Intelligent design and its critics

Achievements of design–new and daring–are perhaps the most noted signature of our time. Molecules and matter are co-opted into the most elaborate and original designs ever conceived. Robotic production lines are designed to mass-produce vehicles efficiently and speedily. Travel into the third spatial dimension is finally kick-started with the design of aweinspiring space vehicles sent to explore the Solar System. Designer drugs, anesthetics, and exquisite diagnostic tools have changed medicine forever. But perhaps the most awesome design achievements of all are the amazingly intricate silicon chip-based devices powering the global information highway.

Yet, it is ironic that whilst designdriven technologies are achieving wonders all around us, many, led by evolutionary biologists, are convinced that design had no part in the origin of complex structures in the biological and natural worlds. Although cells have been routinely called miniature factories, their emergence is said to owe nothing to design. DNA is universally referred to as a code, with its molecular translation machinery, but apparently no cryptographer was necessary. Brains are habitually described as computers, but neither programmers nor engineers were supposed to have featured in their development.

Of course, rapidly succeeding material changes have accustomed society to living with unexplained and counter-intuitive happenings. Lewis Carroll aptly summed up the looking- glass nature of modern living: “Sometimes I've believed as many as six contradictory things before breakfast.”1 However, the strangeness of the philosophical divergence between design-driven technology and chanceled evolutionary biology was bound to pique thoughtful minds.

Intelligent design: forgotten phantom of the cosmic opera?

Challenges to evolution have repeatedly erupted, and were brought sharply into focus in the early 1990s by Phillip Johnson, law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His incisive re-examination of origins resulted in a rather convincing case that the full diversity of Darwinian evolution is not supported by compelling evidence from paleontology or by empirical data from biology.2 Johnson's crucial point was that the Darwinian edifice is mainly buttressed by its materialist assumption of philosophical naturalism.3 Origins scientists insist that only chance and the laws of nature may be admitted as acceptable explanatory tools. Any interpretation departing from this narrow arena is automatically rejected as non-science or dubbed as superstition.

The challenge intensified with the publication of Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe's book Darwin's Black Box.4 Bio-systems like vision cascades, cellular cilia, and bacterial flagella require many complex and coordinated molecular working parts. Behe demonstrated that such “molecular machines” are “irreducibly complex.” He combed the literature in search of stepwise evolutionary scenarios to account for their origin, but found them few and far between and totally inadequate. He argued that biological machines are, in fact, powerful evidence of intelligent design in biology.

Is it possible to decide if something has really been designed or if only seems to be designed? Mathematician and philosopher William Dembski pointed out that detecting design is already a well-established scientific activity in fields such as forensic science, archaeology, and cryptology. Methods employed with obvious success to distinguish criminal from accidental activity, to differentiate artifacts from natural objects, and to decode messages, should also be applicable to biological structures and to events in nature.

Dembski's objective criterion for identifying design, and distinguishing it from the effects of natural causes, is called “specified complexity.”5 When applied to certain complex biological phenomena, the criterion agrees well with Behe's conclusion that their origin implies intelligent design.6

The Intelligent Design (ID) movement that sprang from these insights is attracting interest worldwide. Information and ideas about ID are disseminated by the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.7 The huge media coverage of the recent ID court case in Pennsylvania and the BBC TV primetime screening of a documentary on ID in the United Kingdom have brought the issue much public exposure.8

Corrosive criticism of intelligent design

Predictably, scientists from evolutionary disciplines have vigorously opposed ID.

The old school of materialists oppose ID with every means their powerful establishment positions give them. For example, Oxford University chemistry professor Peter Atkins excoriated Behe's book in a review,9 and a Guardian article by evolutionists Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne10 attacked ID with a rhetorical chain saw. Corrosive criticism is uncommon amongst heavyweight scientists, revealing the powerful ideological motivation of these authors. Many evolutionists are militant members of atheist and/or humanist organizations. For example, Dawkins' emotional attachment to atheism was prominently on display in his recent two-part TV series on religion as the “Root of all evil.”

Is intelligent design a religious conspiracy?

However, some coherent criticisms of ID have emerged. Some of these were voiced by Dawkins and Coyne in their Guardian article. They say, for example: “There is nothing new about ID. It is simply creationism camouflaged with a new name.” Others imply that ID is some kind of “religious conspiracy.” Proponents of ID regard it as a scientific research program that investigates the effects of intelligent causes. For Dembski, the purpose of ID is “to rehabilitate design as a mode of scientific explanation.” Meyer wrote, “The question that must be asked about the origin of life is not ‘which materialistic scenario seems most adequate?' but ‘what actually caused life to arise on the earth?'”11 The specified complexity criterion for detecting design makes no appeal to sacred books and is independent of religious authority. Religious connotations are inevitable for any enterprise delving into origins. For every charge of “religious agenda” aimed at ID science, an equal charge of “atheist agenda” could be leveled at evolutionary scenarios. Untestable evolutionary accounts of origins, lost in the miasma of pre-Cambrian time, are just as likely to be humanist wish fulfillment, as are religious accounts. Truth-seekers should ignore such charges as red herrings and carefully evaluate the real merits of the evidence from both sides.

