If Isaac Newton were alive today, he would almost certainly be a supporter of the scientists, philosophers, educators, and everyday citizens championing a theory of the universe known as “Intelligent Design.” Yet the words “Intelligent Design” stir up intense controversy in today’s society.
Critics claim that I.D. is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to resurrect Creationism and insert religion into the public classrooms. But proponents of Intelligent Design are not all Christian. In fact, there are more than a few evolutionists who subscribe to the theory known as I.D. for short.
Intelligent Design is not synonymous with biblical Creation. It is true that all Creationists are, by nature of their belief, in broad agreement with I.D. But it is equally true that not all those who embrace I.D. believe in biblical Creationism. All employees of Ford Motor Company work in the automotive industry, but not all those in the automotive industry work for Ford.
This two-part look at Intelligent Design will not attempt to tackle the debate over the Genesis account of Creation. Rather, we will compare and contrast the Intelligent Design explanation for the universe and life with the Darwinian theory of natural selection. At the end, we will see which is the more plausible. First, a critical look at Darwinian evolution.
Naturalistic Evolution – the Current Orthodoxy
What is evolution? As explained by the American National Association of Biology Teachers in an infamous 1995 position statement, evolution is “an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modifications that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.”
Despite polls which suggest enormous public doubt with naturalism, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution commands the top of the cultural hill in modern society. It is the undisputed (no other theory being allowed to dispute it) theory in state-funded academia, cultural centers, and in the media.
Michigan serves as a recent case in point, where the State Board of Education voted unanimously to prohibit the teaching of Intelligent Design in science classes. Responding to critics of evolution in defending the Board’s decision, Board member John Austin declared: “Evolution is not under stress. It is not untested science.”
In a May 2006 op-ed for The Washington Post, Paul Hanle, the president of the Biotechnology Institute, wrote: “By teaching intelligent design or other variants of creationism in science classes at public schools — or by undercutting the credibility of evolution — we are greatly diminishing our chances for future scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations, and are endangering our health, safety and economic well-being as individuals and as a nation.”
The American Sociological Association recently declared: “Efforts to qualify, limit, or exclude the teaching of biological evolution in U.S. public science curricula would adversely affect national science literacy, academic achievement, and technological and scientific advancement.”
It wasn’t always this way. Not so long ago, evolution was the theory fighting for academic recognition and freedom. A popular 1925 court case in Dayton, Tennessee pitted the state legislature of Tennessee against the American Civil Liberties Union (which had recruited a substitute biology teacher named John Scopes to break a Creation-only statute).
The ACLU corralled legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow to champion Scopes in the courtroom. The prosecution countered with the brilliant orator and Democratic Party leader William Jennings Bryan.
The case was a national spectacle, and a loss for the ACLU. But over time, thanks to the news reporting of H.L. Mencken (which any objective analyst would consider “vicious”) and a popular play and movie named Inherit the Wind, the public came to regard Scopes and Darrow as the heroes of the Scopes Trial, with Bryan and his supporters the villains and ignorant extremists.
But if evolutionary scientists were fighting for academic freedom in the 1920s, they are far from embracing that today. They have made every attempt to ridicule, condemn, and suppress any theory of origin contrary to naturalistic, unsupervised evolution.
H. Allen Orr, writing for New Yorker magazine, defends the modern scientific community, pointing out that they refuse to seriously engage I.D. primarily for “strategic reasons.”
He points out that if “a scientific claim can be loosely defined as one that scientists take seriously enough to debate, then engaging the intelligent-design movement on scientific grounds…cedes what it most desires: recognition that its claims are legitimate scientific ones.” Consequently, evolution is considered beyond the pale of critical analysis or discussion. It has become, quite simply, sacred. Is this justified?
The Problems With Naturalistic, Macroevolution
Evolution, as understood and interpreted by most of its leading advocates, is based on naturalism, a philosophy steeped in empiricism and one that inherently rejects the supernatural. Therefore, a natural explanation for the universe and life is all that can be entertained.
Says the National Center for Science Education: “Scientific explanations are based on human observations of natural processes…Science does not claim that God does not exist. However, whether or not scientists believe in God, by the very definition of science, they cannot offer God´s intervention as the explanation for whatever they seek to explain.”
So, what’s the problem? People look to science to explain the way the universe and all life works. They look to science for answers. Science, of course, endeavors to provide those answers, and has articulated many laws that govern our universe, enhanced our quality of life, and provided great insight into the origins of our universe. As science seeks to learn more about the origins of our universe, it considers data in its investigation. And then it considers theories which might answer these questions.
