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In December of 2004, the renowned British philosopher Antony Flew made worldwide news when he repudiated a lifelong commitment to atheism, citing, among other factors, evidence of intelligent design in the DNA molecule. In that same month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to prevent a Dover, Pennsylvania school district from informing its students that they could learn about the theory of intelligent design from a supplementary science textbook in their school library. The following February, The Wall Street Journal (Klinghoffer 2005) reported that an evolutionary biologist at the Smithsonian Institution with two doctorates had been punished for publishing a peer-reviewed scientific article making a case for intelligent design.
Since 2005, the theory of intelligent design has been the focus of a frenzy of international media coverage, with prominent stories appearing in The New York Times, Nature, The London Times, The Independent (London), Sekai Nippo (Tokyo), The Times of India, Der Spiegel, The Jerusalem Post and Time magazine, to name just a few. And recently, a major conference about intelligent design was held in Prague (attended by some 700 scientists, students and scholars from Europe, Africa and the United States), further signaling that the theory of intelligent design has generated worldwide interest.
But what is this theory of intelligent design, and where did it come from? And why does it arouse such passion and inspire such apparently determined efforts to suppress it?
According to a spate of recent media reports, intelligent design is a new “faith-based” alternative to evolution - one based on religion rather than scientific evidence. As the story goes, intelligent design is just biblical creationism repackaged by religious fundamentalists in order to circumvent a 1987 United States Supreme Court prohibition against teaching creationism in the U.S. public schools. Over the past two years, major newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets in the United States and around the world have repeated this trope.
But is it accurate? As one of the architects of the theory of intelligent design and the director of a research center that supports the work of scientists developing the theory, I know that it isn't.
The modern theory of intelligent design was not developed in response to a legal setback for creationists in 1987. Instead, it was first proposed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by a group of scientists - Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley and Roger Olson - who were trying to account for an enduring mystery of modern biology: the origin of the digital information encoded along the spine of the DNA molecule. Thaxton and his colleagues came to the conclusion that the information-bearing properties of DNA provided strong evidence of a prior but unspecified designing intelligence. They wrote a book proposing this idea in 1984, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision (Edwards v. Aguillard) that outlawed the teaching of creationism.
Earlier in the 1960s and 1970s, physicists had already begun to reconsider the design hypothesis. Many were impressed by the discovery that the laws and constants of physics are improbably “finely-tuned” to make life possible. As British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle put it, the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of physics suggested that a designing intelligence “had monkeyed with physics” for our benefit.
Contemporary scientific interest in the design hypothesis not only predates the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against creationism, but the formal theory of intelligent design is clearly different than creationism in both its method and content. The theory of intelligent design, unlike creationism, is not based upon the Bible. Instead, it is based on observations of nature which the theory attempts to explain based on what we know about the cause and effect structure of the world and the patterns that generally indicate intelligent causes. Intelligent design is an inference from empirical evidence, not a deduction from religious authority.
The propositional content of the theory of intelligent design also differs from that of creationism. Creationism or Creation Science, as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court, defends a particular reading of the book of Genesis in the Bible, typically one that asserts that the God of the Bible created the earth in six literal twenty-four hour periods a few thousand years ago. The theory of intelligent design does not offer an interpretation of the book of Genesis, nor does it posit a theory about the length of the Biblical days of creation or even the age of the earth. Instead, it posits a causal explanation for the observed complexity of life.
But if the theory of intelligent design is not creationism, what is it? Intelligent design is an evidence-based scientific theory about life's origins that challenges strictly materialistic views of evolution. According to Darwinian biologists such as Oxford's Richard Dawkins (1986: 1), livings systems “give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” But, for modern Darwinists, that appearance of design is entirely illusory. Why? According to neo-Darwinism, wholly undirected processes such as natural selection and random mutations are fully capable of producing the intricate designed-like structures in living systems. In their view, natural selection can mimic the powers of a designing intelligence without itself being directed by an intelligence of any kind.
In contrast, the theory of intelligent design holds that there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe - for example, the information-bearing properties of DNA, the miniature circuits and machines in cells and the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics - that are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected material process. The theory does not challenge the idea of “evolution” defined as either change over time or common ancestry, but it does dispute Darwin's idea that the cause of biological change is wholly blind and undirected. Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes or a guiding intelligence played a role. Design theorists affirm the latter option and argue that living organisms look designed because they really were designed.
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