The Incredibly Strange Story of Intelligent Design
“Children in Ohio may be taught life was created by aliens under an education package designed to ditch Darwin’s Theory of evolution. The US state is considering adopting the “intelligent design” theory that life is too complex to have simply evolved – as the Darwin Theory suggests. Therefore says the package, life must have been designed by some supernatural being, maybe God, maybe aliens.”(Herald Sun, Columbus Ohio, March 2002)
Intelligent Design theory is a highly speculative philosophical argument, popular in recent years, which holds that rich diversity of species on the planet Earth is best understood as evidence of divine (or alien) intervention in terrestrial life.
In a nutshell, ID argues that the earth is too young, and life too complex for fish, animals and birds to have evolved through natural selection; instead, we must look for a supernatural cause.
Professional scientists object to ID theory on the grounds that it can’t be falsified, and so falls outside the domain of science; ID proponents have responded by taking their case directly to the public with a political campaign called “teach the controversy.”
Teach the Controversy
The “teach the controversy” campaign makes scientists (especially those who depend on public funding) nervous, and with good reason – the ultimate goal of the ID movement, as leading spokesmen frankly admit, is to discard the scientific method altogether and “win back” Western culture for the Biblical creator god.
What makes this situation so especially interesting is the fact that leading ID theorists have positioned themselves as intellectual “heretics” struggling against the gatekeepers of scientific “orthodoxy.”
Of course, the idea that ID could actually be taught alongside evolution in public schools has provoked an unprecedented tsunami of scorn from these same, self-appointed gatekeepers. “ID isn’t science!” they object. “If we teach ID, then why not teach students that the moon is made out of green cheese, or that storks deliver babies?”
Alternative Origins Theories
I would like to respectfully suggest that children’s stories like the ones I’ve just mentioned aren’t the best analogies for ID theory. A better example might be the Anthropic Principle (AP), a closely related line of speculative reasoning which holds that the universe itself is so complex and so improbable that it, too, requires special explanation. (We might also note that evangelical Christians are especially fond of AP in its “strong” form, which suggests that our universe was “fine-tuned” for life by a god-like being.)
Unfortunately for Christian culture warriors, neither of these remarkable notions ultimately supports the old-fashioned idea that life, the universe and everything represent the singular creations of a perfect, rational Supreme being. (In its totalizing singularity, the Genesis metanarrative differs little from the Big Bang and Darwinian evolution scenarios which comprise the “origins story” of the industrialized west).
Rather, ID theory and the anthropic principle – and especially their corollary mechanisms panspermia and simulation – seem to reveal the handiwork of multiple, incompetent creators who were themselves created by yet more incompetent creators in another universe, and so on, extending backwards in time and space to a point of infinite regress.
To put it bluntly: AP and ID do not somehow “prove” the case for the Bible; instead, they unavoidably and inevitably lead us back to a time and place even earlier and more primal than Genesis itself, back to the myths and theological speculations of the ancient Gnostic Christians.
Gnosticism : A Quick Introduction
What historians today call “Gnosticism” was once a broad and diverse movement within pre-Catholic Christianity – an anarchic assemblage of hundreds of different schools of mystical theology whose adherents proudly produced reams of elaborate, florid, and highly speculative re-interpretations of Biblical scripture.
While no one doctrine united all Gnostic Christians, they did hold certain beliefs in common; perhaps the most shocking of these was the idea that the Old Testament creator God Yahweh was actually the Demiurge, a monstrous deity born from the shadow of infinity who fled the divine world to build our universe in a misbegotten experiment.
This Demiurge, the story goes, created for himself assistants – bumbling fallen angels called “archons” – and these in turn created the Earth, humanity, and seven heavens which encase and enclose our planet like so many cosmic prison walls.
In a version of the myth popularized by second-century Gnostic theologian Basilides, the archons generated not just seven, but 365 heavenly realms in sequence, nested one inside the other like the rings of an electron – each successive layer just slightly more defective than the one which produced and preceded it, and all populated by arrogant creator gods completely unaware of those who came before them.
French heresy-hunter St. Irenaeus invokes these strange stories in an attempt to refute the idea that there is another heaven above heaven, and another god above “God”; for if gods produce gods who create heavens filed with yet more world-creating gods, then where does it all stop?
