Ted Davis
 on October 24, 2012

Intelligent Design: History and Beliefs

Ted Davis presents four core tenets of Intelligent Design, discusses some conclusions that follow from these assumptions, and offers an overview of Intelligent Design's history.

3D illustration of bacteria with flagella

3D illustration of Bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa and flagella,

Old French Bible moralisée (c. 1208-15), Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. lv, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. (Source)

According to Merriam Webster, the term “intelligent design” has been used since at least 1847, in reference to “the theory that matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by a designing intelligence.” That’s a decent definition, also consistent with those offered by today’s proponents of intelligent design (ID). For example, the leading ID think tank, The Discovery Institute (Seattle), has this:

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

And in the opening sentence of a book he edited with philosopher Michael Ruse, ID theorist William Dembski said, “Intelligent Design is the hypothesis that in order to explain life it is necessary to suppose the action of an unevolved intelligence.” (Debating Design, p. 3)

On the other hand, while a recent contest on a prominent intelligent design (ID) website uncovered several other early uses of the term, it is important to note that it does not always mean exactly the same thing in each reference. The term itself has an interesting history, and while ID authors obviously did not invent the term “intelligent design,” they have given it specific content in recent years. Indeed, they have even removed content in some cases: a point I will return to later is that, though it seems the only viable candidate for such an “unevolved intelligence” is God, ID proponents sometimes seem to do cartwheels to avoid saying as much. When a term has such a complicated past, there simply is no substitute for looking at specific references in their own contexts as we move to seeing how ID plays out today as one of the 5 ways of relating science and the Bible.

Interestingly, many Protestant “modernist” scientists and theologians from William Jennings Bryan’s day (see my previous column) unhesitatingly endorsed the idea that a designing intelligence lay behind nature. At least one such person, Nobel prize-winning physicist Arthur Holly Compton, even used the very term “intelligent design” in an address he gave at a Unitarian church in 1940: “The chance of a world such as ours occurring without intelligent design becomes more and more remote as we learn of its wonders.” (Quoting his pamphlet from 1940, The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge, p. 13. For more about this aspect of Compton’s views, click here.) However, Compton regarded design as a philosophical and theological inference from science, not an explanation within science to be invoked when other explanations fail. He also accepted the common ancestry of humans and other organisms. This is a significant difference from the ID movement today, which offers ID as a scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution and (at least in many cases) seeks to undermine public confidence in common ancestry (even though ID per seis not actually opposed to it).

If any ID proponents are sympathetic to the type of religious modernism that Compton and his friends embraced, I cannot tell you who they are. In a curious, ironic twist, ID is often used by conservative Christian apologists partly to defend a cluster of traditional theological and hermeneutical positions that none of the modernists would have defended. A further irony: the intellectual descendants of the modernists—those scientists and theologians who occupy the left wing of the modern “dialogue” of science and religion—exhibit a studied avoidance of the term “design,” disconnecting them on that score from the modernists of the 1920s.

Many other contemporary writers, including some evangelical TEs, are also reluctant to use the word “design,” precisely because in their view it has been co-opted by ID proponents and they do not want readers to misunderstand their position(s). They may agree with ID proponents that certain features of the universe reflect divine design, but because they do not see design as a scientific explanation they employ other language. (Likewise, the YECs have co-opted the word “creationism” to mean just one specific understanding of God’s creative activity, leading most advocates of other views either to provide their own definitions of the word or else to avoid using it altogether. Politics dogs this conversation at every turn.)

With that bit of historical context for the term “Intelligent Design,” let’s now look at the first of the Core Tenets of this perspective in its current state, and as it is most often used by those associated with the Intelligent Design movement.

(1) The Bible is NOT to be mentioned (at least for now); ditto for “God” and “theology” as far as possible.