Well, if nature is all that can be considered, then any type of god is ruled out of the equation. If there is no god (and, for all practical purposes, scientists must assume that there is no god – if they are going to maintain a strict naturalistic outlook), there must then be a NATURAL explanation for the universe. This, of course, is a philosophical judgment. But one should acknowledge that macroevolutionary science then is based on a philosophical premise. Not a scientific one.
Let’s make no mistake here. This is precisely what occurs. According to the National Center for Science Education, a “theory is a statement of general principles that explain many facts by means of natural processes.” Note the reference to “natural processes.”
So, what happens then is that science provides a naturalistic (and that means, for all intents and purposes, atheistic) explanation for the origin of the universe and all life – which then becomes the basis for so many other subjects taught in school, informs our debates over public policy, and is used to critically examine various, applicable religious beliefs.
Some readers may again ask: “So, what’s the problem?” Well, first, science is offering an explanation for the origin of the universe and a critique of alternative religious explanations (biblical Creationism, Intelligent Design, pantheism, etc) based on its own naturalistic assumptions.
For example, the earth is estimated at 4.5 billion years old, but the radiometric dating method used to arrive at the number is itself based on certain assumptions and presuppositions that understandably rule out supernatural intervention. Thus, science cannot conclusively say that the earth is 4.5 billion years old – only that it appears to be 4.5 billion years old. The same for the universe, which they estimate to be 14-15 billion years old. Bottom line: Naturalistic assumptions lead ultimately to naturalistic conclusions.
The second problem is that naturalistic evolution brings us back to the logical inconsistencies and dilemmas addressed in the previous article. Not to mention a host of unanswered questions. How can an evolving universe also be decaying? How can an evolving universe be uncaused? When did the evolutionary process begin?
Evolutionists typically sidestep these cosmological questions and point to animals demonstrating differences over time in development and appearance – changes that mirror their environment. In other words, evolutionists point to adaptation.
This leads to the third problem with naturalistic macroevolution. Let us agree that there is considerable, overwhelming evidence for intra-species adaptation, known sometimes as microevolution. But this is not the point of contention. The controversial part of Darwinian evolution is not that species adapt to their surroundings, but rather that one species can evolve into an entirely different species. The fossil record just doesn’t back it up.
This should be devastating to anyone who respects the scientific method. If there is little hard evidence to support the idea of one species (say a dinosaur) evolving into another species (a bird), how can we claim this occurred? The only answer evolutionists have here boils down to similarity. Apes and humans, they argue, are so similar genetically that they must share a common ancestor. Thus, evolutionists have pieced together evolutionary puzzles for intra-species evolution. To date, there has been not one verifiable and indisputable fossil discovery to support these evolutionary trees.
And finally, science has shown the existence of atoms, molecules, and cells – and has thus unveiled a wonder of complexity that we are still struggling to comprehend. This complexity defies random, unsupervised, gradual evolution. Scientist and ID advocate Michael Behe explains that an “irreducibly complex biological system” cannot evolve over time because the “removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”
Naturalistic evolution simply cannot account for the intricacies and wonders of the universe. The great physicist Lord Kelvin (aka William Thomson) agrees: “Overwhelmingly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us…the atheistic idea is so non-sensical that I cannot put it into words.”
Too bad the mainstream scientific community doesn’t agree with Lord Kelvin’s observation.
“You contain a trillion copies of a large, textual document written in a highly accurate, digital code, each copy as voluminous as a substantial book,” explains renowned scientist Richard Dawkins, commenting on our DNA makeup. As Dawkins himself would admit, any minor adjustment in this “textual document” would have dramatic consequences.
Yet, Dawkins doesn’t believe this complex DNA bears the imprint of a divine, supernatural power. According to Dawkins, science itself “offers us an explanation of how complexity (the difficult) arose out of simplicity (the easy). The hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile explanation for anything, for it simply postulates what we are trying to explain.”
The explanation for the existence and complexities of the universe, including conscious life, that atheists such as Dawkins prefer is naturalism. Dawkins’ most recent book The God Delusion is a literary declaration of war against religion and proponents of Intelligent Design. Rather, argues Dawkins, Darwin’s theory of natural selection is more than sufficient to explain such wonders as our voluminous DNA makeup.
Is Dawkins’ dismissal of theism and Intelligent Design justified?
What is “Intelligent Design”?
For years, the leading alternative theory to evolution was creationism, typically understood according to the biblical book of Genesis (although many within the various faith groups differed as to the interpretive details of the Genesis account). By the 1960s and 70s, naturalism had, for all intents and purposes, completely displaced biblical creationism in the scientific community and mainstream academia.