Early in their article, Dawkins and Coyne say “So, why are we so sure that intelligent design is not a real scientific theory, worthy of ‘both sides' treatment? Isn't that just our personal opinion? It is an opinion shared by the vast majority of professional biologists.” “If ID really were a scientific theory, positive evidence for it, gathered through research, would fill peer-reviewed scientific journals. This doesn't happen. It isn't that editors refuse to publish ID research.” As already mentioned, for material naturalists, “real science” admits only chance and necessity as valid causes. Dawkins and his evolutionary peers automatically rule out ID on these philosophical grounds and consider it a waste of time to evaluate the evidence. Many professional biologists work in institutes specifically named “Evolutionary Biology” or some variant of this. The research funding, the livelihoods, the careers, the professional reputations of all these scientists depend on adherence to evolutionary orthodoxy. Objectivity on foundational questions of origins is not an option for them in these circumstances. The majority scientific opinion is a radically unsafe yardstick for gauging the validity of ID.

It is totally unsurprising that ID research is not reported in mainline science journals. Contrary to Dawkins and Coynes' assertion, editors routinely refuse to publish. When Dr. Richard Sternberg, editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, published a single paper by Cambridge-educated Stephen Meyer making the case for ID, he immediately became the subject of a closet campaign of ridicule and intimidation. “They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper cell operative for the creationists,” said Sternberg. He was advised not to attend a biological society meeting because feelings were running so high, order couldn't be guaranteed. An independent agency, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, examined email traffic emanating from the Smithsonian Institution, where Sternberg held a fellowship, and noted that “retaliation came in many forms.... Misinformation was disseminated through the Smithsonian and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false.”12 Editors and reviewers are well aware of the intimidation and harassment they will face, so it is small wonder they shy away from publishing articles favorable to ID.

It is ironic for Dawkins, of all people, to denigrate ID because, “Its advocates bypass normal scientific due process by appealing directly to the non-scientific public...” when this is exactly the method he adopts himself! His main contribution to science is the series of popular books expounding his brand of “blind watchmaker” evolution to the general public. In fact, Dawkins is following a long line of evolutionists, including Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Stephen Gould, all of whom have appealed directly to the non-scientific public in books and popular articles. Dawkins and Coynes' belief that it is fine for evolutionists to appeal directly to the public, but wrong for those who disagree with them, is deeply revealing of their ultra-partisan approach.

Fears that intelligent design would destroy science

According to Dawkins and Coyne, ID scientists make unreasonable demands for evidence: “One side (Evolution) is required to produce evidence, every step of the way. The other side is never required to produce one iota of evidence, but is deemed to have won automatically, the moment the first side encounters a difficulty–the sort of difficulty that all sciences encounter every day, and go to work to solve, with relish.” For more than a century, scientists have been promising that laboratory science will soon discover convincing answers to key evolutionary puzzles such as the quantitative mechanism for evolutionary change; how life originated; how the genetic code and new genetic information arose; how single stereoisomers of peptides could originate; how complex biological organs like eyes, cilia, flagella, etc. originated; how new biological species developed from ancestral forms; and why the fossil record does not show the “innumerable transitional forms” Darwin expected. ID scientists do not denigrate the huge progress that biologists have made in understanding how smaller changes have come about, or how new varieties of animals and plants are produced–i.e., microevolution in general. Evolutionists assert that the large steps to really new structures (macroevolution) are just an accumulation of smaller steps. It is very significant, however, that even after all this time, verifiable laboratory evidence is completely absent; the fossil record presents major problems; and only fanciful “scenarios” are offered. The point ID scientists are making is that the time has now come to examine alternative explanations in which design is evaluated alongside natural causes. The relish with which scientists work in solving origins problems could be pleasantly enhanced by adding the ID criterion to their arsenal of scientific tools.

Critics frequently express unease that ID science must involve continual appeals to miracles, and fear that it will stifle and destroy the true enquiring spirit of science. Past experience shows that this need cause no concern. The vast majority of science would continue exactly as at present. In research on the origin of complex biological organelles (and complex systems elsewhere in the Universe), the specified complexity filter would be used, along with current scientific tools, in the global enterprise of understanding living things, including human beings. Rather than stifling scientific enquiry, the existence of design in the Universe raises the expectation that phenomena are comprehensible and rational. If some “Designer did it,” even if “God did it,” then this promises that human intelligence can understand it, and human design can capitalize on it.

Design in nature does not imply that miracles continually occur, in the sense of arbitrary interventions breaking natural laws. In the design of a complex machine by human intelligence, no natural laws are broken. The creation of a computer, for example, invokes a special ordering of matter, and inputs a particular amount of information, that brings about an arrangement whose probability would otherwise be extremely low.13 Designs in nature can be understood in the same way as organization events. Religious convictions and belief in a designer did not inhibit front-rank scientists of the past like Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, or James Clerk Maxwell, and do not hamper discoveries by the many modern believing scientists. Rather, this belief reinforces the idea that natural phenomena are intelligible and catalyses projects for putting them to use.

Is intelligent design unnecessary and refuted?

