Intelligent Design Theory:
Why it Matters
July 25, 1999
In this scientific age, it is impossible to quarantine the claims of science. They invariably leak into other cultural domains. So we should attend to what scientists tell us. Sometimes it is quite important.
For instance, in The Meaning of Evolution, George Gaylord Simpson repeats what is surely the "official" dogma of the contemporary scientific guild: "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind." This far-reaching claim contrasts with earlier scientific wisdom, which held that man was designed by an intelligent being, a fact that grounded both his freedom and his moral responsibility.
Darwin and the materialist view of reality
So what changed? While most historical events have multiple causes, Charles Darwin's theoretical coupling of natural selection with random variations clearly provided the impetus for removing the concept of design from the biological sciences.
It was not an appeal to historical change or "evolution" that made Darwin's theory unique. Nor was it the concept of universal common ancestry or the modest claim that natural selection explains some things. Darwin's theory was revolutionary because it banished the concept of intelligent design from biology, consigning it to a marginal theological ghetto. For the first time, there seemed to be a plausible materialistic explanation for all those ingenious biological mechanisms--the brain and the eye, digestion and circulation, feathers and fins.
Others extended Darwin's ban on intelligent design to include the origin of life and the universe itself. With help from intellectuals such as Marx and Freud, we were left with a view of humans as mere animals or machines who inhabit a universe ruled by chance, and whose behavior and thoughts are determined by the immutable and impersonal forces of nature and environment.
This materialistic interpretation of reality slowly has permeated every area of our culture. As Daniel Dennett says in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea:
Darwin's idea had been born as an answer to questions in biology. But it threatened to leak out, offering answers, welcome or not, to questions in cosmology, going in one direction back to the big bang and psychology, going in the other direction, to explain the human mind and spirit. ... Darwin's idea thus also threatened to spread all the way up, dissolving the illusion of our own authorship, our own divine spark of creativity and understanding.
"Darwin's Dangerous Idea" has seeped into American life in a number of subtle ways, slowly compromising the basis of our legal and political rights. If we are nothing more than the sum of chance, impersonal law and environment, then we are not free and responsible individuals, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. Because we are not free, we are not responsible; so, paradoxically, we can do whatever we "want."
Some understood this implication early on, including the authors of a criminology textbook published in the 1930s: "Man is no more 'responsible' for becoming willful and committing a crime than the flower for becoming red and fragrant. In both instances the end products are pre-determined by the nature of protoplasm and the chance of circumstances."
A world of more than protoplasmic blobs
The materialistic scheme dissolves our sense of responsibility for our actions as well as the ethical framework that makes our laws meaningful. Accordingly, materialists invariably define claims of right and good as mere code words for the will to power.
Political philosopher Jay Budziszewski recently observed that materialistic logic even has found its way into the deliberations of the Supreme Court. Whereas the founding fathers grounded our legal system in "the laws of nature and of nature's God," our current court has declared that Americans have a constitutional "right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life" (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, 1992). This may sound like praiseworthy tolerance, but it does not take a legal scholar to work out the relativistic implications of such a principle.
This is unfortunate, but what can we do? Materialism seems to enjoy the endorsement of the firmest scientific knowledge. Perhaps we must conclude that Darwin's teaching, as Nietzsche said, is "true but deadly." Clearly Darwin's teaching is deadly, but is it true--that is, in its widest application?
For decades, scientists have been amassing evidence that contradicts both Darwin's theory and the grand materialistic gloss that usually accompanies it. Many physicists and cosmologists now recognize that the universe had a beginning and that many physical laws look suspiciously "fine tuned" for the existence of intelligent life. In addition, biochemists and biologists have discovered a microscopic world of mesmerizing complexity belying the simple blobs of protoplasm that Darwin imagined.
Moreover, we now know that the DNA that specifies all life is like an information-rich language. Inside every human cell sits a tiny encoded DNA coil five-thousandths of a millimeter in diameter, which, if unfolded, would be one meter long. Even Bill Gates has observed: "DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created." This new evidence requires a new explanation not shackled by materialistic dogma.
In his book Darwin's Black Box, biochemist Michael Behe argues that many biological systems are "irreducibly complex," which means that their individual parts hang essentially together. If even a single part is removed, the system becomes inoperative. These are just the sorts of things produced by intelligent agents and that Darwin's theory cannot explain.
Not surprisingly, Behe and other "intelligent design theorists" defend the concept of intelligent design as the best explanation for these phenomena. After all, only collective amnesia prevents us from recalling that a program requires a programmer. My Discovery Institute colleague Phil Gold puts this nicely: "Einstein said that God does not play dice with the universe. He was right. God plays Scrabble."
Between religion and Darwinism
But does this not lead us back to the realm of religion? While it certainly evokes religious questions, design theory is not religion encroaching on the jurisdiction of science.
We now have a reliable scientific method, formalized by mathematician and philosopher William Dembski (in The Design Inference, Cambridge University Press, 1998), for detecting designed objects and distinguishing them from the products of chance and impersonal laws. Scientists already use the design inference intuitively in fields such as cryptography, archaeology and forensics. When applied to nature's fine-tuned laws, DNA sequences and Behe's irreducibly complex biochemical systems, the clear conclusion is that they are intelligently designed.
Not surprisingly, these matters are provoking fierce debate. Many guardians of current scientific orthodoxy are casting aspersions to prevent these new insights from gaining a hearing, and even threatening the freedom of scientists to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Their furor is understandable, for they realize that intelligent design in the natural sciences, like scientific materialism, would have profound social consequences. No longer would science seem to underwrite a materialistic world view, in which human beings are neither accountable nor responsible.
What Darwinism and scientific materialism have dismantled, intelligent design theory could help restore.
Jay Richards is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in Seattle.
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