The decisive victory of naturalism was made possible by the fact that creationism was primarily a religious explanation. And, beginning in the 1960s, religion was ruled out of the classroom and seriously restricted in the public square by an exuberant Supreme Court.
Then came Intelligent Design. According to the Intelligent Design Network, the theory of Intelligent Design (or “ID” for short) represents a “scientific disagreement with the core claim of evolutionary theory that the apparent design of living systems is an illusion.” It is a disagreement fiercely unwelcome by the mainstream scientific community.
ID is not synonomous with biblical creationism. While biblical creationism would arguably fit within the large ID umbrella, there are many (and perhaps a majority of) ID proponents who reject Creationism. Nevertheless, one does not have to believe the Bible is inerrant or embrace a six-day Creationist model in order to respect the ID position.
So what is it? Dr. Stephen Meyer, one of the architects of ID and a leader of the Discovery Institute, explains that the “theory of intelligent design holds that there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause.”
According to the Intelligent Design Network, ID claims that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.”
Thus, ID is more in keeping with philosopher William Paley than with Genesis. Paley, an Enlightenment-era religious philosopher, developed the most famous argument for a divine designer in his landmark book Natural Theology. In its pages, Paley lays out his famous watchmaker analogy as follows:
…when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive… that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it…
The inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker — that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.
Naturalistic evolution is a direct challenge to Paley’s watchmaker theory, in that it holds that the complex universe and the reality of conscious life came about by natural selection – a grand, cosmic progression committed to the survival and continuance. Where theists argue that it is highly improbable, if not impossible, for a complex world to evolve from chance, naturalists counter that incremental, evolutionary progression can get the job done just fine.
Dawkins is a huge proponent, of course, of natural selection. “[N]atural selection is a cumulative process which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces,” explains Dawkins in his latest book. “Each of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so.
When large numbers of these slightly improbable events are stacked up in series, the end product of the accumulation is very, very improbable indeed, improbable enough to be beyond the reach of chance.” Beyond the “reach of chance,” that is, if the end product were expected to come all at once.
Boiled down to its essentials, Dawkins and other atheists argue that incrementalism (small steps in evolutionary progress) make natural selection the most compelling scientific explanation for the universe. The credibility of this evolutionary arguments rests, of course, on its plausibility. And that is something the author of Origin of the Species himself recognized.
Charles Darwin once wrote: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” In other words, according to its founder, the theory of evolution rests on the possibility of complex organs evolving to their present form through successive modifications or mutations.
Never mind the self-serving audacity of Darwin here. He puts the burden of proof on his critics, rather than accepting it for himself. He, after all, was the one proposing a new theory. But never mind that. The point is that, if Darwin’s standard is at all meaningful, evolution has been disproven. You read that right. If the standard is fair, Darwin and Dawkins have long been proven wrong.
Biochemist Michael Behe, one of the most influential proponents of ID, examined various complex organisms, including the human eye and even the flagellum. He found these organisms to be intricate, detailed, and “irreducible.” This creates an insurmountable problem for Darwin – one that, by his own standard, decimates his theory.
Behe explains: “An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced gradually by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, since any precursor to an irreducibly complex system is by definition nonfunctional.” And a nonfunctional system would never survive in an extended timeline where “survival of the fittest” was the rule.
The complexity of the universe, the nature of life, and the “irreducible complexity” of numerous basic organisms all point to the work of a designer, according to ID theorists. Says the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center:
“…we use observations about how intelligent design works in the present to look at aspects of the natural world to see if they are designed.” Accordingly, the ID theory derives solely from “applying observations about intelligent action and principles of information theory to the construction of biological systems, and nothing more.”
Intelligent Design Criticized
The leading classical response to the “design” argument for a God of some kind came from the pen of philosopher David Hume. In his Dialogues on Natural Religion, Hume critically weighs the design argument through fictional characters. Through his fictitious skeptic, Philo, Hume seeks to pick apart Haley’s 19th-century intelligent design argument.
He dismisses as unconvincing any claim that human planning on earth might resemble divine planning of the cosmos. He also points out that proving the existence of a divine designer, in no way, sheds light on God’s attributes.
Hume also argued that the world was “faulty and imperfect,” and this therefore undermines the concept of a perfect, flawless designer. According to Hume’s Philo, “you must acknowledge that it is impossible for us to tell, from our limited views, whether this system [or creator] contains any great faults or deserves any considerable praise.”
