Science and the Bible: Intelligent Design, Part 5

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Raphael, The School of Athens (1511), Vatican Museums

We conclude the discussion of ID with two more conclusions and a very brief historical discussion.

(3) ID is NOT an alternative scientific theory to evolution, for it doesn’t even try to provide a coherent account of the history of nature from the Big Bang to now—and that is precisely what a viable candidate for an alternative theory must do.

As we’ve already seen, ID is a “philosophical critique of the explanatory efficacy of Darwinian evolution” (to borrow my own words), not an alternative “theory of everything.” Unlike “creationism,” which actually is an alternative “theory of everything,” ID does not offer answers to such questions as how and when birds came into existence, or how old the universe is, or whether humans and Tyrannosaurus ever co-existed. These and other topics in the historical sciences have been deliberately omitted from the official scope of ID, in order to keep the “big tent” in one piece. Indeed, the question of the legitimacy of the historical sciences in general is one of the largest elephants in the tent.

When all historical questions are left officially out of the ID platform, then it becomes very difficult for critics to see what actually counts as legitimate science inside the tent on such matters. Just as proponents of ID can fairly ask evolutionary biologists to propose plausible naturalistic scenarios that could perhaps have produced the first form(s) of life or the complexity of DNA or the relatively sudden diversity of the Cambrian explosion, so critics of ID can fairly ask IDists to propose examples of what actually counts as good science in the history of nature—against which the plausibility of those evolutionary explanations can be evaluated. In the absence of any such standard, then someone like Cornelius Hunter can simply sit back taking pot shots at evolution and various other parts of natural history, without offering any alternative explanations of his own or identifying any parts of natural history that are (in his view) well supported. A studied skepticism of this type amounts to a profound agnosticism about all things natural historical, and anyone who is really that agnostic about that much science has in my view undermined their own credibility as a critic of scientific explanations in those disciplines.

In my opinion, the inability of ID to offer an alternative history of nature counts crucially against its acceptance by the scientific community. The single most influential book in my discipline was written fifty years ago by the late Thomas Kuhn, generally regarded as a philosopher of science despite the great hostility that many philosophers have shown toward his ideas. If you’ve heard of “paradigms” and “revolutions” in science, then you already have at least a vague notion of what his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), is about. Basically, a paradigm is an overarching conception within a branch of science that determines how science in that field is normally done. For example, atomic theory functions as a paradigm in chemistry, and the universal acceptance of the periodic table as a convenient summary of atomic theory indicates the very wide explanatory scope and consent that are prerequisites for becoming a paradigm.



Evolution is the reigning paradigm in biology and a major component of the even larger paradigm of natural history that also includes cosmology and geology. “Once it has achieved the status of paradigm,” Kuhn observes, “a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternative candidate is available to take its place.” We might say that science suffers from a modern version of the old Aristotelian horror vacui: science abhors an intellectual vacuum. Better to keep an imperfect theory with all of its flaws than just to throw it away, leaving a state of intellectual anarchy in which nothing makes sense. As Kuhn says, “the decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another,” so if ID cannot provide a more compelling alternative account of natural history then a paradigm change is simply not in the offing (quoting 3rd edition of 1996, p. 77).

ID theorist William Dembski is well aware of this problem. Many years ago, in his book Intelligent Design (1999), he wrote, “As philosophers Thomas Kuhn and Larry Laudan have pointed out, for scientific paradigms to shift, there has to be a new paradigm in place ready to be shifted into. You can’t shift into a vacuum. If you’re going to reject a reigning paradigm, you have to have a new improved paradigm with which to replace it.” Dembski goes on to say that ID is the only logical alternative to “naturalistic evolution,” but that it can’t be considered because ID “we’re told, isn’t part of science.” The remedy, he says is to “dump methodological naturalism.” (p. 119)

Dembski’s analysis is on target, as far as it goes, but there is a further dimension he does not address. Presently there is no ID theory to function as an alternative explanation of the history of the universe and the life it contains, as ID proponents themselves admit. A few years ago, Phillip Johnson did an interesting interview in connection with the “NOVA” program series on PBS. He was directly asked, “So what does intelligent design say about how life was created and how we ended up with the diversity of life we see today?” His answer goes directly to my point: “Well, the alternative is not well developed, so I would prefer to say that, as far as I’m concerned, the alternative is we don’t really know what happened. But if non-intelligence couldn’t do the whole job, then intelligence had to be involved in some way. Then it’s a big research job to figure out the consequences of that starting point.” It remains to be seen whether progress on this front will be forthcoming from the staff of the Biologic Institute, a pro-ID research center established in 2005 partly for the purpose of creating an alternative account of evolution, and other ID people.

