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Flawed Intelligence, Flawed Design

ISSUE:  Spring 2006

In 1996, a then-unknown professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, published a book in which he claimed to be the author of a scientific discovery of the magnitude of those of Copernicus or Newton. Those of us in academia who interact with the general public know only too well that there are many people out there with this kind of belief. At least once a week I get a thick envelope containing pages on pages of mathematics showing that God is truly the number pi, or that world peace can be found in the outer reaches of modern topology. The internet has only made things worse. At least these people, unlike many of my other correspondents, feel no need to assure me that they will pray for me—or, conversely, regret that I am past praying for.

People like this are not necessarily clinically unsound, but they are—shall we say—a little unbalanced. And persistent. Never make the mistake of responding, and certainly never ever make the mistake of responding in a friendly manner. They never give up. All of which is true of the Lehigh biochemist. He too shows signs that he will never give up, and he is certainly persistent. What separates him from the crowd is that this last summer no less a person than the President of the United States of America, George W. Bush, allowed that he thought the professor’s ideas were so far worth considering that they should be introduced into the science classrooms of the nation. The time has come to “teach the issues.”

I am talking of course about Michael J. Behe, the author of Darwin’s Black Box—a work that has in English alone sold over 200,000 copies, which is well more than an order of magnitude above anything I have written, so feel free to take anything I say as an exhibition in sour grapes. Behe is one of the leaders, if not the very founder, of the so-called “Intelligent Design Theory,” a system arguing that the only way in which one can explain the organisms around us and in the fossil record is by supposing the intervention of a designer. [1] Although Behe and his supporters generally prefer not to say too openly anything about the nature of this designer, it is pretty clear that we are not talking here about a natural phenomenon. We are not talking about a grad student on Andromeda who is running a project down here on Earth as part of his PhD studies and who likes to interfere with the course of nature every now and then to see what happens. We are talking about none other than our good old friend, the Christian God.

I have spent at least thirty years fighting this sort of stuff. Although I was brought up as a Quaker, I no longer have any religious beliefs—I describe myself as a skeptic or agnostic rather than an atheist—but I think that Intelligent Design Theory (IDT) and its close cousins are antithetical both to sound religion and to good science. So you know right at the beginning where I stand. But I am a historian and philosopher of science, so although I am happy to get in there and say why right is right and wrong is wrong, I am also interested in understanding, and as an evolutionist I believe that understanding is usually best achieved by looking to the past. So this is what I intend to do now. I will look at the history behind IDT. Then I will say briefly why I think it is nonscience and not very good religion. Finally, I will say a few things about the real nature of the threat that IDT poses.

The Argument from Design

As always when looking at powerful ideas, we need to go back first to the Greeks. [2] In the Phaedo, the great dialogue by Plato that tells of the death of Socrates, the old man is asked why he does not fear death. He replies that either it is dreamless sleep or a good god exists and there is something pretty good in the future, and then Socrates goes on to provide arguments for the existence of this god. Plato, through his mouthpiece Socrates, invites us to consider artifacts. We know that they could not have come into being through blind chance. There must have been a designer. The same is true also of organisms. They could not have come into being through blind chance. There must have been a designer, a being that in a later dialogue (the Timaeus) Plato called the Demiurge.

This was also the line of Plato’s student, the philosopher Aristotle. He argued that we must take seriously the notion of “final cause” (as opposed especially to “efficient cause”), meaning by this that living things seem put together for specific ends, namely the good of the organisms themselves. Explicitly, Aristotle criticized those physiologists who think that discussion of causation ends with reference to the immediate causes of features. He asked: “What are the forces by which the hand or the body was fashioned into its shape?” An artisan (speaking of a copy or model) would answer that the forces were the tools, such as an axe or an auger. But this is not enough. Simple reference to the tools and their effects leaves unanswered questions. One must bring in ends. The woodcarver “must state the reasons why he struck his blow in such a way as to effect this, and for the sake of what he did so; namely, that the piece of wood should develop eventually into this or that shape.” In like manner against the physiologists, “the true method is to state what the characters are that distinguish the animal—to explain what it is and what are its qualities—and to deal after the same fashion with its several parts; in fact, to proceed in exactly the same way as we should do, were we dealing with the form of a couch.” [3]

We cannot explain the living—we cannot explain final cause—without bringing in a designer. It is hardly surprising that the great Christian philosophers and theologians seized on this and made it the keystone of their attempts to find and describe the Godhead by means of reason—natural theology (as opposed to revealed theology, which tries to get at God through faith). Saint Augustine talked about it in his fifth-century work The City of God, but it was nearly a thousand years later that it achieved canonical status through Saint Thomas Aquinas, who highlighted this argument—now known as the Argument from Design (or more recently as the Teleological Argument)—as one of the five valid proofs for the existence of God. “The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things that lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly do they [things of this world] achieve their end.” Then from this premise (equivalent to an argument from organization), more claimed than defended, we move to the Creator behind things (argument from design). “Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it is directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by which all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.” [4]

The Protestant counterpart to Aquinas came at the beginning of the nineteenth century from the pen of the Christian apologist Archdeacon William Paley of Carlisle.

