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Teleological Evolution

The Difference It Doesn't Make

Denis Lamoureux supports what he calls a teleological view of evolution. He equates the power of God with natural laws and processes, and claims that these laws and processes are goal-directed and creative. Lamoureux favors the view that “God organized the Big Bang, so that the deck was stacked”1 to favor the inevitable evolution of life by natural law. He says further that he supports natural theology, but unlike other theists who see God revealing himself in the design of specific living systems or finely tuned conditions, he sees evidence of God’s handiwork in the natural laws and processes that he alleges can account for the origin of biological systems. Further, Lamoureux objects to Phillip Johnson’s critique of Darwinism, because he thinks by focusing his critique on the dominant materialistic view of evolutionary theory, Johnson gives short shrift to the version of evolutionary theory that Lamoureux favors. Though Johnson does not commit himself to a specific scenario involving divine action at a specific point in natural history, Lamoureux criticizes him for what he takes to be Johnson’s tacit commitment to some form of Genesis-based special creation. According to Lamoureux, to invoke a specific instance of intelligent design or divine action within nature after the initial creation of the universe would imply a violation of natural law and commit the God-of-the-gaps fallacy. Indeed, Lamoureux claims that design theorists generally (including Johnson) base their arguments for design on God-of-the-gaps style arguments from ignorance, a claim he amplifies by asserting that design theorists have failed to produce a rigorous theory of intelligent design.

I disagree with Lamoureux’s position for two main reasons. First, I think that he mischaracterizes design theory and the arguments of design advocates, including those of Phillip Johnson. Secondly, I think Lamoureux’s notion of teleological evolution lacks either explanatory power or theoretical specificity or both.

In the first place, contemporary design theory does not constitute an argument from ignorance or a God-of-the-gaps fallacy as Lamoureux claims. Design theorists infer design not merely because natural processes cannot explain the origin of such things as biological systems but because these systems manifest the distinctive hallmarks of intelligently designed systems, that is, they possess features that in any other realm of experience would trigger the recognition of an intelligent cause. For example, Michael Behe2 has inferred design not only because the gradualistic mechanism of natural selection cannot produce irreducibly complex systems, but also because in our experience irreducible complexity is a feature of systems known to have been intelligently designed. Indeed, whenever we see systems that possess irreducible complexity (i.e., systems with many functionally integrated but necessary parts) and we know the causal story about how they originated, intelligent design invariably played a role. Thus, Behe infers intelligent design as the best explanation for the origin of irreducibly complexity in such things as cellular molecular motors, based upon what we know, not what we do not know, about the causal powers of nature and intelligent agents, respectively.

Similarly, Phillip Johnson (following Charles Thaxton and Walter Bradley3 and me4) has argued that the specified complexity or information content of DNA and proteins implies a prior intelligent cause, again because “specified complexity” and “high information content”5 constitute a distinctive hallmark (or signature) of intelligence. Indeed, in all cases where we know the causal origin of high information content or specified complexity, experience has shown that intelligent design played a causal role. Thus, when we encounter such information in the bio-macromolecules necessary to life, we may infer — based upon our knowledge of established cause-effect relationships — that an intelligent cause operated in the past to produce the information necessary to the origin of life. Design theorists infer a past intelligent cause based upon present knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships. Inferring design thus employs the standard uniformitarian method of reasoning used in all historical sciences. These inferences do not constitute arguments from ignorance any more than any other well-grounded inferences in geology, archaeology, or paleontology, — where provisional knowledge of cause-effect relationships derived from present experience guides our inferences about the causal past.

Indeed, as William Dembski has recently demonstrated, we often infer the causal activity of intelligent agents as the best explanation for events and phenomena. Moreover, we do so rationally, according to objectifiable, if often tacit, information and complexity theoretic criteria. His groundbreaking new book The Design Inference, published by Cambridge University Press, gives a formal theoretical account of the criteria by which specialists in many fields reliably detect intelligent causes. Dembski shows that whenever events are both highly improbable and specified, we infer intelligent design (not chance, law, or some combination of the two) as the best causal explanation for the event or artifact in question. Thus he shows that design inferences are based upon the presence of particular features implying an intelligent cause, not (solely) upon the absence of evidence for the efficacy of natural causes. We would not say, for example, that an archaeologist had committed a “scribe-of-the-gaps” fallacy simply because he inferred that an intelligent agent had produced an ancient hieroglyphic inscription. Instead, we recognize that the archaeologist has made an inference based upon the presence of a feature (namely, high information content or small probability specification, to use Dembski’s terminology) that implies an intelligent cause. We would not say that he had based his inference (solely) upon the absence of evidence for a suitably efficacious natural cause.

