Evolution and intelligent design

“Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

George Gaylord Simpson (1)

Where did you come from? Are you the result of a mindless, undirected process, or are you the handiwork of a purposeful Creator?

According to several Gallup polls, only about ten percent of the American people believe in Darwin’s theory that we are accidental by-products of a strictly natural process of evolution. The other ninety percent believe that God played an important role in the process — either by guiding evolution or by creating life directly.

A similar poll conducted among college professors and their students would probably yield a very different result, with the overwhelming majority agreeing with Darwin’s theory that evolution occurred through purposeless natural processes such as random variation and natural selection. Perhaps this is the case on your own campus. According to some people, this disparity between the academic community and the general public indicates a pressing need for better education of the masses. According to others, it reveals a disturbing domination of our educational institutions by naturalism, the philosophical doctrine that nature is all there is and that God and spirit are merely projections of the human mind.

According to Darwinism, our Existence is a Mere Accident

When Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species in 1859, most Western scientists were Christian theists who believed that God created living things (especially human beings) by design. According to Darwin, however, what appears to be design in living things can be explained naturalistically, as the result of random variations and natural selection.

Darwin noted that individuals of every species exhibit minor variations, and that domestic breeders can utilize those variations to modify succeeding generations. Darwin also noted that creatures in the wild must compete for limited resources (such as food), and that those who are better adapted to their surroundings are more likely to survive and reproduce. Darwin argued that just as a breeder can modify livestock, so “natural selection” can modify species in the wild, and that “descent with modification,” continued over millions of years, produced all living things from one or a few original forms.

Darwin saw no room for supernatural design in this process. When his friend and supporter Asa Gray proposed that God designed the variations on which natural selection operated, Darwin rejected the idea, and concluded his 1868 Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with a refutation of Gray’s position. According to Darwin, the products of random variation and natural selection cannot be regarded as designed; and human beings, as the latest in a long series of undesigned results, are the most undesigned of all.

Darwin’s modern followers concur in this denial of design. In 1967, paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” (1) In 1970, molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Jacques Monod announced that “the mechanism of Darwinism is at last securely founded,” and that as a result “man has to understand that he is a mere accident.” (2)

Darwin’s Denial of Design is a Serious Problem for Christians and Other Theists

If we are undesigned by-products of a purposeless process, then the biblical doctrine that we are created in the image of God is false. Yet it is a central doctrine of Christianity (and of other theistic religions such as Islam and Judaism) that God created human beings by design.

Many people have been given the impression that the chronology of Genesis is the root of the conflict between Christianity and Darwinism. Surprisingly, however, biblical chronology played almost no role in the initial opposition to Darwin’s theory, because most Christians in the nineteenth century accepted geological evidence for the age of the earth. Nor was chronology an issue at the 1925 Scopes trial, because creationist William Jennings Bryan accepted the old-earth view. Historically and theologically speaking, the basic conflict between Christianity and Darwinism is not chronology, but design.

Some theists try to avoid problems by accepting everything that Darwinists tell us except their denial of design. But Darwinism assumes that naturalism has a complete explanation, at least in principle, for all of objective reality; so theists who accept Darwinism are left with a purely subjective religion, and design becomes a figment of our imagination.

Despite the good intentions of those who attempt to reconcile Darwinian evolution and theistic religion, a serious conflict remains between the two. Theists who accommodate themselves to Darwinian evolution generally find themselves patronized and marginalized. But do theists have to accept Darwinian evolution?

Is Darwin’s Theory True?

We are frequently told that “evolution is a fact,” as undeniable as gravity or the shape of the earth. Anyone who challenges it, at least in an academic setting, is likely to be regarded (in the words of Darwin popularizer Richard Dawkins) as ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked. (3) In the United States, religious people who question evolution are often likened to the caricature of creationists promoted by the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind,” Hollywood’s version of the 1925 Scopes trial.

The word “evolution,” however, has several meanings. One is merely change in general; the plants and animals which we now see around us did not always exist, and some which used to exist (such as dinosaurs) are no longer with us. In this broad sense, evolution certainly is a fact (though one which presents no problem for theists.) A second meaning of “evolution” is the notion that all living things descended over a long period of time from one or a few common ancestors. The evidence for common descent is much more debatable than the evidence for change in general, and biologists frequently argue about whether particular groups of plants or animals share a common ancestor. But even if universal common descent were true, it would not cause a serious problem for theists; of the ninety percent of the American people who reject Darwin’s theory, about half accept this notion of evolution.

A third meaning of “evolution” is that populations evolve through random variations and natural selection. In support of his theory, Darwin cited domestic breeding: dramatic modifications in domestic crops or livestock can be produced by appropriately selecting small variations. Since 1859 a similar process has been observed in the wild: when mosquitoes are exposed to insecticides, subsequent generations become more resistant to the insecticide as the more susceptible organisms die off; and when moths are exposed to predatory birds, subsequent generations tend to be better camouflaged as the more visible ones are eaten. In other words, there is considerable evidence that change occurs through the natural selection of random variations.