This is a deliberate strategy, adopted for political reasons to keep arguments at the level of philosophy and science. Here, “political” refers to the American political system, with its constitutional disestablishment of religion, not to partisan politics. Since the 1980s, federal courts have consistently ruled that “creationism” (which was specifically of the YEC variety in the relevant cases) is sectarian religion, not science, and therefore it cannot be taught in public school science classes. Anxious to avoid a similar fate, proponents of ID always want to ensure that they are not perceived as advocates of “creationism.” The less they mention God and the Bible, the reasoning goes, the less likely they are to fall afoul of those decisions.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, pertaining to the freedom of religion and the freedom of the press. (Source)

Phillip Johnson, the former law professor who effectively began the ID movement some twenty years ago, has put it bluntly: “To put things on a more rational basis, the first thing that has to be done is to get the Bible out of the discussion.” He quickly adds, “This is not to say that the biblical issues are unimportant; the point is rather that the time to address them will be after we have separated materialist prejudice from scientific fact.” (“The Wedge: Breaking the Modernist Monopoly on Science,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, July/August 1999, p. 22.)

If God and the Bible are really to be left out for the time being, then why am I discussing ID in a series on “Science and the Bible”? It’s a fair question. I simply don’t see any way meaningfully to avoid talking about ID apart from the culture wars in which it is embedded (I’ll say more about this in a subsequent column), and the Bible is never far from the surface when the battle being fought involves origins. Conservative Christians sense that ID really is about God—Dembski’s “unevolved intelligence”. As Dembski himself has said, “no intelligent agent who is strictly physical could have presided over the origin of the universe or the origin of life”, and there aren’t a lot of candidates for that job. Many Christians also identify strongly with the ways in which ID seeks to confront the secular establishment, in an explicitly-stated effort to combat what Johnson calls “the modernist scientific and intellectual world, with its materialist assumptions.” (“The Wedge,” p. 23.) They see it as a way of getting traditional theistic perspectives and Christian values back into the academy, once “design” has become an acceptable academic talking point—and it isn’t very far from there to conversations about “science and the Bible.” If this were not so, then why would so much ID literature be published by Christian presses? Indeed, when I tell church audiences with a straight face that ID purports not to be about the Bible at all, I’m usually met with considerable skepticism.

(2) The whole universe itself, and some of the objects that compose it (both living and nonliving), exhibit abundant evidence of having been “designed” by an “intelligent designer”; they are NOT products of “blind chance.”

Keep in mind the basic idea of ID, “that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”Design theorists believe that, by analyzing the components of a system, they can determine “whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof.” Dembski has developed an “explanatory filter” for detecting “design” when we find “specified complexity,” enormously improbable events that fit a specific pattern. Such things cannot be accounted for by chance and law alone, or chance and law working together.

I lack sufficient expertise in both mathematics and philosophy to evaluate the finer points of Dembski’s scheme. Some critics dismiss him as a crank, but I dismiss that as ideological bias. Others have complained that Cambridge University Press should never have published his book, The Design Inference, despite the fact that it went successfully through peer review with one of the top academic presses. At the same time, I’m a bit skeptical toward those who think he has decisively demonstrated the validity of his “filter.” A leading Christian philosopher of science who is fully qualified to evaluate it, Robin Collins, stated his reservations in a review article he wrotefor Christian Scholar’s Review in 2001. Dembski replied in the same issue.

Dembski’s filter exemplifies the general case for inferring design by identifying aspects of nature that exhibit what he calls “specified complexity,” patterns that contain specific information and are too complex to have been formed simply by accident. Specific instances of design have been proposed by others, starting with a book written several years before Dembski’s. I refer to what I regard as the first ID book, even though the ID movement per se did not yet exist: The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories, by Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olson (1984). (You can download the whole book here.)

Parts of The Mystery of Life’s Origin are highly technical, but the overall argument is clear from the concluding chapter and the very important “Epilogue” that follows, and which I invite readers to summarize in the comments if they wish. Basically, the authors argue that we just don’t know very much about the origin of life, that we need to reassess current ideas, and that a design principle might be needed if we want a better answer. The tone and content of this book elevate it over most other pro-ID works (or most anti-ID works, for that matter), in my opinion, but some critics still dismiss it as nothing more than religious propaganda—even though it was published by a respected secular press and the authors are respectful (while still critical) of philosophical approaches that differ from theirs. As I said, politics dogs this conversation at every turn.