“…by that very process of reasoning on which they [Gnostic Christians] depend for teaching that there is a… God above the Creator of heaven and earth, any one who chooses to employ it may maintain that there is another [heaven] above [heaven and] above that again another… flowing out into… worlds without limits, and gods that cannot be numbered… so that the formation of heavens of this kind can never cease…the operation must go on ad infinitum…” ((Irenaeus. Against Heresies : Book II. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/irenaeus/advhaer2.txt))
The Eden Experiment
The Gnostic version of the Adam and Eve myth also differs radically from the Biblical one, presenting the Garden of Eden as a shabby laboratory where the “archons” built Adam from blurry blueprints, botching his brain and body almost beyond repair:
“The (first) human being… was a creation of angels [but was] unable to stand erect because of the angels’ impotence, and rather writhed on the ground like a worm….” ((“Satorninos.” The Gnostic Scriptures. Trans. Bentley Layton. Doubleday /Anchor, 1995. 161-62))
Even after the Eden fiasco, the archons continued to tamper with the human gene pool, raping Eve, drowning Adam’s descendants in a flood, and descending to the Earth to impregnate the survivors with half-human hybrids.
As we shall see, the ID and AP theories so beloved of contemporary apologists have far more in common with the open, flawed and multiple processes described here than with anything even remotely resembling the Biblical creation account; or, as one Gnostic scribe observed waggishly:
“For Adam was a laughingstock, since he was made a counterfeit type of man by the Rulers.” ((“The Second Treatise of the Great Seth.” The Nag Hammadi Library. Ed. James Robinson. HarperCollins, 1978. 363-71))
ID Theory Made Simple
The basic idea behind ID is that life and its component parts display something called “irreducible complexity.” This means that living systems (plants, animals, people) are so complicated that they could not possibly have arrived at their present forms through evolution – instead, new species must have been deliberately planned and introduced to the planet by some sort of godlike being.
Inanimate objects such as televisions, microwave ovens or wristwatches illustrate this principle
. If we can admit that these devices show evidence of planning and design, and are unlikely to have emerged from chance alone, then shouldn’t we admit the same of the human eye?
Like the watch, the eye seems so perfectly engineered that it’s difficult to imagine how it could have evolved in stages over time. Remove any one of its parts, ID theorists point out, and it would dim, blur, or even become completely useless.
Unfortunately, there are a few problems with this line of reasoning, at least from the Biblical perspective. For one thing, if organs and species are so complex that that they require an “intelligent designer,” then wouldn’t this “designer”, too, be at least as complex as its creations, and so require a designer of its own? And wouldn’t that intelligent designer also require a designer, and so too its designer, etc. ad infinitum?
A second problem with the “eye” example is the fact that the human retina to tends to detach from the optic nerve over time, leading to blindness; if this is evidence of “Intelligent Design,” then our “Intelligent Designer” is clumsy at best and malicious at worst.
Other widely remarked-upon flaws ((Pigliucci, Massimo. “Design Yes, Intelligent No: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory and Neo-Creationism.” Infidels.org, 2000. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/features/2000/pigliucci1.html)) in the design of the human body include:
- high placement of the larynx, facilitating choking
- thin spinal discs between the vertebrae which degenerate under pressure, causing crippling back pain
- a small pelvis which make childbirth difficult and often fatal for women
- a weak, vulnerable stomach unprotected by ribs
Of course, evidence of sub-optimal design in itself does not prove that “Intelligent Design” did not occur; it may instead demonstrate the purposeful engineering of planned obsolescence.
Paging Dr. Frankenstein
Or it may be that these seeming flaws are part of the Intelligent Designer’s secret plan to give humans the opportunity to improve themselves. Consider the German artist Gunther von Hagens’ plan to build a “super-human” using the donated body parts of terminally ill patients. Why and how?
“The programme aims to identify and correct the significant design flaws in human anatomy. The body will be modified by Professor von Hagens and leading biologists, surgeons and mechanical engineers into an “improved” human form. Ideas already put forward include:
- increase the number of ribs to protect internal organs better
- create backward-bending knees to lessen wear on joints
- rearrange the trachea and oesophagus to stop food going down the windpipe by mistake
- double heart or reconstruction of the coronary arteries
- make a retractable penis”
Professor von Hagens claims that his Protean monster will “pave the way for a more healthy, capable and longer-living body. What we do with a real human body today will show what we can achieve in the future using genetic engineering.” ((“Professor Gunther Von Hagens’ Body Worlds.” London Press Release. 2 March, 2003. http://www.bodyworlds.com/en/pages/Pressemeldungen%20London.asp))
Multiple Designers Theory
Von Hagens’ team of assistants illustrate another unstated premise of popular ID theory, to wit: why do ID proponents always seem to assume that there was only one designer?
If evolution fails as an explanation for the rich diversity of species on the planet Earth, then why not posit a rich diversity of designers?
Science writer Richard Hoppe finds such a scenario not only possible but likely, noting that:
“…Some of the most impressive and elaborate designs in biology appear to have as their primary purpose the defeat or subversion of other designs. Designs engage in various kinds of biological arms races with one another. Some examples are:
- Predator/prey arms races.
- Parasite/host arms races.
- Male/female arms races.
- Disease-causing bacteria/drug companies arms races.
