Most broadly construed, intelligent design (ID) is the name chosen for a controversial strategy, combining both theory and practice, which is aimed at giving the ancient, philosophical design argument new life in the sciences, especially in U.S. public high school life science classrooms. More narrowly, the term is qualified so as to collect acts, persons, or propositions as elements related to the strategy—as in ID theorist, ID conference, ID tenet, or ID curriculum. The most contentious of these is surely ID science, or any connotation of the same. Indeed, ID flatly rejects contemporary science, including its thinking about time.
As theory, ID is the thesis that the sciences require an appeal to intelligent design to succeed at appointed explanatory tasks. As practice, ID embraces numerous forms of publicity for its theory, especially those that create the impression that the theory is, or ought to be accepted as, good science. These practices include television and radio appearances, private funding, journal articles, conferences, Web sites, rhetoric, sophistry, lawsuits, textbooks, mass-market books, curriculum packages, teacher-training programs, membership drives, campus events, and a host of religious, social, and political associations. ID theory and practice are carried out almost exclusively under the auspices of the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank located in Seattle, Washington.
The full strategy of ID was described by Phillip Johnson in his book of 1997 and again in an online document, known as the Wedge Document, prepared for the Discovery Institute. Both treatments envision three phases scheduled over 20 years. The latter commits ID to the task of defeating “scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies” and to replacing “materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings were created by God.” In the first phase, envisioned as a 5-year operation starting in 1999, ID proponents in the United States will publish 30 books and numerous articles. In the second phase, they will seek publicity for their work by contacting and cajoling U.S. broadcast media, lawmakers, congressional staff, and op-ed pages in newspapers. This phase is meant to prepare the public for reception of ID thinking. The third phase aims at “cultural confrontation and renewal.” At this point the movement plans to use the courts to force their ideas into science classrooms.
ID and “Creation Science”: Court Cases
A court case arose sooner than expected. In the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, public school inclusion of the theory employed by the ID strategy was found to violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, and ID was legally ruled religion, not science.
The same fate befell ID’s forebear, creation science, which was found to violate the establishment clause in the 1982 case of McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. Like ID, creation science combined both theory and practice. As theory, it was strictly anti-evolutionist, embracing what is known as Young Earth creationism, which holds that the earth is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. Its claim to scientific status was based on a dismissal of traditional earth and life sciences, including radioisotope dating and the accepted understanding of the geological and fossil records. In place of these it offered what is known as flood geology, which asserts that geological strata and the entire fossil record were laid down in the Great Flood described in the biblical story of Noah’s ark. As practice, creation science pursued publicity, political connections, and a place in the science curriculum of public schools.
In their respective court cases, both ID and creation science were found to rely on a failed, two-model approach in which criticisms of one model are fallaciously taken as evidence in favor of the other model. Creation science pointed to weaknesses and omissions in evolutionary theory as evidence in favor of flood geology. In Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the court found that ID did much the same. Omissions in evolutionary theory were adduced as evidence in favor of the ID theory that complete scientific understanding requires an appeal to intelligent design. Also in both cases, the supernatural was appealed to as an explanatory principle, in violation of the basic, naturalistic assumptions of science.
ID differs from creation science in that it does not assert a young earth; however, it does not officially deny one. ID is a broad movement, able to attract and accommodate both young earth and old earth creationists. In addition, ID does not rely on biblical literalism, though it carefully courts churches and flocks who do. ID is also importantly different from the thesis known as theistic evolution, which asserts that evolution is merely God’s way of creating life forms. This view is officially held by most mainline Christian denominations; they necessarily accept an old age for the earth because they also accept the science of evolution. In addition, theistic evolution must accept evolution at all levels, whereas ID need not. ID accepts only what many creationists call microevolution, meaning that genetic anomalies can lead to prevalent changes within kinds. Many proponents of ID, such as William Demski, explicitly deny what is called macroevolution, that is, the mutation of kinds, or the fluidity of species—the whole notion of a common ancestry among fish, birds, amphibians, humans, and amoebas. Instead of macroevolution, these theorists assume what is often called special creation, the view that each species or kind was created in an individual act of creation, roughly as they are now barring microevolutionary changes. Thus, although it appears to accept an older earth than does creation science, ID is in fact compatible with a young earth and incompatible with theistic evolution.
