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Situating Intelligent Design in the Contemporary Debate

Let me now respond to these concerns. I'll start with Eugenie Scott. Design theorists have hardly been reticent about their program. I've certainly laid it out as I see it both in the introduction to Mere Creation and in chapter four of Intelligent Design . What Scott is complaining about has less to do with the forthrightness of design theorists about their intellectual program than with the increased challenge that intelligent design presents to defenders of Darwinism as compared with creationism. Creationism offers critics like Eugenie Scott a huge fixed target. Creationism takes the Bible literally and makes the debate over Darwinism into a Bible-science controversy. In a culture where the Bible has been almost universally rejected by the cultural elite, creationism is therefore a non-starter.

But isn't it true that design theorists are largely Bible-believers and that their reason for not casting intelligent design as a Bible-science controversy is pure expedience and not principle? In other words, isn't it just the case that we realize creationism hasn't been working, and so we decided to recast it and salvage as much of it as we can? This criticism seems to me completely backwards. For one thing, most of the leaders in the intelligent design movement did not start out as creationists and then turn to design. Rather, we started squarely in the Darwinian camp and then had to work our way out of it. The intellectual journey of most design theorists is therefore quite different from the intellectual journey of many erstwhile creationists, who in getting educated renounced their creationism (cf. Ron Number's The Creationists in which Numbers argues that the correlation between increased education and loss of confidence in creationism is near perfect).

In my own case, I was raised in a home where my father had a D.Sc. in biology (from the University of Erlangen in Germany), taught evolutionary biology at the college level, and never questioned Darwinian orthodoxy during my years growing up. My story is not atypical. Biologists Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, and Dean Kenyon all started out adhering to Darwinism and felt no religious pull to renounce it. In Behe's case, as a Roman Catholic, there was simply no religious reason to question Darwin. In so many of our cases, what led us out of Darwinism was its inadequacies as a scientific theory as well as the prospect of making design scientifically tractable.

It's worth noting that the effort to make the design of natural systems scientifically tractable has at best been a peripheral concern of young earth creationists historically. There have been exceptions, like A. E. Wilder-Smith, who sought to identify the information in biological systems and connect it with a designer/creator. But the principal texts of the Institute for Creation Research, for instance, typically took a very different line from trying to make design a program of scientific research. Instead of admitting that Darwinian theory properly belonged to science and then trying to formulate design as a replacement theory, young earth creationists typically claimed that neither Darwinism nor design could properly be regarded as scientific (after all, so the argument went, no one was there to observe what either natural selection or a designer did in natural history).

Intelligent design's historical roots do not ramify through young earth creationism. Rather, our roots go back to the tradition of British natural theology (which took design to have actual scientific content), to the tradition of Scottish common sense realism (notably the work of Thomas Reid), and to the informed critiques of Darwinism that have consistently appeared ever since Darwin published his Origin (e.g., Louis Agassiz, St. George Mivart, Richard Goldschmidt, Pierre Grassé, Gerald Kerkut, Michael Polanyi, Marcel Schützenberger, and Michael Denton).

Why then are so many of us in the intelligent design movement Christians? I don't think it is because intelligent design is intrinsically Christian or even theistic. Rather, I think it has to do with the Christian evangelical community for now providing the safest haven for intelligent design -- which is not to say that the haven is particularly safe by any absolute standard. Anyone who has followed the recent events of Baylor's Michael Polanyi Center, the first intelligent design think-tank at a research university, will realize just how intense the opposition to intelligent design is even among Christians. Baylor is a Baptist institution that prides itself as being the flagship of evangelical colleges and universities (which includes schools like Wheaton College and Valparaiso University). Although an independent peer review committee validated intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry, the committee changed the center's name and took the center's focus off intelligent design. What's more, after months of censorship by the Baylor administration and vilification by Baylor faculty, I was finally removed as director of the center.

Now my treatment at Baylor is hardly unique among my compatriots in the design movement. Dean Kenyon, despite being a world leader in the study of chemical evolution, was barred by the biology department at San Francisco State University from critiquing the very ideas that earlier he had formulated and that subsequently he found defective. Refusing to have his academic freedom abridged, he was then removed from teaching introductory biology courses, despite being a very senior and well-published member of the department. Only after the Wall Street Journal exposed San Francisco State University's blatant violation of Kenyon's academic freedom was the biology department forced to back down. I am frequently asked what is the latest research that supports intelligent design, and I find myself having to be reticent about who is doing what precisely because of enormous pressure that opponents of design employ to discredit these researchers, undermine their position, and cause them to lose their funding (upon request, I'm willing to name names of people and groups that engage in these tactics -- though not the names of researchers likely to be on the receiving end of these tactics).

