Some important conclusions
(1) ID is both a set of ideas about detecting design within science, coupled with a strong critique of “Darwinism” (here understood as evolution by natural selection, unguided by any detectable agent); and a movement with political and cultural goals, heavily influenced by conservative Christianity and aimed at toppling “Darwinism” (here understood as a broad, anti-religious cultural mindset, not evolution per se). Although the ideas differ significantly from those of “creationism” in the YEC sense, the tone of ID sometimes resembles that of “creationism” so closely that it can be hard to tell the difference.
ID is not “creationism in a cheap tuxedo,” a provocative description attributed to Kansas University paleontologist Leonard Krishtalka. It clearly lacks some distinguishing features of creationism and the specific theological and biblical concerns that drive it. For example, ID takes no stance on “death before the fall,” an issue related to the theological problem of evil (theodicy) that is a crucial factor behind the presence of the word “young” in YEC creationism (for more on this, see my comments in an earlier column). ID does not attempt to “explain” the fossil record by claiming that the Biblical flood accounts for it. ID does not deny the “Big Bang” theory—indeed, some of the most interesting “design” arguments put forth by ID proponents assume the general validity of the Big Bang (see my comments on fine tuning here). Nor does ID oppose the great antiquity of the earth and universe in defense of a “literal” interpretation of early Genesis. Strictly speaking, ID does not even oppose common ancestry, although nearly all ID proponents do oppose it—leading many observers (including me) to view it mainly as a covert form of the OEC view. Precisely because ID refuses to embrace these core tenets of “creationism,” some creationist leaders have been highly critical of it; e.g., see Ken Ham’s attack on William Demski.
Despite these key differences, however, ID does resemble young-earth creationism in tone. For many ID proponents, evolution is not only a false scientific theory, but also a leading cause of moral and spiritual decline in modern America. This combination is highly characteristic of the YEC view, so whenever ID leaders link these two things they can easily come across to people outside of their “big tent” as just another group of “creationists.” Leading ID authors have pushed the cultural piece to such an extent that I do not believe it can be separated from the ideas without distorting what ID actually is.
In 1998, the Discovery Institute circulated privately a document called “The Wedge Strategy,” that was subsequently leaked and is now famous—or infamous in the eyes of many secular critics of ID. The “wedge” metaphor originated with Phillip E. Johnson, who later published a book called The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism (2000). According to Johnson, “the Wedge … is an informal movement of like-minded thinkers in which I have taken a leading role. Our strategy is to drive the thin edge of our Wedge into the cracks of the log of naturalism by bringing long-neglected questions to the surface and introducing them into public debate.” Johnson identified the real “enemy” of the Wedge not as “those in open and honest opposition to our proposal but rather the obfuscators—those who resist any clear definition of terms or issues, who insist that the ruling scientific organizations be obeyed without question and who are content to paper over logical contradictions with superficial compromises.” (pp. 14 & 17) I have no doubt that at least most (perhaps all) advocates of TE, whom he once called “mushy accommodationists” (I heard him say this at a public event many years ago), were in the front of his mind when he wrote this. “The Wedge Strategy” document explicitly refers to a program of “Cultural Confrontation & Renewal” as the final of three phases in the project. At that point, the author(s) hoped, it would be possible to start addressing “the specific social consequences of materialism and the Darwinist theory that supports it in the sciences.” An ultimate goal was “To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.”
William Dembski, the leading ID theorist, has likewise linked ID inextricably with culture wars, especially in his preface to Darwin’s Nemesis, a book he edited in Johnson’s honor. “Because of Kitzmiller v. Dover, school boards and state legislators may tread more cautiously, but tread on evolution they will—the culture war demands it!” Rhetoric such as this can only put fuel on the fire of critics of ID who go looking for tuxedos in certain closets.
In addition, ID proponents have sometimes clearly co-operated with, or even allied themselves with, “creationists” of the YEC variety. The most visible instance involves the textbook, Of Pandas and People, which was at the center of the controversy in the Dover (PA) school district. Some leading ID advocates, including Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer, contributed to certain editions of this book, which has been published in various versions under various titles since the first edition, Creation Biology (1983), which was a genuine YEC book. During the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, philosopher Barbara Forrest testified about the book’s complicated history, using information obtained from the publisher during the discovery process prior to the trial. The crucial year was 1987, when the Supreme Court ruled against the YEC view in Edwards v. Aguillard. Of Pandas and People was published twice that year—once before the ruling and again afterwards. The graphic at the start of this column shows what took place: in dozens of instances, the word “creationism” was replaced by the term “intelligent design” on a wholesale basis, with no other changes in wording to indicate a difference in meaning was intended. This evidence was a major reason why Judge John Jones ruled in Kitzmiller v. Dover “that ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism.” I say more about Kitzmiller v. Dover here.
(2) Scientific evidence is highly relevant to belief in design, but nothing specific can be said (for the time being) about the identity of the designer. When it comes to God and religion, ID is a “big tent,” united by opposition to materialism (which is often equated with evolution) and content (for now) to overlook even enormous theological differences among adherents.
ID proponents hold that science can detect the presence of design—if its profound bias against “intelligent” causes is set aside in the name of truth—but science is impotent to identify any specific designer, including the God of the monotheistic religions. Although most ID proponents are theists and many are Christians, ID purports to be about science, not about God.
Consequently, at least a few important ID authors are not Christians. Here the best known example is undoubtedly Jonathan Wells (read more here and here), a follower of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The recipient of earned doctorates in both Molecular and Cell Biology (Berkeley) and Religious Studies (Yale), he also has a degree from the Unification Theological Seminary (Barrytown, NY). This is not an incidental fact, since Wells himself has said that “Father’s [Moon] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism.” Nevertheless, his best-known book, Icons of Evolution (2000), is often sold at creationist meetings in churches and at Christian bookstores.
At least a few ID proponents are not even theists. A striking example comes from a debate about ID and God that took place in Texas four years ago. Just one of the four speakers, Cambridge University biologist Denis Alexander, is a Christian—and he spoke against ID on this occasion. Physicist Lawrence Krauss, an atheist, joined Alexander’s side of the debate. The pro-ID side consisted of philosopher David Berlinski, an agnostic Jew, and philosopher Bradley Monton, an atheist who has since written a book called Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design.
To round out this brief analysis, let me mention a recent suggestion from sociologist Steve Fuller, an agnostic who testified for the defense (the Dover school district) in the famous trial and later wrote a book called Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinism (2008). Fuller is now saying that ID should not avoid theodicy and other parts of theology. He speaks for himself here and in an interesting audio (with a response from Steve Meyer) here. (I obviously have a more positive assessment of TE than Fuller does.) Whether an explicitly theological approach will fly within the ID camp remains to be seen, but I have my doubts. As an historian rather than a prophet, I don’t usually like to prognosticate, but in this case I will: if ID becomes much more open about theology, then it will largely re-define itself as a type of OEC. And the “big tent” will collapse, with a consequent loss of support at the popular level from many of the YECs who’ve been camp followers under that large canopy.
I will return once more in about two weeks with more conclusions and a very brief historical discussion. Since the view is so recent and I don’t know very much about its history myself, I’ll just point readers toward several historical accounts written by authors from diverse perspectives. That will conclude my study of Intelligent Design.