But how much change? In the examples cited above, no new species emerge, and no new features appear. Domestic breeding will not turn a sheep into a goat, much less a bird or a whale; and bird predation does not change moths into butterflies, much less ants or beetles. Biologists have long recognized a distinction between relatively minor changes within a species, which they call “microevolution,” and the much larger changes necessary to produce significantly new features, which they call “macroevolution.” It is possible that evolution in its third sense (change through random variations and natural selection) is true when applied to microevolution, but untrue when applied to macroevolution.

So evolution in the first sense (change over time) is a fact; evolution in the second sense (all creatures are descendants of one or a few forms) is debatable; and evolution in the third sense (change due to random variation and natural selection) is a fact when applied to microevolution. But is it a fact that macroevolution is due to random variations and natural selection? The conflict between Darwinism and theism on the issue of design arises only if large-scale evolution is due to an essentially purposeless process. Yet Darwin’s extrapolation of microevolution to macroevolution is hotly debated among biologists.

As molecular biologist Michael Denton wrote in 1985: “However attractive the extrapolation, it does not follow that, because a certain degree of evolution has been shown to occur, therefore any degree of evolution is possible.” In fact, not “one single empirical discovery or scientific advance since 1859” has validated the extrapolation. (4) In other words, of the several different meanings of “evolution,” Darwinian macroevolution is the least supported by the evidence.

Why the Evidence does not Support Darwin’s Theory of Macroevolution

We are often told that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. And so it is — if by “evolution” one means change in general. But if by “evolution” one means macroevolution through random variations and natural selection, then the evidence is underwhelming, at best.

For example, fossils establish beyond a reasonable doubt that change has occurred; but the fossil record is an embarrassment to defenders of Darwinian macroevolution. Direct observation of microevolution through random variations and natural selection shows that such change occurs rather gradually; there are no radical discontinuities from one generation to the next. Darwin himself recognized that if his theory were true, one would expect to find innumerable transitional forms in the fossil record, with more and more being found as more and more fossils are collected.

A century and a half of fossil-collecting since Darwin, however, has made it clear that fossil species tend to appear suddenly and persist unchanged for long periods of time before going extinct. These sudden appearances and disappearances, separated by absence of change, have been called “punctuated equilibria” by paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge. (5) Punctuated equilibria are most evident where the fossil record is the most complete, as with marine invertebrates, but the most dramatic example is the “Cambrian explosion.” The geological period known as the Cambrian is marked by the rather sudden appearance of all the basic forms of animals now in existence. There are no transitional forms between them, and no new basic forms have appeared since then.

As Darwinists point out, the pattern of punctuated equilibria does not actually disprove Darwinian evolution. Both Gould and Eldredge continue to believe that evolution occurred as Darwin thought it did, though they acknowledge that it must have happened “over there,” where no one has been able to detect it. Of course, this is theoretically possible, though it is surprising given Darwin’s assurance that transitional forms must far outnumber stable forms. The bottom line, however, is that Darwin’s explanation for macroevolution cannot be inferred from the fossil record; instead, one must assume that Darwin’s mechanism was responsible and then read it into the fossil record. Without such an assumption, one could infer that sudden appearances were due to creation rather than evolution.

In response to creationists who see punctuated equilibria as evidence against evolution, defenders of Darwinism point out that there are a few examples of transitional fossils, perhaps the most famous being that of the horse. The earliest fossil “horse” was about the size of a dog, and had four toes; later fossil horses are slightly larger and have fewer toes, until the large modern horse appears with one toe. Although paleontologists do not now believe that any of these fossil horses are direct ancestors of any of the others, the sequence does present us with a graded series of intermediate forms.

Even intermediate forms, however, fail to support Darwinian macroevolution, because fossils cannot demonstrate that transitions were due to random variation and natural selection. The problem is unintentionally illustrated by biologist Tim Berra in his 1990 book, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. According to Berra, what paleontologists do with fossils is analogous to tracing successive improvements in Corvette automobiles from the 1953 model to today’s version. (6) What Berra apparently fails to realize, however, is that Corvettes were undeniably made by design. A sequence of intermediate forms does not, by itself, confirm Darwin’s theory.

So most of the fossil record is inconsistent with Darwinian gradualism, and the few examples of transitional fossils fail to demonstrate that evolution occurred through a Darwinian mechanism. In fact, some scientists are now arguing that Darwin’s theory cannot account for the evidence, and that a better explanation is intelligent design.

Intelligent Design Theory

Darwin’s theory purports to explain not only the forms of organisms which we find in the fossil record, but also the complex molecular mechanisms which enable them to produce energy, move about, detect light, heal wounds, and so on. Now Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe is arguing that Darwin’s mechanism is incapable of producing these mechanisms.

