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This section contains an article in which Dr. Refinetti criticizes the theory of "intelligent design".

The Issue

Various individuals and religious organizations in the United States have attempted, sometimes successfully, to introduce extraneous material in the biology curriculum of elementary education. This extraneous material, supported by political groups rather than by experts in the biological sciences, is inconsistent with fundamental principles of evolutionary biology [1,2]. According to the Intelligent Design theory, living beings are too exquisitely complex to have evolved by natural selection acting on random mutations; they must instead have been abruptly created by an intelligent agency [3,4].


The theory of Intelligent Design is a variant of Creationism, the Biblical mythology of the instantaneous creation of all animals by God. Although most of the world's religions do not adopt a creationist perspective, various Protestant Christian sects in the United States see creationism as a fundamental element of their faith. For the members of these sects, the Bible must be interpreted literally and, of course, the word of God is much more reliable than the word of human scientists. If evolutionary biology says that organisms progressively evolved from simple life forms into complex organisms such as mammals (including humans), whereas the Bible says that God created all animals at once (and created humans as distinct, superior beings), then a man of faith should reject biology and trust divine knowledge.

The figure to the left indicates that Protestants (that is, Baptists, Episcopalians, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others) make up only a slight majority of the population of the United States [5]. In addition, only a sub-group of Protestants adopts the creationist perspective. However, this sub-group has historically played a major role in American politics. Its members most likely feel that their religious faith is closely connected to their patriotism and see their own efforts to introduce Intelligent Design in the biology curriculum as a legitimate strategy to preserve the American Way of Life. This is all understandable, but Protestantism is, and has always been, only one of many elements of the American culture.

More fundamental than Protestantism in the American culture is, and has always been, the pursuit of liberty and justice. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacted in 1791, warns that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," which means that citizens shall be entitled to freedom from religion just as much as they shall be entitled to freedom of religion. When the Protestant belief in creationism conflicts with the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, creationism must be the one to retreat. The judicial system of the United States, including the Supreme Court, has repeatedly stated so [6]. Since the September 11 massacre in 2001, many Americans have decried the behavior of religious fanatics who placed their religious faith above the fundamental values of life. Creationists do not seem to realize that, by eroding the teaching of modern biology, they may one day succeed in aborting progress in biomedical research altogether and eventually be responsible for the deaths of many more Americans than those achieved by the al-Qaeda terrorists -- all in the name of religion.

It should be emphasized that the same constitutional principles that prevent the teaching of creationism under the guise of science stand to guarantee the rights of religious groups to profess their faith in private and in public and even to teach it openly in public schools in courses on comparative religion, philosophy, or history. Evidently, some religious groups are not content with these rights. They wish to place their literal interpretation of the Bible at the same epistemological level as science. Having realized that progress in scientific knowledge is slow and imperfect, they feel that they may have a chance to disguise creationism under the cloth of a science, or at least of a scientific theory. They call it the theory of intelligent design.

A Poor Theory

In very general terms, a request to make additions to the educational curriculum should always be welcome -- and Intelligent Design is no exception. All requests, however, must be evaluated by a qualified committee. When your car breaks down, you don't ask a religious leader to fix it. Instead, you take it to a mechanic. Likewise, when a new scientific theory emerges, it should be scientists, not religious advocates or politicians, who decide whether the theory should be added to the curriculum. If scientists judged that Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory, then it would certainly be considered for inclusion in the curriculum. However, Intelligent Design is such a poor theory that it cannot even disguise its main purpose of sneaking religion into the lay curriculum.

Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory because it rejects the very first requirement of a scientific theory, namely, that it be open to refutation by repeated experimentation. Scientists do not hesitate to refer to evolution as a "theory," and creationists often use this technical label as an argument to question the validity of evolutionary principles. What eludes creationists is the fact that scientists use the word "theory" precisely to emphasize that what we believe to be the truth today is open to refutation by continuing experimentation. There is no place for dogma in science. Yet, dogma is all there is in the theory of Intelligent Design. Even for a non-scientific theory, Intelligent Design is a poor theory for two reasons: 1) there are plenty of cases in which explanations of complexity in the world do not require an intelligent designer, and 2) the world is filled with evidence of stupid (rather than intelligent) design.

