A Critical Analysis of Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences (2nd. ed)
By Casey Luskin
This document is a modified version of a previous essay written for a seminar at UCSD.
Science and Creationism A view from the National Academy of Sciences (2nd edition, National Academy Press, 1999) (henceforth referred to as "S & C") is available free, with text and illustrations, online on the National Academy of Sciences website at: "http://books.nap.edu/html/creationism/".
What is the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)?
According to S & C:
On March 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the NAS into existence with the charge that, "the Academy shall, whenever called upon by any department of the Government, investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art" (S & C, p. ii). The founding members include Benjamin Peirce, Alexander Dallas Bache (first president of the Academy), Joseph Henry, Louis Agassiz, President Lincoln, Senator Wilson, Admiral Charles Henry Davis, and Benjamin Apthorp Gould. Since that time it has advised the federal government about many projects including weapons design, space travel, and educational policy. The job of the NAS is essentially to advise the government on matters of science.
According to the NAS website, "members and foreign associates of the National Academy of Sciences are elected in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Election to the Academy is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded a scientist or engineer"1. The website2 says that as of March 5, 2002, membership included 1,852 active members, and 80 members emeriti, 318 foreign associates for a total of 2,250 members. According to a poll conducted and published by Scientific American in 1999, 40% of scientists at large believe in a personal God, but only 5% of NAS members believe in a personal God3. The article then posed the question, "are the deepest contemporary scientific minds drawn to atheism, or do the higher echelons of academia select for the trait of disbelief?"
Some questions which need to be answered:
In light of this recent publication from the NAS, this paper will evaluate the arguments of the NAS and will attempt to answer the following questions:
The purpose of the Science and Creationism booklet is to "summariz[e] key aspects of several of the most important lines of the evidence supporting evolution", to "describe some of the positions taken by advocates of creation science and presents an analysis of these claims" and to "la[y] out for a broader audience the case against presenting religious concepts in science class" (S & C, Pg. ix).
What is creation science (so we don't accidentally teach it?)?
Bruce Alberts, President of the NAS and author of the preface to the document, states that creation science "posits that scientific evidence exists to prove that the universe and living things were specially created in their present form" (S & C, Pg. ix). One thus has to assume that the opposing theory to creation science--evolution, therefore must posit that the universe and living things were NOT specially created in their present form.
The document also claims that creation science is not science because it lacks, "empirical support and cannot be meaningfully tested" (S & C, Pg. 2) and that it, "should not be presented as [science] in science classes" (S & C, Pg. 2). However, according to the NAS, evolution is science, yet, creation science isn't. How is it that we are able to test and support if something WAS NOT created in its present form, but we aren't able to test and support the theory that it WAS created in its present form?
It should be noted that S & C refers to those who believe in a "young earth", "old earth", and "intelligent design" as advocates of "special creation" and "creation science."
If creation science is "not science" (S & C, Pg. 2), then what is science?
Various definitions and descriptions are given for science throughout the document. The introduction, states that science is, "a particular way of knowing about the world" (S & C, Pg. 1). The booklet claims that science uses observation, experiment, and empirical evidence to come up with explanations in "the quest for understanding" (S & C, Pg. 1). Scientists correct themselves because, "progress in science consists of the development of better explanations for the causes of natural phenomena" (S & C, Pg. 1). Bruce Alberts describes the goal of scientists as, "seek[ing] to relate one natural phenomena to another and to recognize the causes and effects of phenomena" (S & C, Pg. viii). This may be a good goal for science, but what sorts of "causes" are we then allowed to use when explaining "natural phenomena"?
A natural phenomenon is simply something we observe. We observe that rain falls from clouds, we observe that the Earth orbits the Sun. We observe many diverse and complicated forms of life are present on this planet. Observations form the basis for science, and it is our job to seek the best explanations for these observations.