Because Lamoureux does not seem to appreciate this distinction (at least in the biological case), he mistakenly attributes Johnson’s advocacy of design to a misguided biblical hermeneutic. Johnson, he says, believes in special creationism because he is wedded to a flawed interpretation of Genesis chapters 1-11. But this is incorrect. Neither Johnson, nor any of the other design theorists mentioned above, base their case for design on the book of Genesis. For design theorists, design is not a deduction from religious authority, but an inference from biological and/or physical evidence. Indeed, it is an inference underwritten by the very kind of formal theory that Lamoureux mistakenly says the intelligent design movement lacks.7

Whether or not design constitutes the best explanation for the origin of biological data may be debatable. But one thing is certain: teleological evolution, insofar as it relies on the laws of nature to create, cannot account for the origin of biological information. Indeed, from an empirical point of view, the laws of nature do not have the creative powers that Lamoureux’s position requires. Because Lamoureux and other teleological evolutionists want to limit divine action to the initial creation of the universe and its natural laws (and to the maintenance of those laws thereafter), they must rely exclusively on natural laws and processes to explain the origin of biological form and complexity. This includes not only the origin of novel forms from existing forms, but also the origin of the first life itself. Unfortunately, however, the laws of nature lack the power to create the information rich-structures that characterize biological organisms. Natural laws may well be maintained and have been created by God, as all theists (including Johnson) believe, but the physical and chemical regularities that scientists describe as laws do not (by definition) produce the information-rich configurations of matter that the origin of life requires. God may have created natural law, but He does not use natural laws to create specified biological information.

To see why, consider the problem of the origin of the first life from simple chemistry. Teleological evolutionists, committed as they are to the proposition that the laws of nature as originally designed by God are sufficient to produce life, must argue for some form of self-organizational origin-of-life scenario. Typically, these scenarios suggest that the forces of chemical necessity (as described by physical and chemical law) make the origin of life and the genetic information that it requires (in DNA, RNA and proteins, for example) inevitable.9 To a materialist such self-organization suggests the self-existence and creative self-sufficiency of natural law. To a teleological evolutionist such as Lamoureux, it shows the goal-directed nature of natural laws as originally designed by God. And, of course, both these views are logically possible approaches to explaining the origin of life. Both are contradicted, however, by empirical evidence and information theoretic considerations.

As the physical chemist Michael Polanyi showed in 1967,10 the laws of physics and chemistry leave open (or indeterminate) a vast ensemble of possible configurations of matter, only very few of which could have any role in a functioning biological organism. Specifically, he noted that the chemical laws governing the assembly of the chemical subunits in the DNA molecule allow a vast array of possible arrangements of nucleotide bases, the chemical letters, in the genetic code. In other words, the chemical properties of the constituent parts of DNA (and the laws governing their arrangement) do not determine the specific sequencing of the bases in the genetic molecule. Yet, the specific sequencing of the nucleotide bases in DNA constitutes precisely the feature of the DNA molecule, namely its information content, that origin of life biologists most want and need to explain.11

Since the elucidation of the DNA structure by Watson and Crick in 1953,12 it has become clear that the coding regions of DNA possess the same property of sequence specificity, or specified complexity, or information content, that written codes or languages do.13 Just as the specific arrangement, not the chemical properties, of the letters in this article account for the communication function that it performs, so too does the specific sequencing of the nucleotide bases in DNA account for the function that DNA performs within the cell. In particular, the specifically sequenced nucleotide bases on the DNA direct the process of protein synthesis in the cell. The origin of this specific sequencing in DNA represents a mystery for all current chemical evolutionary models of the origin of life and defies explanation by reference to the self-organizational chemical laws that teleological evolutionists must necessarily favor. To say otherwise is like saying that the law-like forces of chemical attraction governing ink on this page are responsible for the sequential arrangement of the letters that give this article meaning.

