Intelligent design movement

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The Intelligent Design movement is a political movement designed to weaken Darwinism, especially in the U.S. and especially as taught in the schools. It argues that Darwinism is inadequate to explain the world, and that there must have been an "intelligent designer" who thought everything out. ID is primarily a rhetorical device used to attack Darwinism. Almost all the adherents believe in a personal deity who takes a direct interest in human affairs, and reject the idea that there is an intelligent designer separate from that deity.

Proponents of ID spend little time on the theology of the Intelligent Designer. Critics claim that the Designer is largely ignored in their literature because to identify the entity with the traditional monotheistic deity would contradict the U.S. Constitutional principle of separation of church and state, an argument that has been successfully used to remove teacher-led prayer and confessional religious tuition from public schools. Therefore, although ID adherents believe that the intelligent designer takes a personal interest in human affairs and provides a route for salvation, salvation is never discussed publicly in association with the concept of an intelligent designer, nor are issues of good and evil. Indeed, there are almost no positive claims made by ID proponents except that some intelligent designer created everything. Did that designer create good and evil? Did the designer have a purpose for man? These questions are not asked.

ID supporters argue that certain fundamental features of the universe and living things are best explained by purposeful causation — a "higher intelligence." See intelligent design for a better explanation of these claims, and why they are not supported by evidence in the scientific literature. Mainstream science has determined that an evolutionary explanation provides an adequate explanation for the diversity of related organism structures in cases, such as bacterial flagella, in which this issue has been raised in the scientific literature.[1]

Modern studies of genetics also provide numerous examples of how mutation, gene transfer and gene recombination allow rapid and often intelligent design to occur rapidly. The human immune system for example, is able to respond to exposure to novel antigens with the creation of antibodies that are purposefully shaped to recognise structures to which the body has never been exposed, and it does this in a short time frame by internal genetic mechanisms akin to natural evolution.

Many of the most visible advocates of intelligent design are fellows and advisors of the Centre for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank established in 1991. The senior fellows at the CSC include some Roman Catholics, a secular (non-religious) Jew, a member of Sun Myung-Moon's Unification Church, and many protestant Christians.

History of the movement

Philosophy professor Barbara Forrest traces the development of the Intelligent Design movement to the religious conversion of Phillip E. Johnson, a retired University of California, Berkeley law professor, who, while on a sabbatical in London in the 1980s noticed Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis in the window of a bookshop. Having read the two, he decided that Denton's thesis is more valid. Johnson then sought the company of others who thought similarly: Stephen C. Meyer who, at the time, was studying at Cambridge. In 1991, Johnson published Darwin on Trial. In both this work and the sequels that would come to follow, Johnson argued that evolution was not accepted because of the evidence, but rather because of the metaphysical presupposition of naturalism. Darwin on Trial was reviewed very negatively by Stephen Jay Gould in Scientific American, where he described it as "a long magazine article promoted to hard covers... full of errors, badly argued, based on false criteria, and abysmally written"[2]. Johnson is said to be pleased with the coverage this review brought.

Before Johnson, though, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) published a book by Percival Davis and Charles B. Thaxton entitled Of Pandas and People. It's contents had been written with the intention of being used for promoting "creation science". After the Edwards v. Aguillard case banned creation science from classrooms, and the phrase "design proponents" was substituted in for the now unconstitutional "creationists" (except in one situation where the search and replace left "cdesign propentsists"). The history of this book would come under scrutiny in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board trial after the school board in the tiny rural town of Dover, Pennsylvania, elected a creationist majority who adopted Of Pandas and People as a supplementary text for use in local schools. After the defeat of the ID policy in Dover, Jon Buell of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics invited intelligent design advocates William Dembski and Jonathan Wells to write a new edition of Of Pandas and People which was published as The Design of Life.

With Pandas and Phillip Johnson, the Intelligent Design movement had started, but it had not solidified. It would take the well-financed Discovery Institute for that. In March 1992, Southern Methodist University hosted a conference where many of the key figures of the ID movement spoke - Michael Behe, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer and others. They were given the institutional blessing of the Discovery Institute by Bruce Chapman, who instituted the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (later, "the Renewal of" was dropped). It was led by Meyer and John G. West, Jr. - a political scientist, and had Dembski, Behe, Wells and Paul Nelson as fellows.