In crossing a heath suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that for any thing I knew to the contrary it had lain there for ever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But supposing I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for any thing I knew the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone; why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, namely, that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive—what we could not discover in the stone—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 shaped different 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. [5]

A watch implies a watchmaker. Likewise, the adaptations of the living world imply an adaptation maker, a deity. The argument from design. You cannot argue otherwise without falling into absurdity. “This is atheism; for every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature, with the difference on the side of nature of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation” (p. 14).


From a historical perspective, what makes Paley’s rehash of the argument so very interesting is both that this treatment was incredibly powerful and influential right through the nineteenth century (the University of Cambridge took it off the examinations only after the First World War) and that he was writing just after the most devastating critique of the argument by the Scottish philosopher—once described as “God’s greatest gift to the infidel”—David Hume. In his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume took the argument to pieces and showed that it fails almost right down the line. [6] Most particularly, Hume pointed out that rather than a single designer, it is far more reasonable to conclude that there is a squad of designers and that our world is neither the first nor the last. Think of any reasonably efficient artifact that you like. Rarely if ever is it the work of one person, and even more rarely does it appear all at once entire. It usually takes years, if not centuries, of trial and effort and is always open to improvement. Hume also pointed out that if indeed the product reflects the designer, then we might be wary of wanting to worship a god who brings about so much pain and misery. This is the traditional problem of evil, or the so-called theodicy problem. In a very eighteenth-century sort of way, Hume instanced the pain from gout and like diseases. Would a good and efficient designer have made humans liable to such ailments?

Why did people ignore Hume? For one very good reason that even Hume himself acknowledged at the end of his dialogues. It is all very well bashing God, but if not Him, then who? Intricate organized complexity like the eye and the hand does not just occur. It has to have a sufficient reason, and blind law is just not enough. Blind law leads to decay and mess. Today’s engineers incorporate a version of this fact when they refer to Murphy’s Law—if something can go wrong, it will. The mistake is thinking of the argument from design as a simple analogical argument. The eye is like a telescope. Telescopes have telescope designers. Therefore eyes have eye designers. The Great Optician in the Sky! Truly the argument from design is what philosophers call “an argument to the best explanation.” If you have eliminated all of the rivals, the one that is left standing is your best bet. As Sherlock Holmes put it to his friend Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four: “How often have I told you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Until an answer could be found to what the late English evolutionist John Maynard Smith called “organized complexity,” [7] the argument from design was the only game in town. Then along came Charles Darwin. He wanted to do two things. First, he wanted to make the idea of evolution—common descent by natural means from primitive organisms—a plausible hypothesis. Second, he wanted to find a mechanism for change that would speak to the most significant aspect of organisms, their design-like nature. Other evolutionists, like Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Henry Huxley, were happy to downplay design as a significant aspect of the living world. Not Darwin! For him, brought up on a diet of Archdeacon William Paley, this was the most important thing about organisms. And as far as Darwin was concerned—a conclusion endorsed by his supporters from that day (1859, the date of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection) to this—his mechanism of natural selection did just what was needed.

It is worth quoting the key passages. First Darwin argued that between organisms there is an ongoing struggle for existence.

A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage. [8]

Note that, even more than a struggle for existence, Darwin needed a struggle for reproduction. There is no point in being a superstud if the steroids have destroyed your sexual capacities. With the struggle understood in this way, given naturally occurring variation, natural selection follows at once.

Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organization becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. (pp. 80–81)

Natural selection speaks to final cause. It shows how you can get the hand and the eye—organized complexity—from blind law. The argument from design no longer compels. In the words of the popular science writer Richard Dawkins, after Darwin (and only after Darwin) was it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. [9]

Theology of Nature

Of course, the question now is whether you should be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Dawkins thinks you should. Others, including many Christians, think that this conclusion does not follow at all. The fact that you cannot prove the existence of God, and most especially that you cannot prove the existence of God through the argument from design, does not mean that God does not exist or that it is unreasonable to believe in Him. Indeed, even before Darwin, many Christians were moving to a different position. The great theologian John Henry Newman—born an evangelical Anglican, then the leader of the High Church Oxford Movement before moving to the Church of Rome and eventually to the cardinal’s hat—was explicit on this matter. To a correspondent about his seminal philosophical work, A Grammar of Assent, Newman wrote: “I have not insisted on the argument from design, because I am writing for the 19th century, by which, as represented by its philosophers, design is not admitted as proved. And to tell the truth, though I should not wish to preach on the subject, for 40 years I have been unable to see the logical force of the argument myself. I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design.” Continuing: “Design teaches me power, skill and goodness—not sanctity, not mercy, not a future judgment, which three are of the essence of religion.” [10]

Many Christians follow the great Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard in thinking that we can get to God only through faith, and faith that is backed by reason is no true faith. We must make a leap into the absurd. This does not mean that we must do something silly or that belief is silly. Rather it means that rational proof is impossible and that this is as it should be. We must make a commitment, not a logical inference. It is a good thing that the argument from design does not work, for if it did, this would make faith impossible. It is true that many Christians today would not go this far—indeed, officially, Catholics are still supposed to be Thomists and to accept the arguments for God’s existence—but many, including Catholics, would join with Newman (who always followed his own route, whether Protestant or Catholic) in thinking that proof is not where the Christian should be ending.