Each of these is an example of design pitted against design, directly implicating multiple designers.” ((Hoppe, Richard B. “Introduction to Multiple Designers Theory.” Panda’s Thumb. 11:55 PM 23 Sept., 2004. http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000509.html))
In fact, scientists have long known that the human body hosts a wide variety of foreign flora and fauna; as a recent WIRED News story entitled “People Are Human-Bacteria Hybrid” notes:
“We are best viewed as walking “superorganisms,” highly complex conglomerations of human cells, bacteria, fungi and viruses… More than 500 different species of bacteria exist in our bodies, making up more than 100 trillion cells. Because our bodies are made of only some several trillion human cells, we are somewhat outnumbered by the aliens. It follows that most of the genes in our bodies are from bacteria, too.” ((Hooper, Rowan. “People Are Human-Bacteria Hybrid.” Wired News. 2:00 AM, 11 Oct, 2004. http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/news/2004/10/65252))
Design by Committee
“Which came first, the intestine or the tapeworm?” W.S. Burroughs once asked.
If Hoppe’s “Multiple Intelligent Designers” theory is correct, the tapeworm, the intestine, mitochondria, bacteria, fungi and perhaps even the human brain and body were produced by completely separate beings – limited and imperfect creators with varying levels of skill competing against one another for ecological dominance.
Aliens Among Us
ID theory continues to excite evangelical Christians, but there are even more signs that their enthusiasm may be misplaced, and for reasons much more serious than built-in flaws or design by committee.
In short, if they accept this “Intelligent Designer,” then what guarantee do they have that it (or they) will be gods at all?
Leading ID theorist Bill Dembski (of Baylor University) isn’t exactly sure; according to a recent article in the American Spectator:
“The intelligent design that Dembski hopes to detect could belong either to a Biblical God or to an earlier race of Martians who planted us here (like in the movie Mission to Mars).”
The idea that the earth was deliberately “seeded” with life by extraterrestrial scientists “may seem pretty far out,” the article concedes. “But Francis Crick, winner of the Nobel Prize for his co-discovery of DNA’s structure, is one of a number of scientists who have seriously promoted the ‘panspermia’ hypothesis…” ((Heeren, Fred. “The Lynching of Bill Dembski.” The American Spectator. Nov. 2000. http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&program=CSCStories&id=532))
The ancient gnostics were vitalists, holding that all life springs from a single, unseen animating principle; the Gnostic teacher Basilides referred to this original life source as the “universal seed,” or “panspermia.”
Today, scientists use the term “panspermia” to describe the theory that life is not native to the Earth, but was instead brought here by an alien spore or virus. Part of the appeal of this idea lies in the fact is that doesn’t try to answer how life first emerged from non-living matter; given our vast – perhaps infinite – universe, the most likely scenario is that life first emerged somewhere else and then “infected” our relatively youthful planet only recently.
Numerous vehicles for this “infection” have been proposed, from meteorites and sunbeams to interstellar clouds; perhaps the most distasteful was suggested by Thomas Gold of Cornell University, who famously wondered if the Earth life began when our planet was contaminated with microbes from the discarded remnants of an extraterrestrial picnic!
Francis Crick (the co-discoverer of DNA) agreed with the basic premised of panspermia – the idea that the Earth was probably “infected” with life – but wondered at the mechanism; wasn’t the passive spread of life from planet to planet by natural, accidental causes almost as unlikely as abiogenesis (the spontaneous production of life from non-living matter – the conventional scientific explanation)?
Isn’t it much more likely that an extraterrestrial civilization seeded our planet with life deliberately?
Terming his model Directed Panspermia, Crick suggested that a “spaceship” carrying “large samples of… microorganisms” was sent to the Earth billions of years ago by an extraterrestrial civilization – either as an experiment, preparation for colonization or a genetic Noah’s Ark of some sort. ((Crick, F. H. C., and Orgel, L. E. “Directed Panspermia.” Icarus, 19, 1973. 341.))
Or, as Fortean researchers Alan and Sally Landsburg put it:
“The DNA molecule is a marvel of microminiaturization. All of the DNA in every cell of every living creature on Earth could be packed into one container no bigger than a pea. Thus it could be possible to ship to distant planets the distilled essence of entire colonies, stored in tiny packets. The DNA molecules need be activated only at the appropriate moment, thereby providing enormous savings both in shipping weight and in cost.” ((Landsburg, Alan et al. The Outer Space Connection. Bantam, 1975. 17.))
