Unintelligent Design; U.S. Schools Have Been Invaded by Second-Rate Theorists. This New Creationism Is Not Only Bad Science; It Is Bad Logic, Bad Philosophy and Even Bad Theology

Newsweek International, November 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

Unintelligent Design; U.S. Schools Have Been Invaded by Second-Rate Theorists. This New Creationism Is Not Only Bad Science; It Is Bad Logic, Bad Philosophy and Even Bad Theology


Byline: Richard Dawkins (Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His latest book is The Ancestor's Tale.)

s conscious animals, we think of knowledge as something that we consciously know. A zoologist might see knowledge as facts that are useful for survival and reproduction, whether or not they are known to a mind. An orb spider's survival tool is its web, and it behaves as if it "knows" how to build it.

But a spider doesn't know how to make a web as a fisherman knows how to make a net. Spider genes are a recipe for legs, muscles and spinnerets, together with a brain whose wiring diagram causes it to manipulate muscles in such a way that a web automatically results. The spider presumably knows nothing of webs or flies, any more than you knew how to build yourself during your nine months of unconscious gestation. Genes literally don't know anything, but in a powerful sense they store knowledge about environments from the ancestral past. They "know" about their environment in the special sense that a key "knows" the lock that it uniquely fits. To the extent that the future resembles the past, locks open and bodies survive to pass on the same genes. To the extent that it doesn't, bodies die, with the genes inside them. In extreme cases, whole species go extinct. But how do genes read information out of the environment?

This is the indispensable role of natural selection, the engine of evolution first discovered by Charles Darwin, although he expressed it differently. Neo-Darwinians speak of the nonrandom survival of genes in gene pools. As generations pass, good genes become more frequent in the gene pool; bad genes disappear. "Good" means good at building bodies that survive to reproduce in the environment of the species: woodland, sea, soil, coral reef, etc.

As a sculptor shapes a statue by subtraction of marble, so natural selection chisels the gene pool toward perfection as generations go by. New variation is added to the gene pool by mutation--random mistakes that occasionally turn out to be superior. The randomness of mutation is partly responsible for the widespread, ludicrous misconception that natural selection itself is a random process.

Nonrandom natural selection, automatically and without awareness, funnels information about environments into the DNA of a species. This coded information fosters the illusion that organisms were designed precisely for their environments. Think of the uncanny resemblance of camouflaged insects to the background on which they sit. Think of the vertebrate eye with its color-coded retina, variable focus lens and light-metered fine adjustment of the pupil. But think, too, of the strange fact that the vertebrate retina (though not that of the independently evolved octopus) is back to front. Light has to pass through a forest of connecting wires before hitting the photocells: exactly the kind of excess complexity you would expect of an evolved, as opposed to designed, instrument. The "mistake" is a relic of history.

Several factors conspire to make the natural illusion of design persuasive, complex and often beautiful. "Arms races" between predators and prey, or parasites and hosts, drive the perfection of evolutionary adaptation to spectacular heights. Perfection is enhanced by large numbers of genes, each of small effect, cooperating with each other in cartels of long standing. The evolution of beauty is abetted by the principle that Darwin called sexual selection. The gorgeous colors of a male bird of paradise certainly don't help it to survive as an individual. They do help the survival of genes that make them attractive to females.

Above all, the illusion of design depends upon the gradual accumulation of small improvements, escalating to levels of complexity and elegance that could not conceivably be achieved in a single lucky step. …

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Unintelligent Design; U.S. Schools Have Been Invaded by Second-Rate Theorists. This New Creationism Is Not Only Bad Science; It Is Bad Logic, Bad Philosophy and Even Bad Theology
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