Fred Hoyle Telescope at St. John's College Cambridge
"Fred Hoyle's Telescope" by Paul Everest via @flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A Brief History of Intelligent Design

Originally published at

Unfortunately, in his Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling, Judge Jones bought into the revisionist history of ID that claims ID is just repackaged creationism, and the Judge presented a sharply truncated and inaccurate view of the intellectual history of design. A correct history will make it clear that “intelligent design” was not a term invented to avoid the Edwards ruling, but a project that has always been distinct from the core claims of creationism.

Judge Jones traced the origins of ID back to the natural theology of William Paley and the arguments of the thirteenth century Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Even some critics of ID admit that “design arguments are not new,”1 for the debate over design in nature began at least as early as the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.2 The Greek philosophers Heraclitus, Empedocles, Democritus, and Anaximander believed that life could originate without any intelligent guidance.3 Plato and Aristotle, both advocated that a mind was required to explain life’s existence.4 In more modern times, Isaac Newton asked in his treatise Opticks, “Was the Eye contrived without Skill in Opticks, and the Ear without Knowledge of Sounds? […] And these things being rightly dispatch’d, does it not appear from Phænomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent…”5

The debate over design continued vigorously among scientists and philosophers — not just theologians — at the time of Darwin in the 19th century. Zoologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, a critic of Darwin, invoked an “intellectual power”6 to explain the diversity of living organisms in his “Essay on Classification,” published in the late 1850’s, near the time that Darwin published Origin of Species. The term “intelligent design” was invoked as a plausible alternative to blind Darwinian evolution in 1897 by Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller, who wrote that “it will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.”7 Even the independent co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, concluded that it was possible — and appropriate — to detect design in nature.8

The research and ideas that ultimately inspired ID proponents were conceived in the decades and years prior to the Edwards ruling.9 Highly influential behind ID arguments was the discovery that life depended upon information, whose structure was not only independent of its physical or chemical form, but whose ordering was not amenable to explanation by physical or chemical laws. As the chemist Michael Polanyi wrote in an article titled, “Life’s Irreducible Structure,” published in the journal Science in 1968:

“Suppose that the actual structure of a DNA molecule were due to the fact that the bindings of its bases were much stronger than the bindings would be for any other distribution of bases, then such a DNA molecule would have no information content. Its code-like character would be effaced by an overwhelming redundancy. […] Whatever may be the origin of a DNA configuration, it can function as a code only if its order is not due to the forces of potential energy. It must be as physically indeterminate as the sequence of words is on a printed page.”10

The term “intelligent design” appears to have been coined in its contemporary scientific usage by the atheist cosmologist Dr. Fred Hoyle, who in 1982 argued that “if one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design.”11 The term “intelligent design” was also used by non-scientist James E. Horigan in his 1979 book Chance or Design? where Horigan used the term “intelligent design” and framed his argument as an empirical one, “without resort to biblical or other religious references,” and without investigating questions about “ultimate purpose.”12

Horigan and Hoyle, however, did not become part of the later ID movement. But in 1984 — three years before the Edwards ruling — three scientists who did help found the ID movement published a book titled The Mystery of Life’s Origin that made arguments for an “intelligent cause” in the origin of the information in DNA:

“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?”13

Those three scientists were Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen. Soon thereafter, Thaxton, a chemist and academic editor for the Pandas textbook, adopted the term “intelligent design” after hearing it mentioned by a NASA engineer.14 Thaxton’s adoption of the term “intelligent design” took place pre-Edwards and therefore could not have been an attempt to “evade” a court decision. Rather, his adoption of this terminology was done to distinguish ID from creationism, because, in contrast to creationism, ID sought to stay solely within the empirical domain. As Thaxton testified during his deposition in the Kitzmiller case:

“I wasn’t comfortable with the typical vocabulary that for the most part creationists were using because it didn’t express what I was trying to do. They were wanting to bring God into the discussion, and I was wanting to stay within the empirical domain and do what you can do legitimately there.”15

Thaxton, who is a scientist and not a lawyer, adopted “intelligent design” terminology out of a desire to respect the limits of scientific inquiry, not as some conspiracy to avoid a Supreme Court ruling. When recounting the history of why he adopted “intelligent design” terminology, Thaxton explains that his goal was not to avoid any court decisions but to help people understand that their argument was “trying to operate entirely within the empirical domain”:

“Unfortunately for Westerners … anytime you use the word creation it automatically conjures up any of a number of religious discussions. We knew from the beginning of our project, that turned out to be the making of Of Pandas and People, that we wanted to avoid this automatically concluding that what you’re talking about was religion because in fact we were dealing with a biological discussion. So we were trying to operate entirely within the empirical domain. And my thought was, how to arrive at a set of terms that would allow us to traffic the literature and the discussion and build an argument without having to use terminology that would automatically bring one into the religious realm?”16

Thaxton continues, saying “we did what we could do to stay within the empirical domain and make legitimate inferences.”17 He then explains the terminology that was originally in the early pre-publication drafts of Pandas:

