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Theory in Crisis? Redefining Science

Jonathan Wells
David Klinghoffer
Photo: A flightless cormorant, endemic to the Galápagos Islands, by putneymark / CC BY-SA.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a new series by biologist Jonathan Wells asking, “Is Darwinism a Theory in Crisis?” This is the second post in the series, which is adapted from the recent book, The Comprehensive Guide to Science and FaithFind the full series here.

In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn noted that scientific revolutions are often marked by disputes over the “standard that distinguishes a real scientific solution from a mere metaphysical speculation.” Newton’s theory of gravity was resisted because “gravity, interpreted as an innate attraction between every pair of particles of matter, was an occult quality” like the medieval “tendency to fall.” Critics of Newtonianism claimed that it was not science and “its reliance upon innate forces would return science to the Dark Ages.”1

Centuries later, some scientists claimed that the big bang was not science. In 1938, German physicist Carl F. von Weizsäcker gave a lecture in which he referred to the relatively new idea that our universe had originated in a big bang. Renowned physical chemist Walther Nernst, who was in the audience, became very angry. Weizsäcker later wrote: 

He said, the view that there might be an age of the universe was not science. At first I did not understand him. He explained that the infinite duration of time was a basic element of all scientific thought, and to deny this would mean to betray the very foundations of science. I was quite surprised by this idea and I ventured the objection that it was scientific to form hypotheses according to the hints given by experience, and that the idea of an age of the universe was such a hypothesis. He retorted that we could not form a scientific hypothesis which contradicted the very foundations of science.

Weizsäcker concluded that Nernst’s reaction revealed “a deeply irrational” conviction that “the world had taken the place of God, and it was blasphemy to deny it God’s attributes.”2

Is Intelligent Design Science?

Similarly, intelligent design has been criticized for not being science. In 2004, American Society for Cell Biology president Harvey Lodish wrote that intelligent design is “not science” because “the ideas that form the basis” of it “have never been tested by any scientific peer-scrutiny or peer-review.”3 In 2005, the American Astronomical Society declared, “Intelligent Design fails to meet the basic definition of a scientific idea: its proponents do not present testable hypotheses and do not provide evidence for their views.”4 And the Biophysical Society adopted a policy stating, “What distinguishes scientific theories” from intelligent design “is the scientific method, which is driven by observations and deductions.” Since intelligent design is “not based on the scientific method,” it is “not in the realm of science.”5

The claims about evidence and peer review in the statements quoted above are false. Nevertheless, the statements illustrate that critics of intelligent design, like the critics of Newtonianism and the big bang, claim that the new paradigm does not qualify as science.

Some pro-Darwin writers have argued that intelligent design is even anti-science. In 2006, philosopher Niall Shanks wrote that “a culture war is currently being waged in the United States by religious extremists who hope to turn the clock of science back to medieval times.” The “chief weapon in this war is…intelligent design theory.”6 In 2008, biologist and textbook writer Kenneth Miller claimed that “to the ID movement the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, which gave rise to science as we know it, is the true enemy.” If intelligent design prevails, he wrote, “the modern age will be brought to an end.” For Miller, what is at stake “is nothing less than America’s scientific soul.”6

A Different Definition of Science

It’s true that intelligent design operates with a definition of science that differs from the definition used by pro-Darwin scientists. For the latter, science is the enterprise of seeking natural explanations for everything. Only material objects and the forces among them are real; entities such as a nonhuman mind (which would have to be the source of any intelligent design in nature) are unreal. In Darwinian science, any evidence that seems to suggest intelligent design is ignored or ruled out. In 1999, a biologist wrote in Nature that “even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such an hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.”7 But in an intelligent design paradigm, science seeks to follow the evidence wherever it leads. According to Kuhn, disputes such as this over the nature of science are common in scientific revolutions.

Next, “Theory in Crisis? Dissatisfaction and the Proliferation of New Articulations.”

Notes

  1. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed., 103-105, 163.
  2. Carl F. von Weizsäcker, The Relevance of Science (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 151-153.
  3. Letter from Harvey F. Lodish to Ohio Governor Bob Taft (February 24, 2004). https://www.newswise.com/articles/ascb-president-says-creationism-does-not-belong-in-ohios-classrooms (accessed August 22, 2020).
  4. Statement on the Teaching of Evolution, American Astronomical Society (September 20, 2005). https://aas.org/press/aas-supports-teaching-evolution (accessed August 22, 2020).
  5. Statement on Teaching Alternatives to Evolution, Biophysical Society (November 2005). https://www.biophysics.org/policy-advocacy/stay-informed/policy-issues/evolution-1 (accessed August 22, 2020).
  6. Niall Shanks, God, the Devil, and Darwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), xi–xii.
  7. Kenneth R. Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (New York: Viking Press, 2008), 16, 190-191.
  8. Scott Todd, “A view from Kansas on that evolution debate,” Nature 401 (1999), 423.