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On Intelligent Design, A Critique

“No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others.” – Thomas Kuhn

What is intelligent design? According to William Dembski, ID says “there are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence.” Basically, the laws of nature simply cannot explain every facet of evolution as we know it and there must be some other force involved — typically called an “intelligence”.

While most intelligent design adherents are Christian, they stress the view is not religious. “A person does not even need to believe in God to infer intelligent design in nature,” they say. [Wells: 8] While it is true that no specific creed (Catholicism, Judaism, etc.) is necessary, one does have to wonder what a creating intelligence is if it is not “God”.

ID theorist Jonathan Wells believes that the “design” they refer to is “a pattern produced by a mind that conceives and executes a plan.” [Wells: 7] For the sake of simplicity, we will not address this particular view. Wells’ use of the term “mind” calls in a whole host of other issues that are beyond the scope of this discussion, such as whether non-physical intelligences (such as God) have what could be called a “mind”.

Michael Behe even suggests that intelligent design is compatible with deism, the view that God created the world and natural laws, then let the universe act on its own. In his words, “intelligent design is quite compatible with the view that the universe operates by unbroken natural law, with the design of life perhaps packed into its initial set-up.” [Behe 2007: 166] If this is the case, though, it eliminates much of the debate between ID and evolution — now we would only be discussing the origin of life, which is really outside the scope of most biology research.

A Note on Phillip E. Johnson

Before getting into the details of ID and its arguments, let us first take a look at Phillip E. Johnson, the man credited with inventing and popularizing intelligent design.

Johnson says, “I am not a scientist but an academic lawyer by profession, with a specialty in analyzing the logic of arguments and identifying the assumptions that lie behind those arguments… Being a scientist is not necessarily an advantage when dealing with a very broad topic like evolution, which cuts across many scientific disciplines and also involves issues of philosophy.” [Johnson 1993: 13] Whether this approach is valid is perhaps up to the reader. A scientific background certainly helps in understanding specific issues (Johnson surely does not understand Behe’s molecular biology), but he has a point as far as the logic goes. Many who argue in favor of evolution are not scientists, and if their views are allowed, it seems Johnson’s must be, as well.

While ID argues that the designer need not be a Christian God, this is clearly who Johnson, a Presbyterian, prefers. When arguing against deism, he says, “The important question is not whether God ‘exists’; it is whether God cares about us, and whether we need to care about God’s purposes.” [Johnson 1997: 17] He clarifies this by stating, “God is our true Creator… I speak of a God who acted openly and who left his fingerprints all over the evidence.” [Johnson 1997: 23]

In fact, Johnson’s blind allegiance to God seems to be the reason he developed ID rather than any independent, objective concern. He says, “When God is no longer in the picture there can be no Truth, only conflicting human opinions.” [Johnson 1997: 89] To him, Darwinian evolution ushers in relativism and the collapse of society. The Native Americans, Asian countries and other non-Judeo-Christians somehow figured out that stealing and murder were wrong without God’s word, but Johnson apparently isn’t aware of this. Not that all Christian groups agree on one “Truth”, either… try finding two churches that teach the same thing.

In his earlier work, Johnson wrote, “I believe that a God exists who could create out of nothing if He wanted to do so, but who might have chosen to work through a natural evolutionary process instead.” [Johnson 1993: 14] Even here, his idea of an “intelligence” is rather narrow.

Now, does Johnson’s belief in a Christian God mean that all those who have been influenced by him must argue from a Christian perspective? No. One could belong to any number of religious groups. Wells, for example, belongs to Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church cult.

This is worth pointing out because a common focal point of attack for the ID crowd is Charles Darwin. Despite over 150 years of scientific advancement since Darwin published “Origin of Species”, those against evolution have aimed their attacks at a long-dead scientist rather than the ones alive today. Johnson called his debut book “Darwin on Trial” and many ID supporters prefer to call evolution “Darwinism”. Johnson says his “subject is not history but the logic of the current controversy… so my interest must be in Darwinism and not Darwin.” [Johnson 1993: 15] So why call the book “Darwin on Trial”? And why use the term Darwinism? It would be like calling ID “Johnsonism”.

The Underlying Materialism of Science

Johnson’s biggest point, which is actually philosophy and not science, is questioning the very foundation of scientific study. He believes that “scientists start by assuming that naturalism is true, and they try to give purely natural explanations for everything, including our existence.” [Johnson 1997: 56] For him, naturalism goes unquestioned, and predictable results will follow that “naturally” lead away from God.

This is an interesting point, if it happens to be true. And that is hard to determine. Scientists would probably say they are not “assuming” naturalism, but merely “bracketing” the supernatural. Many scientists are Christians or at least believers, so they certainly would not make the claim they are denying the supernatural or its possibility. More likely, because it is would be impossible to know the mind of God directly, such things must be left aside unless no alternative exists.

And it appears that Johnson may be changing some scientists’ minds on this issue, even if they haven’t abandoned evolution. Michael Ruse, a pro-evolution philosopher, concedes “that the science side has certain metaphysical assumptions built into doing science, which — it may not be a good thing to admit in a court of law — but I think that in all honesty that we should recognize.”