Hume’s responses to Haley are strong enough to limit the distance one can go with ID. Hume does a good job of proving that ID doesn’t get you to the God of the Bible, and that ID still leaves a lot of questions to be answered in its own right. However, aside from those accomplishments, Hume’s argument fails to displace ID.
However, over time, naturalists began to see Paley’s analogy of a watch as supportive of naturalistic evolution. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains: “[Paley’s] idea of a complex, perfected organism dropping suddenly amidst foreign surroundings, as illustrated by the finding of a watch, was the dogmatic externalism the rebound from which gave birth to the subsequent hypotheses of natural selection and adaptation to environment and the theory of evolution as a whole.”
Another line of criticism of ID is that it is merely a “theory of the gaps.” Does ID merely “fill in the gaps” of Darwinian naturalism? Yes, answers Dawkins. In The God Delusion, he writes: “Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it.
Chris Toumay, writing for the American Anthropological Association, declares: “The core of intelligent design theory is the belief that, because we do not know the entire natural history of a complex phenomenon, it must be a miracle.”
John Andrews, president of the American Phytopathological Society, agrees: “There is no scientific evidence for intelligent design, nor can there be because it is essentially a belief-based concept.” No evidence?
Judging the merits of this critique rests on a more fundamental question: What evidence is admissible in the court of science?
According to the Intelligent Design Network, “ID is controversial because of the implications of its evidence, rather than the significant weight of its evidence. ID proponents believe science should be conducted objectively, without regard to the implications of its findings” (emphasis theirs). In other words, ID is rejected by the mainstream scientific community, because it appeals to the supernatural. And that is a big no-no.
Mainstream science today rests on the premise of naturalism. Steeped in modernism and now sprinkled with postmodernism, these scientists utterly reject the possibility of the supernatural. Miracles are out. Speculation is in, but only if it involves testable, natural explanations.
But what if the scientific evidence points to supernatural possibilities? What if that evidence is stronger for a supernatural explanation than for a natural one? ID is more than a “theory of the gaps.” It’s about observations. According to the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center:
Intelligent design theory makes inferences based upon observations about the types of complexity that can be produced by the action of intelligent agents vs. the types of information that can be produced through purely natural processes to infer that life was designed by an intelligence or multiple intelligences.
Darwin loyalists counter that ID’s assessment of these observations amounts to a philosophical or religious conclusion. But is this any different than evolution? Didn’t Darwin base his work on observation? Why is analysis of our observations okay for evolutionists but not for proponents of ID?
The answer: Naturalists only admit theories, analyses, or evidence that corroborates a naturalistic (indeed atheistic) hypothesis or conclusion. No other possibilities need apply.
Consequently, the logical, natural outcome of any study of the universe – any study, that is, based on such biased and restrictive policies – is naturalistic evolution. Biology professor Robert Durit lays it out clearly:
“Biological order and design emerge from the workings of the evolutionary process and not from the hand of a designer.” In other words, it was an accident. If you rule out any consideration of a supernatural possibility, this is your only option.
But is it fair to allow mainstream, modern science to get away with this? The effect of this naturalist-only position is to bar any question about a designer. So, if the universe appears designed, we are not even allowed to consider the possibility of a designer? Is that science?
And if modern science remains firmly naturalistic and closes all doors to investigating the possibility of an external, supernatural intelligent force, then it must restrict itself in its conclusive assertions. In other words, science has no right to claim that naturalistic evolution is factually correct, only that it is the best naturalistic explanation for the universe and all life.
Few argue with the fact that, overall, the universe and all life evince some design and systematic order. You, the reader, have a choice in explaining this condition. Either this came about by accident or it was deliberate.
Atheists like Dawkins may sneer at the word “chance,” but whether it’s a sudden “pop” or a gradual climb, the underlying assumption of an atheistic view of evolution comes ultimately down to chance. Natural selection, if not guided by an intelligent, external force, is an accident of nature. So, in explaining the universe, it’s either accident or design. There is no other alternative, Dawkins’ protestations notwithstanding.
This article cannot prove Intelligent Design, not as a stand-alone. However, previous articles have shown the extreme likelihood that there is some supernatural cause to the universe. The theory of evolution, in fact, strengthens the case for a divine cause of some sort. Something, after all, had to initiate evolution.
If we accept the likelihood of a divine cause at the origin of the universe, then the theory of ID enjoys instant credibility. Weighing the evidence and arguments cumulatively, one can see that it is logical – even reasonable – to conclude that the universe was initiated and designed by a divine and intelligent cosmic force. While this does not bring us to the God of the Bible, it does get us one very important step closer.