Critics have maintained that there is no need for ID science because, as Dawkins said in a recent BBC documentary, 8 “Evolution explains 99% of what we know about biology.” Check out almost any life science textbook to see how wild an exaggeration this is, particularly at the hard end of biology where quantitative explanations are discussed. Peter Atkins recently published a textbook on Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences.14 The theoretical expression of the laws and principles underpinning biology is found in this area of science. In fact, the textbook does not contain a single reference to evolution; an eloquent testimony to the real, rather than ideological, significance of evolution.

More specifically, Dawkins and Coyne assure us: “In fact, the bacterial flagellum is certainly not too complex to have evolved, nor is any other living structure that has ever been carefully studied. Biologists have located plausible series of intermediates, using ingredients to be found elsewhere in living systems,”10 but this is largely wishful thinking. When it comes to explaining the origin of the bacterial flagellum, and similarly complex, information-rich biological organelles, evolutionary ingenuity has little to offer. Of course, some “plausible series of intermediates” may be “located” in imaginary, tentative, scenarios. Scientific imagination knows no limits! But the broad picture of this area of evolution is noteworthy because of its scarcity of ideas and their insubstantial character.

Kenneth Miller's announcement of the “collapse of irreducible complexity”15 proved to be hollow hype, although this comforting concept was widely disseminated by evolutionary biologists. The contention was that although the flagellum, for example, was admittedly inaccessible by a direct Darwinian pathway, its component proteins may have been preserved by natural selection in smaller systems performing other functions. This scenario implied, therefore, that these specific (or very similar) proteins would be found dotted around in other biochemical systems accessible to the bacterium. Protein characterization is carried out on a huge scale, so if this scenario were sound, the same proteins would be easy to recognize in their alternative settings and the literature would be full of plausible evolutionary pathways for the flagellum and other biological machines. This is manifestly not the case.

Darwin's ritual cheerleaders16

According to Dawkins and Coyne, “opposition to the fact of evolution is laughable to all who are acquainted with even a fraction of the published data. Evolution is a fact: as much a fact as plate tectonics or the heliocentric solar system.” The oft-repeated dictum, “evolution is fact,” has become a password ritually affirmed by orthodox Darwinians. In many contexts, “evolution” simply means change, and who would deny the existence of change in the natural world? There is indeed a large volume of evidence that microevolution happens. Essentially, everyone will agree that finch beak evolution is fact, or that the evolution of resistance amongst bacteria is fact.

For more than 100 years, science has striven mightily to explain the origins of everything in terms of only chance, allied with the laws of nature. Despite this enormous and sustained effort, evolutionary scenarios for the origins of life, of genetic information, of the genetic code, and of the origin of irreducibly complex structures remain highly speculative and are manifestly not established fact. That they are light years away from being validated, in the same way as the heliocentric solar system or the laws of enzyme kinetics, is one of the principal reasons why a large section of the public remains skeptical of unlimited evolution.

The debate raging around ID is not one of scientific fact versus religious faith. The real clash is an ideological one in which scientists are seeking to maintain the intellectual and cultural dominance of the humanist/atheist worldview. The prime objective of the ID enterprise is to establish design as a basic cause, along with chance and natural law, and hence to advance understanding of how complex biological and other structures originated. There are hopeful signs that a new generation, skeptical of Darwinian slogans and scenarios, is recognizing ID as a logically sound, rational, and reasonable program.

John Walton (D.Sc., Sheffield University; Ph.D., University of St. Andrews) is Professor of Reactive Chemistry at the University St. Andrews. Email:


  1. This is a slight misquote. Carroll actually said, “Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
  2. Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993).
  3. Philosophical naturalism is the idea that nothing exists beyond “the spatio-temporal world of physical entities that we can investigate in the natural sciences.” See M. J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland in Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995).
  4. Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box (New York: Free Press, 1996).
  5. William A. Dembski, The Design Revolution (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004); The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  6. William A. Dembski, ed., Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2004).
  7. The Discovery Institute, Center for Science and Culture, Seattle, http://www.discovery. org/csc/ See also Dembski's Design Inference website:
  8. For a summary, see tvradio/programmes/horizon/index.shtml.
  9. Peter W. Atkins, library/modern/peter_atkins/behe.html.
  10. Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, “One Side Can Be Wrong,” story/0,13026,1559743,00.html.
  11. Stephen C. Meyer in Science and Evidence for Design in Nature, M. J. Behe, W. A. Dembski, and S. C. Meyer, eds. (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 53.
  12. See: for Sternberg's own restrained account of the affair.
  13. See Dembski, The Design Revolution, ch. 24, p. 183 for further discussion of these points.
  14. Peter W. Atkins and J. de Paula, Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences (Oxford University Press, 2006).
  15. Kenneth R. Miller, “The Flagellum Unspun” in Debating Design: from Darwin to DNA, ed. W. A. Dembski and M. Ruse, (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2004). See also: K. R. Miller, evol/design2/article.html.
  16. Natural selection chorus: “Up the bloodstained path we go, destroying those who are weak or slow, mutate and compete! We are Darwin's elite! And religion's our deadliest foe!”