The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Unintelligent designs

August 30, 2005

Sally Jenkins, sports columnist for the Washington Post, weighs in with a rather silly opinion piece about “intelligent design” as it might relate to athletics. “Athletes do things that seem transcendental,” she opines; “Ever get the feeling that they are in touch with something that we aren’t? What is that thing? Could it be their random, mutant talent, or could it be evidence of, gulp, intelligent design?” Her piece reproduces some of the major bits of conceptual confusion characteristic of the current public flap (I hesitate to call it a “debate,” because debates have rules about logical consistency and the like…none of which seem to be very much in evidence in the current fracas) about the teaching of evolution in public schools, and as such contributes to the widespread misunderstanding that permits something like a “evolution vs. creationism” controversy to take place at all.

In particular, Jenkins makes three errors: she treats intelligent design as a scientific theory when it is actually a statement of faith; she mistakenly claims that natural selection-like processes can’t account for individual excellence in athletic competition; and she confuses Darwinian evolution with strict materialism. In fairness, Jenkins is careful to distance herself from those she calls “neo-Creos” who advocate teaching strict Biblical accounts of creation in the public schools, but the structure of her argument tends to support their cause.

Jenkins’ first problem is that she wants to differentiate between intelligent design and creationism, calling the former a legitimate scientific theory and the latter a political movement. But this is silly. She references unnamed “complexity theorists” who “believe that strict Darwinism…is inadequate to explain the high level of organization in the world” and slips from there to intelligent design, without pausing to notice that proponents of a self-organization hypothesis like those complexity theorists are not making the same claim as those advocating intelligent design. There are some actual scientists working on self-organization and complexity [Phillip Johnson, whom she quotes, not being one of them, largely because he’s a law professor and hence not exactly an authority on biological or physical processes], but that’s a far cry from the notion that what exists functions as it does because it was designed to function in that way.

Leaving aside for a moment the grammatical ambiguity whereby an “intelligent design” perspective seems necessarily to imply an intelligent designer, the major problem here is that intelligent design isn’t a scientific account of anything. It is instead a statement of faith — the world is intelligently designed — which then encourages the search for evidence that will validate or illustrate that design. Typical religious hermeneutics, in which we take an initial position and use it to ground an account of the world which largely serves to reinforce that initial position (a tell-tale sign is that intelligent design folks invariably end their discussions of anything by returning to the intelligent design principle itself, as though evidence that had been collected based on that principle could somehow serve to validate the principle in the first place). Wittgenstein would call the initial design postulate a “mystical” statement about “the sense of the world as a whole,” which strikes me as an accurate characterization.

Now, a scientific account is not first and foremost concerned with validating its own presuppositions, but with generating knowledge about the world or about some occurrence within it. To be Weberian about this, science is the disciplined application of a set of analytical presuppositions to a set of empirical phenomena in order to generate insight into the character of those phenomena…not the disciplined application of a set of principles in order to reinforce those principles. We have perfectly good words for the latter operation, like “ideology” and “propaganda.” Science is different — not because its initial principles are somehow falsifiable or anything like that, but because of what is done with those principles. Evolutionary theory aims to increase our knowledge about the world; intelligent design/creationism aims to increase our faith. Both noble efforts, perhaps, but only one of them is science…and it ain’t the one that deals with faith.

Jenkins also puts forth the contention that “pure Darwinism” (whatever that is) can’t explain Joe DiMaggio — that something other than random mutation must be operating to produce such an exemplary baseball player. I think she’s right, there is something else at work: it’s called “the major league scouting system and the minor leagues.” Here’s how it works: there are thousands and thousands of people playing amateur baseball in the world at any one time, ranging from kids in high school to participants in major league camps in various parts of the world to college players and people in alternative leagues not formally affiliated with Major league Baseball. All of these people put up records of their performance, and scouts for major league ballclubs hunt down people who are putting up good numbers and other indicators of good performances. Young players who need more time to develop are sent to the minor leagues, where their skills are honed and their abilities developed. Really good players might go straight to the majors, especially if they’re coming from something like the Japanese league. While in the minors, players have the benefit of specialized instruction, medical professionals, trainers, seasoned veterans, and so forth.

The point? Players who reach the major leagues generally do so because they have survived a rather Darwinian process of artificial selection (which was, after all, one of Darwin’s major models for the concept of “natural selection” in the first place). One need not posit an intelligent designer of baseball players to explain Joe DiMaggio or any other elite player; yes, Roger Clemens has a body that is extremely well-suited for pitching, but this is in part because of the existence of an activity called “pitching” that makes certain muscle movements desirable, combined with a strict training regimen that keeps him virtually unhittable at the ripe old age of 43 (which is ancient for a professional baseball player in this day and age) — and, the artificial selection process of the entire system of organized baseball that in effect sifted through thousands of candidates and permitted him, and others who function at his level, to become major leaguers.

If one has to look for an “intelligent designer” here, let’s not invoke God; let’s instead remember Branch Rickey, who as the general manager for the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pirates in the middle part of the 20th century basically invented the minor league system and revolutionized scouting. “Luck is the residue of design,” Rickey once said — but the design in question was produced by human beings, not by intrinsic intelligences grounded deep within matter or something like that.

[Recall what I said above, though — there’s no incompatibility between the statement “God created Roger Clemens and endowed him with the capability to be an elite pitcher” and “Roger Clemens plays baseball because he, unlike most other people drafted into the system, survived the minor leagues and learned to harness his potential to flourish in the big leagues.” There’s no incompatibility because they are different kinds of statements.]

Jenkins’ final mistake is that she conflates Darwinian evolution with strict materialism, arguing that athletic excellence “conveys an inkling of something marvelous in nature that perhaps isn’t explained by mere molecules” and using this as a point against evolutionary theory. Natural selection as a process is in no way limited to material objects; there are cultural ecology accounts of how norms and ideas spread, for example, that apply Darwinian-style logic to the realm of the conceptual. And once again, Jenkins is reproducing the basic category mistake that animates her entire discussion: just because an excellent athletic performance conveys an inkling of something marvelous in nature (I’ve seen several pitching performances that would qualify) tells us nothing at all about the conditions that produced that performance. The how is what science is about; “what it all means” is a different order of knowledge altogether.

“The sports section would not seem to be a place to discuss intelligent design,” Jenkins muses. Perhaps she’d have been better off stopping right there.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.