To see why in more detail consider the following, the accompanying diagram shows the chemical structure of DNA. It shows that this structure depends upon several chemical bonds, each of which are governed by laws of chemical attraction. There are chemical bonds, for example, between the sugar and the phosphate molecules that form the two twisting backbones of the DNA molecule. There are bonds fixing individual (nucleotide) bases to the sugar-phosphate backbones on each side of the molecule. There are also hydrogen bonds stretching horizontally across the molecule between nucleotide bases making so-called complementary pairs. These bonds, which hold two complementary copies of the DNA message text together, make replication of the genetic instructions possible. Most importantly, however, notice that there are no chemical bonds between the bases along the vertical axis in the center of the helix. Yet it is precisely along this axis of the molecule that the genetic instructions in DNA are encoded.14

Further, just as magnetic letters can be combined and recombined in any way to form various sequences on a metal surface, so too can each of the four bases, A, T, G, and C, attach to any site on the DNA backbone with equal facility, making all sequences equally probable (or improbable) given the laws of physics and chemistry. Indeed, there are no differential affinities between any of the four bases and the binding sites along the sugar-phosphate backbone. The same type of “n-glycosidic” bond occurs between the base and the backbone regardless of which base attaches. All four bases are acceptable, none is preferred. As Berndt-Olaf Kuppers has noted, “a present day understanding of the properties of nucleic acids indicates that all the combinatorially possible nucleotide patterns of a DNA are, from a chemical point of view, equivalent.” 15 Thus, “self-organizing” laws or properties cannot explain the sequential ordering of the nucleotide bases in DNA because: (1) there are no chemical bonds between bases along the message-bearing axis of the molecule, and (2) there are no differential forces of attraction between the backbone and the various bases that could account for variations in sequencing.

For those who want to explain the origin of life as the result of self-organizing properties or natural laws intrinsic to the material constituents of living systems, these rather elementary facts of molecular biology have devastating implications. The most logical place to look for self-organizing chemical laws and properties to explain the origin of genetic information is in the constituent parts of the molecules carrying that information. But biochemistry and molecular biology make clear that law-like forces of attraction between the constituents in DNA (as well as RNA and protein)16 do not explain the sequence specificity of these large information-bearing biomolecules.

These facts also raise a very difficult question for teleological evolutionists such as Denis Lamoureux and Howard van Till. Both Lamoureux and van Till insist that God’s direct, discrete or special creative activity played no role after the initial moment of creation at the Big Bang. Both imply, therefore, that the laws of nature acting on elementary particles were sufficient to organize matter into the complex forms we see today. Yet if the chemical subunits of DNA lack the self-organizational properties, or latent creative potential, necessary to produce the informational sequencing of DNA, it is difficult to see how the far less complex and biologically specific elementary particles (present just after the Big Bang) possessed the intrinsic properties and potential necessary to arrange themselves (by natural law) into fully functioning organisms. Where are the self-organizational laws and properties that can explain the assembly of the subunits in sequence-specific DNA molecules? Where are they for functioning proteins? Or for signal transduction circuits? Or molecular motors? Where are they for the many specific and highly improbable arrangements of matter that characterize the structures of living organisms? These chemical laws and properties clearly do not exist in the chemistry of the DNA molecule. And if they don’t exist there, it seems implausible in the extreme to assert that such creative law-governed properties existed in far simpler constituent parts of atoms or elementary particles.

Lamoureux and other teleological evolutionists might, of course, object that any such negative argument constitutes a God-of-the-gaps fallacy or an argument from ignorance. “Never say never,” they say. Yet this objection fails here. There are strong in-principle information-theoretic objections to any attempt to attribute information-rich structures or sequences to the laws of nature. Scientific laws describe (by definition) highly regular phenomena or structures, ones that possess what information theorists refer to as redundant order. To say that the processes that natural laws describe can generate complex informational sequences is essentially a contradiction in terms. The patterns that laws describe are necessarily highly regular, repetitive, and periodic. But the arrangements of matter in an information-rich text, including the genetic instructions on DNA, possess a high degree of complexity or aperiodicity, not redundant order.

To illustrate the difference compare the sequence ABABABABABAB to the sequence “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The first sequence is repetitive and ordered, but not complex or informative. The second sequence is not ordered, in the sense of being repetitious, but it is complex and also informative. The second sequence is complex because its characters do not follow a rigidly repeating, law-bound pattern. (It is also informative because, unlike a merely complex sequence such as: “sretfdhu&*jsa&90te”, the particular arrangement of characters is highly exact or specified17 so as to perform a (communication) function. In any case, informative sequences have the qualitative feature of complexity (aperiodicity), and thus are qualitatively distinguishable from systems characterized by periodic order that natural laws generate.

