Monkey Business

Intelligent Design in the Hit Show "Community"

The theory of intelligent design (ID) is not exotic. You can find ID reasoning in everything from criminal forensics and archaeology to code breaking and the lavishly funded telescope-based explorations collectively termed the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). But set aside all those real-world cases. Consider an example from the hit sitcom Community.

The show is set at a modest community college where seven individuals of diverse backgrounds and temperaments form a study group and become fast friends. That bond is tested in Season 2, Episode 8, when sweet, earnest Annie Edison (played by Alison Brie) discovers that yet another of her pens has gone missing, right there at their study table, and she's had enough. She demands that the pen swiper come clean and return her pen.

The others won't take her outrage seriously—it's just a pen, after all. Also, none of them seem to know what happened to her pen.

Either unable or unwilling to help her solve the mystery of the missing pens, the rest of the study group heads for the exit. At the door, the group's leader, Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale), turns and offers a perfunctory apology from the group. "Sorry, Annie."

"No!" Annie shoots back. "Not 'Sorry, Annie.' We passed 'Sorry, Annie' eight pens ago. I keep bringing pens, and you guys keep taking them."

So they humor her and begin looking for her missing pen. Jeff soon grows bored with the search and diplomatically suggests that "whoever accidentally took" Annie's pen, please give it back.

But Annie cuts him off mid-sentence. "Not accidentally! Accidents don't just happen over and over and over again. This isn't budget day care!"

Annie, in other words, has made a design inference. Mindless accidents aren't the cause of her pens going missing again and again. No, a petty thief is in their midst. Someone has designs on her writing implements!

Jeff gets her drift and tries again. "Okay, whoever insidiously and with great malice aforethought abducted Annie's pen, confess, repent, and relinquish so that we can leave."

Testing the Design Inference

Annie Edison is one of the smartest members of the study group, but has she considered every possibility? Another member, Troy Barnes (played by Donald Glover), suggests a third possibility: maybe Annie simply misplaced the pen.

She swiftly rejects that idea. Easily the most organized member of the group, she knows she brought the pen to their study session, and now it's gone. She even happened to take a photo of the study table ten minutes before it went missing. In the photo, the pen is right there on the table. "No one has come in or out since," she reminds them. "One of you has my pen, right now."

That does the trick. She has finally convinced the others that her pen was indeed swiped. Somebody there is a cold-blooded thief.

The accusations start to fly thick and fast. But then Troy comes up with another possible explanation. Maybe the oldest member of their study group, Pierce Hawthorne (played by Chevy Chase), used her pen to scratch under the casts on his legs, accidentally dropped it into one of the casts, and then forgot because he's been "popping painkillers like Tic-Tacs."

They cut open Pierce's leg casts. The pen isn't there. They dump everyone's backpack and search it. Not there either. They search high and low around the room. Nothing. They even split into a male group and a female group and, behind makeshift barriers, strip naked to make sure no one is hiding the pen under his or her clothing.

Still no pen.

To Catch a Thief

In the course of the episode, the study group never figures out exactly why Annie's pens keep disappearing, but the audience does, and it turns out that Annie was partly right. The disappearance wasn't accidental. It was intelligent design—deliberate theft—but the thief isn't one of the group members. The actual culprit? A capuchin monkey hiding out in the building's duct work, who sneaks in and out of their study room unnoticed through a vent door near the floor.

Although Annie fails to identify the culprit during this episode, her basic design inference (intentional theft) is correct, and the case for it is strengthened by subsequent investigation and reasoning among the group members.

The comical incident is fictional, of course, but the reasoning Annie Edison employs is standard detective reasoning, the sort used to identify a murderer when all that the investigators have at the start are a handful of crime-scene clues.

And detective reasoning is, again, just the sort used in all historical sciences—from archaeology to origins biology to cosmology. Like good detectives, historical scientists reason from present clues to past causes by weighing competing explanations and trying to identify the best one. Such an explanation will, among other things, posit a cause with the demonstrated ability to produce the effects in question. Philosophers of science call this criterion causal adequacy.

For instance, let's say a foot-thick layer of ash is discovered three feet underground and extending for miles and miles below the surface of forests and farmland in a given region. A geologist is free to posit burned human remains from centuries ago as the cause of the ash layer, but no reasonable person will take that idea seriously, because the proposed cause is inadequate. Even millions of cremated bodies wouldn't produce that much ash.

But a past volcanic eruption would. It's causally adequate.

Let's also say that there is a volcano in the region known to erupt every few centuries. Other possible sources of the ash are proposed and considered, but it turns out that the volcano is the only one known to be able to produce a sufficient quantity to account for the whole layer. That makes the volcano the winning, the best, explanation for the ash layer.

This is how specific intelligent-design inferences work. So, for example, what could have caused the formation of the sophisticated molecular motor known as the bacterial flagellum? This motor exhibits the purposeful arrangement of numerous biomolecular parts. The thing is a nano-technological wonder. All the explanations limited to mindless forces, such as neo-Darwinian evolution, appear to be causally inadequate for such work. Evolutionists insist that researchers will eventually be able to provide a detailed explanation for how the bacterial flagellum blindly evolved from vastly simpler precursors, but after decades of trying, they have no such explanation to put on offer.

Just the opposite, in fact. The more we learn about the flagellum's layer upon layer of sophistication, the less plausible mindless evolutionary scenarios for its origin become. At the moment, only intelligent agency, exercising foresight and planning, has demonstrated the ability to build engineering marvels—devices marked by the purposeful arrangement of parts. Intelligent design is the one proposal on the table that passes the causal adequacy test.

A Ghost Story

Okay, but what about down the road? Maybe the best explanation now won't be the best explanation years from now.

