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End of the Road for the Intelligent Design Debate?

Photo credit: Brave Heart, via Flickr (cropped).

This past June, the Center for Science & Culture hosted the Conference on Engineering in Living Systems (CELS). The presenters demonstrated how applying engineering principles and tools to biological research yields profound insights into the operations of living systems and the logic behind their design. This content was fully anticipated by the attendees. The presentation that came as somewhat of a surprise showcased the extent to which the subdiscipline of systems biology has for the last few decades often operated within what is almost indistinguishable from a fully design-based framework. Much of the research within the field has effectively replaced evolutionary assumptions with design-based assumptions, language, and tools of investigation. This scientific revolution, which has only just begun, raises the question of whether the debate over intelligent design has come to an end. 

Changing Assumptions

At a philosophical level, the answer to this question is clearly no. The proponents of scientific materialism still maintain a stranglehold over researchers, so those who openly question the official orthodoxy face the constant threat of secular inquisitors undermining their reputations and careers. In addition, official media outlets and educational institutions continue to feed the public a steady diet of disinformation directed against anyone who speaks honestly about the clear evidence for design in biology. And any material put out by design proponents is immediately met by critics who consistently misrepresent the material’s content and the related science to undermine the authors’ credibility. This practice was well demonstrated by a recent critique of Stephen Meyer’s latest book (herehereherehere). 

The Tide Shifts

Yet, at a practical level, the tide of the debate appears to be decisively shifting. A review of the journal articles generated by systems biologists reveals how design assumptions increasingly dominate research into the higher-level organization of life. Part and parcel with this trend has been the replacement of the materialist presumptions undergirding biology for the last century with design-based premises:

  • Scientists and philosophers of science no longer reject the view that teleology (aka purpose/design) has any place in research. Instead, they explicitly recognize that exploring the purpose of living systems is central to their understanding. 
  • Biological systems are no longer often assumed to represent suboptimal design or vestigial remnants of their evolutionary history. Instead, researchers increasingly recognize that assuming optimal design leads to accurate predictions. 
  • Biologists no longer assume that biology only marginally resembles human engineering. Many now recognize that the most advanced and effective engineering motifs implemented in human technology are prevalent in life. 

Demise of Reductionism

This transformation in thinking reflects how the philosophical foundation of scientific materialism that has defined science is eroding in the face of the most recent biological data. The traditional approaches implemented in biological research were founded on reductionism — the belief that studying the physical and chemical interactions between biological molecules should eventually lead to an understanding of life’s higher-level operations and organization. This assumption was central to evolutionary thinking since natural selection can typically only operate on single changes to DNA, resulting in alterations of individual proteins or discrete tweaks to biological structures and processes. No evolutionary mechanism can engineer multiple components to seamlessly integrate in such a way as to achieve an overarching goal. 

More commonly today, systems biologists reject this reductionist approach since it has failed to yield any significant understanding of the complex organization of organisms. Instead, they have learned that they must look at life as a collection of integrated systems composed of integrated components where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (aka holism). In other words, Michael Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity has implicitly become a central tenant of the field. Researchers would rarely use such language or acknowledge the implications, but this conclusion is unmistakable. 

Virologist Derek Gatherer comments

The broadening of molecular biology into systems biology has created a situation where researchers have a vague inkling that their underlying philosophy is in need of refurbishment, and holism appears to offer much of what is wanted.

Similarly, philosopher of science Michel Morange describes critiques of the traditional approach to biology in his provocatively titled article “The Death of Molecular Biology?” He asks,

[D]oes it mean that molecular biology is dead, and has been displaced by new emerging disciplines such as systems biology and synthetic biology? Maybe its reductionist approach to living phenomena has been substituted by one that is more holistic…Some even consider the age of molecular biology as having been a period of extreme misorientation of biological research, an error that it is high time to repair.

Explicit Design Language 

Many systems biologists have replaced reductionist approaches with design-based methodologies. Science philosopher P. A. Braillard comments,

More and more scientists are claiming that systems biology constitutes a fundamental change or even a revolution in the life sciences…. Although some aspects of systems biology fit the mechanistic framework, explanations used by working scientists do not always correspond to the traditional definitions of mechanistic explanations provided by philosophers. … I refer to this kind of explanation as design explanation.

Philosophers and complexity theorists Pam Mantri and John Thomas are equally candid about both the need for and the resistance against this trend, 

Unfortunately, research in the world of modern biology is currently divorced from that of design-theory. Yet each discipline could benefit from studying the other. From a design perspective (and subject to environment/precedent constraints), form seems to be following function (e.g., the elbow joint of the fore-arm for bringing food to the mouth). The fundamental problem associated with design in biology, is that of agency. … In this paper, we try to bridge the seemingly insurmountable gap between design-theory and biological “designs,” without getting derailed by “intelligent design” polemics. 

Mantri and Thomas desperately attempt to reframe “design-theory” within the confines of evolutionary assumptions, but their efforts amount to little more than invoking such phrases as “stigmergic teleology” and “emergence” without providing any substantive details of what such concepts would look like in an actual evolutionary scenario. 

Given this trend in the increasingly explicit use of design language, a key question is how long biologists wedded to scientific materialism can argue that life looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, but it is actually a cat.