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The Meaning of Intelligent Design

Originally published at Boundless

I don’’t believe in God as I don’t believe in Mother Goose. Clarence Darrow, Toronto, 1930

There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics, 1955

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 1995

Sound familiar? Not the quotations, but the underlying message: that Christians are weak-minded folks who prefer “comfortable myths” to reality.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard this message more times than you can count. It may not be as overt as in the above quotes, but it’s there nonetheless — in books, movies, articles or offhand remarks by students and professors. You may even get it from fellow believers, who go out of their way to reassure everyone that they’re not like “those other Christians.”

Believe it or not, though, things haven’t always been this way. For most of the last two thousand years, Christianity was a vital intellectual force.

According to mathematician and philosopher William Dembski, of Baylor University, “As early as the fourth, fifth century after Christ, the intellectual elite of the Mediterranean basin were Christians.”

And Christianity remained a vital intellectual force until the 19th century, when secular thinkers — partly aided by Darwin’s theory of evolution — gained the upper hand.

Since then, things have been a little rough on Christians.

“For the last 100-150 years, maybe longer, Christians who have held to orthodox Christianity have really been beaten up a lot,” Dembski said. “And we’ve not been able to overturn some ideologies that are inimical to the Christian faith — which undercut it and deny it.”

As a result, secular thinkers have long since pronounced Christianity to be intellectually dead.

But there are hints that this pronouncement may have been premature.

“I see a lot of promising signs that the intellectual vitality is shifting back to the Christians,” Dembski said.

One area where the signs seem particularly promising is the controversial area of biological origins. For decades, Darwin’s theory of evolution has reigned supreme. But that reign is being threatened by a growing band of scientists and other scholars who are promoting a view called “intelligent design.” Although this view has met with vigorous opposition, it is gaining significant ground — and attracting the attention of some of the world’s finest thinkers.

Seeing Is Believing — Or Not

Given the controversy intelligent design has generated, you’ve probably heard about it from time to time. But what is it?

Intelligent design is rooted in the observation — which is probably as old as humankind — that the world looks very much as if it were the result of an intelligent cause. That was certainly the conclusion of many Greek philosophers. One of the earliest, Anaxagoras, concluded in the fifth century B.C. that “Mind set in order … all that ever was … and all that is now or ever will be.”

The appearance of design is as powerful today as it was 2,400 years ago. That is especially true of the living world. Recent advances in biology have revealed that world to be one of staggering complexity and sophistication.

Take, for example, the cell. In Darwin’s time, scientists thought cells were pretty simple things–mere blobs of protoplasm. Even as late as the 1960s, scientists were largely unaware of how complex cells are.

Looking back on his career as a cell biologist, Bruce Alberts, now president of the National Academy of Sciences, remarked in an article for the scientific journal, Cell:

We have always underestimated cells. Undoubtedly we still

do today. But at least we are no longer as naive as we

were when I was a graduate student in the 1960s.

From what we now know, Alberts said, “the entire cell can be viewed as a factory that contains an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of large protein machines.”

Alberts’ description is no idle metaphor. Even the simplest cells are bristling with high-tech machinery that scientists are still trying to understand. On the outside, their surfaces are studded with sensors, gates, pumps and identification markers. Some bacteria even sport rotary outboard motors that they use to navigate their environment.

Inside, cells are jam-packed with power plants, automated workshops and recycling units. Miniature monorails whisk parts and materials from one part of the cell to another.

Some of the cell’s machines work with startling speed and precision.

For example, whenever a bacterium divides, it must replicate all of its DNA. Biologists Tania Baker and Stephen Bell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology describe this process in vivid terms. Writing in the same issue of Cell as Alberts, they note that if the string of DNA in an E. coli bacterium were about a yard thick, the machinery that copies the DNA would be about the size of a FedEx delivery truck. Unlike a truck, however, this machinery would travel along the “string” at 375 miles per hour. And as it copied the DNA, it would make only one error every 106 miles.

Such sophistication and efficiency have led even hardened atheists to remark on the apparent design in living organisms. Francis Crick, a Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, noted, “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed but rather evolved.”

Of course, as the above comment implies, biologists such as Crick consider the appearance of design an illusion. The real crafting, they say, was done by the blind Darwinian processes of genetic mutation and natural selection–or survival of the fittest.