That's true in principle. In police investigations, sometimes the favored explanation gets overturned years later, when new evidence comes to light. The same goes for scientific theories about the past. One theory may appear to be the best explanation at a given moment, but then a fresh discovery comes to light which overturns it. But that doesn't mean we can't identify a current best explanation, given what we know. And very often what we know now does point toward the true answer.

Is inferring intelligent design for the origin of the bacterial flagellum equivalent to "giving up"? That's a common charge against ID. Here, another development in the Community episode can help us think through this.

At last convinced that none of them took the pen, but also persuaded that it was indeed stolen (intelligent design), the study group members decide to blame a ghost for the theft. (They don't know about the klepto-monkey at this stage.) In other words, they impatiently reach for a supernatural explanation, so they don't have to persist in the search for the true culprit, the thieving monkey hiding in the ducts.

The ID critic might be tempted to see this as a perfect illustration of the supposed folly of intelligent design. After all, don't design theorists give up on finding natural explanations for things, like the origin of life, and impatiently jump to supernatural explanations?

A couple of points: First, at least some in the Community study group don't actually buy the ghost explanation. Jeff, for one, appears to suggest the ghost idea just so the group can bury the hatchet and move on with their day. Also, the group correctly settled on intelligent design as the best explanation before any discussion of ghosts. Their design inference stands independent of the ghost idea.

In the same way, design reasoning in origins science doesn't get you to the identity of the designer. It just infers intelligent design as the best explanation for this or that event, such as the appearance of the first living organism on Earth. Other forms of reasoning are required to identify the most likely candidate for the creative task.

ET or the Everlasting?

Let's zoom in on this mystery of life's origin. It is generally believed that the first living thing on Earth was a microscopic single-celled organism. According to evolutionary theory, that single cell, capable of self-reproduction, kick-started the evolutionary process that eventually led to all the many plants, animals, and microbes on Earth. But what caused that first cell to come into existence? We now know that even the most basic single-celled organisms capable of self-reproduction are breathtakingly advanced nanotech. And origin-of-life researchers are light-years away from offering a credible, comprehensive explanation for how such a thing could have arisen from lifeless chemical precursors.

If intelligent design is the best explanation for the origin of this first living cell, then we can ask a separate question: Who is the best candidate for its designer? Some would say God. After all, the designer of the first cell would need to have been astonishingly intelligent and skilled, given the sophistication of cells, and to have existed long before humans came on the scene. The eternal and all-wise God of theism fits the bill pretty well.

But there's another option on offer: some scientists suggest extra-terrestrials as the explanation for the origin of life on Earth. These scientists, most of whom would never identify as ID proponents, nevertheless make a kind of design inference when they posit that life on Earth was seeded here by alien creatures from other worlds. Even a scientist as eminent as Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick has offered this as an explanation, perhaps because he refused to consider the God option but also regarded every no-design explanation as completely inadequate.

But notice that Crick's ET explanation just backs up the origin-of-life question to some other planet. How did life begin on ET's faraway planet? The most daunting problems in origin-of-life studies revolve around the inability of mindless processes to engineer a self-reproducing cell from lifeless chemical precursors, regardless of how favorable the planetary conditions are. These problems would persist regardless of the type of planet.

For these reasons, positing an immaterial creator offers a more decisive solution to the mystery of life's origin than invoking ET.

Science Uprising

The same could be said for the mystery of our fine-tuned universe, whose physical constants are finely calibrated to allow for life. Change the strengths of the fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, etc.) even the tiniest bit, and you have no stars and no planets—and certainly no life.

One can infer intelligent design from the way this fine-tuning fits a functional pattern. And then one can draw on reasoning beyond ID theory to conclude that an immaterial cosmic designer is a better explanation than, say, a super-smart ET. After all, alien beings couldn't exist anywhere in our universe before our universe came into being, never mind the separate impossibility of their bringing an entire universe into being. A creative intelligence with the characteristics of the God of theism—immaterial, almighty, conscious, creative, and existing before our universe came into being—is a much better fit for the job description.

What about the multiverse hypothesis as a God-free explanation for fine-tuning? Or what about the RNA-world hypothesis for the origin of life? What about the various add-ons to plain-vanilla neo-Darwinism to explain the origin of biological marvels like the bacterial flagellum motor? Addressing these counterarguments would take us beyond the scope of this essay, but I can recommend a YouTube series that directly addresses these and other counterarguments to intelligent design, and offers a vigorous case against scientific materialism. The series is called Science Uprising. I had the privilege to contribute to the scripting of the series, working alongside some brilliant scientists and filmmakers. Its website also points to more in-depth resources, including articles and books. To find the website and videos, just do an internet search for "Science Uprising."

But in these videos is it really science that is rising up against scientific materialism? We are often told that intelligent design is simply out of bounds; it isn't science.

What evidence does such an objection actually provide though? It would be like Annie's study group in Community telling her, "We won't even consider the possibility that someone swiped your pen because that requires intention, purpose—in short, intelligent design. And ID isn't science. We only consider scientific explanations here." Such a response isn't logical and shouldn't persuade anyone not susceptible to bluffing.

True, ID critics have various bluffing tools at their disposal—impressive credentials, prestigious institutional support, smartly starched white lab coats, intimidating technical terminology—to further dress up the bluff, that is, "methodological materialism." But a bluff is still a bluff, however impressively packaged. 

PhD, is Executive Editor of Discovery Institute Press and a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He is the author or coauthor of numerous works, including Intelligent Design Uncensored, The Hobbit Party, A Meaningful World, and the new intelligent design young-adult novel The Farm at the Center of the Universe with astrobiologist Guillermo Gonzalez.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #59, Winter 2021 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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