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ss nucleus - winter 2005,  Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design

Paul Nelson examines an exciting movement that is shaping the evolution debate

The observation was only a pair of sentences near the end of a review - just the sort of point made in passing that a hasty reader might overlook. But those two sentences in the journal Science, from Yale University biology professor Timothy Goldsmith, reflect a historic shift in the debate over origins, a shift that promises both opportunities and challenges for evangelical Christians.

Goldsmith was reviewing Evolution, a television series that aimed to counter the recent growth of scepticism about naturalistic evolution in the United States. In commenting on the last segment, ‘What About God?’ which surveyed the creation/evolution debate, Goldsmith noted:

My one criticism of this coverage is that it may leave the impression that anti-evolutionists are all young-earth creationists. Such is not the case; anti-evolutionists occupy a broad theological spectrum and they are not all Christians.[1]

Now, why is this observation so significant?

The birth of intelligent design

The authorities of science have long said that ‘anti-evolutionists’ - meaning those who dissent from Darwin’s theory of the common descent of life via undirected natural causes - are simply Protestant fundamentalists whose literal reading of Genesis cannot allow them to accept the obvious truth of evolution. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the categories of ‘anti-evolutionist’ or ‘creationist’ would indeed have been occupied mainly by such persons. I shall term this group ‘traditional creationists,’ meaning anyone who thinks that God directly created everything in six 24-hour days, several thousand years ago.[2]

Over the past decade, however, the demographics of dissent from neodarwinian evolution have changed dramatically. In some discussions on university campuses or internet listserves, traditional creationists now find themselves distinctly in the minority among skeptics of neodarwinism. And although they have grown accustomed to scorn from evolutionary scientists, traditional creationists may be unhappy to discover that they are often cast by their own allies (other antidarwinians) as the poor cousins: sincere but somewhat embarrassing folk, whose unsophisticated manners and naive beliefs should be kept quietly in the background when others are talking about science.

But such is the price of success. What creationists have sought throughout the 20th century is an open-ended debate about the truth of darwinian evolution. That debate has now arrived, in the emergence of the intelligent design (ID) movement. As Goldsmith noted, one can no longer accurately characterise dissenters from darwinian evolution strictly as ‘young-earth’, traditional creationists. In this article, I shall briefly recount the history of this shift, locating it (in large measure) in the work of the law professor Phillip Johnson. I then explain that, while it may prove unsettling to many Christians, the growth of a broader debate about evolution and creation can actually be seen as a boon for those struggling to discern the proper relationship of science and faith, how to understand Genesis and how to defend the Christian worldview in a hostile secular culture. While life in the ‘big tent’ of the intelligent design community certainly requires a period of acclimatisation, Christians - in particular, traditional creationists - should welcome their new ID surroundings.

Historical background

Let’s begin with some history. The year 1987 is a noteworthy turning point in the American debate over the science and philosophy of origins. In that year, a 26-year cultural battle appeared to have been decisively ended, with the Edwards v Aguillard decision of the US Supreme Court. This declared ‘creation science’ to be a religious belief and thus illegal to be taught in state-funded schools.

The battle had begun in 1961 with the publication of Henry Morris and John Whitcomb’s classic The Genesis Flood. This book sparked the rapid growth of creation science (as it came to be called), with its emphases on a young earth, a global flood, separately created kinds of animals and plants, and a specially created Adam and Eve as the progenitors of humankind.[3] In 1963, the Creation Research Society (CRS) was founded to articulate these ideas. The CRS quickly gathered a membership of hundreds of scientists, and in 1964 began publishing a quarterly research journal. In 1970, the CRS brought out the biology textbook Biology: A Search for Order in Complexity, in an attempt to provide an alternative model for the teaching of biology in public schools. In 1972, Henry Morris left a professorship to establish the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in San Diego, which vigorously promoted the two model approach in publications and lectures.