Interestingly, the authors speak explicitly and often about “God” and “special creation” throughout the “Epilogue.” As I say, they were writing before Johnson’s strategy of avoiding all explicitly religious language was implemented. No less significant, they also appeal to the distinction between “operation science,” in which (they say) “the appeal to God is quite illegitimate,” and “origin science,” in which they clearly believe that “Special Creation [should not be] so summarily dismissed by nearly all writers.” (pp. 203 and 206) This is precisely the distinction invoked so often by advocates of the YEC view, who use it to keep Galileo out of the garden of Eden. Although I used different terminology in that earlier column, where I spoke about “the distinction between fields of science that are sometimes called ‘historical sciences,’ and other fields that are sometimes called ‘experimental sciences’,” I meant the very same thing. To the best of my knowledge, none of the three authors of this book is a YEC, but the fact that they draw this identical distinction only underscores my point (which I will develop further next time) that sometimes it can be awfully hard to separate ID from the YEC view—something that must happen, in my opinion, if ID really wants to distinguish itself from the kind of “creationism” that courts have kept out of public school science classes.

ID proponents also find evidence for design in the “fine tuning” of the whole universe— a concept whose main idea I explained in my column on John Polkinghorne and TE. For an accessible paper on this topic, see this by philosopher William Lane Craig. “Fine tuning” is a place where ID and TE come together, except that we must keep in mind the subtle differences in attitude that I’ve already pointed out: Polkinghorne and other advocates of TE tend to see design arguments as metaphysical, not scientific. I don’t think this is simply a distinction without a difference, and there are also discernible differences in tone. Nevertheless, the same evidence is used by TEs and IDs to draw a similar conclusion: our universe—the only one we can observe, the only one actually known to exist in reality rather than merely on paper—looks pretty special.

The bacterial flagellum as cellular machinery. (Source)

Perhaps the most famous specific instance of “design” offered by ID proponents is the complexity of the machinery found inside cells, especially the bacterial flagellum, the biological equivalent of an outboard motor. Biochemist Michael Behe made this wondrous little machine the poster child for ID in his first book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. Behe claims that certain features of the flagellum exhibit what he calls “irreducible complexity,” meaning that they are just too complex to have been formed from simpler components by an unguided, unplanned process such as Darwinian evolution. Behe puts it this way:

“By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.” (p. 39)

This idea is no less controversial than Dembski’s. Anyone wanting to read a few opinions about it will find far more than they asked for by using a search engine. BioLogos Senior Fellow Dennis Venema has previously written a series on the concept for this site, and is now re-examining it in light of recent studies of bacterial evolution.

Underlying cellular complexity, of course, is information in the genome, and that is just where philosopher of science Stephen Meyer finds much evidence for “design.” His recent book, Signature in the Cell, argues the case at length and in detail. For an exchange between Meyer and Venema about this book, see here and here. Several years ago, Meyer advanced the idea that the “Cambrian explosion” was the “big bang of biology,” an event from which one could also draw a design inference. He did this in some articles and in a film called “Darwin’s Dilemma” that questions the ability of evolution to account for the geologically rather sudden appearance of many new animal phyla at the start of the Cambrian period.

(3) The age of the earth and the universe, the effects of the flood, whether the Bible rules out common ancestry of humans and other animals, whether there was animal death prior to the Fall—all of these are legitimate subjects to debate; but that conversation can happen later, after the existence of an “intelligent designer” has been more widely accepted in the academic establishment.

This isn’t really adding another tenet to the ID program, but I want to make sure we’re all on the same page. Because biblical and theological topics are officially outside of the scope of ID, all of the topics I just identified—which we discussed in earlier columns about the other views of science and the Bible—are not actually part of the ID view. In other words, several of the big questions that separate YECs from OECs and OECs from TEs are left open within ID. Like many other aspects of ID, this one is also “political,” but in the broader sense of balancing competing social and intellectual constituencies, rather than avoiding legal entanglements on account of the U.S. Constitution. ID is a “big tent” in which, at least in principle, proponents of YEC and OEC and TE can co-exist in a common front against doubters of design, while leaving divisive theological and biblical subjects for another time. Philosopher Paul Nelson, one of a few YECs with a highly visible role in the ID movement, offers an interesting insider’s view in “Life in the Big Tent: Traditional Creatonism and the Intelligent Design Community.”

I’ll have more to say about the “Big Tent” in a future column. For now, the first goal of ID is get the idea of transcendental design back on the table for serious discussion in academic circles. The rest can come later.