Observations of natural phenomena thus represent the "data" of science. Our explanations provide interpretations of this data. When push comes to shove, however, their true definition for science is revealed: "the job of science is to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena" (S & C, Pg. 7). According to the NAS, therefore, only "natural explanations" are the proper in science. How can we assume, before we even look at the data, that only natural (i.e. unintelligent) explanations are correct?
Is intelligent design theory creation science?
The NAS states that some "advocates of creation science argue that the various types of organisms could only have come about with supernatural intervention, because they show 'intelligent design'" (S & C, p. 7). The NAS then claims that proponents of intelligent design argue that "structural complexity is proof of the direct hand of God in specially creating organisms as they are today echo[ing] the 18th century cleric William Paley" (S & C, Pg. 21).
This statement is at odds with conventional intelligent design theory, which says that the most one can infer from intelligent design arguments is that some components of biology did not arise due to mechanistic causes, and may have been designed by an intelligent agent (see William Dembski's, "Intelligent Design"). This "designer" may be "natural" (i.e. unintelligent) or "non-natural" (i.e. intelligent) in nature, and intelligent design theory doesn't say that it was necessarily the "supernatural" "hand of God" which did the designing. The NAS booklet thus mischaracterizes intelligent design theory by implying that design proponents necessarily argue "structural complexity is proof of the direct hand of God in specially creating organisms" (S & C, p. 21).
The booklet also mischaracterizes intelligent design by saying that it is the same as William Paley's arguments in the 18th century. This counter-argument to intelligent design presents a straw man, because Paley's arguments were allegedly refuted by the philosopher David Hume, and has been repeated elsewhere by evolutionists4. However, intelligent design theory is different than that presented by Paley and then allegedly refuted by Hume.
Hume argued that simple complexity in organisms isn't enough to justify inferring design. But design theorist William Dembski does not argue from the standpoint of the degree of complexity alone, but rather for the kind of complexity (see The Design Inference). Much like language, biological complexity is exceedingly complex, but specifically conforms to a pre-existing pattern. As Stephen Meyer says, "this 'sequence specificity' or 'specificity and complexity' or 'information content' of DNA suggests a prior intelligent cause, again because 'specificity and complexity' or 'high information content' constitutes a distinctive hallmark (or signature) of intelligence."5 This argument for design is much different than Paley and Hume's simple complexity. If Hume is correct, one who found a computer program or a stone tool floating in space would not have the philosophical right to say it is designed. Dembski and Meyer, however, would be justified in inferring design.
While intelligent design theory does not necessarily dispute "descent with modification" it does dispute the idea that all components of biology arose through natural-mechanistic processes, and suggests that some may have been created in something related to their present form. It is my view that intelligent design actually does NOT fit under the definition of creation science, as it is defined by the NAS.
Where intelligent design gets sticky, however, is that it strongly suggests that some uintelligent, non-mechanistic processes are at least in part responsible for creating life. This sort of explanation is at odds with how the NAS defines science as "the job of science is to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena." (S & C, Pg. 7). Yet, when the NAS describes science in other contexts, it is not so clear that intelligent design ought to be excluded.
The NAS states that "[s]cience is a particular way of knowing about the world [whose] explanations are limited to those based on observations that can be substantiated by other scientists" (S & C, p. 1) and is a "quest for understanding" (S & C, Pg. 1) to find "better explanations for the causes of natural phenomena" (S & C, Pg. 1). If this is the case, then any empirically investigateable question ought to qualify as science. If the answers to some such questions might be non-mechanistic, then science might be handicapped towards attaining its goals if "the job of science is to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena" (S & C, Pg. 7). Intelligent design is an empirically based theory which makes observations of objects in nature to determine if they were designed. It meets the description of science given by the NAS which does not limit science to "natural explanations."
What can intelligent design theory contribute to science?