It was, however, the legislative efforts of creation science supporters to mandate equal time for creation science in state science education that really ignited the national controversy. Alarmed by the passage in 1981 of ‘balanced treatment’ laws in Arkansas and Louisiana, a coalition of civil liberties, scientific and religious groups formed to combat the spread of creationism. In 1982, the Arkansas balanced treatment law was declared unconstitutional. But it was the 1987 Supreme Court opinion, Edwards v Aguillard, which seemed permanently to shut the door on creationism (at least as admissible dissent in public school science teaching). Creation science, said the court, is ‘the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind’. The teaching of a particular religious belief in public schools violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution (which enforces the separation of church and state), and thus balanced treatment laws have no genuine secular purpose and cannot be enforced.[4]

The two model approach to the origins controversy was dead. As Stephen Gould, a leader of the anti-creation coalition, observed shortly after the decision, ‘We who have fought this battle for so many years were jubilant. The court, by ruling so broadly and decisively, has ended the legal battle over creationism as a mandated subject in science classrooms.’[5]

The law professor

But the debate over origins, whose public dimensions had seemingly been ended by Edwards v Aguillard, was about to undergo a revolution from an unexpected direction. In 1987, Phillip Johnson, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, was taking a year’s sabbatical in London. Every day on the walk to his office, he passed a bookshop where Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker[6] and Michael Denton’s Evolution, A Theory in Crisis[7] were on sale. Curious, Johnson bought the books and read them through. He noticed immediately that the apparent issues of Edwards v Aguillard were not the real issues at all.

The creationists in Louisiana never had a chance. As ‘science’ was defined in the debate, the very possibility of evidence against darwinian evolution had been excluded at the outset. Reading the court papers in Edwards v Aguillard, such as that filed by the National Academy of Sciences (the most prestigious group of scientists in the nation), Johnson discovered that what had been presented as the ground rules of science had tilted the playing field irrevocably in favour of darwinian evolution. As he later wrote in Darwin on Trial, the influential book that grew out of his 1987 insights, ‘The Academy thus defined 'science' in such a way that advocates of supernatural creation may neither argue for their own position nor dispute the claims of the scientific establishment.’[8] This was methodological naturalism, where one may only employ natural causes in scientific explanation.

The key issue, Johnson saw, was not the literal truth of Genesis or the merits of creation science. It was whether there could be, even in principle, any evidence against Darwinian evolution or in favor of design by an intelligence. Was science allowed to consider the possibility of intelligent design? Johnson saw that if science was forbidden by its own rules even to look in that direction, the evidence, whatever it might be, would be irrelevant. Any science that is not free to pursue the truth could only be a blind enterprise, unable to see the testimony of nature.

Despite appearances, this was a far more radical critique than the traditional creationism of the two model approach. Many creationists advocated a philosophy of science according to which any discipline that deals with historical events is not really science, with the same standing as experimental disciplines such as physics or chemistry. The ICR biochemist Duane Gish, for instance, argued in 1985 that, by definition, traditional creationism was not science at all:

Creation is, of course, unproven and unprovable and thus cannot be considered
as fact. It is not subject to test by the ordinary methods of experimental science - observation and falsification. It thus does not, in a strict sense, even qualify as a scientific theory

Nor does evolution qualify as science, Gish and other traditional creationists hastened to add, but Johnson rejected this philosophical dichotomising. Definitions of science, he argued, could be contrived to exclude any conclusion we dislike, or to include any we favour. It was not a matter of chance, after all, that the definition promoted by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Academy of Sciences placed creationism outside the province of science. We should rather be asking, Johnson urged, a more fundamental question: what do we have reason to think is true?

A growing movement

Darwin on Trial (1991), where these arguments were laid out, provided the philosophical core for a research community that had already begun to form in the 1980s around such books as The Mystery of Life’s Origin.[10] This was not only a powerful and analytically deep critique of naturalistic theories of the origin of life, but contained suggestions for a revival of the neglected hypothesis of design in science proper. Like several others, I first learned of Phillip Johnson’s existence at a June 1988 conference on the origin of information content in DNA, organised by Charles Thaxton. Stephen Meyer, at the time a graduate student at Cambridge University, attended Thaxton’s conference, bringing with him a manuscript from (as Meyer put it with a grin) ‘this wild lawyer I met in the UK.’ I can still recall my excitement at the conference on reading through the manuscript, which later became Darwin on Trial.