“I realize that the charge was that we were trying to just use a substitute word for creation, but that isn’t the case at all. In the early days of writing the Pandas book for example, although we understood what we were doing, most other people who we were talking to didn’t know our objectives really. And if you have a whole culture that knows about creation as a term … So we used that word early on, not for deception so we could later switch on them but because we wanted the materials to be understood that we were focused on. It was always clearly within the empirical domain, even the things that we wrote early on.”18

Thaxton completes his account by recounting that after speaking widely on the subject of origins that “gradually it became clear that there was a real good way that there was a case we wanted — completely within the empirical domain — and we looked for a term that would do this and reading the literature and ah, ‘intelligent design,’ is the most appropriate term. And that’s why we did it.”19

In conclusion, the term “intelligent design” not only long pre-dates the Edwards ruling, but the basic arguments for design pre-date Christianity. Moreover, modern members of the ID movement started using the term “intelligent design” not to evade a court ruling, but because they sought terminology that would accurately communicate their project’s original intent to remain entirely within the empirical domain and avoid investigating religious questions about the supernatural. Since the U.S. Supreme Court declared creationism to be a religious viewpoint because it postulated a “supernatural creator,” it seems that regardless of what wording was used early on, the ID project has always been substantively distinct from creationism. Any arguments that ID is creationism because early pre-publication drafts of the Pandas textbook used “creation” terminology are false conspiracy theories based not upon substance, but semantics and revisionist history. The very fact that Darwinists must resort to such arguments shows just how weak is their case that ID is creationism.

Any readers interested in learning about the true history of the origin of intelligent design might benefit from listening to two podcast interviews with Charles Thaxton on this topic at:

[Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from the author’s longer article, “ID Does Not Address Religious Claims About the Supernatural,” first published as part of a series of articles both for and against ID at]

References Cited

  1. John Angus Campbell, “Why Are We Still Debating Darwinism? Why Not Teach the Controversy?,” in Darwin, Design, and Public Education, pg. xii (John Angus Campbell ed., Michigan State University Press 2003).
  2. In this section of my article I am deeply indebted to the research published by Stephen C. Meyer in his article, “A Scientific History — and Philosophical Defense — of the Theory of Intelligent Design.”
  3. John Angus Campbell, “Why Are We Still Debating Darwinism? Why Not Teach the Controversy?,” in Darwin, Design, and Public Education, pg. xii (John Angus Campbell ed., Michigan State University Press 2003).
  4. John Angus Campbell, “Why Are We Still Debating Darwinism? Why Not Teach the Controversy?,” in Darwin, Design, and Public Education, pg. xii (John Angus Campbell ed., Michigan State University Press 2003).
  5. Isaac Newton, Opticks, pgs. 369-370 (Prometheus Books, 2003).
  6. Louis Agassiz, “An Essay on Classification,” first published in 1857, pg. 83, at,M1.
  7. F.C.S. Schiller, Darwinism and Design, in Humanism: Philosophical Essays, pgs. 128, 141 (2d ed., Macmillan & Co. 1912) (citing Contemporary Review, June 1897).
  8. Alfred Russel Wallace, “Sir Charles Lyell on Geological Climates the Origin of Species,” in Alfred Russel Wallace: An Anthology of His Shorter Writings, pgs. 33-34 (Charles H. Smith ed., Oxford U. Press 1991).
  9. Many of these researchers were not themselves proponents of ID, but were scientists who made discoveries that ID proponents found lent strong scientific credibility to the argument for design. Some of these discoveries are discussed in: J. D. Watson & F. H. C. Crick, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” Nature, Vol. 171:737-738 (April 25, 1953); Michael Polanyi, “Life transcending physics and chemistry,” Chemical and Engineering News, Vol. 45(35) (1967); Michael Polanyi, “Life’s irreducible structure,” Science, Vol. 160:1308-1312 (June 21, 1968); Hubert P. Yockey, “Self-Organization Origin of Life Scenarios and Information Theory,” Journal of Theoretical Biology, Vol. 9 (1981); Marcel P. Schützenberger, “Algorithms and neo-Darwinian theory,” in Mathematical challenges to the neo-Darwinian interpretation of evolution (P. S. Moorhead / M. M. Kaplan eds., 1967). See also the Proceedings of a meeting at the Wistar Institute on “Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution” held in April 1966.
  10. Michael Polanyi, “Life’s irreducible structure,” Science, Vol. 160:1308-1312 (June 21, 1968).
  11. Fred Hoyle, Evolution from Space (The Omni Lecture), pg. 28 (Enslow Publishers 1982).
  12. James E. Horigan, Chance or Design? (Philosophical Library, 1979).
  13. Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, Roger Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, pg. 211 (Lewis & Stanley, 1984).
  14. Jonathan Witt, Discovery Inst., “The Origin of Intelligent Design: A Brief History of the Scientific Theory of Intelligent Design,” at
  15. Deposition of Charles Thaxton at 53:5-11, Kitzmiller v. Dover, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005) (emphasis added).
  16. The Mystery of Life’s Origin: An Interview with Dr. Charles Thaxton, Part Two, at, at 3:50.
  17. Ibid. at 5:15.
  18. Ibid. at 16:55.
  19. Ibid. at 18:15.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.