The conflict between science and religion has recently become a hot-button topic in the media. Several prominent books on this subject have been published in the past few months, and a recent Time magazine cover story featured a debate between evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (an atheist) and geneticist Francis Collins (a Christian).
This controversy led me to imagine a trip to a car dealership. The salesman shows me a model that has sleek lines, gets great gas mileage, has a 5-year warranty, and fits my budget. Everything about the car is perfect, except for one thing: The engine contains a part called a kanootin valve that occasionally breaks down. And when it does, the engine explodes. When I ask what good the kanootin valve does for the car, the salesman replies, "Oh, it does nothing at all. You only know about it when it fails." I respond, "Hmmm… this vehicle does not seem to be designed particularly intelligently. I think I'll buy another model."
No auto manufacturer would design a car in such a way. And yet that is how the human body is "designed." We have an organ called the appendix that does nothing positive for us, and yet it can kill us if it becomes inflamed. And when it breaks down, only human physicians, using their scientific training, can save our lives.
The existence of the appendix is powerful evidence that the human body is the product of random mutations and natural selection operating over immense timescales, and that intelligent design is pure bunk. The fact that we share about 99.7 percent of our genes with chimpanzees is overwhelming evidence that humans and chimps evolved from a common ancestor. The progression of species in the fossil record unveiled by paleontologists over the past few centuries gives irrefutable evidence that lifeforms on Earth have evolved. Evolution is a well-established fact, not an opinion.
Intelligent design basically says that whenever scientists can’t solve a particular mystery about the natural world, then we should invoke some kind of mystical being, the so-called intelligent designer, to answer the question (and let's be honest, everyone knows we're talking about god here, and preferably one in the Judeo-Christian tradition). If humans had been adopting that philosophy for the past few thousand years, we'd still be living as hunter-gatherers. We'd still believe that lighting reflects the wrath of angry gods, and we'd still be using shamans and priests to address our medical needs. Intelligent design basically tells us to stop investigating the natural world, because when we hit a brick wall in our knowledge, we can find the answers in god.
I’m not saying whether or not you should believe in god, because that's not for me to decide. But invoking supreme beings and divine interventions has done nothing to advance human knowledge about the natural world. Our knowledge of the universe has advanced in leaps in bounds the past few centuries because of science: the formulation of hypotheses and the testing of those hypotheses through experiment and observation, and having the courage to ask the most penetrating questions about the natural world. Intelligent design, on the other hand, stifles our perseverance because it says that answers to the great questions have already been handed to us on a silver platter. It's the mindset that says that maybe we should buy the car with the kanootin valve.