In June 1993, Johnson invited several of the (mostly younger) members of this growing research community to a conference at the California beach town of Pajaro Dunes. Present were scientists and philosophers who would later become well known themselves, such as biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box (1996), mathematician and philosopher William Dembski, author of The Design Inference (1998) and Intelligent Design (1999), and developmental biologist Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution (2000). Of the 14 participants at the Pajaro Dunes conference, however, only three (microbiologist Siegfried Scherer of the Technical University of Munich, paleontologist Kurt Wise of Bryan College, Tennessee, and myself) could be seen as traditional creationists. Moreover, theological diversity marked the meeting: Behe was Roman Catholic, Wells was a member of the Unification Church, and one participant - the paleontologist David Raup, of the University of Chicago - was an agnostic.

Pajaro Dunes thus became a model for what has come to be known as the intelligent design movement. Unlike other science and faith organisations (such as the traditional creationist CRS, or the moderate American Scientific Affiliation [ASA]), no statement of faith was required at Pajaro. What united the participants (with the possible exception of Raup) was a deep dissatisfaction with neodarwinism and its naturalistic philosophical foundation, and a willingness to consider the possibility of design.

Johnson’s revolution was simplicity itself. Since the middle of the 19th century, our scientific understanding of origins, he argued, has been saddled with a particular philosophy - naturalism. Now, naturalism might be true, but it might also be false. The wise course of action for science, then, is not to assume naturalism’s truth, but to let the evidence speak unhindered. If someone is interested in discovering the truth, and having a fresh look at the evidence, then that person is welcome to join the community. The admission price is minimal: one need only allow for the possibility of design.

The logic of design

What Johnson had noticed was revolutionary in one respect, but in another was simply rediscovering old truths. The word ‘science’ in its original sense did not entail naturalism - the doctrine that only natural causes are admissible in explanation - but rather referred to knowledge, from the Latin word for knowledge, scientia. We know all sorts of things: the atomic number of gold (79), the diploid chromosome number of Homo sapiens (46) and the distance from the Earth to the Sun (93 million miles) - but we also know that Stonehenge was constructed by someone. We know that email messages have authors (like us), that missing valuables may well have been stolen (deliberately), and that it is possible that intelligences exist other than human. If we can know, as we surely do, that an intelligence generated the information contained in the lines of the poem ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’, then might it be possible that an intelligence composed the original information-rich DNA sequences in organisms? Yes - and in that ‘yes’ lies the falsity of naturalism as a philosophy of science.

The founders of western science did not know about DNA, but they certainly knew how to recognise design. Knowledge of intelligent causation (design) was not placed in a separate rank from knowledge of natural causation (physical regularities or chance events), such that knowing that a stone will fall to the ground when thrown counted as genuine scientia, whereas knowing that a letter had an author did not. The very suggestion would have been seen by such early giants of science as Robert Boyle or Isaac Newton as laughable.

Design methods

But Newton and Boyle also held a conviction about God’s freedom as author of the world, and here we return to the matter of traditional creationism within the tent of the intelligent design community. In his treatise, A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, an argument against the naturalism of his time, Robert Boyle concluded by stressing God’s freedom to create as he pleased:

God is a most free agent, and created the world not out of necessity but voluntarily, having framed it as he pleased and thought fit at the beginning of things, when there was no substance but himself and consequently no creature to which he could be obliged, or by which he could be limited.[11]

If the author of the world acted freely, then we will need to use intellectual labour to discover what he did (including the labour of interpreting the Bible). Johnson saw that allowing for the possibility of design, as special divine action - for instance, God creating human beings directly - meant that one must also allow for other possibilities, such as God electing, if he so chose, to use an evolutionary process that was itself designed. ‘I believe’, Johnson wrote, ‘that a God exists who could create out of nothing if he wanted to do so, but who might have chosen to work through a natural evolutionary process instead.’[12] God could have created everything in six, 24-hour days - or not. The fundamental point is to allow for the possibility of design. But the scientific narrative of design - when God acted, and how - might be best captured by any number of competing theories. We would have to see. That narrative would need to be discovered, and an answer might be a long, and possibly painful, time in coming. This point can be expressed by a pair of diagrams.

