Real scientists can spice up design theory

The horn-rimmed thinkers of this nation are again at odds with the hooded hordes. Evolution is under attack by an energetic fundamentalist right, and these pages are scorched from impassioned sparring over Evolution Sunday. In the face of it all, scientists stubbornly cling to reason: We reject creationism as pseudoscience, and in so doing miss out on countless facile rationalizations and opportunities for intellectual languor. God is not happy.

In the name of all that is good and wholly illogical, scientists must embrace Intelligent Design.

This may seem a tough sell: Intelligent Design is anathema to scientists. Last year, 38 Nobel laureates issued a statement calling the theory “fundamentally unscientific.” It has been flatly rejected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, representing some 120,000 U.S. researchers, and it has been widely panned by virtually every scientific society in existence. The solution, however, is straightforward: If you encounter one of these people, calmly remind them that these views are worth a free drink in hell.

Clearly, I jest. Hell is a religious construction, and Intelligent Design carefully avoids identifying with a specific faith. In reality, naysayers will be relegated to some nondenominational anti-scientific underworld; a land where hypotheses cannot be tested, theories cannot be falsified and data cannot be reproduced. (The usual name for this place is “The Discovery Institute.”)

Let’s consider the theory. By positing a purposeful creator, Intelligent Design elegantly explains the most complex and exquisite structures in nature. Rest assured, this concept can be made palatable to scientists. We must simply fiddle a bit, and address a few glaring concerns.

The most obvious problem with Intelligent Design is that the configuration of many natural organisms is in fact quite haphazard. Scientists know this. This is because they study nature directly, as opposed to hearing about it in church.

I’d wager most scientists believe the earth was created by a supernatural and mystical being; they just recognize that this being was not, on balance, very smart. Sure, it occasionally displayed intelligence, but mostly it just played games and loafed. Scientists are familiar with this behavior, as they were once college students themselves.

Calling all design “intelligent” is thus too restrictive. To satisfy the empiricists, we shall include four new classes of design.

First, “Bling Design” accounts for those species that mount wanton displays of conspicuous consumption. Peacocks, for instance, sport the phenotypic equivalent of 26-inch spinners with diamond trim. While few would label this an intelligent use of resources, it makes perfect sense if the creator was Thorstein Veblen GRD 1884, or Biggie Smalls.

Next, “Lowest-Bidder Design” produces creatures obviously streamlined in the name of efficiency. Writhing around on one’s belly is not easily described as an intelligent configuration; but as a testament to seventh-day cutbacks, the snake is exquisite in its economy of resources. It bears mention that such design is familiar to contractors and largely unheard of in government.

“Condemned Design” explains those species clearly destined for failure. Dodo birds, woolly mammoths and giant flying reptiles are illustrative examples. Lemmings and Harvard men might safely be included here as well.

The final addition, “Prank Design,” covers instances in which organisms are created so they appear to have evolved. An utterly overwhelming majority of natural life falls into this category. The scientific community will cheer this addendum to the design hypothesis. The secret truth is that scientists never really liked Darwin. Evolution was a suboptimal stop-gap, tolerated only until a suitable creationist explanation could be found.

Of course, not every creature can be explained by a single design approach.

Sometimes, combinations are seen. The duckbill platypus, for instance, is a typical example of design by committee.

Having enhanced its ability to explain life on Earth, we now turn to the central logic of Intelligent Design.

A classic complaint is that ID invites tautological question-begging: That is, if life was created by a supernatural being, who designed the designer? This quickly leads to an iterative regression, a logical fallacy which scientists cruelly exploit to discredit the entire theory. Such nit-picking is childish. Clearly the answer is to posit two designers, each of whom created the other. This catch-22 should occupy scientists for many years.

Another problem: Scientists are grossly obsessed with parsimony, the principle of “Occam’s Razor.” This means they insist on selecting the simplest possible explanation for everything. Doing so leads to less work for them. What they do not realize is that invoking a designer means even less work still, since any conceivable question can now be answered with one reply. As a result, creationist researchers have shorter workdays, longer lunch breaks, and between 30 and 40 weeks of vacation per year. Framed in this way, the theory largely sells itself.

Church-science strife is so Renaissance, and by Renaissance I mean barbaric and passe. Scientists, let’s lose the gung-ho work ethic and quench our piddling curiosity about the natural world. It’s time to embrace a more sophisticated view: one where complicated systems are instinctively deemed “irreducibly complex” and avoided in favor of simpler problems, or a round of mini-putt.

In seriousness, I do think scientists should seize Intelligent Design and revise it heavily. That way, even if all life isn’t the work of intelligent beings — well, at least the theory will be.

Michael Seringhaus is a sixth-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.