Sir Frederick Hoyle (the British astronomer who coined the term “Big Bang”) and his student Chandra Wickramasinghe have proposed an even stranger version of the “Directed Panspermia” model; in the Hoyle/Wickramasinghe view, life originated with (and continues to evolve from) showers of viruses from outer space:
“…life on Earth is derived from what appears to be an all pervasive galaxy-wide living system. Terrestrial life had its origins in the gas and dust clouds of space, which later became incorporated in and amplified within comets. Life was derived from and continues to be driven by sources outside the Earth…” ((Wickramasinghe, Chandra. “McLean v Arkansas Board of Education.” 1981. http://www.panspermia.org/chandra.htm))
What makes the Hoyle/Wickramasinghe model so remarkable is that it seeks to replace random genetic variation as a primary evolutionary mechanism; according to Wickramasinghe, “every crucial new inheritable property” that occurs in the animal kingdom “must have an external cosmic origin.”
“Viruses, although often bad for the individual, are in the view of Sir Fred Hoyle and myself of paramount importance to the evolution for species on our planet. They carry with them the store of cosmic genetic information needed for the generation of new species, classes and orders, and for the progressive forward march of life…” ((Wickramasinghe, Chandra. “McLean v Arkansas Board of Education.” 1981. http://www.panspermia.org/chandra.htm))
If the Earth were sealed off from all sources of external genes: bugs could replicate till doomsday,” Wickramasinghe writes, “but they would still only be bugs: and monkey colonies would also reproduce but only to produce more monkeys. The Earth would be a dull place indeed…” ((Latters-day beatniks might also note that an extremely similar theory is advanced in the seminal William S. Burroughs science fiction tale “The Soft Machine.”))
In other words, not only did aliens first infect the earth with life, but they also make evolution possible by supplying terrestrial species with new genetic material for natural selection to act upon!
Sir Hoyle didn’t believe that these viruses fell by chance; instead life itself was the result of an alien experiment:
“The likelihood of the formation of life from inanimate matter is one to a number with 40,000 naughts after is… It is big enough to bury Darwin and the whole theory of evolution. There was no primeval soup, neither on this planet nor any other, and if the beginnings of life were not random, they must therefore have been the product of purposeful intelligence.” ((Majors, Lee Elliot. “Big enough to bury Darwin: Lee Elliot Major looks at the theories that secured Sir Fred Hoyle’s reputation as one of the 20th century’s leading scientists.” The Guardian. Thursday, 23 August, 2001. http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/physicalscience/story/0,9836,541468,00.html))
Sir Hoyle seems to have betrayed at least some misgivings about the implications of these ideas, warning in a 1971 press conference that:
“Human beings are simply pawns in the game of alien minds that control our every move. They are everywhere, in the sky, on the sea, and in the Earth… It is not an alien intelligence from another planet. It is actually from another universe which entered ours at the very beginning and has been controlling all that has happened since…” ((Marrs, Jim. Alien Agenda. Perennial, 2000. 355.))
Caveats and Paradoxes
For all its strengths, the panspermia hypothesis still does not actually tell us how or where life first arose, instead shuffling this question off to a distant realm of mystery and paradox into which we cannot hope to peer. As one Christian critic wonders:
“..If for the sake of argument we grant that life on Earth was seeded by ancient extraterrestrials, then the obvious question is , Who or what created our extraterrestrials creators? Some would argue that they were, in turn sprinkled (created) by an even more ancient race of ET’s. Well, where did they come from? An infinite regression back in time of “alien sprinklings”…[?]” ((Missler, Chuck and Mark Eastman. Alien Encounters. Koinonia House Inc. 1997. 141.))
Since ID doesn’t distinguish between gods and extraterrestrials, and the activities of gods are by definition something that can’t be tested or measured, we are left with very few options to consider.
Perhaps human beings were designed by multiple, incompetent creator gods (or one expert mischievously posing as a family of blunderers) – but if so, human scientists will never be able to prove this supernatural creator(s) existence.
Sadly, the metaphysical status of ghosts, spirits, gods and other supernatural beings means that they will always be compelled to hover just beyond the explanatory grasp of human science.
On the other hand, scientists still can’t produce any evidence for the existence of (presumably physical and biological) extraterrestrial entities despite over 50 years of investigation – so until they do, the only way we can even hope to learn whether panspermia (and thus ID) might explain our own existence is by attempting to replicate the experiment ourselves.
To wit: if human scientists ever succeed (either deliberately or accidentally) in “infecting” another planet with terrestrial bacteria or viruses, or in genetically engineering an entirely new species and introducing it to the wild, then ID will stand validated and our own role and history on this planet will suddenly come into sharp focus.
Or, as one supposed alien “contactee” observes:
“[We] exist only as the legitimate outcome of the forces that we express. [Even] if we are the genetic experiment of a scientifically advanced race, the experiment can only be a manipulation of existing lifeforms; it does not include the invention of our whole existence.
Our genes can be synthesised, or rearranged; the biological frame of life can be altered, but biology itself cannot be invented out of nothing by something that is itself an evolutionary product of the universe.” ((Thompson, Keith. Angels and Aliens. Ballantine Books, 1993. 235.))