HomeWriting Links Resources

Creationism Redux?

Alec MacAndrew

What is Intelligent Design?

The trial in Harrisburg, in which several parents of children at the Dover, Pennsylvania public school are suing the school board for requiring teachers to present Intelligent Design as an alternative to the biological Theory of Evolution has caught the public imagination and brought the Intelligent Design movement once more into the limelight.  The proponents of Intelligent Design claim that it is a scientific hypothesis that seeks to develop scientific methods for detecting design in objects and systems.  They also claim that these methods support the idea that the Universe and life on earth was designed by an intelligent entity. So does the system of thinking called Intelligent Design represent a scientific approach and does it add anything to our body of knowledge?

Well, the fact is that Intelligent Design (ID) is not scientific and adds nothing to our knowledge.  ID is a scientifically and intellectually bankrupt movement, religiously motivated and unashamedly political in its objectives. Its earliest roots lie in the religious opinions of a law professor, Phillip Johnson, who is still a figurehead for the movement, a man whose zeal arises from his conversion to Christianity as an adult, and who lacks any scientific credentials. In the words of Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross (1), whose excellent book 'Creationism's Trojan Horse' is a thorough expose of ID,  and of its ambition, methods and failings: 'ID, by now quite familiar among scientifically qualified and religiously neutral observers as the recycled, old-fashioned creationism it is, drapes its religious skeleton in the fancy-dress language of modern science, albeit without having contributed to science, at least so far, any data or any testable theoretical notions.'

Let's see what IDers themselves declare to be the aims of their movement. The 'Wedge document', (2) setting out ID's philosophy, purpose and objectives was written by key members of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture of the Discovery Institute, ID's intellectual home.  The document declares the following: 'Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies'  There is no doubt that from the outset, ID is a religiously motivated movement that uses political rather than scientific means to achieve its ends.

What IDers themselves claim to be their objectives - from the 'Wedge' document

Governing Goals

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

Five Year Goals

  • To see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory.
  • To see the beginning of the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science.
  • To see major new debates in education, life issues, legal and personal responsibility pushed to the front of the national agenda.

Twenty Year Goals

  • To see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.
  • To see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts.
  • To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.

The Failure of Intelligent Design

So, has Intelligent Design achieved even the first of its Five Year Goals, 'to see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory.'?  No, not only has it failed, but it has failed abysmally. One, only one peer reviewed paper on ID has ever been published (9). The editorial board of the small specialist journal (the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington) that published it subsequently publicly regretted its publication. In the same period tens of thousands of papers have been published in hundreds of journals that develop, illuminate and rely on the Theory of Evolution.  Intelligent Design theory is not taught in any scientific course at any reputable university anywhere in the world. ID has no respectability amongst serious scientists. No scientific research is being done from 'the perspective of design theory.' In other words, ID has utterly failed to even begin to win the minds of the scientific community.

Yet ID claims to be a credible alternative to main stream science.  It pretends, publicly, not to be religiously motivated. IDers say that they say nothing about the identity of the Intelligent Designer. Behe has claimed that he has identified a concept that he called 'Irreducible Complexity' that proves that certain aspects of biological systems could not have evolved.  Dembski claims that he has developed an infallible scientific method for identifying Design in Nature, and in an amazingly self-aggrandising way, claims to have discovered a new conservation law - the Law of the Conservation of Specified Information.

It's all poppycock. The scientific and intellectual integrity of ID has failed at every turn. Its most promising ideas, Behe's Irreducible Complexity (7) and Dembski's Design Inference (8) have been thoroughly debunked (1) (3) (6). ID proponents claim the imminent demise of neo-Darwinism at a time when every discovery in biology and palaeontology adds richness and weight to the Theory of Evolution. They constantly fail to provide alternative explanations for the empirical data, new and old, that Evolutionary Biology explains. The IDers, whilst smarting at these reversals, are not defeated, because their agenda is not scientific nor intellectual, but political, and so long as they can create enough of an apparent scientific controversy through their pretension to scientific thinking to fool the scientifically naive and to manipulate the media and politicians, they are satisfied. They have no intellectual ambition beyond the destruction of a scientific idea that is an affront to their religious sensitivities.