In the words of today’s great Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, what we seek is a theology of nature, not a natural theology. [11] As Christians we approach the world, including the world of organisms, seeing God’s power and magnificence throughout. God’s creation is deepening our understanding of his power, not proving it. This is why Hume’s criticisms no longer have any bite. We are committed already to a single god, loving and caring. We have already rejected the idea of multiple gods, and of multiple universes—the latter at least in the sense that there is a succession of such worlds as God tries to improve things and get things right. Likewise, the problem of evil no longer has devastating power. Evil is a terrible thing, but for the Christian it is no refutation of the Creator. How could it be for a religion that has at its center the death of God on the Cross for our salvation? Our job as Christians is to try to understand evil and to combat it, not to use it as a route to atheism.

Understand that I am not now trying to defend Christianity. What I am trying to do is understand the moves that the Christian can take—that Christians do in fact take—in the face of Darwinism. The old argument from design does not work anymore. This does not mean that the believer cannot appreciate God’s creation. It does mean that the believer cannot turn to the creation for proof.

American Religion

Let us turn now to America, and let us trace the line that leads up to the Intelligent Design movement. Truly we could start with the Puritans and the fact that from the beginning of modern America religion has always played a distinctive and important role. [12] The eighteenth century is the time when our story really starts to pick up speed. This was the time of the Enlightenment, and for the first time people really had to face the prospect that it might all be false—the Christian religion, that is. The corroding influences of science, of philosophy, and above all of the encounter with sophisticated religions in the East had started to make it clear that the West might be on the wrong track. Few were going to be outright atheists—we have seen above that there were good reasons why this route might not appeal—but many were drawn to scepticism and doubt and deism (the idea that the Creator finished the job and then stood back and let unbroken law do everything else).

There were two major reactions. One was to go with the tide and embrace science and philosophy and the like—to argue that now we are able to improve the world and society ourselves, and this is what we should do. This was the time when the ideology of progress took off, in France, in Germany, in Britain (especially in Scotland), and increasingly in America. The founders of that nation at the end of the century were men of the Enlightenment, most of them deists (whatever their official allegiances), and very much committed to progress. The other reaction was to stem the tide, to restress the commitment to faith and to Jesus as Lord, to put one’s fate in the hands of God, to recognize that without His help we are nothing. In short, to stress Providence. This was the time of the Pietists in Germany, of the Methodists in England, and of the first Great Awakening in America. By the end of the eighteenth century there were nearly as many Methodists in America as there were in England.

In Europe, the nineteenth century saw the decline of religion, on its way to the emasculated remnant that it is today—fewer than ten percent of the English are regular churchgoers—but in America things were different. The new country turned in a major way to religion—to Protestant Christianity—to fill the spaces left by the break with Britain. To offer guides for living and comfort in the harsh and dangerous job of building a new world. The first part of the century saw the Second Great Awakening, as well as the formation of distinctively American forms of Christianity, most notably that of the Mormons. The century also saw a hardening of the divisions between those drawn to the ways of reason and progress and those who reemphasized faith and Providence. Increasingly this became a geographical division, with the boosters of progress in the North, centered on such institutions as Harvard University, which moved to Unitarianism and increasingly in the direction of the secular institution that it is today. In the South, and as the nation moved west, the faith-based Protestant religions of the Methodists and the Baptists were the dominant forces.

For those who belonged to these denominations, the Bible overwhelmingly was the foundation, the bedrock, of the faith—and increasingly, a literalistic reading of the Bible became the norm, with much emphasis on the eschatological parts of the work, Daniel especially and Revelation. People wanted not just a guide for living today, but an outline of the future, much of which was mixed up with the belief that America is not just another nation, but in a sense the New Jerusalem, the Promised Land for the followers of Jesus. The Mormons particularly represent this kind of thinking, but it is to be seen also in other new sects, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists. (I speak now of Protestants, but as Catholics and Jews came to America in large numbers, increasingly they took on the hues of American Protestantism. It is this fact that makes the Vatican very tense today.)

The Civil War and Its Aftermath

As in so many other respects, the Civil War was the decisive event. Taken literally, the Bible supports slavery. When God made his covenant with Abraham, He did not tell him to free his slaves. He told Abraham to circumcise the males. When the escaped slave came to Paul, he did not tell the slave that he was free. Paul told him to return to his master, and he said that slaves should obey their masters. It is true that Paul told masters to care for their slaves, but Americans in the South would have said that that is precisely what they did. Slaves were valuable property and worth cherishing. After the war, the North felt vindicated. It now was free to begin the dizzying rise that put America in its dominant position in the twentieth century. Progress was the ruling philosophy. The North became industrialized; it pushed the railroads out West and made possible the transportation of grain to the East and then on to Europe; it developed its system of education—new German-influenced universities like Johns Hopkins—and increasingly in theology, Christianity was seen as a social doctrine and the Bible regarded as a work to be interpreted metaphorically, sometimes with very little direct connection to what was in the text.

Evolution was caught up in this. From its beginnings in the eighteenth century, in the writings of people like the French philosopher Denis Diderot and the English physician Erasmus Darwin—grandfather of Charles, good friend of Benjamin Franklin, and great enthusiast for the Industrial Revolution—evolution was seen to be the epitome of progress. It was, in its way, God’s (the deist God’s) creative endeavor in the organic world as societal improvement is our creative endeavor in the human world. Erasmus Darwin endorsed a tree of life that, as he himself put it, went up from monarch (butterfly) to monarch (king).

Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens! [13]

In the late nineteenth century in the American North, evolution became more than a theory. It was, as it were, a standard, a symbol, for everything that the country stood for—science, understanding, progress. Even the religious got on board. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher—brother of the novelist, charismatic preacher, notorious adulterer—took progress and evolution as his themes, if not his obsessions. “If single acts would evince design, how much more a vast universe, that by inherent laws gradually builded itself, and then created its own plants and animals, a universe so adjusted that it left by the way the poorest things, and steadily wrought toward more complex, ingenious, and beautiful results!” Continuing: “Who designed this mighty machine, created matter, gave to it its laws, and impressed upon it that tendency which has brought forth the almost infinite results on the globe, and wrought them into a perfect system? Design by wholesale is grander than design by retail.” [14]


The South was defeated, and after the death of Lincoln its defeat was rubbed in its face. The South looked to the Bible for consolation, and it found it. God most often afflicts those whom He loves most. Be steady, be firm, put your trust in the Lord, and these dreadful times will pass. As for the North, evolution became more than a theory. It became a standard, a symbol, for everything that was wrong with the North. It went explicitly against the stories of Genesis and promoted the vile philosophy of progress, the total antithesis to Providence, that theology in which we are as nothing, worms, before God and dependent utterly on His saving grace. Little wonder that “Rock of Ages” became a favorite hymn.

Not the labor of my hands
         Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
         Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
         Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Dwight Moody, the Billy Graham of the second half of the century, listed four great vices of our age. These are the theater, ignoring the Sabbath, Sunday newspapers, and atheism, including evolution. [15] Some were explicit in linking an endorsement of evolution with an opposition to slavery. “It is as idle to charge the responsibility of the doctrine about the diversity of species upon slave holders, as to load them with the guilt of questioning the geological accuracy of Moses.” Those who claim that Adam and Eve were not the sole parents of the race and that time is not as described in the Bible are those who launch “assaults of infidel science upon the records of our faith, and both have found their warmest advocates among the opponents of slavery” (James Henley Thornwell, quoted in Noll 2002, 399).

Things came to a head, of course, in 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee, when a young schoolteacher, John Thomas Scopes, was put on trial for teaching evolution in the classroom. He was prosecuted by William Jennings Bryan, three-time candidate for the presidency of the United States of America and longtime defender of the little man—known with much affection as the “Great Commoner.” He was defended by Clarence Darrow, noted agnostic and brilliant lawyer, who was just off a trial in Chicago in which he had successfully saved two child killers (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) from the electric chair. We all know how the Scopes trial descended into near farce when, unable to introduce his own expert witnesses, Darrow put Bryan into the witness box and examined him on his belief in the literal truth of the Bible. In the end, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, although this result was overturned on a technicality on appeal. (The judge should have asked the jury to set the penalty and not done so himself.)

In fact, so myth-encrusted has the Scopes Monkey Trial become—thanks particularly to the popular 1950s play and movie Inherit the Wind—that the real force of the trial has been rather lost. Professional historical examination of the event shows clearly that, apart from the fact that Bryan was nowhere like the buffoon that he is portrayed as in Inherit the Wind, it was not evolution as such that was at the focus of the trial. [16] It was the whole way of life of the South that was now being threatened by the North. Most particularly, with the huge rise in secondary education in the first part of the twentieth century, places like Tennessee were now being exposed to the thinking of the world of the North—science, technology, mores, and much more, including religion—and many southerners were feeling deeply threatened and uncomfortable. As always, evolution was a kind of litmus test for underlying cultural concerns, and less something in its own right.

Scientific Creationism

As it also happens, the Scopes trial had a deadening effect on the teaching of evolution right through the nation, since textbook publishers simply gutted their products of all mention of the topic. It started to return only in the early 1960s when, in response to Sputnik, money was poured into American education in the attempt to catch up with the Russians. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and almost predictably the biblical literalists struck back, notably with a work written by a theologian and a hydraulic engineer, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris. Genesis Flood (1961) became the new bible of the literalist movement, often known as Fundamentalism and now increasingly as Creationism.

Eschatology—belief in the ultimate destiny of humankind—was mentioned above. This has always been an obsession of Protestant evangelicals, especially the literalists, and the mid-twentieth century saw it flourishing as never before. The atomic bombs over Japan and then the long winter of the Cold War—against the evil empire—seemed to many to be clear harbingers of the approaching end-time. This incidentally explains why Noah’s Flood always plays so major a role in Creationist thinking. The Epistle of Peter tells us that the Flood is the counterpart to the forthcoming battle between good and evil, Armageddon, and so establishing the authenticity of the first event was crucial as preparation for predicting the inevitability of the second event. On the basis of prophecies in Revelation, the founding of Israel was also taken as a significant event, which explains why today literalists are among the strongest supporters of the Jewish State. Even as I write, Pat Robertson is claiming that Ariel Sharon’s stroke was punishment from God for leaving the Gaza Strip, part of the land that God gave to Abraham.

