Intelligent Design Could Offer Fresh Ideas on Evolution

Originally published at Seattle Post-Intelligencer

There is a growing public debate over how best to teach evolution in America’s schools. But contrary to Alan Leshner (” ‘Intelligent design’ theory threatens science classrooms,” Nov. 22), that debate is not focused on requiring students to learn the theory of intelligent design.

Neither the Cobb County School Board in Georgia nor the Ohio State Board of Education mentioned by Leshner has proposed requiring the teaching of intelligent design. Instead, they have recommended students be exposed to scientific evidence critical of Darwin’s theory as well as scientific evidence that supports it.

While this proposal might seem to be a no-brainer to most people, it riles supporters of Darwin’s theory who like to insist there is no scientific controversy over evolution for students to learn about. This position has a surface plausibility because of the many meanings of the word evolution.

If one defines evolution broadly enough (say, as a belief that organisms change over time), then no one seriously denies that evolution has occurred. But the modern theory of neo-Darwinism goes much further. It claims that the evolution of life is driven by a blind process of natural selection acting on random variations, a process that is said to have “no specific direction or goal.”

In other words, neo-Darwinism teaches as a matter of scientific truth that life as we know it, including all human life, has behind it no creative intelligence and before it no goal or purpose.

It is this more specific claim about evolution that is being challenged today by a growing number of scientists. During the past year, more than 150 scientists, including faculty and researchers at such institutions as Yale, Princeton, MIT and the Smithsonian, adopted a statement expressing their skepticism “of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.”

Yet most biology students never get the opportunity to hear about these scientists who question the sufficiency of Darwin’s mechanism. Nor do they learn about such fascinating unresolved problems in evolutionary theory as the Cambrian explosion, a huge burst in the complexity of living things more than 500 million years ago that seems to outstrip the known capacity of natural selection to produce biological change. Most students aren’t even told about discredited proofs for Darwin’s theory that continue to appear in biology textbooks despite their repudiation by many biologists. Unfortunately, instead of supporting efforts to make sure evolution is taught fairly and fully, Leshner and his fellow board members at the American Association for the Advancement of Science seek to shift attention to their bogeyman of intelligent design, which they warn “represents a challenge to the quality of science education.” In a recent resolution, the association’s board condemned intelligent design as inherently religious and lacking any basis in empirical science.

Those are strong words, but they seem to be based more on prejudice than impartial investigation.

I wrote to Leshner and other members of the board asking them what books or articles by scientists favoring intelligent design they had read before adopting their resolution. Leshner declined to identify any and replied instead that the issue had been analyzed by his group’s policy staff. Another board member similarly declined to specify anything she had read by design proponents, while a third board member volunteered that she had perused unspecified sources on the Internet. In other words, it appears that board members voted to brand intelligent design as unscientific without actually reading for themselves the academic books and articles by scientists proposing the theory.

No wonder scientists supportive of intelligent design say the board got its facts wrong when describing design theory. Contrary to the association, the scientific theory of intelligent design is not religious (which is one reason why creationist groups have criticized it). Design theory proposes that much of the highly ordered complexity seen throughout the biological world is better explained by an intelligent cause than Darwin’s mechanism of chance and necessity, but it doesn’t claim that science can identify who or what the designer is.

As for empirical support, Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe presents detailed molecular evidence for the design hypothesis in his book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. Baylor University mathematician and philosopher of science William Dembski, meanwhile, has proposed a rigorous way to test whether biological systems are products of chance, natural law or design.Far from posing a threat to science, intelligent design is a good example of how scientists can be inspired to seek fresh explanations due to holes in an existing theory. The real threat to good science comes not from scientists who have the courage to explore new ideas, but from those who would limit their academic freedom to do so.

John G. West Jr. is a senior fellow of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute ( and chairman of the political science department at Seattle Pacific University.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.