The newly formed Center put together a document outlining the "Wedge strategy"[3] which sought "nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies... and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions". The document planned scientific research, followed by a PR effort using television, the Internet and reaching out to opinion formers, then a period of "cultural confrontation and renewal".

Contemporary and high profile proponents of intelligent design

Prominent ID proponent William Dembski has a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago, and is research professor in philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. In 1998, Cambridge University Press published Dembski's first book, a philosophical monograph entitled The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities. Dembski has published several books since, but has published no papers on intelligent design in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Dembski is particularly associated with the concept of 'specified complexity' and the 'design inference' - the latter being an eliminative mathematical method by which one can supposedly determine whether or not something happened as a result of regularity, chance or design.

Another prominent proponent, and one particularly associated with arguments related to the concept of 'irreducible complexity', is Michael J. Behe. Behe is professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Behe holds that some biological structures are too biochemically complex to be plausibly explained as a result of evolution by natural selection. Unlike many in the intelligent design movement, Behe accepts the evidence for the common descent of species, including the conclusion that humans descended from other primates; however, he claims that evolution by natural selection alone cannot fully explain the differences between species.

Both Dembski and Behe are senior fellows of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture (formely the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture - the name change, critic Barbara Forrest alleges is to mask the attempt to 'renew' culture[4]) in Seattle. The Discovery Institute is a conservative think tank, founded by Bruce Chapman and George Gilder in 1990. After reading an article about intelligent design, Chapman and Gilder brought Stephen C. Meyer in to run the CRSC, as it was. Meyer gained a Ph.D in history and philosophy of science from Cambridge University for a dissertation entitled "Of clues and causes : a methodological interpretation of origin of life studies."

The argument has been made that these proponents are not presenting scientific theory for the purpose of advancing science. Opponents have charged that the Discovery Institute and its fellows are using Intelligent Design as a wedge to drive their particular religious agenda into the public schools, where they hope to rebut the teachings and their perceptions about mainstream evolutionary science. Thus far the efforts of the Intelligent Design movement have been unsuccessful due to their inability to craft an argument for intelligent design that mainstream science (and the courts) can recognize as scientific hypothesis or theory.

Teaching of intelligent design in schools

Historically, ID arose from efforts to produce a form of creationism the teaching of which in schools would be less vulnerable to legal challenges. As only very few scientists use ID to explain nature, these efforts are widely regarded by scientists as an "assault on the integrity of science education." [5] Not all ID proponents believe that ID should be taught in the science curriculum however: several leading proponents have stated that it should not be, and this is the official position of the Discovery Institute. Instead the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture have called for students to learn about the difficulties with the theory of evolution by natural selection as published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

In 2005, when the Kansas Board of Education proposed new science standards that would include alternatives to evolution as explanations for the origin of species, 38 Nobel laureates (including winners of the prize in physics, chemistry, economics, peace and medicine) wrote to the board saying "intelligent design is fundamentally unscientific; it cannot be tested as scientific theory because its central conclusion is based on belief in the intervention of a supernatural agent."[6].

Kitzmiller v. Dover

In 2005, a case was brought against a United States school board for requiring the reading of a disclaimer in biology classes that mentioned intelligent design as an alternative to the theory of evolution. The judge in the 2006 Kitzmiller versus Dover trial in Pennsylvania ruled that intelligent design is not science, and is essentially religious in nature.[7]

In Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), a United States federal court ruled that a public school district requirement for science classes to teach that intelligent design is an alternative to evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on the basis that it was an endorsement of a religious point of view, that it would be seen as such by a student and by an average citizen of the district.

The findings of the trial Judge John E. Jones III were that it is "... abundantly clear the board's intelligent design' (ID) policy violates the establishment clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents". This court ruling demonstrated that teaching of Intelligent design in American state schools is unconstitutional, as it violates the 'establishment clause' of the First Amendment of the US Constitution stating that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion'.

Furthermore, Jones ruled that intelligent design is not science.[8] He stated that "ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community." His statement alludes to three parts of the "Daubert Standard" [2], which governs which evidence can be considered scientific in United States federal courts and most state courts. The four Daubert criteria are:

  • Evidence should be based on a testable theory or technique.
  • The theory or technique should have been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
  • In the case of a technique there should be a known error rate and standards controlling the application of the technique.
  • The underlying science should be generally accepted.