The fact is that, underneath the undeniably slick skin in which ID presents itself to the public and the media, there lurks a rotten body of thinking. ID has no more substance than the politically naive Young Earth Creationism that it has replaced in the forefront of anti-evolution propaganda. It contributes nothing to our body of knowledge, either empirically (no-one has ever conducted a 'Design theory' experiment) or hypothetically (resting as it does on nothing other than William Paley's long-refuted 18th century argument from design, and on gross Creationism); on the contrary its anti-science and anti-Enlightenment arguments promote mumbo-jumbo and magic at a time when competent scientific thinking is critical to the future of humanity. The ID proposition, that an intelligent designer did it, is untestable, unfalsifiable and amounts to no more than explanation by miracle.

A recent leading article in Nature, the world’s premier science journal (4) is about the relationship between science and religion (an introduction to a news feature on the subject). It is a wise and thoughtful editorial, which rightly supports the idea that scientists should not be the final arbiters of what science should be done when ethical and moral issues are at stake. Not all things that can be done should be done, and the editor acknowledges the role of religious and secular ethicists in forming society’s views on what science should be permitted to do. Nevertheless the editor, like me, is contemptuous of ID: “Consider the political battles over the teaching of ‘creationism’ and ‘intelligent design’ in schools – an attempt by some religious people to foist their beliefs, masquerading as science, on others.

It is a key tactic of the Intelligent Design political movement to promote the belief that ID is scientific (in fact the IDers suggest the outrageous and insulting - to scientists - idea that ID is more scientific than the science of professional biologists.)

In fact, ID is no more scientific than astrology or a belief in the literal existence of Santa Claus. There is, in fact, no such thing as an ID theory (in science the term 'theory' refers to a detailed coherent explanation for a complex interlocking set of phenomena). I read the primary literature of science every week. Every week there are dozens of papers that rely on the Theory of Evolution for an explanation of a wide range of biological phenomena. It is quite plain to anyone who reads and understands the primary literature that Theodosius Dobzhansky's statement is as true today as when he first composed it 40 years ago: 'Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of Evolution.'

Intelligent Design - nothing to offer

Let us look at what ID has to offer. First, let us note that ID offers no hypothesis other than the predetermined idea that the existence, diversity and complexity of life on earth requires the direct intervention of an external Intelligence. (Recently some ID proponents have extended that thinking to cosmology and physics and, relying on the old and discredited strong anthropological argument which sees fine-tuning everywhere, state that the complexity and 'fine-tuning' of the cosmos requires the direct intervention of an external intelligence.) That is it. There is no more to ID than that  unhelpful idea. Contrast that with the detailed biological Theory of Evolution, that combines zoology, botany, ecology, palaeontology, genetics, genomics, protein science, developmental biology, geology and so forth in a great interlocking and explanatory net, that is self consistent, illuminating and predictive.

For example, when we look at protein synthesis in different organisms and the phylogenetic structure of 5s, 5.8s, 16s, 18s, 23s and 28s ribosomes, evolution gives us a sensible context for the evolution of different ribosomal structures - ID gives us no insight whatsoever. Similarly, in a very recent paper, we get important insights about the great evolutionary divergence of unikonts (animals, fungi, and Choanozoa and Amoebozoa) and bikonts (plants, chromists and other protozoa)  in the roots of the eukaryotic tree when we look at the different myosin motor proteins across the entire eukaryotic kingdom (5). The hierarchy of myosin motor proteins aligns with an early unikont/bikont divergence and makes predictions about the properties of the cenancestor - the common ancestor of all eukaryotes. ID's explanation gives us no such insight. ID's hypothesis is simply that an Intelligence 'did it' (actually the underlying ID movement wants to promote the idea that a Deity 'did it' by direct intervention, but, dishonestly and for reasons of public relations, ID shies away from explicitly identifying the Intelligent Designer with a miraculously intervening God.)