Intelligent design may help to uncover the philosophical flaws preventing science from discovering truth. If some possibly non-natural (i.e. intelligent) explanations might be "limited to those based on observations that can be substantiated by other scientists" (S & C, p. 1) and solely use explanations "based on empirical evidence" (S & C, Pg. 1) as a part of that "quest for understanding" (S & C, Pg. 1) and finding "better explanations for the causes of natural phenomena" (S & C, Pg. 1), then it is likely that in disqualifying all potentially non-natural explanations from science, the NAS may have done a great disservice to the scientific community as a whole. Intelligent design theory is excluded on a technicality, but it may qualify as science in all other respects, and it may hold many of the answers which science is looking for.
What is the explanatory power of intelligent design theory?
Intelligent design theory is not just as a set of arguments against various natural explanations for the origin of life. The theory that an intelligent designer existed is based upon the inability of natural causes to explain the data, but also on our understanding of how intelligent agents operate, and how we can detect and infer their activity in the past. Given all possibilities, one could infer that undiscovered or new types of natural-mechanistic laws created life rather than the making the inference that life was designed. However given that our only other alternative is an undiscovered cause, Occam's Razor should lead to an intelligent designer as a logical inference. Intelligent design theory does appear to be falsifiable, however, as future investigations might always uncover natural laws which better explain the observed data.
Does intelligent design theory lack evidence or testability?
The S & C booklet claims that "molecular evolutionary data counter a recent proposition called 'intelligent design theory" (S & C, Pg. 21). There are at least three components of biology for which intelligent design theory disputes a purely natural origin and could use theories about intelligent design to contribute to explanation: (1) The nature of the information contained within the genetic code, (2) the origin of the first cell and replicating DNA system, and (3) irreducibly complex structures as a counterexample of Darwinian evolution.
1. The NAS booklet does not mention information theory and in no way attempts to mechanistically account for the existence of information as discrete entities within the cell. This existence of information within the cell is testable, and many scientific theories of information already exist. The ability of natural law to cause the existence of complex and specified information is in no way discussed, even though William Dembski had already formulated an intelligent design-hypothesis for the origin of such information in the cell before the booklet was released.
2. The NAS booklet does mention the origin of life (how the first replicating DNA system came into existence), namely the evolutionary path of the first cells and the chemical explanation for the emergence of the first replicating genetic code system. It asserts that:
The NAS claims that there are "many pathways [known that] might have been followed to produce the first cells," (S &C, p. 6). This claim is flatly false. No scientist has ever created a plausible pathway through which to create the first cell. Origins of life research Klaus Dose wrote in 1988:
In light of the overwhelming lack of evidential support for the purely natural origins of life, it seems that the NAS is clearly putting faith in the ability of science to undercover naturalistic answers. This faith exists despite countless unanswered problems related to the natural origins of life. The NAS veils the lack of evidence for and explanation of the origins of life with statements about philosophy and past achievements of science. The very presence of this blatantly dogmatic strong-arm tactic reveals their bluff: they have no explanations for the origins of life, but they don't want you to consider non-naturalistic hypotheses.
3. The NAS also attempts to provide evidence to counter the claim that irreducibly complex structures exist within the cell. It provides an analysis of irreducible complexity:
However, this term "simpler" means nothing. Even within each fish, the fact that the hemoglobin is "simpler" does not mandate that the system is not irreducibly complex. One has to assume that an evolutionary pathway took one system to the other. The actual data here is purely circumstantial--all we have observed is that that two systems are similar. If both systems are indeed irreducibly complex, then an account of how one system could turn into the other must be given.
The booklet gives a very vague explanation of how this evolution supposedly happens, claiming that, "[n]atural selection can bring together parts of a system for one function at one time, and then at a later time recombine those parts with other systems of components to produce a system that has a different function" (S & C, Pg. 22). Without assessing the complexity of the parent and daughter systems, this re-assembly scenario might very well be to be the same type of evolutionary jump which irreducible complexity claim is impossible. For evolutionists and the authors of S & C, the question they need to answer is not, "does irreducible complexity exist?" but rather "can natural selection spontaneously reassemble many already-existing components into new functions?" The heart of irreducible complexity is thus the problem of functional intermediates, and there are no discussions of how intermediates between these two irreducibly complex systems were functional. All we are told is that "natural selection" can do the job.