Academic and scientific reaction

A large number of scientific bodies have published statements opposing the teaching of ID and stating that it is not scientific: this includes the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the British Royal Society, the American Association of University Professors, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and others. Within the U.S., the American Astronomical Society, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Psychological Association, the American Society of Agronomy, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Botanical Society of America, the National Science Teachers Association and many others have all issued statements opposing ID[9].

In October 2005, in an open letter to newspapers in Australia, nine individuals including the Dean of Science at the University of Sydney, the executive secretary of the Australian Academy of Science and the presidents of the Science Teachers Associations of a number of Australian states signed a statement[10] saying that intelligent design is not science. The nine signatories head organisations with a total membership of about 70,000 science professionals, although no polls of the memberships on the issue was reported. The letter coincided with an episode of science program Catalyst, broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which showed the Australian Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, saying that he had no problem with Australian schools teaching intelligent design. An ABC poll showed that around two thirds of respondents believed that ID should not be taught in schools.[11] Brendan Nelson later said he meant that he had no problem with ID being taught in religious classes, but not science classes.

In 2006, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) representing 22 professional societies and 84,000 scientists,declared that "it is critical to preserve the integrity of science education by opposing the mandatory teaching in science classes of creationism, intelligent design, and other concepts not based on sound scientific principles." [12]

This is not to say that all scientists opposed to ID oppose discussing ID in classrooms. Frederick Grinnell, writing in the FASEB journal argues that, as polls show that most Americans do not believe in evolution, "representatives of the scientific and education communities are in denial when they advise "just say no" and expect that intelligent design will disappear." He proposed that ID should be discussed as a controversial scientific claim.[13]

Intelligent design in the news

Intelligent design has received widespread media attention, especially after legal cases were brought against US school boards for promoting intelligent design in their biology curricula. Subsequent letters to the editors of local newspapers suggest that many members of the public view the issue of intelligent design to be a religious one. They deem that the theory is being used as a religious apologetic whether or not the theory itself is formally distinct from the question of a supernatural creator.

Critics of the intelligent design movement

Intelligent design is not accepted science, and many scientists believe intelligent design to be a philosophical argument outside of the realm of science. Much of intelligent design criticism is not so much criticism of the idea as education of the proponents.

It is not uncommon for non-scientific proponents of intelligent design to argue from a position of scientific ignorance. An intelligent design believer will often rationalize that ignorance (either by the individual or the scientific community) is evidence of God in the machine. This form of argument will always lead to endless circular arguments. The problem with any argument wherein ignorance is the basis of evidence is that when the science is revealed to dispel why/how a particular function is understood, the hard-core believer will simply move the discussion to another topic which requires more explanation because the will always be something the believer does not understand. Thus, any full refutation of intelligent design as it is currently presented is not so much a rejection of the idea as it is an education about the scientific method, logic and sciences such as biology or theories such as evolution.


  1. Pallen MJ, Matzke NJ. "From The Origin of Species to the origin of bacterial flagella". Nat Rev Microbiol. 2006 Oct;4(10):784-90. Epub 2006 Sep 5.
  2. Stephen Jay Gould, "Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge", Scientific American 1992.
  3. Further information about, and material from, the document can be found in Barbara Forrest's article The Wedge at Work: How Intelligent Design Creationism Is Wedging Its Way into the Cultural and Academic Mainstream in Robert T. Pennock, Intelligent Design Creationism And Its Critics, MIT Press 2001, ch. 1.
  4. Barbara Forrest and Glenn Branch, Wedging Creationism into the Academy
  5. Scott EC, Matzke NJ (2007) Biological design in science classrooms. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA [Epub ahead of print] PMID 17494747
  6. The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity Nobel Laureates Initiative [1]
  7. Ruling, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Case No. 04cv2688. (PDF) December 20 2005
  8. Ruling, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Case No. 04cv2688. (PDF) December 20 2005
  9. National Center for Science Education, Statements from Scientific and Scholarly Organizations
  10. Australian scientists and educators say ID is not science
  11. Creation & Intelligent Design Watch
  12. FASEB opposes using science classes to teach intelligent design, creationism, and other non-scientific beliefs The FASEB Journal. 2006;20:408-409.
  13. Grinnell F (2006) Intelligent design: fallacy recapitulates ontogeny. FASEB J 20:410-11