Thanks to Supreme Court rulings, by the 1960s it was determined that evolution could not be excluded from state-supported schools. It was also determined that religion could not be included in such schools. For this reason, the Creationists—no less literalist than anyone before them—adopted the tactic of arguing that every claim in the Bible, taken absolutely literally, can be justified by good modern science. The earth is about six thousand years old, the initial creation took only a week of twenty-four-hour days, humans came last, and there was shortly thereafter a huge worldwide flood. It is this last event, incidentally, that gives the illusion of progress (and hence evolution) in the fossil record. The slow animals like dinosaurs got caught at the bottoms of hills, and the fast animals like modern mammals got to the summits before they too drowned.

Scientific Creationism (or Creation Science), as it was now called, came crashing down in 1981. The state of Arkansas passed a law demanding balanced treatment: if a biology class taught evolution, then it must also teach Scientific Creationism. A number of parents, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed the law, it came to trial, and the judge ruled firmly that Creation Science is not genuine science. It is religion, and hence cannot be taught in state-supported schools. (Declaration of interest. I was one of the expert witnesses used by the ACLU in its attack on the law. As a philosopher, I spoke to the nature and definition of science and religion.)

Intelligent Design

Things remained quiet until around 1990, when Phillip Johnson, then a law professor at Berkeley, got involved. Recently converted to evangelical Christianity, Johnson became convinced that Darwinian evolutionary theory is false, and he expressed this belief in a sprightly little book, Darwin on Trial. At the end, the old evolutionist is led away in chains for a very long incarceration. Frankly, there was nothing very much in the book which was new. All of the old charges against evolution were trotted out. The fossil record shows gaps, so there cannot be common descent. Natural selection is a tautology, so it cannot be an effective method of change. Mutations are random, so they cannot be the foundation of complexity. And so on and so forth. But Johnson was an effective writer and teacher. He knew how to put forth an argument, and he did so.

More than just this. Johnson was a man who knew how to organize. He realized—if he did not realize at first, his many evolutionary critics soon made him realize—that it was not enough simply to criticize the other side. He had to have something positive to put in its place. Soon he recruited Michael Behe (I was at a conference in Dallas where we all met for the first time) and put him in touch with the commercial publisher that brought out Darwin’s Black Box. He also made contact with the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a right-wing think tank that was looking for causes to endorse and promote. Rich supporters were approached, and soon large amounts of cash were available to promote ideas and to support those working on the right issues. By the end of the decade, around 2000, so-called Intelligent Design Theory was off and running. Some were working on the ideas. Others were out there promoting it. The rest, as they say, is history. With a right-wing evangelical in the White House, and with every other politician falling over him- or herself to show closeness with Jesus, there is little wonder that school boards around the nation—Kansas, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, to name three states—were demanding that IDT be introduced into the classrooms. And so we find ourselves here today.

Some Hard Questions

Let us ask a number of questions. First, what is Intelligent Design Theory? Second, is it right, is it wrong? Is it science, is it religion? Third, is it legitimate to put it in succession with biblical literalism, fundamentalism, Creationism? I have done so just above, but is this unfairly tarring IDT with discredited programs and ideas?

Intelligent Design Theory, as spelled out by its two major theoreticians—Michael Behe and the mathematician and philosopher William Dembski [17]—is the argument from design, Plato to Paley, brought up to date. Behe seizes on a notion that he calls “irreducible complexity.” This refers to phenomena that simply could not have occurred by blind law and certainly could not have occurred in a developmental fashion. Behe defines irreducible complexity as “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” He writes that any “irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution. Since natural selection can only choose systems that are already working, then if a biological system cannot be produced gradually it would have to arise as an integrated unit, in one fell swoop, for natural selection to have anything to act on.” [18]

To introduce us to the notion of irreducible complexity, taking an example that is human-made, Behe instances a mousetrap. It is made of several parts—spring, snapper, base, and the like—and it will not work until and unless it has been assembled into a complex whole. Take out one part and it fails to function. It cannot have evolved gradually but must have been put together by a person at one point in time. It is Behe’s claim that we find similar phenomena in nature. Bacteria give us an example. We find some that use a flagellum (a kind of whiplike strand), something powered by a sort of rotary motor, by which they propel themselves along. The whole system is highly complex, nothing functioning unless and until it is in place. This whole system is far too complex to have come into being in a gradual fashion. It had to be formed in one step, and such a process must involve some sort of designing cause. The same is true also of other phenomena that Behe instances, including the mechanism of blood clotting, something which involves a sequence (known as a “cascade”) in which one process follows another, and supposedly in which the removal of just one of the processes means that absolutely nothing works at all. Something must have intervened to get the process set up and working in the first place. And there is no other option than that this something was intelligence.

It is here that William Dembski steps in, for you might object that even though we cannot tell what it was that brought on such complexity, it is altogether too quick to assume that intelligence was involved. His contribution to IDT is to spell out just what are the marks of intelligence, or rather of intelligent intervention—design. He sets up a kind of grid. First we must have something that would attract attention. A rock in the desert does not make us think of design. It is just random. Now what about the planets going around the sun? There is something here. The phenomenon is not random. It is clearly governed by law and working. But it is just law, and not design. So now we look at something else. Suppose we found a target and an arrow right in the middle. We might think of design here. The archer set out to hit the bull’s-eye. But what if we found that the circles were drawn after the arrow was shot?! Then we would no longer think that the arrow was shot with design. In some sense, you must specify beforehand what counts as design, and if and only if it is achieved do you think it is design. Circling back to things like mousetraps, these would qualify as design, and so also would things like bacterial motors and blood-clotting cascades.