The only specifics of the alleged mechanism of how a re-assembly of pre-existing part can occur is that of blood clotting, where genes were supposedly amplified, duplicated, and altered in order to produce this entirely new system. However, when trying to evolve something, duplicating a gene is not going to help very much. After duplicating a gene, there is a new piece of genetic information to play around with, but what good is it? If complex systems need specific parts, what sort of evidence is there that these duplicated genes will be the part in need? Lynch and Conery found that the average gene duplicates about once every 100 million years7--exceedingly rare. These irreducibly complex structures are typically composed of many parts10, and duplicating one gene every 100 million years doesn't give a very good chance of getting the right parts to put together when they are needed.
Furthermore, it has been found that, "the vast majority of gene duplicates are silenced within a few million years, with the few survivors subsequently experiencing strong purifying selection"8. Another study showed that duplicated genes are not very free to mutate around at all, that there is strong selection pressure on them7. This supports the statement by Conery and Lynch that the actual mechanisms by which gene duplication contributes to evolution are not very well understood:
Again, nothing is said to account for the odds of these transformations happening naturally, or to ask if they can occur in a stepwise fashion (even after allowing for gene duplication, amplifications, and alterations). If it is true that blood clotting can be explained through step by stepwise events, then this needs to be detailed in the literature. In fact, it isn't. When one of the foremost experts on the alleged evolution of blood clotting spoke to refute Behe's work, the only explanation given was protein similarity leading to an inferred history of gene duplication11. The NAS needs to concretely prove that an organism could get the new function through step by step mutation where the organism could survive with each change and that little to no unused cellular components were being produced at each step (for this would be selected against).
Finally, the booklet discusses the various levels of complexity found in the eye. If less-complex eyes evolved into more-complex eyes, then the same logical fallacy is employed as in the hemoglobin example. Each eye, though having a different level of complexity, could still be irreducibly complex, or at least complex to the point of defying a step-by-step Darwinian origin. Evolution has to be assumed to assert that the structures are related to one another through descent with modification. Furthermore, if "eyes have evolved independently many times during the history of life on Earth" (S & C, Pg. 22), then it seems we have contingency, complexity, and specification for each instance of evolution. Perhaps we ought to infer design on each occasion. What are the odds that natural causes evolved the eye once, much less many alleged convergently similar times! Furthermore, the NAS completely leaves out a discussion of the testability of design, as laid out by William Dembski. Without the providing any non-circumstantial evidence or complete explanations to support their claim, the evolution of such irreducibly complex structures cannot be debated.
In closing, the existence of irreducibly complex structures is a very testable hypothesis. One could systematically make point mutations to alter each amino acid in every protein for an entire system and test whether any key point mutations allow the function to remain intact. While it is likely that many mutations would turn out to be neutral, further critical analysis could, however, determine if the system was truly part of an evolvable pathway. A irreducibly complex system would disallow an evolutionary cause and might very well bear the marks of design.
Is intelligent design a viable scientific theory?
The NAS admits that "[t]ruth in science is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow" (S & C, Pg .2) and also says that, "Scientists infer that atoms exist and Earth revolves around the sun because they have tested predictions derived from these concepts by extensive observation and experimentation." (S & C, pg. 21). In much the same way, intelligent design theory makes inferences based upon observations about the types of complexity that can be produced by the action of intelligent agents vs. the types of information that can be produced through purely natural processes to infer that life was designed by an intelligence. For science, these principles of explaining through inference apply to both intelligent design and mechanistic causes (i.e. natural selection).
The idea that life was in some way intelligently designed can be called a "theory." According to the NAS, a theory is "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses. Thus a theory is not necessarily the final explanation, but merely the best explanation given the data and its current understanding.