With regards to evolution and natural selection, it is either true or false. If one species changes into another species, regardless of through natural or supernatural means, a mechanism exists and should be able to be studied. Darwinian theory as we know it may be flawed, but the whole system does not need to be replaced with another, especially a new system that is even harder to test for.

On Common Descent

Before getting to the science questions raised by intelligent design, it is worth noting that not all ID theorists share the same scientific views. This is most noticeable with common descent, or the idea that life today originated from one organism millions (or billions) of years ago.

Phillip Johnson rejects the idea. Precisely what he believes is unclear, whether it be a single act of creation or several acts of creation over time. He does seem to be fascinated by the Cambrian Explosion, suggesting he believes new life forms appeared at various points in history without a direct ancestor.

Johnson also goes out of his way to try to raise questions about connections between fish and amphibians, reptiles and birds, and so on… For example, he quotes Barbara Stahl: “none of the known fishes is thought to be directly ancestral to the earliest land vertebrates. Most of them lived after the first amphibians appeared, and those that came before show no evidence of developing the stout limbs and ribs that characterized the primitive tetrapods.” [Stahl 1985] (Notably, he also calls her book “Vertebrate History” rather than the full title of “Vertebrate History: Problems in Evolution”, apparently to suggest the book is pro-evolution.) But if Johnson wants to deny transitions, where he thinks the new forms came from is not clear.

Michael Behe, on the other hand, finds in his first book that “the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and [I] have no particular reason to doubt it.” [Behe 1996: 5] He elaborates on this in his second book. “Evolution from a common ancestor, via changes in DNA, is very well supported.” [Behe 2007: 12] He references the study of proteins where the “amino acid sequence of the beta chain of human hemoglobin was much different from that of fish, somewhat different from that of kangaroo (a marsupial mammal), pretty similar to that of dog (a placental mammal), and identical to that of chimpanzee.” [Behe 2007: 70] He notes that “both humans and chimps have a broken copy of a gene that in other mammals helps make vitamin C. As a result, neither humans nor chimps can make their own vitamin C. If an ancestor of the two species originally sustained the mutation and then passed it to both descendant species, that would neatly explain the situation.” [Behe 2007: 71]

He also points out that, “If mammals and flies use the same switching genes, it is reasonable to think that they inherited them from the same ancestor or ancestors.” [Behe 2007: 182]

Behe will be looked at closer below, but the point here is this: when trying to discern what intelligent design is (and how to decide if it is correct or not), the task is quite difficult if there is no agreement. If Johnson’s view is accepted, he is contradicted even by his own people (such as Behe). If Behe is accepted, the debate about evolution becomes much more refined, as he more or less accepts that one species can turn into another — he just rejects the Darwinian mechanism (and not even all the time).

ID versus the Anthropic Principle

Intelligent design theorists like to point to the universe’s “cosmic fine-tuning” to explain the existence of life, the universe and everything. They say “if the strength of gravity were weaker by only one part in a trillion trillion trillion, the universe would have expanded so quickly after the Big Bang that no galaxies or planets would have formed. On the other hand, if gravity were stronger by only one part in a trillion trillion trillion, the universe would have quickly collapsed back on itself.” [Wells: 121]

This line of reasoning became more popular starting in the 1970s with physicist Brandon Carter and a paper he called “Large Number Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology”. Carter found a whole range of numbers that had to be “just right” for the universe and life to exist.

Assuming those numbers are correct, what does this mean? On the face of it, this strongly suggests that the odds are so much against the universe existing that some higher power must have created and designed it. But is this true?

The “odds” mean nothing, because they are odds working backwards. If we start with the Big Bang, and follow physical laws, it is easy to predict certain outcomes (just as we predict billiard balls reacting how they do). We could just as easily say that our individual existence is extremely unlikely — of the millions of sperm and egg that could have mixed, only one pair did. And the same going back countless generations. And yet, I exist. You exist. We all exist. The odds of me existing precisely as I do are extremely unlikely, just as it is more likely the universe couldn’t form, it is just as unlikely I would not have become who I am. But billions of us exist exactly as we are… so those numbers mean nothing.

In 1982, Paul Davies wrote, “Had nature opted for a slightly different set of numbers, the world would be a very different place. Probably we would not be here to see it.” And yet we are, so the numbers must be as they are, regardless. (The whole issue is sort of a distraction, as it could be used to argue for or against God, perhaps, but really says nothing at all about evolution.)

On Mutation

Many scientists (including Darwin) have said that while natural selection is a big part of evolution, it is not the only part. Another possible piece is mutation, but this is in doubt by the ID theorists. Behe argues that “random mutation wreaks havoc on a genome… it breaks things much more easily than it makes things and acts incoherently rather than focusing on building integrated molecular systems.” [Behe 2007: 164]

Looking at the Fossil Record

Both ID theorists like Johnson and creationists like to point out holes in the fossil record, and quote eminent scientists like Stephen Jay Gould: “The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology.”

But they typically leave out the next line: “The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils.” [Gould 1977] Gould points to the holes in fossils not to discredit evolution, but to explain that this record is not the only evidence that evolution is based on.