ID proponents spend all their time and effort creating hypothetical (and empirically and logically unsupported) criticisms of biological science. They do no research of their own. They add nothing to the sum of human knowledge. They are, fundamentally, intellectual parasites.

Suppose we accept Intelligent Design - what then?

Let us consider the barren intellectual landscape that would result from a broad acceptance of ID's dumbed-down hypothesis that masquerades as science. Let's say we accept ID's proposition, well, what then? What follows? What predictions can we make? What insight can we throw on the relatedness and nested hierarchy of species? If we think that all species are the result of special creation then we condemn biological science to return to the 17th century and the mere description and cataloguing of forms; we deny biological science its true legacy which is to explain how life, and the diversity and complexity of life on earth, arose through natural processes. Indeed, once we accept divine intervention as an explanation for an important natural phenomenon, we destroy science utterly. How is that? Well, once we accept one miraculous set of explanations, we are impotent to postulate natural explanations for other hitherto unexplained phenomena. If miraculous intervention is once accepted in science then, logically, it must always be an acceptable hypothesis, and since we have no way of distinguishing between phenomena that are the product of natural processes and those that are the product of miracles, then science would be fatally undermined. Offshoots of ID are already busily attempting to devour the foundations of cosmology by promoting divine providence as an explanation for the configuration of the universe. Dembski's design inference has been shown to be impotent - we cannot reliably detect direction by an intelligent hand in the natural world. This consideration leads all real scientists, whatever their theological beliefs, to be methodological atheists when doing science. It is the only way for science to work. An acceptance of ID would fatally undermine all science. I can think of no more dangerous and undesirable undertaking for our scientific heritage.

Intelligent Design - bad science; worse theology

But ID is also appallingly bad theology. How is that? ID attempts to draw a line between what they call materialism and their miraculous theistic explanations. In practice, what that means, is that IDers are happy to surrender to natural science scientific explanations that have strong empirical support, and seek to reserve to themselves phenomena that cannot, as yet, be fully explained. The intellectual posture of ID is basically the argument from personal incredulity - IDers say: 'I cannot personally understand how, say, the bacterial flagellum could have evolved, so, an Intelligent Designer must have done it.' (the bacterial flagellum is an icon for Behe). So IDers accept scientific explanations for phenomena that HAVE explanations, and claim that phenomena that currently lack detailed explanations must have been directly caused by God. (Since the time when the bacterial flagellum was first used as an example of 'irreducible complexity', considerable progress has been made in explaining its evolutionary roots and pathways - in fact, 'irreducible complexity', a major plank of ID, has been utterly discredited as an intellectual concept).

Furthermore, this is bad theology, because it limits God's actions to those areas of the Universe in which there are gaps in our scientific knowledge. The problem for such an approach is that our scientific knowledge continues to expand, and expand rapidly. The gaps are getting narrower and narrower. This approach condemns the concept of God to a process of constant diminishment as the areas for God's action, defined by ID as those things that we cannot explain scientifically for the moment, become smaller and smaller.


So, not only is ID an insult to science, and it is also a theological disaster. ID and science are utterly immiscible. There is no reconciliation possible between them.ID is not a credible alternative to the Theory of Evolution as it is not a scientific proposition. ID should not be taught as an alternative 'theory' to explain the diversity of species in science classes.

1.  Barbara Forrest and Paul R Gross, 'Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design', ISBN 0195157427

2. You can read the whole Wedge document here: http://wiki.cotch.net/index.php/Wedge_document

3. Matt Young and Tanner Edis (editors), 'Why Intelligent Design Fails', Rutgers University Press, ISBN: 081353433X

4. Nature 432, 657; 9th December, 2004

5. Richards and Cavalier-Smith, 'Myosin domain evolution and the primary divergence of eukaryotes', Nature 436, 1113 - 1118, (August 2005)

6. Mark Perakh, 'Unintelligent Design', Prometheus Books, ISBN: 1591020840

7. Michael Behe, 'Darwin's Black Box', Free Press, ISBN: 0684834936

8. William Dembski, 'The Design Inference', Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 0521623871

9. Meyer, 'The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories', Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. 117, 213–239; 2004