Before we move to questions about the nature of the designer, let us stop and ask about this whole approach as science—not yet so much whether it is genuine science, but rather whether, if we allow that it is science, it seems like good science, like well-taken science. The unanimous opinion of the scientific community—and a great deal of effort has been spent on these claims—is that it is not. Amusingly, as you might imagine, the mousetrap example has been taken apart—literally as well as metaphorically—and triumphant evolutionists report functioning mousetraps with four, three, two, and one part only. No doubt someone is out there trying for a mousetrap with no parts at all. The point is not that these mousetraps are particularly good, but that they work at all. And that is what natural selection is all about—taking something that can do slightly better than the rest and working from there.

Likewise, Behe’s biological examples have been scrutinized and found wanting. There are cases of functioning bacterial motors with far fewer parts than those itemized by Behe. It is simply not true that one must have all of the parts in place before anything at all works. Similarly, the blood cascading example finds few enthusiasts among scientists. Russell Doolittle, whose work is being reported on here, shows not only that the many parts look like they were manufactured from one or a few basic parts—which is what you might expect if evolution is true—but that in some organisms blood clotting takes place with many fewer stages. [19] Again, we simply do not have organized complexity as defined by Behe.

There are many other examples of apparent organized complexity that simply do not stand up under scrutiny. Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University and a great critic of IDT, draws our attention to the Krebs cycle, a highly complex process with many steps, used by the cell to provide energy. [20] It did not appear out of nowhere. It was something molecular biologists call a “bricolage,” built bit by bit from other pieces.

[T]he Krebs cycle was built through the process that Jacob (1977) [21] called “evolution by molecular tinkering,” stating that evolution does not produce novelties from scratch: It works on what already exists. The most novel result of our analysis is seeing how, with minimal new material, evolution created the most important pathway of metabolism, achieving the best chemically possible design. In this case, a chemical engineer who was looking for the best design of the process could not have found a better design than the cycle which works in living cells. [22]

Part of the problem here is that Behe simply does not understand how evolution through natural selection works. It does not simply have a goal and achieve it. It works with the materials at hand, in a slow and painful and often inefficient manner. Most particularly, you should not think that what you see now is how things were always, or forget that things may be removed as well as added. If (to revert to the human realm) you saw a stone bridge with no cement, you might wonder how it could ever have been put in place. As you started to build inward from the two sides, at some point the stones would topple over and fall. Rather, you must first build a support—wood or earth—then lay your stones, and when all is in place, you can remove the support without disaster. Likewise in evolution. Often you have one process; things piggyback on this process and then at some point start functioning independently. The original process is now redundant, and selection can remove it—will remove it if it is still taking resources.

There is also the problem of where and when the designer intervenes to get things working. Behe sometimes suggests that this all happened long ago, but that scenario is not likely if (as generally happens) mutation could break things down through time. The simple fact is that as science IDT is not that well thought-out, not to mention the fact that it seems significantly barren. Scientists will often accept theories, warts and all, if they can achieve new results. Get going and look to the faults later. The trouble with IDT is that there simply are no new results. None. Period. So why waste time on it? The trouble with IDT is that it is philosophically wonky too. Dembski has not really sorted out the various categories to which he refers—total randomness, caused by regular laws, designed. Or more precisely, design-like, for remember that Darwinians are more than happy to accept the term “design-like”—it is just that they think that natural selection rather than an intelligence does the job. Genetic mutations are clearly random in one sense—they do not appear according to need, nor can you predict any single mutation. At another level, they are governed by law—we know a lot about the causes of mutation (radiation, chemicals)—and no one thinks that they appear just miraculously. And they all add up to design-like features. You cannot say that this is impossible, for now there are many computer programs of artificial life that start with imaginary populations, that introduce random changes, and that end up with new functioning “organisms.” What happens in the computer could as easily happen in nature.


Move on to the next question. IDT does not seem to be any great catch as science. Why, then, are people so keen to support it? Most obviously because of other reasons, and these are not hard to find. What about the designer? We have seen already that this is not likely—absolutely not likely—to be a natural force. A being elsewhere in the universe. It is none other than the Christian God, as IDT supporters have truly admitted again and again. A great favorite with them is the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Precisely. We are talking about a nonnatural force. A religious force. We are talking about Christianity. And if the objection is brought that some IDT supporters are not Christians—they are Jews or Muslims or whatever—then the fact remains that we are talking about a deity who intervenes in the creation, and for most IDT supporters this is the God of Christianity. We can let them quarrel about His exact nature.

In other words, we are right back with good old-fashioned natural theology, tarted up to look like modern science. And note incidentally that all of the old problems with good old-fashioned natural theology come right in, rearing their ugly heads. Most significantly, the problem of evil. If we need an Intelligent Designer to make for organized complexity—bacterial motors—then why on earth did he not take a few moments to clear up some simple problems that lead to absolutely horrific effects? As I write, there are children all over the world suffering the tortures of the damned because of mistakes in their genetic codes. Often we are talking about just one or two molecules being out of place. Why, why, why did the Intelligent Designer not put these things right while he was working away at the big problems? It is like a doctor today working away on heart surgery but refusing to give a child born with syphilis a shot of penicillin.

So we come to the third question. Are we unfairly maligning the ID theorists by putting them in line with the Scientific Creationists? I will let the ID theorists speak for themselves.