If It Looks Like a Duck . . .

Proponents of intelligent design, however, contend that living organisms appear designed because they are designed–that they exhibit a kind of complexity that cannot be mimicked by blind natural processes.

This kind of complexity is called specified complexity. The concept is the brainchild of Dembski. It grew out of his interest in how we distinguish between things that “just happen” and things that happen “on purpose.”

“There was a certain type of reasoning that came up over and over again whenever people tried to sift the effects of intelligence from natural causes,” Dembski said. “They were looking for a combination of complexity and specification. And when those two came together, that was a reliable pointer to intelligence.”

So, what are complexity and specification?

Let’s take writing as an example: What would you think if I told you I had written this article by typing random letters into my word processor–that I’d generated each letter by closing my eyes and throwing a dart at a copy of the alphabet? Would you believe me?

No. But why not?

For one thing, the odds are just too low. There are so many ways my article could have turned out–so many different ways the letters and spaces could have been arranged–that the likelihood of getting this particular arrangement by chance is virtually nil.

But there’s more to it than low probability. For example, what if I showed you an “article” with “sentences” like the following:


You’d probably believe my story. Why? Because of the arrangement you see. The first article–the one you’re reading right now–fits a recognizable pattern: It’s an article written in English. But the gibberish article fits no such pattern. For all we know, it’s just a long, random string of letters.

Now we can understand the terms specification and complexity.

When an intelligent design theorist says an object is specified, he’s saying that it fits a recognizable pattern. And when he says it’s complex, he’s saying that there are so many ways it could have turned out that the odds of getting any one outcome at random are essentially zilch.

Thus, we see design in this article–no snide remarks, please–because it is both specified and complex. We see no such design in the gibberish “article.” Although it is complex, it fits no pattern.

This reasoning works not just with articles and books, but with other objects as well. Think of a tree canopy shaped like a Disney character. Was it designed? Of course. There are lots of ways that tree’s limbs, leaves and twigs could have grown by themselves. But the likelihood of them naturally growing in the shape of, say, Mickey Mouse is so outrageously low that we conclude it was designed.

A New Spin

Dembski points out that the effectiveness of such thinking has been consistently born out by experience.

“In every instance where we find specified complexity, and where the underlying causal history is known, it turns out that design actually is present,” Dembski said. If we could fully trace the creation of a book, for example, our investigation would eventually lead us to the author. Similarly, if archaeologists could trace the creation of an arrowhead or farming implement, it would lead to the person who made it.

But what about living organisms? Darwinists such as Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins scoff at the notion, stating that naturalistic evolution is an undisputable fact.

“The fact of evolution is, beyond all educated and reasonable doubt, massively supported by evidence from fossils and from geographical distribution, and even more conclusively by modern molecular genetic evidence,” Dawkins said in a recent letter to a British newspaper.

Proponents of intelligent design, however, counter that this claim is based on a selective reading of the evidence.

Phillip Johnson, professor emeritus of law at the University of California at Berkeley and the acknowledged leader of the intelligent design movement, is the author is Darwin on Trial and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds.

“This kind of statement is repeated constantly but it’s simply not true,” Johnson said. “The fossil record has never been consistent with Darwinian evolution. And the claim that natural selection can create new organs, limbs or body plans is unsupported by experimental evidence.”

Far from being based on fact, such statements are based on the presumed impossibility of any non-naturalistic theory.

“For Darwinists, the only admissible theories are naturalistic ones,” Johnson said.. “Since Darwinism is the best naturalistic theory, it must be true — and therefore there can be no evidence against it. I see this all the time.”

Advances in molecular biology, however, are making that claim harder to maintain. The more we grow in our ability to tinker with the machinery of cells, the harder it is to believe that the blind processes of random mutation and natural selection could have created it.

For example, take the little rotary outboard motor that bacteria such as E. coli use to swim through their environment. This contraption, called a flagellum, comes equipped with a reversible engine (complete with rotors, stators and bearings), a drive shaft, U-joint and long whip-like propeller. And it can hum along at up to 100,000 revolutions per minute.

The flagellum’s complexity is enormous. According to microbiologist Scott Minnich, of the University of Idaho, you need about 50 genes to create a working flagellum. Each of those genes is as complex as a sentence with hundreds of letters.