Theory, Tenets, and Pseudoscience
In accord with the plans laid out by Johnson and the Discovery Institute, ID proponents frequently appeal to one another’s publications and credentials to bolster their own individual cases. This echo chamber creates the impression of a wealth of expert agreement on the scientific value of ID theory. As a matter of fact, however, favorable expert evaluations of ID tenets are common only among cohorts of the Discovery Institute. Experts unaffiliated with that entity are unanimous in their agreement that ID’s positive contributions to science are none, whereas its positive contributions to anti-intellectualism, misology, and sciolism remain inestimable.
ID practice centers on promoting the use of its textbooks and curriculum packages, most notably Of Pandas and People, which was originally a creation science textbook but was reinvented as an ID text more than a decade ago. Although ID publications and orators recommend this work, they make more frequent reference to Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and Demski’s The Design Inference and No Free Lunch.
Behe, a microbiologist, claims to accept macroevolution, known in biology as common descent. But his pronouncement is at odds with his famous theory of the bacterial flagellum. According to this view, the flagellum would be useless if one of its parts was missing, and a structure that exhibits this property, dubbed “irreducible complexity,” could not have evolved gradually, that is, from first having several of its parts to later having all of them. Instead, it must have been designed roughly as is, and Behe is stuck with flagellated bacterial species as deriving from special design, that is, from an individual act of creation. In that case, the common descent of these bacteria and any other life form is impossible, and Behe’s position directly rejects the thesis of common descent. In response to it, the literature has developed numerous proposals about the evolution of the flagellum. The literature also reveals no serious modification of Behe’s position since its publication and no interesting experiments or insights stemming from it.
Demski’s contributions to ID theory revolve around the notion that eliminating chance and necessity as probable causes argues for intelligence as a probable cause. He calls “specified complexity” a property of objects that match an independently given pattern. For example, if you write down the opening of Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” you reproduce a pattern that was specified by Shakespeare. Any random string of letters is complex, but some strings match independently specified patterns. When we see many of these successful matches, we conclude that intelligence is behind them, rather than chance (because the matches are not random) or necessity (because the matches obey no natural law). To the extent that organisms exhibit specified complexity, Demski holds, they too, like a sentence, must be understood as intelligently designed. He is impressed with the complexity of the flagellum described by Behe, seeing it as realizing an independently given pattern, a pattern that includes the kind of engineering we see in human contrivances, such as O-rings and a motor. The eye, he contends, exhibits the kinds of contrivances found in human camera design. Specified complexity, evidence of intelligent design, is all around us, waiting to be described. In No Free Lunch, Demski argues that mathematics suggests that the theory of natural selection lacks the power to do the things that biologists think it can do. Hence, the specified complexity he seeks to explain lies beyond the ken of conventional evolutionary biology—meaning that chance and necessity can be ignored as explanatory avenues, and intelligent design is all we really need. Although he is careful to avoid referring to his intelligent designer as a deity, and offers to not choose between its being either a deity or a race of sophisticated aliens, his works make clear that Demski is committed to an essentially religious conception of the sciences, in which, as he puts it, no theory has value “apart from Christ.”
Some critics, such as Eugenie Scott, accuse ID proponents of relying on a fallacious appeal to ignorance, because one of the theory’s premises asserts a lack of knowledge. “We lack a natural explanation in domain E; therefore, the phenomena in domain E were intelligently designed.” Others, such as Mark Isaak, argue that ID proponents rely on a premise asserting incredulity, or disbelief, which inscribes a fallacy of the form: “It is inconceivable that X developed naturally; therefore, it must have been designed.” ID can also be seen as an all-or-nothing mistake: Either historical biology can do all, or it cannot do enough in some domain, without recourse to the design thesis. This assumption yields fallacies of the form, “Evolution cannot fully explain Y; therefore, intelligent design helps to explain it.” This is thoroughly mistaken because to assert that anything in the universe is the way it is because God or a race of sophisticated aliens made it that way is to offer an unscientific account, because it is an account that cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed empirically. In addition, the belief that a structure was intelligently designed does not help us to understand how it works. Hence, it explains nothing. These simple fallacies have been pointed out repeatedly, but the movement has not taken them to heart. Instead of modifying their thinking, and eliminating mistakes, they insist instead, and all the more loudly, that their ideas are being suppressed.
