I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to “arguments from design.” While the current war between science and creationism may seem entirely new, it is anything but, and older books can give us some fascinating (and wise) insights into why intelligent design fails. If you’ve been following my writing over the past week, you’re aware that I’ve been reading George Gaylord Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution, and while the science is a bit dated his overall ideas involving evolution are surprisingly progressive. In the chapter “Racial Life and Death,” Simpson ponders extinction and why so many “races” of organisms die off while others live on with little change for hundreds of millions of years (i.e. Radiolarians). The fact that species (and entire higher taxonomic groups) can become extinct in itself seems to threaten the concept of a benevolent designer, and Simpson has the following to say on the subject;
This view of extinction [that organisms go extinct when they are no longer ably adapted to their environment] needs further examination and particularization, but first it may be desirable to take brief notice of some opposing views. One of these views is that extinction is caused, sometimes or normally by the continuation of an inherent trend which is not necessarily adaptive in nature or orientation. This possibility has already been considered in previous discussion of oriented evolution, with the conclusion that there is no strong evidence that such a thing ever did occur. It may be noted in passing that this view (and also the next to be considered) is most commonly held by those whose philosophy of evolution is vitalist, finalist, or both. I cannot help finding it very strange that anyone should think that an entelechy or vital urge should orient life toward death, or that the supernal plan followed by lfie has death as its goal. If-the finalist reply-these are only side lines that missed the goal, is it not impious to impute such fumbling to the Planner?
If we are to accept that life is somehow designed, regardless of what paradigm such a belief goes under, then at least three things are being implied. A) There agency that designed life had the power and opportunity to do so, B) The designer (being capable of designing something by definition) inherently posses some level of intelligence, and C) The designer had some sort of purpose in interfering/creating/designing life, whether it be “I just felt like it” or for some grander plan (unless you’re going to argue that we were sneezed out by the Great Green Arkleseizure). Hence, we have the capacity to design, the intelligence to design, and the intent to design (if there’s no purposeful intent, then it’s an accident and not design). Many people ascribe such a job to the Judeo-Christian God, an infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful creator who is trying to teach us a lesson. At minimum, however, we have a potentially incompetant god or one that is not infinite in knowledge, and the results of its grand experiment resembled what Simpson refers to as “fumbling” more than anything good. It is also important to recognize, at this point, that Cuvier was thought of as being somewhat heretical when he asserted that organisms could end up extinct; God would never create animals that were imperfect enough to die off, or even allow such an event to occur to one of his creations (he cares about every bird, after all). Even Thomas Jefferson thought giant sloths and mammoths roamed the American west (and instructed Lewis & Clark to keep an eye out for them on their journey) as “nature” would not allow parts of her creation to go extinct.
Indeed, the creationist answer to this question is that the Fall brought death and evil into the world, but this can be dismissed as we have no evidence to prove the drama played out in Eden ever actually occurred. Indeed, if Eden was/is an actual place an Earth guarded by an angel with a flaming sword, I do wonder what has become of it and why it is not still found somewhere in the Middle Eastern fertile crescent. Realizing this, we are then left with the possibility (still assuming a designer, for argument’s sake) of a designer of the “First Cause” variety or one of lesser mental faculties. Neither of these seem to be the sort of designer ID advocates have in mind, and while they may pay lip-service to the idea of aliens or time-travelling scientists in public, these are merely concessions to fence-sitters, acceptance of ID being step 1 of a multi-step program that ends in becoming a Christian.
Looking seriously at evolution, it is clear that organisms are not driven to evolve by some internal, vital urge (even when that urge turns out to be detrimental) nor is evolution proceeding toward a final, “perfect” goal, and as Simpson notes the vitalist and finalist philosophical positions are hence indefensible. If there ever was a designing intelligence behind life, it certainly does not resemble to wise, benevolent creator that is espoused by all manner of creationists, and it is telling that the “incompetant designer” hypothesis has not caught on in ID circles. I am well aware that in interviews, debate, etc. ID advocates have attempted to wave this problem away and say they are simply trying to prove involvement of intelligence rather than quality of intelligence, but their private discussions and works (see Uncommon Descent for oodles of examples) make it clear that established religion is the root of ID, not the intellectual quest for understanding or knowledge.