Exhaustive research has shown that the flagellum is also highly specified: The pattern required for a working system is extremely narrow.

“Mutations in any single gene knock out function or in lesser cases diminish function,” Minnich said. “So, to swim you have to have the full complement of genes. There are no intermediate steps.”

Such a system defies Darwinian explanations. And as more like it are found, the problems for Darwinism will only get worse.

Inch by Inch

One of the main goals of intelligent-design advocates has been to make intelligent design a legitimate topic of discussion in mainstream intellectual circles and the culture at large.

“I believe that getting the right issues on the table for unprejudiced discussion is the all-important step,” Johnson said. “Once that is accomplished, it will be impossible to conceal for long that Darwinism is based on naturalistic philosophy rather than on scientific testing, and that unprejudiced evaluation of the scientific evidence points to the existence of intelligent causes in biology.”

Just how far intelligent-design advocates have progressed can be seen in media reports that have sprung up across the country. Many reporters still fall back on the traditional science-versus-fundamentalism stereotypes. But as that wears thin, others are beginning to look deeper. The result has been an increase in balanced reporting — including two very balanced front-page stories this year in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Such stories, Johnson said, show that intelligent design has finally “established a beachhead” in mainstream culture.

Intelligent design is also making gains in intellectual circles.

In April 2000, a host of eminent scientists and philosophers from Europe and the United States descended on Baylor University. Among their number were two Nobel prize winners and several members of the National Academy of Sciences. They were there to participate, along with several leading intelligent design theorists, in a conference on intelligent design.

Though none of them left the conference believing in intelligent design, it was clear that many had been given something to think about. And virtually all of them thought the give and take had been constructive and worthwhile. Indeed, at a dinner for the speakers, one of the Nobel laureates toasted the conference, saying that although the speakers held widely divergent views, the discussions were conducted with patience, good humor and even with “intelligent design.”

As one of the intelligent-design theorists noted, the conference was a clear indication of intelligent design’s rising status as a serious scientific concept–one worth the attention of even the world’s finest minds.

In an e-mail note to several colleagues, he summed up the sentiment of many who attended: “We’re entering a new time, friends. Hang onto your hats.”

Vive La Revolution

Of course, intelligent design still has a long way to go before it’s generally accepted — and it may not be. But if it is, intelligent design advocates say, the consequences could be revolutionary.

Philosopher of science Paul Nelson is a senior fellow of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and a major figure in the intelligent-design movement.

“There was a time when the rationality … of theism was taken for granted,” said Nelson. “It was the way the world was. And, for a whole host of different reasons, that ceased to be.”

Things got to the point where even people who wanted to uphold the historicity of scripture tended to see their faith as subjective–and accepted the cultural dichotomy between “faith” and “knowledge.”

Intelligent design challenges that dichotomy, Nelson said. “It says we can know objectively — as a matter of science — that there was an intelligence behind life.”

Johnson agrees.

“Secular society, and particularly the educational institutions, have assumed throughout the 20th century that the Christian religion is simply a hangover from superstitious days,” Johnson said. “With the success of intelligent design, however, we’re going to understand that, regardless of the details, the Christians have been right all along — at least on the major elements of the story, like divine creation. And that, I think, is going to change society’s understanding of what constitutes knowledge, of what things are worth knowing.”

As a result, Johnson said, it will no longer be plausible to argue that “Christian ideas have no legitimate place in public education, in public lawmaking, in public discussion generally.”

That possibility is already re-energizing many Christians.

“The 20th century was the great heyday of scientific materialism,” Johnson said. “Now as we enter the 21st century, scientific materialism is creaking and shaking. It’s scientific views are falling into trouble, and it’s been shown to lead to bad consequences for society. I’m sensing a renewed excitement as we come to realize that maybe we had a better grasp of the truth when we were a Christian country than during those decades when Christian truths were spurned.”

Of course, there is still plenty of work ahead. But change is in the wind.

And if you happen to be one of those “superstitious” Christians, it’s a great time to be alive.

Mark Hartwig

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Mark Hartwig has a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in statistics and research design. He was an early organizer of the intelligent design movement and for 10 years was managing editor of the journal Origins Research, now published as Origins and Design.