In traveling outside the United States, I’ve found that evolutionary theory goes largely unchallenged. In the United States, by contrast, there remains widespread skepticism toward evolution. And even though intelligent design has emerged as the most visible banner under which evolution is now being challenged, the challenge would not exist without the efforts of Henry Morris and young earth creationists.

I myself would not be a design theorist today without them. To be sure, I am not a young earth creationist nor do I support their efforts to harmonize science with a particular interpretation of Genesis. Nonetheless, it was their literature that first got me thinking about how improbable it is to generate biological complexity and how this problem might be approached scientifically. A. E. Wilder-Smith was particularly important to me in this regard. Making rigorous his intuitive ideas about information has been the impetus for much of my research.

In his book Darwin and Design (Harvard University Press, 2003), Michael Ruse makes clear that the key question in the debate over biological evolution is not whether evolution is progressive but rather how biological complexity originated. Creationists have always, and rightly, kept this question at the forefront.

For these reasons, I regard Henry Morris as a great man. . . .

Despite my disagreements with Morris and young earth creationism, I regard those disagreements as far less serious than my disagreements with the Darwinian materialists. If you will, young earth creationism is at worst off by a few orders of magnitude in misestimating the age of the earth. On the other hand, Darwinism, in ascribing powers of intelligence to blind material forces, is off by infinite orders of magnitude. [23]

There we have it. Generally, Intelligent Design boosters do not want to buy into extreme literalism—although there are those (Paul Nelson, for instance) who do, all the way including an extreme enthusiasm for Israel. But ID supporters do feel a strong empathy with the Creationist movement, particularly—as Dembski emphasizes at the end of the passage just quoted—with respect to materialism, or as it is often called, naturalism. (In a sense these days, given electrons and so forth, no one is a materialist in the old ways. Hence many prefer to avoid the word entirely.) Evolution is seen as the epitome of a materialistic, a naturalistic, view of the world, excluding all possibilities of any kind of divine interference. From this, it is believed, follows a whole worldview entirely antithetical to the world of the evangelical Right.

The evolutionist might protest that as a scientist one is indeed a materialist or naturalist, but that this is the assumption one makes in doing science. One presupposes methodological materialism or naturalism, but this says nothing about one’s ultimate ontological commitments. One might well deny metaphysical materialism or naturalism and could as well believe in the Christian God as much as any Creationist. But the ID people will have nothing to do with this. Phillip Johnson particularly argues nonstop against naturalism, insisting that methodological naturalism slides into metaphysical naturalism and that this spells atheism. The only true position for him and for the rest of the ID movement is that of “theistic realism.”

A theistic realist assumes that the universe and all its creatures were brought into existence for a purpose by God. Theistic realists expect this “fact” of creation to have empirical, observable consequences that are different from the consequences one would observe if the universe were the product of nonrational causes (such as Jacques Monod’s “chance and necessity”). Since God is rational and created our minds in his image, we would expect the universe to be on the whole orderly, and therefore the success of science in determining many regular processes and mechanisms is entirely consistent with T[heistic] R[ealism]. God always has the option of working through regular secondary mechanisms, and we observe such mechanisms frequently. On the other hand, many important questions—including the origin of genetic information and human consciousness—may not be explicable in terms of unintelligent causes, just as a computer or a book cannot be explained that way. [24]

The important point to recognize is that this—for the ID people as for the Creationists, the Fundamentalists, and the literalists before them—is no abstract issue of metaphysics or philosophy. For all of these people, naturalism has moral connotations, or rather immoral connotations. Henry Morris was always adamant that evolutionism corrupts proper teaching: “Not only is this system inimical to orthodox Christianity and Judaism, but also, as many are convinced, to a healthy society and true science as well.” [25] Naming names, he highlighted a “notorious Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse,” apparently a well-known “atheistic humanist,” as one who aids and contributes to the moral decay of society. “It is rather obvious that the modern opposition to capital punishment for murder and the general tendency toward leniency in punishment for other serious crimes are directly related to the strong emphasis on evolutionary determinism that has characterized much of this century.” [26]

Johnson is much of the same way of thinking, condemning single parents, divorce, drugs, promiscuity, abortion, gay just-about-everything, and for some reason that seems really to bother him, cross-dressing. Again and again he stresses that this is the real problem. It is what evolution stands for that is the real issue. Evolution equals naturalism equals moral collapse.

A responsible society is based first and foremost on responsible parents who fulfill their obligations to each other and to their children. Probably the most important thing that most adults do is to prepare the next generation for the joys and responsibilities of life. To do this they must ensure to the best of their ability that their children are born healthy. Following birth, children must be nurtured and educated in moral behavior by loving parents, preferably two parents. That is one reason it is important for lovers to regard marriage as a sacred bond, rather than as a contractual arrangement to be terminated at the convenience of either party. That is also why mothers in a rational society regard their children, born and unborn, as a sacred trust rather than primarily as an encumbrance that men impose on women in order to make them unhappy and impede their pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure. Similarly, fathers in a rational society regard their offspring from the beginning of pregnancy as their own flesh, so that they become enthusiastic providers and co-nurturers rather than the unwilling objects of child-support orders. (Johnson 1995, pp. 150–51)

Gaps in the fossil record have never really kept anyone awake at night. The collapse of moral society as people understand it does lead to nightmares and long, dark hours of worry.