Copyright 1977 by Sidney Harris, from American Scientist (November-December 1977). (Source)

(4) Methodological naturalism (MN) is not a legitimate principle to employ, when it comes to understanding the origin(s) of objects exemplifying “specified complexity.” MN arbitrarily restricts science to finding only “natural” causes, when “intelligent” causes may actually be operative in some instances. Furthermore, MN is tantamount to “methodological atheism,” and to insist on it in each and every case leads to ontological (or metaphysical) naturalism—another word for atheism.

This might be the single most important tenet of ID, even more important than (2), that the universe itself, and some of the objects that compose it (both living and nonliving), exhibit abundant evidence of having been “designed.” This is also probably the most controversial of the tenets, and in order to see why, we need to understand the meaning of methodological naturalism.

A few years ago, when historian Ronald Numbers tried to determine who coined the term (“Science Without God,” p. 320 note 2), he tentatively credited it to philosopher Paul de Vries of Wheaton College, who had used it in a paper he delivered at an academic conference in 1983 and then published three years later (see the Print References). His article is not available on the internet, but one can get a good sense of his idea and what motivated him from a commentary written by Southern Baptist theologian Hal Poe and his former student Chelsea Mytyk. De Vries stressed that MN is simply a disciplinary method that makes no claims about God’s existence, while “metaphysical naturalism” is a wider philosophical position that denies a transcendent God. Many TEs endorse precisely this distinction, whereas I cannot name any ID author who likes it. This may indeed be the single most fundamental difference between TE and ID.

It’s worth noting in passing, however, that de Vries was not actually the first person to speak about “methodological naturalism.” Several authors since the early twentieth century have used the term, though not always with the same precise meaning. Perhaps the most significant of these was theologian Edgar Brightman, a student of Borden Parker Bowne, whose philosophy of religious “personalism” influenced some important modernist Protestants from the 1920s. Brightman discussed a form of MN on pp. 213-14 of A Philosophy of Religion(1940), a work that influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.

For our purposes, though, I’ll use the definition from an article I wrote with philosopher Robin Collins (who was at the time a Fellow of The Discovery Institute). We defined MN as “the belief that science should explain phenomena only in terms of entities and properties that fall within the category of the natural, such as by natural laws acting either through known causes or by chance.” This is to be distinguished from “ontological naturalism” (or “scientific naturalism”), “the claim that nature is all that there is and hence that there is no supernatural order above nature,” plus “the claim that all objects, processes, truths, and facts about nature fall within the scope of the scientific method.”

Ever since the Pre-Socratic philosophers, scientists and physicians have insisted on giving “natural” explanations for “natural” phenomena, leaving miracles explicitly out of science. Christians have done likewise, going back at least to the high Middle Ages if not earlier. It would be easy to cite many “big name” examples, including Johannes Kepler and Robert Boyle. Readers who want to know more about this are invited to consult the essays by Numbers and Davis & Collins in the appended list of references. I’ve also seen several more examples in an excellent essay on the topic of God and MN by a Christian philosopher (whose name does not appear anywhere in this column), but it would be inappropriate for me to cite it before it’s been published.

This doesn’t mean that no scientists believe in miracles; quite the contrary—probably tens of thousands of American scientists (including many TEs) believe that miracles are possible and that some have happened. They simply don’t believe that miracles can be part of scientific explanations. Even proponents of the YEC view don’t invoke miracles in what they call “operation science” (or “experimental science” or “ordinary science”), reserving them only for “origin science” (or “historical science”).

According to mainstream science (including most advocates of TE), scientific explanations are “natural” explanations; they can’t invoke the “supernatural,” i.e., God or the gods or miracles. To some extent, I think that ID cannot entirely escape this problem, as I explained in my previous column. However, another important distinction poses “natural” causes vis-à-vis “intelligent” causes, which are not necessarily “supernatural.” We all know, for example, that skyscrapers don’t come about “naturally,” but they require “intelligent” causes to design them. The real question is whether any “natural” objects—such as galaxies, rocks, trees, or people—also require “intelligent” causes to design them and, if so, whether such causes should be part of any scientific explanations of those objects. Dembski’s idea of “specified complexity” and Behe’s idea of “irreducible complexity” come into play just at this point. ID proponents believe that the scientific toolbox needs to include “design,” an explanatory tool that includes rather than excludes intelligent causation as part of the explanation for how certain things came into existence. Their opponents think the scientific toolbox is large enough as is, without adding “design” to the set.

