Monday, November 02, 2009

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and the Banana Diet

There has been a lot of speculation lately about the status of "intelligent design". Last December, I posted an essay on the demise of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness clubs. At that time it was clear that the IDEA club movement at American colleges and universities was dead. Despite protestations to the contrary, the available data indicate that this is still the case.

Which leads to a more interesting question: what is the current status of the intelligent design "movement"? This question is even more significant this month, as November 24th marks the 150th anniversary of the original publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, the founding document of the science of biology and the most influential book ever published in the natural sciences. Although some ID supporters assert that ID is compatible with evolutionary theory, it is clear from even a cursory examination of their views that the majority of ID supporters are opposed to the idea of evolution in virtually all of its versions.

Which brings me to the point of this blogpost: what impact has ID had on mainstream evolutionary theory, and which of these alternative explanations for the origin of adaptations and the diversity of life is gaining in veracity and which is losing? One way to answer this question is to analyze the frequency with which the terms "evolution" and "intelligent design" appear in internet searches and in news stories in the mainstream media. To assess this, Google has a marvelous tool: Google Trends. The following two graphs were produced using Google Trends. I have copied the graphs directly from the relevant web pages, adding only the red line at 1.5 (on the Y axis) to make possible comparison of relative values.

The first graph (above) shows the frequency of the term "evolution" as it appeared in Google searches and in news articles on the web over the past six years. What the upper graph shows is that Google search volume for the term "evolution" has fluctuated over the past six years, but held relatively steady. The lower graph shows that there has been a steady increase in news articles about evolution over the past six years.

The second graph (above) shows the frequency of the term "intelligent design" as it appeared in Google searches and in news articles on the web over the same six years. As you can see, these graphs are markedly different than those for "evolution". These graphs show that prior to 2005 there were very few searches and almost no news stories for "intelligent design". In 2005 this pattern changed abruptly: by the end of the year, there were over ten times as many Google searches for the term "intelligent design", and a concomitant spike in news articles on the same subject. This spike corresponds to the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trialin Dover, Pennsylvania, in the course of which the ID movement gained national attention. The decision in that trial, issued by Judge John E. Jones (a Republican, appointed by President George W. Bush), was widely hailed as a massive defeat for the ID movement.

This assessment is borne out by the remainder of the graph. As you can see, both internet searches and news articles on ID have declined precipitously since December of 2005, falling to almost unmeasurably low levels.

This graph (above), comparing the search volume and news article frequency of the terms "evolution" (in blue) and "intelligent design" (in red) is even more revealing. Here it can easily be seen that both search volume and news articles on "evolution" have consistently dwarfed those for "intelligent design", even during the period covering the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. Furthermore, there is a steady upward trend in the frequency of news articles on evolution, while the frequency of news articles on intelligent design has fallen to almost unmeasurable levels.

So, what are we to make of these trends? Clearly, interest in evolution is on a steady upward course, which just as clearly reflects its importance in the sciences. As I have written elsewhere, the fundamental concepts of the theory of evolution by natural selection have been steadily spreading into all of the branches of biology, and have recently begun to transform such disparate fields as psychology, literature, and even diets and nutrition and art.

By contrast, interest in intelligent design exploded in 2005 and has crashed since then. What other phenomena exhibit this same "boom and bust" pattern? One such transitory phenomenon is the explosion in fad diets. For example, this graph shows the Google search volume and news article frequency for the term "banana diet" (the choice of this term was at least partly in honor of young Earth creationist and ID supporter, Ray Comfort):

The similarity between this graph (above) and the graph for "intelligent design" is striking, and is probably no accident. As many critics of ID have asserted, the ID movement has essentially consisted of a public relations campaign, rather than a scientific research program. Public relations campaigns, like advertising campaigns in general, often show the "boom and bust" pattern shown in the "intelligent design" and "banana diet" graphs. This is because public relations campaigns do not depend on veracity, but rather on appearance. The supporters of ID (such as the Discovery Institute in Seattle, WA) have consistently promoted ID as a scientific research program, but even a cursory examination shows that, while there is abundant evidence that ID is a quasi-religious movement, there is virtually no empirical research being conducted by its supporters.

And so, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the founding of the rapidly expanding science of evolutionary biology, we may note in passing that this anniversary can also be used to mark the demise of the ID movement, a phenomenon with all of the earmarks of a passing fad and all of the scientific content of the banana diet.


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 11/02/2009 02:40:00 PM, Blogger John Farrell said...

Excellent post. Now if only the money bags who keep the Discovery Institute afloat can be convinced not to throw good money after bad, maybe the PR firm behind it can also fade away.

At 11/02/2009 04:57:00 PM, Anonymous Benjamin Harville said...

Nice post, but I don't think you'll be very welcome at UD anymore.


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