(4) Even though one of the most prominent ID advocates, Michael Behe, accepts the common descent of humans and other primates, most ID advocates reject human evolution, and many also attack other inferences to common descent involving the fossil record. Most are probably old-earth “creationists,” and thus it is not hard for their critics simply to call them “creationists.”

This is not news to anyone who has been following my columns on “Science and the Bible.” I won’t repeat things I’ve already said. I will only add the most recent example to support my conclusion. A few weeks ago, the Discovery Institute released a new book, written by two biologists from the Biologic Institute (Ann Gauger & Douglas Axe) and DI staff member Casey Luskin. Called Science and Human Origins(2012), the book argues that evidence for the common ancestry of human and other modern primates—including the genetic information stressed by Francis Collins in The Language of God—is not conclusive. They conclude that the evidence actually supports the existence of an original pair of humans (rather than a group of ca. 10,000 individuals), and that the fossil evidence for common ancestry is spotty and inconclusive.

Human evolution has always been the hard core of opposition to modern natural history. It was the main reason why there was so muchreligious opposition to Robert Chambers and Charles Darwin in the 19th century; it was the bottom line for William Jennings Bryan, who was willing to accept evolution for other animals (if necessary), in the 1920s; it is the main reason why OECs today continue to question “macroevolution” while accepting “microevolution.” If human evolution is not really at the core of ID as well, despite the very significant presence of Behe at the center of the movement, then why is so much attention being given to a book like this by the leading ID organization? What more can I say?

Historical Comments

Belief in “design” derives from pre-Christian Greek philosophers, especially the two guys at the focal point of the Raphael painting that heads this column (Plato on our left and Aristotle on our right). It has also been promoted by most Christian thinkers, including John Polkinghorne and some other theistic evolutionists of our own day. However the ID movement, which originated in the late 20th century and now defines the term “intelligent design” for all intents and purposes, is mainly opposed to evolution and derives much of its energy from popular anti-evolutionism.

I know quite a bit more about the history of each of the other four positions I’ve presented, and (to be frank) I would rather punt this one, referring readers to several histories of ID by authors more qualified than me on this particular topic. An excellent place to start is an article about Phillip Johnson’s unique place in the development of ID, written by historian Donald Yerxa, whose book (with physicist Karl Giberson) Species of Origins came out a few months later.

No future historian would ignore the various “insider” histories of ID, regardless of how sympathetic they are. Among these I especially recommend Stephen Meyer, “A Scientific History and Philosophical Defense of the Theory of Intelligent Design,” and Jonathan Witt’s “A Brief History of the Scientific Theory of Intelligent Design”. Dembski’s contribution to this book includes a brief view of the longer history (going back to the Greeks), but to the best of my knowledge it’s not available on the internet. Thomas Woodward, who earned his doctorate in communication with a dissertation on the history of ID, published his findings in Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design (2003).

The best overall history of design that I have seen was written by journalist Larry Witham, author of several well-written and interesting books. In By Design: Science and the Search for God (2004), Witham discusses the ID movement accurately, but that is not the lion’s share of the book. Finally, I recommend another print source, Nick Matzke’s essay, “But Isn’t It Creationism? The beginnings of ‘intelligent design’ in the midst of the Arkansas and Louisiana litigation,” in But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy, Updated Edition, ed. Michael Ruse and Robert T. Pennock (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009), pp. 377-413. Matzke is a leading opponent of ID and not a popular figure among ID proponents, but his account of the symbiosis between ID and YEC, especially the major role played by creationist biologist Dean Kenyon, is well researched and should not be dismissed as propaganda, any more than ID opponents should dismiss some of the other sources I’ve mentioned.

I doubt anyone will have time to read all of these sources, but please add comments about any that you do get around to reading. I won’t be very active during the Christmas holiday, but I’ll drop in from time to time whether or not I leave any replies. I will be back again in about two weeks to close out this long series on “Science and Bible” with a call for you to weigh in with final thoughts.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.


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