In Figure 1, if traditional creationism (the circle) is true, then so too, by logical implication, is intelligent design (the box). Any specially-created world would necessarily be a designed world. But the reverse is not the case. Because of God’s freedom to create as he pleases, design might be true, but traditional creationism false. This is illustrated by Figure 2, where other theories of God’s action (eg progressive or ‘old earth’ creation) are possible within the larger box of design.

Some prominent traditional creationists are unhappy with what they perceive to be the dangerously wide content of ID. ‘This approach, even if well-meaning and effectively articulated,’ writes ICR President Emeritus Henry Morris, ‘will not work! It has often been tried in the past and has failed, and it will fail today.’[13] The inclusion of progressive creation and theistic evolution as design possibilities (see Figure 2) is, on Morris’ view, a weakness, not a strength, of the ID community.[14] Morris argues that pantheism and New Age ideas might also fit comfortably within the big tent of design, a sure sign that the ID community has been much too broadly defined to be of any value for Christians.

Interestingly, other Christian critics have taken just the opposite tack, stressing that the ID community is little more than ‘creationism in designer clothing’. The big tent is an illusion, erected for public relations purposes, and under the fancy inclusive language one finds (as before) the same old-fashioned interventionist creationism. ‘Does the intelligent design movement have a chance?’ asks one such critic, Howard Van Till. ‘From my perspective, no. Not until it is willing to place its theological and philosophical cards on the table so that its foundational presuppositions may be opened to public scrutiny and evaluation.’[15]

The promise of design

Both of these critics of ID have settled views on which scientific narrative of design is true: six-day, young earth creation for Morris; the ‘fully-gifted’ evolutionary scenario for Van Till.[16] A greater contrast in scientific perspectives is hard to imagine. And neither Morris nor Van Till has much, or any, interest in talking to his counterpart, whom each sees as hopelessly in error and doing severe damage to the cause of Christianity.

Yet both Morris and Van Till affirm the first article of the Apostles’ Creed: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.’ A cynic might say that, given the very different meanings they attach to those twelve words, the intersection of their joint affirmations is empty - but the cynic would be wrong. There is more than enough content in the first article to distinguish its affirmation from the naturalism held by most scientists. However much Morris and Van Till may despise each other’s positions, both believe that the universe was designed by God, and brought into existence by him for his pleasure and purposes.

That theological commonality - namely, God is the author of the universe, however he chose to act - has a secular counterpart in the philosophy of science: intelligent design is possible.[17] Now, the mere possibility of design may seem a modest claim, but for the majority of the scientific community it is a deeply radical breach of the rules. The whole point of methodological naturalism is to keep design at arm’s length, well outside of the province of science. Everything within the ID box (see Figure 2) offends the philosophical naturalist. If some members of the big tent of design (eg theistic evolutionists) appear acceptable to the naturalistic mainstream of science, it is only because of political expediency. But if the ID position were occupied only by theistic evolutionists, they would not be spared the scorn now directed mainly at traditional creationists. At the moment the latter simply present an easier target.

‘But theistic evolution is still an incoherent theory for any orthodox Christian,’ the reader may be protesting. Yes, very likely that’s the case, I want to say (as a traditional creationist) - but does that mean that I have nothing to learn from my theistic evolutionary brother or sister? Not at all. Every position within the ID tent faces real scientific and theological difficulties. In a fair competition between design in the broadest sense and naturalism, design wins hands down. Yet it would be the height of blind pride to say that any particular design theory has taken the day, solved its outstanding puzzles, and now needs only to sweep away the last bits of confusion residing in the minds of the unpersuaded. Do traditional creationists have a geological or geophysical theory capable of explaining all radiometric data? No - which is exactly the reason the ICR and CRS are pouring resources into the problem.[18] Do progressive (or ‘old earth’) creationists have a theologically satisfactory understanding of the origin of so-called ‘natural evil’ (eg parasites, many of whose complex life cycles are amazing examples of intricate design)? No - and many progressive creationists seem unaware even that such problems exist. Have theistic evolutionists sorted out the grave explanatory hurdles facing current theories of evolution, to which they wish to attach God as author? No - and over the past few decades, the shortcomings of evolutionary theories have grown much worse. Do evangelical exegetes agree on how best to interpret Genesis 1-11? No - and the controversies that have raged for nearly two centuries, if not longer, show no signs of abating.[19]

