial in which the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, was challenged for including intelligent design in the biology curriculum (see Nature 439, 6–7;200610.1038/439006b), federal judge John Jones described the argument that intelligent design is science as a "breathtaking inanity". His ruling is reprinted in part at the end of the book.

If intelligent design has anything to say in its favour, it is that it spawned this book. Many of the essays are fascinating and fun to read, and tell us something new.

Design flaws


Use your head: anthropologists have made an overwhelming case for evolution.

In the opening essay, Jerry Coyne directly attacks intelligent design by showing how it is refuted by conventional evolutionary biology. The approach may be somewhat standard, but he does a splendid job of devastating the central arguments of intelligent design's proponents. In no way can intelligent design qualify as science, and he makes the case in the manner of a canny lawyer. Several of the other essays in the book take up many of his themes and arguments, and the end result is an overwhelming indictment of intelligent design. It is not science because it is not falsifiable. Many of these arguments are also to be found in Judge Jones's decision; one might call them the core arguments as to why intelligent design is not science. They are correct, and devastate the arguments for intelligent design.

The book also includes other approaches to the matter, two of which I found particularly effective and worthy of mention. One follows a specific evolutionary study in some detail, which, like Darwin's method in The Origin of Species, gives an outpouring of all the abundant evidence, smothering objections and disagreements. It comes from Tim White, who provides a riveting tale of what physical anthropologists have done to puzzle out the ancestry of modern humans. He takes us to the plains of Ethiopia and tells us how little fragments of bone are pieced together and how the result is interpreted. He then shows where this find fits in with the many other discoveries in Africa and other parts of the world. So many skulls are now known that human ancestry can be traced with a degree of precision quite impossible a few years ago. He makes the case for evolution using irresistible and overwhelming detail — the literary equivalent of saturation bombing — so it is difficult to come to any other conclusion.

Frank Sulloway, in contrast, uses a historical approach to the dichotomy between creationism and evolution. He shows that Darwin was originally a creationist, and remained so during his entire voyage on the Beagle. As Sulloway reminds us, Darwin seriously contemplated studying for the ministry while at the University of Cambridge and showed no signs of deviating from church doctrine. Furthermore, he was greatly inspired by the theologian William Paley, who was more or less the father of intelligent design. It was only when Darwin returned from his voyage, and began to examine the specimens he had collected and consider his observations on the Galapagos and elsewhere, that he realized the possibility of evolution and the transmutation of species. And from this idea sprang natural selection. It is illuminating and convincing to see how Darwin, in his intellectual maturing, changed from intelligent design to evolution.

Intelligent Thought is a book for scientists; that is, for those who see evolutionary biology as a science. If you are a creationist you will be unmoved; there is no point in looking at the evidence.

  1. John Tyler Bonner is in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA.


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