Intelligent design is a theory based upon our understanding of intelligence which incorporates scientific facts, laws, inferences, and testable hypotheses. Intelligent design relies upon observations about how intelligent agents act, the fact of the existence of the nature of information within the cell, laws such as those which govern chemical reactions, inferences that natural selection was not at work, and tested hypotheses such as failed mechanistic accounts for un-evolvable biochemical structures. Given the data, it is potentially a better theory than many currently reigning theories for the creation of new information, the origins of life, and the origin of life's complexity.
Does science's own self-definition exclude certain theories from investigation?
There is only one thing stopping the NAS from supporting a seemingly better course for science--its definition of science itself. The NAS defines science as a search for purely natural explanations for all phenomena. Under this definition, science is bound to oppose any theory of intelligent design, no matter how compelling the evidence. That is fine, but the NAS should admit that this definition is a philosophic choice, and a statement of faith that natural explanations indeed exist for all things, and indeed are true. In making this choice, the NAS prevents science from making "progress in science [which] consists of the development of better explanations for the causes of natural phenomena."
Is science living up to its truth-discovering claims? What can be done?
If the place of science is truly to pursue better explanations of the world through observation and experiment, then perhaps science ought to discard its original self-definition and follow where the evidence leads. It seems that science is holding on to this definition so that it can explore naturalistic causes regardless of the state of the evidence. If natural explanations do not come forth (and it appears in many cases they are not) and non-naturalistic theories provide a better explanation, then science has two choices:
1. It can change its own definition to one based solely off of empirical data, and permit the usage of a non-natural (i.e. intelligent) causes, or
2. It can retain its mandate to naturalism and completely lose its purely empirical basis, but admit that there appear to be no naturalistic answers to certain questions, and then continue operate under naturalism, handicapped with regards to the discovery of truth.
If science feels it requires its marriage with naturalism and believes that it must continue to search for natural (i.e. unintelligent) causes for the origins of life, then science must be willing to accept the consequences. It must even be willing to admit if the current state of evidence if it does not seem to point to any foreseeable answers. If science determines that natural (i.e. unintelligent) explanations are inadequate, it must say so honestly. Stagnant fields of science which are chained to naturalistic philisophy must thus be willing to accept any funding cuts to if they approach dead ends in their research into naturalistic theories. Furthermore, if this commitment to naturalistic causes remains, science could lose its power over public thought and education as people will left to think for themselves and come up with their own answers to certain "unanswerable" questions. Science will no longer be an objective authority on many questions.
The NAS wants to have its cake of naturalism and eat it too. It wants the ability to discover empirical truth, and naturalism (i.e. prove that all explanations can be reduced to unintelligent causes). Perhaps the NAS realizes that truth and naturalism don't necessarily go hand in hand, but it is over-committed to naturalism and feels there is no going back. Perhaps it realizes that naturalistic causes fail, but feel that if this is found out then science will lose the undivided attention of the government and the respect of the people. Is it possible that because the NAS (and much of science) is over-committed to naturalism and self-bound to finding natural explanations, that it is forcing itself to recommend policy which is not supported by evidence in an attempt to protect the naturalistic paradigm? Why else, then, does the NAS repeatedly emphasize the wonderful practical accomplishments of science in this century? What do these accomplishments have to do with the validity of intelligent design or purely natural cause? Is science attempting to assert authority it knows it doesn't have (and can't have unless it leaves naturalism behind)? Does science realize that it is impotent to provide the explanations it once hoped for? Is it is afraid to say, "We just don't know" in response to the big questions?
What is better for America: truth governed by naturalistic philosophy or the plain truth, whatever it may be? If the evidence and naturalistic philosophy are going in two different directions, let us hope that science will recognize this fact and make a decision which will allow science to discover truth with the same integrity, power, and prestige that it once had. The only choice is to redefine and accept design. If science does not do this, then the consequences for science could be disastrous.
Copyright © 2002 Casey Luskin. All rights reserved. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use.
Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences online