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Dover Judge Regurgitates Mythological History of Intelligent Design

Originally published at Evolution News

Several newspapers covering today’s Kitzmiller vs. Dover ruling against intelligent design are highlighting Judge John Jones’ spurious determination that intelligent design is creationism in disguise. They’re accurately reporting the judge’s opinion here, for his decision reads like a condensation of atheist-activist Barbara Forrest’s mythological history of intelligent design.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the judge decided that “‘Intelligent design’ is just another name for creationism — and therefore teaching it in public schools violates the constitutional principle of church-state separation.” The story in The New York Times begins, “A federal judge ruled today that a Pennsylvania school board’s policy of teaching intelligent design in high school biology class is unconstitutional because intelligent design is clearly a religious idea that advances ‘a particular version of Christianity.'”

Instead, design theorists argue that an intelligent cause is the best explanation for certain things in nature. This is compatible with many different worldviews (Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, the deism of a former atheist like Antony Flew). It’s only incompatible with those worldviews that insist there can’t be any physical evidence for design in nature (some forms of atheism and, surprisingly, a form of Christianity). It follows that Judge Jones is privileging these latter worldviews (one of them an undeniably religious worldview) at the expense of the other worldviews, some but not all of them religious.

How did Judge Jones arrive at such a pernicious understanding of what religious and intellectual freedom in America means? He followed the thinking of expert witness Barbara Forrest to a t.

What follows builds on an earlier essay of mine, with additions from myself, a couple of CSC fellows, and The Foundation for Thought and Ethics, the foundation responsible for Of Pandas and People, the supplemental textbook mentioned in the Dover policy. The judge, following Forrest, ruled that intelligent design is simply creationism under a different name, and that it began after the Supreme Court struck down the teaching of creationism in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987. The judge arrived at this bogus conclusion (1) by substituting his own description of creationism for the Court’s description of it in Edwards, (2) by mischaracterizing the history and content of intelligent design, and (3) by committing the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

Forrest testified that intelligent design and creationism are one and the same. However, she also testified that young earth creationism is the oldest form of creationism. That comment suggests that she understands that the design arguments that Socrates and Plato made more than 2300 years ago (from evidence in nature rather than from religious authority)1 were not creationist arguments and, therefore, that design arguments are not necessarily creationism.

The fact is, philosophers and scientists have been formulating design arguments free of religious assumptions and Scriptural narrative apparatus for centuries. Even the term “intelligent design” is more than 100 years old. Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller employed it in an 1897 essay, writing that “it will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.”2Notice here that Schiller, like design theorist Michael Behe, is arguing for intelligent design without rejecting all forms of evolution or even common descent. But Forrest asserted that a telltale sign of creationism was a rejection of specifically Darwinian evolution. Since proponents of intelligent design reject Darwin’s theory of common descent by blind evolution, they too are creationists, she appears to argue. But structuralists reject modern Darwinism, and they are neither creationists nor design theorists.

Even the co-promulgator of “Darwinian evolution,” Alfred Russel Wallace, made a design argument against Darwinism from evidence in nature. He argued that the human brain was unnecessarily large on purely Darwinian grounds, that it had many abilities that were not useful until ages after our ancestors had become fully human. Apart from whether one accepts Wallace’s design argument, one can employ the fallacy of the undistributed middle to assert that Wallace was a creationist:

  • Major Premise: Creationists critique Darwinism and are open to intelligent causes in nature.
  • Minor Premise: The co-founder of Darwinism critiqued Darwinism and was open to intelligent causes in nature;
  • Conclusion: The co-founder of Darwinism was a creationist.

The argument is simultaneously invalid and beside the point. Wallace’s argument should be judged not according to some spurious label attached to it but on its own merits.

The Origin of the Contemporary Theory of Intelligent Design in Biology

More rigorous design arguments would follow in the second half of the 20th century. In By Design, a history of the current design controversy, journalist Larry Witham traces the immediate roots of the intelligent design movement in biology to the 1950s and ’60s, and the movement itself to the 1970s.3 What fueled the emergence of intelligent design? Biochemists were unraveling the secret of DNA and discovering that it was part of an elaborate information processing system that included nanotechnology of unparalleled sophistication. One of the first intellectuals to describe the significance of these discoveries was respected chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, who in a 1967 article in the science journal Chemical Engineering News argued that “machines are irreducible to physics and chemistry” and that “mechanistic structures of living beings appear to be likewise irreducible.”4

Biochemist Michael Behe would later develop Polanyi’s insights with his concept of irreducible complexity. And mathematician William Dembski would find Polanyi’s work so influential that he would name Baylor University’s Michael Polanyi Center after him.

Polanyi’s work also influenced the seminal 1984 book The Mystery of Life’s Origin by Charles Thaxton (Ph.D., Physical Chemistry, Iowa State University), Walter Bradley (Ph.D., Materials Science, University of Texas, Austin), and Roger Olsen (Ph.D., Geochemistry, Colorado School of Mines). Thaxton and his co-authors argued that matter and energy can accomplish only so much by themselves, and that some things can only “be accomplished through what Michael Polanyi has called ‘a profoundly informative intervention.'”5

As the book neared completion, Thaxton and approached origin-of-life researcher Dean Kenyon, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University and author of a leading monograph in the field, Biochemical Predestination. Since Mystery critiqued the purely materialistic origin-of-life scenario laid out in Biochemical Predestination, they feared that Kenyon would reject their argument that an intelligent cause was the best explanation for the origin of life. Instead, Kenyon found the book “an extraordinary new analysis of an age-old question” and volunteered to write the Foreword.

FTE placed Mystery with The Philosophical Library of New York, publisher of more than two dozen Nobel laureates, and it soon became the best-selling book on chemical evolution on an advanced college level. The work received favorable reviews in numerous places, including in the prestigious Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine and the Journal of College Science Teaching (publication of the National Science Teacher’s Assoc.), and many others. In 1988, it received special kudos from Prof. Klaus Dose in his major review article of origin of life studies, “The Origin of Life: More Questions Than Answers,” (Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1988.). And Yale University Professor Harold Morowitz, esteemed as a leading authority on thermodynamics and the origin of life, declared that Mystery“has a considerable scientific thrust.”

Kenyon explained that he was attracted to Mystery(1984) for the cautious and rigorous way it moved from observation to conclusions without drifting into unwarranted assertions about the identity of the first organism’s designer. A key passage from the book’s epilogue illustrates nicely this quality of the work:

We have observational evidence in the present that intelligent investigators can (and do) build contrivances to channel energy down nonrandom chemical pathways to bring about some complex chemical synthesis, even gene building. May not the principle of uniformity then be used in a broader frame of consideration to suggest that DNA had an intelligent cause at the beginning?6

The epistemological restraint and the studious effort to ground the argument in observation and uniformitarian thinking is typical of the book as a whole, evidenced by the fact that Forrest felt compelled to go to a footnote in the epilogue when trying to discredit the book in her testimony, a footnote, moreover, that merely quotes a science book on evolutionary biology from 1973, Biogenesis, Evolution, Homeostasis. There P. Fong comments that the Johannine Prologue anticipates the contemporary notion that “the ultimate source of information has a separate, independent existence.”7

Forrest also incorrectly asserted in her testimony that Mysteryclaims to make a scientific inference for the existence of a Creator beyond the cosmos. In the epilogue, the three authors do consider several scenarios for the origin of life, including an intelligence from within the cosmos (here they describe a scenario suggested by Nobel Laureate Francis Crick) and an intelligence from outside the cosmos. The entire discussion in this section grapples with evidence in nature, and the authors conclude that while design can be detected in biology, science cannot determine from this evidence whether the design was from a creator outside the cosmos.8 The same point is made at greater length in Pandas, where the authors — under the guidance of the book’s editor, Thaxton — raise the issue of a creative intelligence outside the cosmos as they make the following point:

[T]he place of intelligent design in science has been troubling for more than a century. That is because on the whole, scientists from within Western culture failed to distinguish between intelligence, which can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural, which cannot. Today we recognize that appeals to intelligent design may be considered in science, as illustrated by current NASA search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Archaeology has pioneered the development of methods for distinguishing the effects of natural and intelligent causes. We should recognize, however, that if we go further, and conclude that the intelligence responsible for biological origins is outside the universe (supernatural) or within it, we do so without the help of science.9

Dean Kenyon agreed to co-author Pandas and, before this, agreed to write the foreword to Mysteryin part because he shared with its three authors a commitment to investigating the possibility of design in nature without bringing in religious assumptions or making inferences about the identity of the designer unwarranted from the scientific evidence.

Forrest’s Selective Portrait of Dean Kenyon

Now when asked by the plaintiffs’ attorney, “What do you know about Dean Kenyon?” Forrest omitted the fact that Kenyon co-authored a leading origin-of-life monograph in the late 1960s, Biochemical Predestination. The omission is typical of Forrest’s highly selective and misleading form of historical analysis.

We see this as well in Forrest’s discussion of Kenyon’s testimony in Edwards vs. Aguillard. There Kenyon described a science open to intelligent causes but one free of religious presuppositions or assertions about the identity of the designer. He described how he did origins science, how a science open to intelligent causes ought to be done. Forrest presented his testimony as a smoking gun, supposed proof that Kenyon was just the sort of creationist the Supreme Court had ruled against in 1987.

But the Supreme Court concluded that the alternative to modern evolutionary theory advocated by Louisiana involved a good deal more than the empirically-based and methodologically minimal approach to design arguments that Kenyon practiced and described. In Edwards, the Court found Louisiana’s act entailed the teaching of religion by virtue of a specific religious construction, comprised of particular teachings clearly paralleling the ‘Book of Genesis. Thus, it was a specific set of teachings or doctrines from a religious source that constituted religion.

Kenyon, it’s clear, strove to define the term “creation science” rather than letting the term get defined by the activities of the Louisiana state legislature. Kenyon sought not only to open up public school science class rooms to the possibility of intelligent causation in biology, but also to encourage others open to design to employ the methodology he had developed over decades as a leading origin-of-life researcher. “My approach has always been to look at this question from entirely within a scientific framework,” Kenyon said. “After all, I came to be a dissenter to scientific materialism by looking at the origin of life experiments, including experiments of mine. My transition was from the empirical sciences, through an analysis of the empirical data in origins science, including the paleontological evidence. I grew increasingly uncomfortable presenting conclusions to my students that weren’t backed up by the empirical data.”10

Words have histories, and the 1980s saw a struggle over what was to be the dominant meaning of the term “creation science.” Kenyon’s description of it—despite his being a leading origin-of-life researcher—lost out. The Supreme Court looked not at how Kenyon practiced origins science but at the content of the Louisiana legislature’s Act and defined the term “creation science” as an approach that mingled religious premises with scientific evidence. If Kenyon had held out hope for the term “creation science,” that hope ended with Edwards. However, neither Kenyon nor the authors of Mysteryneeded to change their methodology. What they now needed more than ever was a consistently distinct vocabulary for a methodology that was already distinct in substance from the biblical creationism found in the Louisiana act.

The Language and Substance of Intelligent Design

The language of design theory had already grown more distinct by 1984, and would continue to do so as the scholars developing the theory sharpened both its vocabulary and methodology. In the year following Mystery, we find more language typical of contemporary design theory in molecular biologist Michael Denton’s 1985 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis: “The inference to design is a purely a posteriori induction based on a ruthlessly consistent application of the logic of analogy. The conclusion may have religious implications, but it does not depend on religious presuppositions.”11

Denton does not characterize himself as a design theorist, but the quotation goes to the heart of the difference between creationism and the theory of intelligent design. The essential difference isn’t whether the writer speaks of the “creation of DNA” versus the “intelligent design of DNA.” The difference is more substantive than stylistic. Creationism defends a particular reading of the Genesis account, usually including reference to a global flood and the creation of the earth by the Biblical God a few thousand years ago.

In contrast, the theory of intelligent design isn’t based on religious presuppositions or a biblical narrative framework but rather argues that an intelligent cause is the best explanation for certain features of the natural world. Unlike the creationism on trial in Edwards vs. Aguillard, the theory of intelligent design does not go beyond the scientific evidence to identify the designer nor does it defend the Genesis account (or that of any other sacred text for that matter). This is why a former atheist like British philosopher Antony Flew, who rejects the Judeo-Christian God, could nevertheless embrace the intelligent design argument for the origin of life.12

The Origin of Pandas

Late in 1982, the manuscript of Mysterywas ready to be shopped to the publishers. It was at that same time that work began on PandasMysterywas written as an upper-level college text and Pandasas a supplemental textbook for high schoolers, but perusal of the two works makes clear that the methodology of the two books is of a piece: both make arguments strictly from empirical evidence, and both take care not to extend design inferences to defend unwarranted conclusions about the designer. As Pandas explains in “A Note to Teachers”:

Advocates of design have included not only Christians and other religious theists, but pantheists, Greek and Enlightenment philosophers and now include many modern scientists who describe themselves as religiously agnostic. Moreover, the concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as a young earth, a global flood, or even the existence of the Christian God. All it implies is that life had and intelligent source.13

Even in very early drafts of Pandas, the term intelligent cause and its cognates were employed repeatedly. The term “creation” was also used, but throughout the drafting process, the book’s arguments remained free of religious presuppositions, and never pretended that the bare evidence of design revealed the identity of the designer.
Forrest and now Judge Jones have pointed to the word “creation” in early drafts as supposed evidence that intelligent design is merely disguised creationism. The argument is both cynical and misleading. At the time the authors began work on Pandas, there was no commonly accepted way to describe the position being advocated therein, namely that nature provides clear indicators of design. It was only in that very generic sense that the book used the notion of “creation” — that is, that signs of plan, purpose, and intelligence in nature point to an intelligent cause.

But the term “creation” also had a very specific and quite different meaning, namely those who start with a religious premise (that their particular literal interpretation of the Bible is true) and then read nature in light of their interpretation of Scripture. It was this approach that was held by the Supreme Court to be problematic from an Establishment Clause perspective.

As noted above, the Court’s decision, in essence, highlighted a particular meaning of “creation science.” Once that term had been enshrined in by the Court, it’s understandable and perfectly appropriate that people trying to use the term in a very different way (reasoning from scientific evidence to design) would be all the more interested in finding a term that more precisely fit what they were actually doing. Without changing the substance of the argument (from evidence in nature to intelligence), the authors searched for a more generic term, one more apt and less likely to be misunderstood.

As the academic editor for FTE, Thaxton was then serving as the editor for Pandas, and as it neared completion, Thaxton continued to cast around for a term to describe a science open to evidence for intelligent causation and free of religious assumptions, a term without the religious baggage associated with “creation” but one less ponderous than “intelligent cause,” and, at the same time, more general, a term that could refer to the design theory in toto.

He found it in a phrase he picked up from a NASA scientist — intelligent desgin. “That’s just what I need,” Thaxton recalls thinking. “It’s a good engineering term. … After I first saw it, it seemed to jibe. When I would go to meetings, I noticed it was a phrase that would come up from time to time. And I went back through my old copies of Science magazine and found the term used occasionally.” Soon the term “intelligent design” was incorporated into the language of the book.

Engineering, Information Theory, and the Theory of Intelligent Design

The term intelligent design was already a functioning term in science, and it was just a matter of extending the term to the process of design detection in natural structures. “I knew from Polanyi that the laws of chemistry and physics were not responsible for the sequencing of the nucleotides,” Thaxton said, “but I didn’t know how to link that to intelligence till I read Hubert Yockey’s paper in 1981 that there is a structural identity between the nucleotide sequences in DNA and the alphabetical letter sequences in a book.”14

Yockey wrote, “It is important to understand that we are not reasoning by analogy. The sequence hypothesis [that the exact order of symbols records the information] applies directly to the protein and the genetic text as well as to written language and therefore the treatment is mathematically identical.”15 Yockey is not a proponent of intelligent design, but the passage marked a turning point for Thaxton: “As soon as I made the connection that it wasn’t just analogy but the treatment of these was mathematically identical, I said, ‘Well, if the treatments are mathematically identical and I know that intelligence is responsible for the alphabetical letter sequence, then I’m on safe ground when I say that intelligence is responsible for the sequencing of the nucleotides.'” 16

The theory of intelligent design in biology emerged from these attempts to grapple with the biological information revolution of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. In his 1985 critique of modern evolutionary theory, biologist Michael Denton commented, “It has only been over the past twenty years with the molecular biological revolution and with the advances in cybernetic and computer technology that [philosopher David] Hume’s criticism has been finally invalidated and the analogy between organisms and machines has at last become convincing.”17

The Genetic Fallacy

Instead of fully and adequately addressing this and other lines of evidence for intelligent design, the judge, following Forrest and plaintiffs, knock down straw men arguments and then fixate on motive. The fact that apparently escapes the judge is that no party to this debate is religiously neutral. Indeed, for every citation Forrest gives in which ID proponents obtain religious mileage from intelligent design, it is possible to cite evolutionists who obtain equally religious (or anti-religious) mileage from evolution. Forrest’s expert witness report never makes clear the distinction between the religious motivations of some ID proponents, the religious implications of ID, and ID as such (i.e., as a scientific program).

Forrest also attempted to de-legitimize Pandasby stating that the co-authors, Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis, have given aid and comfort to traditional creationists, a point that apparently resonanted with the judge. She noted that Davis even co-authored a book in the mold of traditional creation science, The Case for Creation, never mind that Pandasis a very different kind of book. What Forrest was careful to obscure in her testimony are the scientific credentials of these two men.

First, Kenyon and Davis were highly regarded scientists. Kenyon was the coauthor of McGraw-Hill’s best selling book ever on an advanced college level on chemical evolution, Biochemical Predestination (1969). He was Professor of Biology at San Francisco State University, a participant in the prestigious Festschrift of Sidney Fox (the most frequently cited origin of life scientist in high school biology textbooks) and widely regarded as one of the world’s top four or five authorities on the origin of life. And Davis, together with his co-authors, Claude Villee and Eldra Soloman, was co-author of World of Biology, the most widely used university-level biology majors’ major textbook in the world, (1985, W.B. Saunders), and of Human Anatomy and Physiology (1985, W.B. Saunders). Should these books be deemed impermissible as well because Kenyon and Davis were key contributors? Of course not.

Even if Davis walked around in a t-shirt that read, “Card-carrying creationist” we would need to look at both Pandasand Human Anatomy and Physiology independently of this fact. Did Davis employ the methodology of biblical creationism in either book? No. In Human Anatomy and Physiology the methodology of experimental biology is employed, and in Pandas, the methodologically restricted and rigorous methodology of intelligent design is employed, a methodology free of religious presuppositions and biblical narrative framework.

Most philosophy programs at the college level offer a course in critical thinking. Although Barbara Forrest is a professional philosopher, much of her argument (repeated by Judge Jones) consists in committing what such courses refer to as the genetic fallacy. According to one standard text on critical thinking,

[The genetic fallacy is] a type of argument in which an attempt is made to prove a conclusion false by condemning its source or genesis. Such arguments are fallacious because how an idea originated is irrelevant to its viability. 18

Every variant of the genetic fallacy that Forrest and Judge Jones employ against intelligent design — including guilt by association — can be employed against Darwinism. One could make a parallel argument against the National Center for Science Education (the premier watchdog group for defending Darwinism against the theory of intelligent design). For many Americans, Hugh Hefner does not exemplify moral probity. Yet Hugh Hefner has lent his name to support the NCSE: for her work with the NCSE, Eugenie Scott received the Playboy Foundation’s 1999 Hugh H. Hefner First Amendment Award.19Should those opposed to Hugh Hefner’s moral views for that reason reject the work of the NCSE? Of course not. The work of the center must be judged on its own merits.

In following Barbara Forrest’s fallacious reasoning and mythological history of intelligent design, Judge Jones has erred badly.


  1. See Xenophon, Memorabilia of Socrates, Book I, chapter 4; Plato, The Laws, Book X.
  2. F.C. S. Schiller, “Darwinism and Design Argument,” in Schiller, Humanism: Philosophical Essays (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1903), 141. This particular essay was first published in the Contemporary Review in June 1897.
  3. Larry Witham, By Design (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003).
  4. Michael Polanyi, “Life transcending physics and chemistry,” Chemical and Engineering News, 45(35), 21 August 1967, pp. 54-66.
  5. Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, (Dallas: Lewis and Stanley, 1984), 185.
  6. The Mystery of Life’s Origins, 211.
  7. P. Fong, Biogenesis, Evolution, Homeostasis, Ed. A. Locker. (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1973), 93. Qtd. The Mystery of Life’s Origin (footnote 75, epilogue). ??
  8. Mystery of Life’s Origin, 211. ??
  9. Of Pandas and People, 126-7. The authors make a similar point in the Overview near the beginning of the book: “If science is based upon experience, then science tells us the message encoded in DNA must have originated from an intelligent cause. What kind of intelligent agent was it? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy. But that should not prevent science from acknowledging evidences for an intelligent cause origin wherever they may exist” (7).
  10. Interview with Dean Kenyon, 8.18.05.
  11. Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, (Great Britain: Burnett Books, 1985), 341.
  12. Antony Flew, interview by Gary Habermas, Philosophia Christi, Winter 2005.
  13. Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis; J.D. Barrow and F.J. Tippler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986).
  14. Interview with Charles Thaxton, 8.16.05.
  15. Hubert P. Yockey, 1981. “Self Organization Origin of Life Scenarios and Information Theory,” Journal of Theoretical Biology, 91, 13.
  16. Interview with Charles Thaxton, 8.16.05.
  17. Denton, 340.
  18. S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, 5th ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 198.
  19. See http://www.playboyenterprises.com/foundation/1999winners.html (last accessed April 25, 2005).

Jonathan Witt

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Witt, Ph.D., is a senior fellow and senior project manager with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. His latest book is Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design (DI Press, 2018) written with Finnish bioengineer Matti Leisola. Witt has also authored co-authored Intelligent Design Uncensored, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, and The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. Witt is the lead writer and associate producer for Poverty, Inc., winner of the $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award and recipient of over 50 international film festival honors.