In short, humility on all sides is in order - but also joyful confidence. What is the fastest way for any design theorist to discover what’s wrong with his theory of origins, and how that theory might be improved? Talk to someone who shares the foundational design premise, but disagrees about the details. ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.’[20] The promise of the big tent of ID is to provide a setting where Christians (and others) may disagree amicably, and fruitfully, about how best to understand the natural world, and Scripture. In a recent article on the interpretation of Genesis 1-11, the theologian RC Sproul wrote that the issue is ‘both neglected to our peril and elevated to a degree of importance it does not deserve.’[21] The issue is often elevated too high, said Sproul, because Christians historically have affirmed not any particular theory of Earth history, but rather God’s authorship of the universe: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.’ The issue cannot be neglected, however, because the Bible does speak unequivocally of creation, and the evidence of God’s authorship in nature. As painful as it may sometimes be, Christians must continue to struggle to understand the relationship of science and faith. The existence of a research community where design is taken seriously, and where all inquirers are welcome, means that the ongoing struggle need not be solitary. It may even turn out to be a tremendous adventure.

  1. Goldsmith T. Everyday Impacts of a Most Influential Theory. Science 2001;293:2209,2210
  2. I prefer this to the usual term, ‘young- earth’ creationist.
  3. Numbers R. Darwinism Comes to America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998:4-7
  4. Edwards E et al, Appellants, v Aguillard D et al. Full Text of Opinions, The United States Law Week, 55 LW 4860
  5. Gould SJ. The Verdict on Creationism. New York Times Magazine 1987; 19 July:32-34
  6. Dawkins R. The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin, 1990
  7. Denton M. Evolution: a theory in crisis. London: Ebury Press, 1985
  8. Johnson P. Darwin on Trial. Downers Grove: IVP, 1993:8
  9. Gish D. Evolution: the challenge of the fossil record. El Cajon: Master Books, 1985:19
  10. Thaxton C, Bradley W, Olsen R. The Mystery of Life’s Origin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1984 
  11. Boyle R. A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (Davis E, Hunter M, eds).Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996
  12. Johnson P, Op cit:14
  13. See Morris M. Design Is Not Enough! at
  14. By theistic evolution I mean any theory of evolution where the adjective ‘theistic’ makes an explanatory difference. Like chocolate ice cream or cold water, the adjective ‘theistic’ should have meaningful, detectable content.
  15. Van Till HJ. Does ‘Intelligent Design’ Have A Chance? Zygon 1999;34:667-675
  16. By ‘fully gifted’, Van Till means that from its inception the universe was endowed with every causal capacity needed to bring forth (in time) all objects, both non-living and living, now observed. See Van Till HJ. Op cit: 674
  17. I have argued that, despite appearances, Van Till’s ‘fully-gifted’ scenario has discernable empirical content making it a design theory in the broad sense (see: Is ‘Intelligent Design’ Unavoidable - Even by Howard Van Till? A Response. Zygon 1999;34:677-682). In personal communication, Van Till has indicated some unhappiness with this reading of his work, but has not explained in any detail where I have got him wrong.
  18. See Vardiman L, Snelling A, Chaffin E (eds). Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth: a young-earth creationist research initiative. El Cajon and St Joseph: Institute for Creation Research and Creation Research Society, 2000.
  19. Hagopian D (ed). The Genesis Debate. Mission Viejo: Crux Press, 2000
  20. Pr 27:17
  21. Sproul RC. The Peacable Kingdom. Tabletalk 2001; July:4-7
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