Term Paper: Natural Selection and Intelligent Design

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Intelligent Design

When Charles Darwin made his trip to the Galapagos Islands and wrote on the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, other theories had already been suggested to explain the variation in life forms. About 100 years before Darwin was born, English theologian William Paley introduced the now memorable watchmaker analogy. If a pocket watch is found in a field, Paley wrote in 1802, it is immediately inferred that it was produced not by natural processes but rather by a designing human intellect. Likewise, he reasoned, the natural world contains abundant evidence of a supernatural creator. This became the theory of intelligent design (ID) (Zimmer 12). It differed from fundamentalist creationism, because it accepted that some species do change, although not by much, and that the Earth is much older than 6,000 years. They also avoid the word God unlike the creationists. Further, the ID movement rarely takes any theological stance. In attempting to make their case, ID advocates have focused on two critical questions: (1) Is science, in principle, able to detect evidence of design in nature? And (2) Is there, in fact, any such evidence of genuine design in nature and in the biological world in particular?

Despite the fact that natural selection has been the prevailing theory since the 1800s, over the last decade or so, an increasing number of scientists in microbiology and mathematics, lawyers, philosophers, theologians and teachers, are once again strongly supporting intelligent design. This group of followers also wants equal billing -- having the ID concept included in the science curriculum of schools. In fact, some school districts are already seriously considering this argument.

The Darwinian theory of evolution states that one of the prime motives for all species is to reproduce and survive, passing on the genetic information of the species from one generation to the next. Species, however, tend to produce more offspring than the environment can support. The resources required to nourish these individuals puts pressure on the size of the species population, which leads to increased competition Some organisms will not survive. The organisms that are better suited to their environment, or exhibit more desirable characteristics, have a better chance of survival. This is referred to as "survival of the fittest" (Mayr 118)

This survival of the better suited organisms led Darwin to conclude that these organisms had evolved over time, allowing those species with more desirable characteristics to surve and pass on their genes to future generations. Since environments change, and thus require different characteristics, different organisms will be successful in different ecological niches (ibid).

Scientists who believe in intelligent design offer varying rationale to refute the natural selection theory depending on their areas of expertise. For example, a book called

The Design Inference (1998) by mathematical philosopher William Dembski, argues that modern science no longer regards two of Aristotle's four types of causes -- formal and final -- thereby restricting its own explanatory position. Science is incomplete without joining forces with the ID theory. Aristotle identified material causes, what something is made of; formal causes, the structure of the thing or phenomenon; efficient causes, the immediate activity producing a phenomenon or object; and final causes, the purpose of whatever object investigated.

Dembski also asserts that three essential types of phenomena exist in nature: regular, random and designed (intelligent). A regular phenomenon is a simple repetition explainable by the fundamental laws of physics, for example the rotation of Earth around the sun. Random phenomena are exemplified by the tossing of a coin. Design enters any time two criteria are satisfied: complexity and specification.

The problem with this rationale, states Darwinian supporters, is that natural selection also fulfills the complexity-specification criterion, thereby demonstrating it is possible to have unintelligent design in nature. Living organisms are indeed complex. They are also specifiable -- not random collections of organic compounds -- but clearly formed in a way that enhances their chances of surviving and reproducing in a changing environment (Edis).

ID supporter Michael J. Behe adds to this debate through his field of molecular science. When Darwin developed the theory of natural selection, the make up of cells was unknown. Behe thus questions: Can Darwinian natural selection account for the complexity existing at the molecular level? Even Darwin acknowledged, "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down" (Zimmer 331)

Behe also argues that irreducibly complex systems formed by successive modifications, such as cell organelles, do not seem very likely to be produced by numerous, successive, minor modifications of prior systems, because any predecessor missing a crucial part could not function. "Natural selection can only choose among systems that are already working," he says, "so the existence in nature of irreducibly complex biological systems poses a powerful challenge to Darwinian Theory." He adds that biochemistry research describes the workings of some of the living molecular entities in human cells, but they provide insignificant information about how these systems supposedly evolved by natural selection (ibid).

Biology professor H. Allen Orr, who stands on the other side of the fence, responds that Bahe is concluding that no Darwinian solution remains. Yet, one does: An irreducibly complex system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, become essential because of later changes.

Another it cohort, Jonathan Wells, points to the Galapagos finches to demonstrate that Darwin's theory cannot account for all features of living things. The finches primarily differ in beak size and shape, depending on what the birds eat. This suggests that the various species might have descended from a common ancestor by adaptation to different foods through natural selection. In the 1970s, biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant went to the Galapagos to record this process. When droughts came, 85% of the finches died out because their beaks could not break the larger surviving seeds. Yet, when the rains came back, so did the finches with the smaller beaks. No new species emerged. Wells states: Darwin's finches show that natural selection can modify existing features, but only within established species. Domestic plant and animal breeders have been doing the same thing with artificial selection for centuries. But where is the evidence that selection produces new features in new species (159)?"

Opponents respond to Wells by noting that the finch data indeed illustrate natural selection: populations alter their physical features in response to changes in the environment. The finch studies clearly documented how the physical features of an organism can affect its success in reproduction and survival, and that such changes can take place more quickly than was realized. That new species did not arise within the duration of the study does not challenge evolution.

Taner Edis, an assistant professor of physics at Truman State University, says that even though those supporting natural selection see ID as another form of creationism, do not see any value in the group's theories and would like the whole "pseudo science" to disappear, there may be some relevance and reason to not yet completely sign off.

What, then, are we to make of ID? Edis questions. It now seems like a bad argument, consisting of pointless complaints against evolution on one hand, and flawed intuitions about information and intelligence on the other.

Discarding ID, however, would be hasty. Important theories about the world convince us by ruling out serious alternatives. Historically, evolution took shape against then-compelling notions of design. ID may be wrong, but it is also a decent update of Paley with a real intellectual appeal. Its errors provide a useful contrast, highlighting what is correct in evolution.

Ernst Mayr of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, often called the Darwin of the 20th Century, stresses that evolution has had its detractors since it was first suggested. "It continues to be attacked and criticized" (268) and, most likely due to the ever questioning and searching human, it will probably continually be critiqued unless evidence so profound for one theory over another comes to fruition. Disagreement, especially of a spiritual nature is human nature.

Robert Pennock, assistant professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey, concludes that this controversy as any philosophical debate is healthy. "Science is neither God nor devil, but profoundly human. It is not infallible. It cannot answer every question. It reveals nothing of supernatural realms. It is simply the best method that we evolved, natural creatures have yet discovered for finding our way around this natural world."

THE CASE for INTELLIGENT DESIGN

Intelligent Design is nothing new and controversial. In fact, it is as old as humankind itself. It is based on the fact that the world looks very much as if it were the result of an intelligent cause. That was certainly the conclusion of many Greek philosophers. One of the earliest, Anaxagoras, concluded in the fifth century B.C. that "Mind set in order... all that ever was... And all that is now or ever… [END OF PREVIEW]

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