This is a difference of opinion about the nature of science itself. As a philosophical argument, it’s not likely to be settled by appeals to bacterial appendages or the Cambrian explosion or pseudogenes in humans and chimps. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, “design” was generally accepted or assumed within science. During the Scientific Revolution, a split began to take place, as some scientists argued that invoking design had no scientific benefit (design might explain why we have something, but now how it works), even though almost all of the early scientists were Christians who fully accepted the reality of a God who had, in fact, designed all of nature. By around the middle of the 19th century—coinciding with Darwin, who sought to make biology look more like physics and astronomy, disciplines in which unbroken “natural laws” already held sway—design largely disappeared from scientific discourse.

NOTE: Contrary to what is sometimes said, natural theology did not disappear after Darwin. Scientists themselves (not just philosophers and theologians) continued to contribute to it, right down to our own day (Polkinghorne is an obvious example). It’s simply that one no longer expects to find “God” or “design” (in the transcendent sense that is clearly meant by ID proponents) in scientific literature.

There are probably several reasons for this development, but I’m not confident that I understand them well enough to talk about it here. For our purposes, it’s enough just to state that ID proponents want to reverse this history. As William Dembski has written, “The scientific picture of the world championed since the Enlightenment is not just wrong but massively wrong.” What is the root problem? “Naturalism is the intellectual pathology of our age. It artificially constricts the life of the mind and shuts down inquiry into the transcendent.” ID, on the other hand, is “the only alternative” to naturalistic evolution, and in order for it to succeed we must “dump methodological naturalism. We need to realize that methodological naturalism is the functional equivalent of a full-blown metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism asserts that nature is self-sufficient. Methodological naturalism asks us for the sake of science to pretend that nature is self-sufficient.” (Intelligent Design, pp. 224, 120 and 119, his italics)

Advocates of ID challenge both forms of naturalism at every opportunity. In their view, MN is really nothing but “methodological atheism,” another term that rose to prominence in the debate about ID but also originated earlier. (It might have been introduced by sociologist Peter Berger in the late 1960s.) According to Phillip Johnson, the founder of the ID movement, “Methodological atheism and [the world view of] naturalism are identical.” (Reason in the Balance, note on p. 99, his italics) Thus, some ID thinkers—especially the evangelical philosophers Alvin Plantinga, Steven Meyer, and J. P. Moreland—have made the case for rejecting MN in favor of what Moreland calls “theistic science” or Plantinga calls “Augustinian science”. Another evangelical philosopher, Robert O’Connor, offers a vigorous defense of MN. Many other Christian scholars have weighed in on this; some examples are among the links assembled here. (In passing, let me note that most of these articles were published in the ASA’s journal. This belies the charge sometimes made by ID advocates that the ASA is unfriendly to their position; I think this simply reflects frustration that more ASA members have not found ID sufficiently persuasive.)

So—is MN in fact equivalent to atheism? That’s the rock bottom question here, and there simply is no consensus—neither among Christians nor even among atheists, for that matter. I defended it myself several years ago in a brief exchange with Phillip Johnson, who had written a letter in reply to my review of three ID books, including one of his, which ran as a cover story for Reports of the National Center for Science Education.

Let me give the final word to Loren Wilkinson of Regent College, whose short article, “Does Methodological Naturalism lead to Metaphysical Naturalism?” should not be missed:

“What is at issue, therefore, is not the fact of an elusive and ultimately unattainable scientific description [a complete scientific description of the origin and development of living things], but rather whether the ideal of such a description is incompatible with the loving, personal, creator God revealed to us in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. Yet the ideal that complete understanding of a process excludes God from the picture contradicts our normal Christian practice. We regularly, for example, thank God for our food: rightly recognizing it as God’s provision. Yet we could, if we took the effort, trace the corn or tomato back through many manmade and ‘natural’ processes to its source. The practice of the ‘methodological atheism’ of going regularly to the store (or the garden) to obtain such food does not necessarily produce ‘metaphysical atheism’ in the eater, who still ought to thank God for his provision.” (Darwinism Defeated? pp. 169-70)

Graphic based on the testimony given by philosopher Barbara Forrest at the Kitzmiller v Dover trial in the autumn of 2005. (Source)

(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. AguillardOf 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.

Advertisement for a debate about ID and God held in 2008. (Source)

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 a 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.

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

(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.

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About the author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is 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.