To sum up, intelligent design faces tremendous opposition from our culture's elite, who in many instances are desperate to discredit it. What's more, within the United States the Christian evangelical world has thusfar been the most hospitable place for intelligent design (and this despite opposition like at Baylor). Also relevant is that Christianity remains the majority worldview for Americans. Thus on purely statistical grounds one would expect most proponents of intelligent design to be Christians. But not all of them. David Berlinski is a notable counterexample. I could name other counterexamples, but to spare them from harassment by opponents of design, I won't. (By the way, if you think I'm being paranoid, please pick up a copy of the November issue of the American Spectator, which has an article about Baylor's Michael Polanyi Center and my then imminent removal as its director; I think you'll find that my suspicions are justified and that it's the dogmatic opponents of design who are paranoid.)

Well, what then is this intelligent design research program that Eugenie Scott regards as even more disreputable than that of the young earth creationists? Because intelligent design is a fledgling science, it is still growing and developing and thus cannot be characterized in complete detail. Nonetheless, its broad outlines are clear enough. I place the start of the intelligent design movement with the publication in 1984 of The Mystery of Life's Origin by Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen. The volume is significant in two ways. First, though written by three Christians and critiquing origin-of-life scenarios, it focused purely on the scientific case for and against abiogenesis. Thus it consciously avoided casting its critique as part of a Bible-science controversy. Second, though highly critical of non-telic naturalistic origin-of-life scenarios and thus a ready target for anti-creationists, the book managed to get published with a secular publisher. It took well over 100 manuscript submissions to get it published. MIT Press, for instance, had accepted it, subsequently went through a shake-up of its editorial board, and then turned it down. The book was finally published by Philosophical Library, which had published books by eight Nobel laureates.

The next key texts in the design movement were Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis's Of Pandas and People, and Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial, which appeared over the next seven years. Like The Mystery of Life's Origin, these were principally critiques of naturalistic evolutionary theories, though each of them also raised the possibility of intelligent design. The critiques took two forms, one a scientific critique focusing on weaknesses of naturalistic theories, the other a philosophical critique examining the role of naturalism as both a metaphysical and methodological principle in propping up the naturalistic theories, and especially neo-Darwinism.

Except for The Mystery of Life's Origin, which in some ways was a research monograph, the strength of these texts lay not in their novelty. Many of the criticisms had been raised before. A. E. Wilder-Smith had raised such criticisms within the creationist context, though in a correspondence I had with him in the late 80s he lamented that the Institute for Creation Research would no longer publish his works. Michael Polanyi had raised questions about the sufficiency of natural laws to account for biological complexity in the late 60s, and I know from conversations with Charles Thaxton that this work greatly influenced his thinking and made its way into The Mystery of Life's Origin . Gerald Kerkut about a decade earlier had asked one of his students in England for the evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution and received a ready answer; but when he asked for the evidence against Darwinian evolution, all he met was silence. This exchange prompted his 1960 text Implications of Evolution, whose criticisms also influenced the early design theorists.

Nonetheless, compared to previous critics of Darwinism, the early design theorists had a significant advantage: Unlike previous critics, who were either isolated (cf. Marcel Schützenberger, who although a world-class mathematician, was ostracized in the European community for his anti-Darwinian views) or confined to a ghetto subculture (cf. the young earth creationists with their in-house publishing companies), the early design theorists were united, organized, and fully cognizant of the necessary means for engaging both mass and high culture. As a consequence, criticism of Darwinism and scientific naturalism could at last reach a critical mass. In the past, criticism had been too sporadic and isolated, and thus could readily be ignored. Not any longer.

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Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Situating Intelligent Design in the Contemporary Debate

Cards on the Table
Intelligent Design as a Positive Research Program
Nature's Formational Economy
Can Specified Complexity Even Have a Mechanism?
How Can an Unembodied Intelligence Interact with the Natural World?
Must All the Design in the Natural World Be Front-Loaded?
The Distinction Between Natural and Non-Natural Designers
The Question of Motives


William A. Dembski
Dr. William Dembski

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