Both teleological evolutionists and self-organizational theorists claim that we must await the discovery of new natural laws to explain the origin of biological information. Manfred Eigen has argued, “our task is to find an algorithm, a natural law, that leads to the origin of information.” But this claim betrays a categorical confusion. According to classical information theory, the amount of information present in a sequence is inversely proportional to the probability of the sequence occurring. Yet laws necessarily describe highly deterministic or predictable relationships between conditions and events. Laws describe patterns in which the probability of each successive event (given the previous event and the action of the law) approaches unity. Yet information content mounts as improbabilities multiply. Information is conveyed whenever one event among an ensemble of possibilities (as opposed to a single necessity) is specified. The greater the number of possibilities, the greater is the improbability of any one being specified, and the more information is transmitted when a particular possibility is specified. If someone tells you that it is raining, he will have conveyed some meaningful information to you since it does not rain (or have to rain) every day. If, however, he also tells you that today the raindrops are falling down, rather than up, he will not have told you anything informative since, presumably, you already know that rain always falls down (by natural law). As Dretske has explained:

As p(si) [the probability of a condition or state of affairs] approaches 1 the amount of information associated with the occurrence of si goes to 0. In the limiting case when the probability of a condition or state of affairs is unity [p(si)=1], no information is associated with, or generated by, the occurrence of si. This is merely another way to say that no information is generated by the occurrence of events for which there are no possible alternatives.19

Natural laws describe situations in which specific outcomes follow specific conditions with high probability. Yet information is maximized when just the opposite situation obtains, namely, when antecedent conditions allow many possible and improbable outcomes. Thus, to the extent that a sequence of symbols or events results from a predictable law-bound process, to that extent the information content of the sequence is limited or effaced (by redundancy). Natural laws do not generate complex informational sequences. Thus, they cannot be invoked to explain the origin of information, whether biological or otherwise.

Of course, explaining the origin of genetic information by reference to laws or properties of physical-chemical necessity does not exhaust the logical possibilities. One can also invoke contingency or chance, either of the directed or undirected variety. For example, many chemical evolutionary theorists have invoked chance alone or chance in conjunction with pre-biological natural selection in an attempt to explain the origin of information. Neo-Darwinists invoke random mutations in DNA to explain the origin of novel biological information in pre-existing organisms. Some theistic evolutionists, such as Gordon Mills, have also suggested mutations as mechanisms of evolutionary change, but have suggested that the improbability of producing functional variations via such mutations is so great as to suggest that these apparently random events must have been directed by a guiding intelligence.20

Unfortunately, none of these approaches represent live options for the committed teleological evolutionist such as Lamoureux. For by invoking contingency or chance, whether singly or in conjunction with natural law, the teleological evolutionist runs the risk of qualifying his position out of existence. If, for example, the teleological evolutionist seeks to avoid the information-theoretic difficulties discussed above by invoking undirected chance to explain the origin of genetic information, his position becomes indistinguishable from standard materialistic versions of evolutionary theory (either biological or chemical) that Johnson and many others have criticized on empirical, methodological, and theological grounds. (In any case, it should be noted that neo-Darwinism has failed every bit as much as chemical evolutionary theory to provide a mechanism that can explain the origin of specified genetic information, whether the information required to build novel genes, cell types, organs, molecular machines, developmental programs, or body plans that have arisen during the history of life on earth). If, on the other hand, the teleological evolutionist invokes directed contingency (i.e., the active and intelligent guidance of genetic variation during the course of biological history), then he violates his own injunction against employing divine action or intelligent design as a cause during the history of life. At that point the teleological evolutionist will have violated Van Till’s doctrine of the “functional integrity of creation” every bit as much as any design theorist. He will also have committed the very kind of argument that Lamoureux explicitly repudiates as a God-of-the-gaps fallacy.

Thus, barring an empirically unsupportable and theoretically incoherent commitment to the view that the laws of nature can create novel specified information, it is difficult to see what empirical content Lamoureux’s teleological evolution has or how it differs in substance from standard Neo-Darwinism with its denial of any evidence of actual, as opposed to merely apparent, design. To cite C. S. Peirce’s maxim “for a difference to be a difference, it must make a difference.” One must ask: does the teleological, in the phrase teleological evolution, make any scientific difference? No one doubts that Lamoureux and Van Till believe in God as designer. But for that designer to play some role in a scientific theory, such as Lamoureux’s teleological evolution, the designer must also play some discernible role in the history of life. The Creator must do something. Yet Lamoureux is unwilling to specify any such role (beyond the causally necessary but insufficient one of creating or maintaining natural law) lest he violate his own self-imposed prohibition against invoking divine action. But if God’s activity remains forever superfluous or undetectable (except through the eyes of faith), then it also becomes scientifically irrelevant. Thus, Johnson has, unfortunately, been right to give Lamoureux’s version of evolutionary theory short shrift.

Excerpted from Phillip Johnson, Denis Lamoureux, et al., Darwinism Defeated? The Johnson-Lamoureux Debate over Biological Origins (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1999).


  1. Quoted in Joe Woodward, “The End of Evolution,” Alberta Report December 1996, 33. See footnote 7 below.
  2. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1996).
  3. Charles B. Thaxton and Walter Bradley, “Information and the Origin of Life” in The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer, ed. J. P. Moreland (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 173-210.
  4. Stephen C. Meyer, “The Explanatory Power of Design: DNA and the Origin of Information,” in Mere Creation: Science, Faith and Intelligent Design ed. William A. Dembski (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998) 114-47; “The Origin of Life and the Death of Materialism,” The Intercollegiate Review31 no. 2 (1996):24-43; “DNA by Design: An Inference to the Best Explanation for the Origin of Biological Information,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs(Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press) 1, no.4 (1999):519-555.
  5. The term “information content” is used variously to denote both specified complexity and unspecified complexity . Yet a sequence of symbols that is merely complex but not specified functionally (such as “wnsgdtej38ejdfmcksdnenmd”) would not necessarily indicate the activity of a designing intelligence. Thus, it might be argued that design arguments based on the presence of information commit the fallacy of equivocation by inferring design from a type of “information” (i.e., unspecified information)that could result from random natural processes. Ambiguities in the definition of information and information content do leave open this possibility. One can foreclose this possibility, however, by defining information content as equivalent to the joint properties of complexity and specification. Though the term is not used this way in classical information theory, it has been used this way by biologists from the beginning of the molecular biological revolution. As Sarkar points out, since the mid-1950s Francis Crick and others have equated “information” not only with complexity, but also with what they called “specificity,” where they understood specificity to mean “necessary to function.” This response will also use the term “information content” to mean specified information, or specified complexity, not just complexity. See Sahotra Sarkar, “Biological Information: A Skeptical Look at Some Central Dogmas of Molecular Biology,” in Sahotra Sarkar, ed., The Philosophy and History of Molecular Biology: New PerspectivesDordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publisher, 1996), 191.
  6. In the most general sense, a specification is a pattern or description of an event that is conditionally independent of the event that it describes. Thus, an event is specified if it conforms to a conditionally independent pattern or description. In both a linguistic and biological context, a specification is a match or convergence between an event and an independent functional requirement. For a formal account of specification, see William A. Dembski, The Design Inference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1-66, 136-174.
  7. For other recent technical books advancing the intelligent design position, William A. Dembski, edt. Mere Creation: Science, Faith and Intelligent Design. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998); Michael Behe Darwin’s Black Box.
  8. Note, for example, Lamoureux’s criticism of progressive creationism in a recent issue of the Alberta Report: “But progressive creationism, the theory that God had to intervene at different steps along the way, from matter to life, suggest that he couldn’t get it right the first time. But if he’s God, why couldn’t He have organized the Big Bang, so that the deck was stacked entirely in favour of life? So that the intelligent design was already built into matter? This would be evolutionary creationism, more in line with what the fossil record suggests”(quoted in Woodard, “The End of Evolution.”).
  9. See, for example, Christian DeDuve, “The Beginnings of Life on Earth,” American Scientist 83 (1995): 437.
  10. Michael Polanyi, “Life’s Irreducible Structure”, Science 160 (1968): 1308-1312, esp. 1309.
  11. Berndy-Olaf Kuppers, Information and the Origin of Life(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), 170-172; also Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley and Roger Olsen, Information and the Origin of Life (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), 170-172; also Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley and Roger Olsen, The Mysteries of Life’s Origin (New York: Philosophical Library, 1984), 24-38.
  12. James Watson and Francis Crick, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nuceleic Acid”, Nature 171 (1953):737-738.
  13. Charles Thaxton and Walter Bradley, “Information and the Origin of Life”, 173-210.
  14. Bruce Alberts et al., Molecular Biology of the Cell (New York: Garland, 1983), 105.
  15. Bernd-Olaf Kuppers, “On the Prior Probablity of the Existence of Life,” in The Probablistic Revolution, ed. Lorenz Kruger et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987) 364.
  16. R. A. Kok, J. A. Taylor, and W. L. Bradley, “A Statistical Examination of Self-Ordering Amino Acids in Proteins,” Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, 18 (1988), 135-142.
  17. See footnote 5 above for a definition of specification; see also Dembski, The Design Inference, 1-66, 136-174.
  18. Manfred Eigen, Steps Toward Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 12.
  19. Fred Dretske, Knowledge and the Flow of Information (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981), 12.
  20. Gordon Mills, “Similarities and Differences in Mitochondrial Genomes: Theistic Interpretation,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 50, no. 4 (December 1998): 286-292.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and Return of the God Hypothesis (2021). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.