No Need for a Designer

It is logically possible that an intelligent designer created the whole world, including the organisms that populate it. But what is logically possible is not always true or necessary. Look at the figure below, which is a genuine photograph of clouds above the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado [7]. The objects indicated by the red arrows look very much like flying saucers and, consequently, could be explained as the result of the intelligent design of extraterrestrial beings. Yet, the mysterious objects are simply "lenticular clouds" that form downwind from an obstacle in the path of a strong air current. The extraterrestrial explanation is logically plausible but totally unnecessary. According to the principle of Ockham's Razor, which has guided the human quest for knowledge for centuries, one should choose the simpler theory whenever two theories of different complexities can equally explain a phenomenon [8]. If Intelligent Design wishes to be considered a scientific theory, the first thing it must do is probably to discard the concept of intelligent design itself!

Stupid Designs

The proponents of Intelligent Design correctly point out that many biological structures and processes are so elaborate that one may feel inclined to infer the existence of an intelligent designer. However, many other structures and processes are so awkwardly arranged that, if we were to use the same reasoning, we would be inclined to infer the existence of a stupid designer. Of course, there is no conceptual impediment to a theory of Stupid Design. However, such theory would be of no use to religious groups, as it would imply a blasphemy: that the creator of the world did not always act intelligently. The very idea of intelligent design requires the complementary idea of stupid design, which ruins the strategy of sneaking religion into science.

Examples of stupid design are well known to school children. They include the presence of the appendix in the human digestive tract, the temporary presence of a tail in human fetuses, the presence of eyes in subterranean animals that are never exposed to light, the presence of penis-like vaginas in female spotted hyenas, and many others. These senseless structures are much more easily explained as mere remnants in a haphazard evolutionary process than as blunders of an intelligent designer. The figure to the right shows one more example of stupid design. The neural pathway that takes photic information from the eyes to the pineal gland in mammals has been described in detail [9,10]. The pathway starts in the retina of the eye, ascends to the suprachiasmatic nucleus, and reaches the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus before progressing further. The red circles indicate the location of the paraventricular nucleus and the pineal gland. These two structures are quite close to each other, and an intelligent designer would certainly have connected them through a short, direct pathway. Instead, the connection between the two structures is achieved through a long pathway down to the thoracic spinal cord, to the superior cervical ganglion, and back up to the pineal gland.


The theory of intelligent design is not only non-scientific but also plainly a bad theory. It is a poor attempt to disguise the intrusion of religion in the educational arena. It does not belong in science classes.

It is understandable that citizens whose religious beliefs are incompatible with the biological sciences feel threatened by science and try to subvert it. They have a constitutional right to do so, as long as they honestly admit that their arguments are based on religious faith rather than on scientific evidence. Placing religious mythology above intellectual honesty and respect for life may be acceptable for members of some religious sects, but it violates the fundamental principles on which civilization stands.


1. Leshner, A. I.: Redefining science. Science 309: 221, 2005.
2. Wallis, C.: The evolution wars. Time 166(7): 26-35, 2005.
3. Behe, M.: Darwin's Black Box: the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Free Press, 1996.
4. Davis, P. and Kenyon, D.: Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. Dallas, Tex.: Haughton, 1989.
5. Brunner, B. (Ed.): Time Almanac. Needham, Mass.: Pearson Education, 2004.
6. Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), McClean v. Arkansas (1981), Segraves v. California (1981), Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), Webster v. New Lenox (1990), Peloza v. Capistrano (1994), Freiler v. Tangipahoa (1999), LeVake v. Independent School District (2001).
7. Calvin, C.: Lenticular Cloud (DI00141). UCAR Digital Image Library. Boulder, Colo.: National Center for Atmospheric Research, 2001.
8. Hughes, G.: Ockham's razor. In Mautner, T. (Ed.): Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Penguin, 1997.
9. Klein, D. C. et al.: Lesions of the paraventricular nucleus area of the hypothalamus disrupt the suprachiasmatic-spinal cord circuit in the melatonin rhythm generating system. Brain Research Bulletin 10: 647-652, 1983.
10. Buijs, R. M. et al.: The suprachiasmatic nucleus balances sympathetic and parasympathetic output to peripheral organs through separate preautonomic neurons. Journal of Comparative Neurology 46: 36-48, 2003.


For a detailed rebuttal of scientific claims made by proponents of intelligent design, watch
the video of Ken Miller's talk on Intelligent Design at Case Western University.

© R. Refinetti  ·  ·  All rights reserved