Summing Up

So where should we come out at the end? Recently, at the end of 2005, the ID movement received a massive counterblow, for in Pennsylvania, following a trial over whether ID could be taught in state-supported public schools, it was ruled firmly that it could not. What made the ruling particularly powerful was that the judge was no bleeding-heart liberal, but a churchgoer, a Republican, and an appointee of President Bush. [27] But it would be foolish to think that this is going to be the end of matters. Winning the battle against ID is not winning the war. So let me sum up the conclusion of the discussion given above.

First, the argument from design simply does not have its old force in the post-Darwinian world. That is a fact. This does not mean that one cannot be a Christian. Or let me rephrase that: the collapse of the argument from design in itself does not mean that one cannot be a Christian. It does mean that one is going to have to rethink the relationship between God and the creation and, more particularly, our understanding of that relationship. Perhaps a theology of nature rather than a natural theology. Second, Intelligent Design Theory is the end product of a long history of American opposition to evolution. But it has never been opposition to evolution as such, but always evolution perceived as a symbol for a whole culture of progress and modernism which threatens and is loathed. Evolution certainly goes against the Bible taken literally, and no one should underestimate the significance of this. But the Bible taken literally is itself a cultural stance—it is certainly not traditional Christianity—and that again is reason not to think of these issues as abstract questions of theology, or even of the proper domains of science and religion. The divide is much broader—and deeper.

Third, Intelligent Design Theory does not succeed as science. It is religion, and that is an end to that discussion. It supposes nonnatural interventions into the world of organisms, and the intervener—the Intelligent Designer—is the God of evangelical Christianity. What is the fourth and final thing we should say? In one sense it ought to be that evolution is true and that Darwinism is a good scientific theory. I believe these things to be true, but I have not argued them here, and for now they will have to be taken on trust. What I want to say is that if we are to fight Intelligent Design Theory and everything that it stands for—and I believe that we should—then we are going to have to fight at the broader level. It is not enough just to do the science. We must address the moral and social and theological issues as well.

I do not mean that we must now give in and join the opposition. I do mean that we have got to make sure of the things that we hold dear and offer good justifications for our positions. Even if we are not ourselves Christians, we have got to remember that most Americans are Christians and that to convince them we have got to show that our norms and standards are those to which they can conform and which they can accept. I believe that this is possible—the New Testament contains the Sermon on the Mount as well as Revelation—but it is going to require effort and perhaps a realization that we must work together with those whose ideas and theology we do not always share. The risk of not doing this is too great. I hope we’ve learned at least that much.


[1] An excellent work on the Intelligent Design movement is B. Forrest and P. R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). A good general critique is R. Pennock, Tower of Babel: Scientific Evidence and the New Creationism (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998). The definitive work on the Creationist movement is R. L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (New York: Knopf, 1992). My own earlier involvement in these issues is given in M. Ruse, ed., But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1988), which also reprints some pertinent documents by both Creationists and their critics. Much in this essay is based on ideas expressed in Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005). As I note later, in this essay I do not defend Darwinism, but I do so in Ruse, Darwinism and Its Discontents (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] Ruse, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[3] Parts of Animals, 641a 7–17, in J. Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 997.

[4] St. T. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 1 (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1952), 26–27.

[5] W. Paley, Collected Works, vol. 4, Natural Theology (1802; London: Rivington, 1819), 1.

[6] D. Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. N. K. Smith (1779; Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1947).

[7] J. Maynard Smith, “Did Darwin Get It Right?” London Review of Books 3, no. 11 (1981): 10–11.

[8] C. Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (London: John Murray, 1859), 63.

[9] R. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1986).

[10] J. H. Newman, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Cardinal Newman, vol. 25, ed. C. S. Dessain and T. Gornall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 97.

[11] W. Pannenberg, Towards a Theology of Nature (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).

[12] M. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[13] E. Darwin, The Temple of Nature (London: J. Johnson, 1803), 1, 295–314.

[14] H. W. Beecher, Evolution and Religion (New York: Fords, Howard, and Hulbert, 1885), 113.

[15] G. M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 35.

[16] E. J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

[17] W. A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[18] M. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1996), 39.

[19] R. F. Doolittle, “A Delicate Balance,” Boston Review 22, no. 1 (1997): 28–29.

[20] K. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (New York: Harper and Row, 1999).

[21] F. Jacob, “Evolution and Tinkering,” Science 196 (1977): 1161–66.

[22] E. Meléndez-Hevia, T. G. Waddell, and M. Cascante, “The Puzzle of the Krebs Citric Acid Cycle: Assembling the Pieces of Chemically Feasible Reactions, and Opportunism in the Design of Metabolic Pathways during Evolution,” Journal of Molecular Evolution 43 (1996): 302.

[23] This passage is from an unpublished essay by William Dembski entitled “Intelligent Design’s Contribution to the Debate over Evolution: A Reply to Henry Morris.” It is posted on Dembski’s webpage and seems to have been written in February 2005:

[24] P. E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance: The Case against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 209.

[25] H. M. Morris, Scientific Creationism (San Diego, Calif.: Creation-Life Publishers, 1974), iii.

[26] Morris, The Long War against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1989), 148.

[27] This ruling can be found at


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