As described by R. T. Pennock, creationism has evolved from a crude attack on biology to a more sophisticated attack on the nature of science. Its new, ID thinking properly belongs more to the philosophy of science than to science proper. In contrast, Massimo Pigliucci treats ID as science in a weak sense that includes astrology, alchemy, and numerology, though it is unscientific in any stronger sense. ID is specifically not empirical because no observation or set of observations will ever prove whether an individual, an ecosystem, or the whole of nature is intelligently designed or not. In fact, the design thesis is widely understood to be consistent with any observation statement, making it metaphysical rather than scientific.
As described in the Wedge Document, a major strategy of the ID movement involves creating the public impression that scientific accounts of the origins of life are in serious crisis, and that those scientists who reject the notion that life evolved deserve a place in the sun. This impression was already worked on in the 1980s by Michael Denton. Of course, there are few scientific challenges to the thesis that life evolved, and cohorts of the Discovery Institute are not being suppressed. Nonetheless, the movement insists that there is a deep controversy over the evolutionary foundations of biology, and that the best way to treat dissenting scientists fairly is through the pedagogy of “teach the controversy,” which would require that ID doctrines be taught in science classrooms. Because ID is not really science but rather a religious way of thinking, teaching the controversy over ID amounts to treating a theological or metaphysical debate as a proper content of high school science classes. Tellingly, religious neutrality is often invoked as grounds for demanding the inclusion of ID in the classroom. But of course, religious neutrality means treating all religious thought equally, which is most easily achieved by leaving all religious doctrines equally out of the science curriculum.
A simple and elegant solution like that will not satisfy proponents of ID, because their fundamental complaint is that science does not include God. Their project, on the basis of which they appeal for funding and political associations, is to put God at the beginning of science, as the beginning. Johnson has argued that knowledge is incomplete as long as the thesis that God created the universe is not accepted as the starting point of science. He misunderstands science, which can begin only when God and other supernatural agencies are left out of the picture. Johnson’s position, along with the fact that there has been no modification of ID theory in the past decade, suggests that the pseudo-science published by ID theorists such as Behe and Demski exists merely to gain access for demolitionists of science, who plan to wreck and rebuild on religious foundations.
See also Adam, Creation of; Bible and Time; Creation, Myths of; Creationism; Earth, Age of; God and Time; God as Creator; Gosse, Philip Henry; Paley, William; Religions and Time; Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre; Teleology
Behe, M. (1996). Darwin’s black box: The biochemical challenge to evolution. New York: The Free Press.
Davis, P., & Keaton, D. H. (1993). Of pandas and people. Dalílas, TX: Haughton.
Demski, W. (1998). The design inference: Eliminating chance through small probabilities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Demski, W. (2002). No free lunch: Why specified complexity cannot be purchased without intelligence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Denton, M. (1986). Evolution: A theory in crisis. Bethesda, MD: Alder & Alder.
Forrest, B., & Gross, P. (2004). Creationism’s Trojan horse: The wedge of intelligent design. New York: Oxford University Press.
Isaak, M. (2005). The counter-creationism handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Johnson, P. E. (1997). Defeating Darwinism by opening minds. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Pennock, R. T. (1999). Tower of Babel: The evidence against the new creationism. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Pigliucci, M. (2002). Denying evolution: Creationism, scientism and the nature of science. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.
Scott, E. C., & Branch, G. (2006). Not in our classrooms: Why intelligent design is wrong for our schools. Boston: Beacon.
Young, M., & Edis, T. (Eds.). (2005). Why intelligent design fails: A scientific critique of the new creationism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.