Kansas, Extinction and "Intelligent Design"
I am astonished that the Kansas state school board would once again make itself a world laughing stock. Like a little boy caught with his pants down, it tries hard to conceal the face of science. It is a difficult task when you expose the source of speciation. At 40,000 feet up in the Gulf Stream, "the angels made me do it," will not suffice as an excuse.
The claim is that intelligent design is somehow different from creation science.
The postulate is that the complexity and interconnectedness of the natural world cannot have occurred by chance and therefore must have been intelligently designed.
It would do us well to distinguish the physical world from the natural world in such an argument. All plants and animals including hominids are subject to a physical world.
The tsunami, earthquake, volcanic explosion, meteorite, or climate change, can wipe out whole populations of plants and animals. What happens next depends upon the adaptive radiation of species. You know, that cornerstone of evolution whereby animals are traced to a common ancestor that colonizes new territory and diversifies over time into new species to fill the available niches.
Marsupials in Australia are a good example. Koalas, kangaroos, and Tasmanian wolves evolved from a common marsupial ancestor. (Oh god, this is so complex for the Kansas State School Board and so well understood by everyone else.) The last caged Tasmanian wolf died in 1933. I guess this extinction at hominid hands was also part of an intelligent design. Or, was that extinction malevolent intent? Geological events and climactic catastrophes might also be attributed to bad planning. Is it an intelligent design or wrathful superstition that stops our queries? Only the veal is cowed. Scientists lack the fear of questions.
So intelligent design, malevolent intent, or favorable geographical chance on some planet in the universe is by design? Perhaps. But not in any testable hypothesis I can conceive. What do you do with an intelligence that condemns most species to extinction in the absence of human permission? Is that intelligently designed? How would we know? What observable evidence could prove it?
Hominids trace their past to the last million years. Evidence of the cockroach is dated to 450 times that number, to the last 450 millennia. It would be easy to argue that the intelligent designer was more interested in these relatively unchanged insects than human improvement.
At its root, we are only at one end of a branch of ancestors reproducing to survive, just another species on a speck of dirt in the universe. We do have an advantage, consciousness of self and sometimes self-knowledge of our claims and questions. The least conscious barely understand what it means to not know. Discourse and discussion will find those limits among those who ask questions.
Clearly, species can and will alter their environments as they populate it and will in turn adapt and radiate to fill the space. Every successful creature only attempts to reproduce. As conditions change, and they always do, reproduction succeeds or fails.
The real myth is ecological balance. What appears to be balance is in fact a moving target. As humans have become more successful, as with every wildly successful species, their impact has grown.
The human animal chooses animals and plants both domestic and wild. We keep, improve and cherish some. We discard, deny, and destroy others. We do weed gardens. We also kill wolves, some in sheep’s clothing.
In the absence of wolves, we try to kill as many deer as we are able in the Mid-West to restore a semblance of balance and make our crops safe for market. It is a perennial complaint by the Missouri Department of Conservation that we do not kill enough deer. The deer eat corn and soybeans to the dismay of farmers. We cull elephants in African game parks to insure that a patch of land is not overrun for similar reasons.
We actively seek the extinction of disease organisms. The eradication of small pox springs to mind. We choose to vaccinate the hominid body and purposefully make it inhospitable. Without the parochial superstition in northern Nigeria, polio could be eliminated in Africa. Polio is not intelligent design; it is a pernicious crippler and killer.
It is no accident that the now rare early 18th century Berkshire pigs, in the last 150 years have lost favor for the newer breeds, Hampshires, Yorkshires, and a Duroc or two. It was the observation of variation in domestic animals that paved the way for our understanding of natural selection.
Only modern humans can force extinction or survival, even their own. We may yet be a warming pot of frogs, cozy in the heat. I seriously doubt that an intelligent designer would have left that cauldron to us.
I aver that the Kansas school board is mostly early 19th century Berkshires, lost in the annals and perhaps now among the scarce pre-Darwin swine of time. All are eaten, some more slowly than others.
Humans manage their environments even their social ones based on their understanding all too frequently lacking in abundance. Unfortunately, "intelligent design" undermines serious and legitimate questions in the interest of political ends, and a pernicious one at that. The board seeks nothing less than the reintroduction of religion into the science and its flip side, the extinction of inquiry. Kansas’s students will suffer, whether or not they believe in supernatural causes.
Inquiring minds want to learn of the school board’s next retreat from science. Perhaps they will revive Ptolemy. I am certain that if they work hard enough they could find the quacks that would work out cycles that once again put our planet at the center of the universe. They could call it "cyclical design" and force its consideration in astronomy classes. Scientists would refer to both "designs" as recurring cycles of stupidity.
KARL SHEPARD has a BA in History from the University of Kansas, an MA in History from the University of Kansas, and has completed PhD coursework in African Studies at the University of Chicago. In 1989, he received a Fulbright-Hayes Dissertation Fellowship to pursue field research in Kenya. Originally from Kansas City, he currently resides in Hillsboro, Oregon. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org