Behe maintains that some features of living cells exhibit “irreducible complexity,” meaning that they function only if all their parts are present in good working order at the outset. For example, a mousetrap consists of several parts which work together to catch a mouse; if any part is missing or defective, the mousetrap fails to work at all. Similarly, the biochemistry of light detection requires complex interactions among many different molecules, each performing a very specialized job. There is no imaginable way that the necessary combination of molecules could be built up piecemeal, as Darwin’s theory requires; either they are all present, or the process does not work. (7)

According to Behe, Darwin’s theory had a certain plausibility as long as the complex biochemical machinery of living cells remained a “black box,” the details of which were unknown. Now that modern science has opened the box, however, Darwin’s theory is no longer plausible. Instead of random variation and natural selection, Behe sees design as the most plausible explanation.

Behe’s critics argue that design is unscientific, but William Dembski of the University of Notre Dame, Steve Meyer of Whitworth College, and Paul Nelson of the University of Chicago maintain that those critics are wrong. According to these three philosophers of science, people make scientific design inferences every day. We infer design whenever we examine people’s actions to determine whether they acted deliberately; we infer that words in the sand at the beach were produced by design rather than by accidental movements of the waves; and scientists who search for messages from other galaxies feel confident they will recognize design when they see it. Dembski, Meyer and Nelson have found that the same criteria we use to infer design in these cases justify an inference of design in living things.

So some aspects of living things are plausibly explained as the result of design, and inferences to design can be as scientific as other kinds of inferences. (8) Why, then, do Darwinists insist that design is unscientific? Their usual answer is that design in living things would have to be the work of God, and God is beyond the reach of natural science. Darwinists thus find themselves having to acknowledge that it is God they find objectionable. In other words, their allegiance is not to the evidence, or to scientific inference, but to naturalism. When the evidence fails to support the theory (as in the case of the fossil record), they read the theory into the evidence. In other words, Darwinists are using science to promote an anti-religious philosophy.

It’s Time for a Revolution in Evolution

As a member of your college community, you have the right to ask respectful, intelligent questions of your teachers and fellow students. If someone tells you that evolution proves we are accidental by-products of a purposeless natural process, ask for the evidence. Chances are, you will be presented with evidence for geological chronology, or fossil evidence for change in general, or evidence that microevolution proceeds by random variation and natural selection, or evidence that we share certain similarities with other animals.

If you maintain that the evidence you have been given might be consistent with intelligent design, you will probably be told that design is unscientific. But if the very notion of design is unscientific, then why is Darwin’s supposedly scientific theory being used to refute it? If you are courageous enough to ask that question, you may find yourself being accused of ignorance, stupidity, insanity or wickedness.

If you can stand the heat, however, you may find that your persistent questioning is extraordinarily powerful, like the boy in the fable who pointed out that the emperor wore no clothes. When Darwinists claim that the evidence of evolution excludes design, the evidence they cite invariably turns out to be irrelevant, or just as consistent with design as with its absence. When confronted with this objection, they typically try to exclude design by claiming that it is unscientific, even though a moment earlier they were treating it as a scientific hypothesis refuted by the evidence. But Darwinists cannot have it both ways; they cannot legitimately use evidence to argue against design, and then, when challenged, claim that science cannot deal with design at all.

Science at its best pursues the evidence wherever it leads. As truth-seekers, scientists must be free to consider both sides of a question. If the evidence of evolution can be used to infer the absence of design, it can just as reasonably be used to infer its presence, and Darwinists who claim that it cannot are doing a disservice to science. If, on the other hand, design is a religious or philosophical issue rather than a scientific one, there are still at least two sides to the question. Darwinists think that naturalism is the only answer, but ninety percent of the American people disagree with them. It’s time for the philosophical naturalists who dominate our college campuses to engage in some serious discussion with their fellow citizens.

You may find it rough going if you challenge Darwinism on your campus; but if you persist, you will find that you are part of a growing intellectual revolution. (9) The emperor has no clothes, and it’s time to tell it like it is.


  1. George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, revised edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 345.
  2. Jacques Monod, quoted in Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 217.
  3. Richard Dawkins, review of Donald Johanson & Maitland Edey’s Blueprint in The New York Times, April 9, 1989, sec. VII, p. 34.
  4. Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1985), pp. 87, 345.
  5. Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, “Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism,” in T.J.M. Schopf (ed.), Models in Paleobiology (San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper & Co., 1972), pp. 82-115.
  6. Tim Berra, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 117-119.
  7. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996).
  8. For a more extensive treatment of design in biological origins, see Of Pandas and People, second edition, by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon (Dallas, TX: Haughton Publishing Company, 1993).
  9. A prominent figure in this revolution is Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson. For further information, see his Darwin on Trial, second edition (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993) or his upcoming book, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (InterVarsity Press, 1997).

Jonathan Wells has a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Theology from Yale University. He is a Fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, Seattle, Washington.

© Jonathan Wells 1997

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.