Organisms are only rarely preserved as fossils in the best of circumstances, and only a fraction of such fossils have been discovered. Scientists estimate that the number of species known through the fossil record is less than 5% of the number of known living species, suggesting that the number of species known through fossils must be far less than 1% of all the species that have ever lived.

Johnson asks, “Does the fossil evidence, considered as a whole and without bias, tend to confirm the predictions of Darwinian theory?” [Johnson 1997: 39] He would argue no, of course. And he might be right. But if the fossils can only show less than 1% of all species, it makes little sense for either ID theorists or scientists to put too much emphasis on it. A scientist can point to Archaeopteryx as halfway between reptile and bird. An ID theorist will then point out that this does not line up with known timelines for bird origins. They are both relying on only 1% of the data, so it is all speculation. (Johnson, incidentally, calls Archaeopteryx “lonely”, although there are at least seven known fossil species between dinosaurs and birds.)

But the big question is: why doubt the fossil record? If ID thinks species transformed from one to another (although not necessarily by natural selection), they have to explain the transitions just as much as evolutionists. If the debate is on the mechanism and not the changes themselves, ID should be looking for fossils to affirm the changes and not deny them…

Irreducible Complexity

Dr. Michael Behe is a rock star in the world of intelligent design. Not only is he brilliant, but his concerns with evolutionary theory are relatively narrow and minor. He says, “I have no reason to doubt that the universe is the billions of years old that physicists say it is.” As noted above, he also accepts common descent. His concern is merely whether natural selection can explain life on the molecular level.

Behe has introduced the concept of “irreducible complexity”. He defines this as “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” [Behe 1996: 39] As a hypothetical example, he uses a mousetrap that could not catch mice without the board, spring, hammer, etc.

His real world, biological examples are even more compelling. Discussing the myriad steps involved in blood clotting, or the way that a flagellum propels a cell, he raises the question: how can a system develop if it needs multiple parts to function? Surely evolution cannot be solely to blame, as it would develop these parts individually (which would be pointless) or all at once (which would be impossible). Something else must be involved, he says.

Molecular biologist James A. Shapiro disagrees with ID, but actually supports some of what Behe says. “There are no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations,” writes Shapiro. “It is remarkable that Darwinism is accepted as a satisfactory explanation for such a vast subject — evolution — with so little rigorous examination of how well its basic these work in illuminating specific instances of biological adaptation or diversity.” [Shapiro 1996]

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne also had some positive thing to say. “There is no doubt that the pathways described by Behe are dauntingly complex, and their evolution will be hard to unravel… We may forever be unable to envisage the first proto-pathways.” [Coyne 1996]

The problem with Behe’s argument is simple. While he correctly points out that there are things we still do not know about how things evolved, he is wrong to conclude that “intelligent design” is involved. Even if natural selection is proven wrong (a big if), this does not automatically make intelligent design right… there could be several alternatives. Why intelligent design?

Behe also puts himself in an unusual position that some ID supporters avoid: by accepting that all life probably came from one ancestor, he forces us to ask where the design comes into play. Did an ape one day give birth to a human being without the DNA evolving? Or how did we get here? If one creature has no blood clotting and another does, where did it come from and why? Did the intelligent designer randomly pick a date that a new creature would emerge from the old?

For all the questions that remain unanswered with natural selection, far more are raised with intelligent design.

Is Intelligent Design Science?

For intelligent design to be a viable alternative to natural selection, it has to be recognized as science. The majority of scientists have rejected it, saying it cannot be science because it relies on either faith, the supernatural, or both. ID supporters reply that they are science but are being shut out because the definition is too narrow.

In 1992, biochemist Richard E. Dickerson wrote, “Operational science takes no position about the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural; it only requires that this factor is not to be invoked in scientific explanations.” Michael Behe takes issue with this, commenting that the “clear implication is that it should not be invoked whether it is true or not.” [Behe 1996: 239] He further asks rhetorically where Dickerson found this rule, saying it is not formally recognized.

This is such a strange attack against the very idea of science. The natural world can be tested, boiled down to chemistry and physics, and that is the way to do science. Adding the “whether it is true or not” makes no difference. Scientists, for the most part, take no issue with anyone suggesting God created the universe, or even saying that evolution is a manifestation of God’s will. Such things cannot be tested, and are therefore not addressed by science — the lack of being addressed does not mean they are true or not.

Behe further brings up the sciences of history and psychology, pointing out they do not follow Dickerson’s rule. But this is outlandish, as Behe knows very well that Dickerson refers to natural sciences and not social sciences. If ID theorists wanted to present their ideas in social science courses (history, philosophy, etc) they would probably be more warmly welcomed.

And then, after trying to equate geography and geology, he takes it even further with an ad infinitum argument. “The anxiety is that if the supernatural were allowed as an explanation, then there would be no stopping it — it would be invoked frequently to explain many things that in reality have natural explanations.” [Behe 1996: 241] No. No one has this anxiety. The problem is not that letting God in would cause Him to be invoked willy-nilly. The problem is that as soon as you say “God” or “design”, you have ended an ongoing discussion. What is the sense of studying blood clotting if it is designed by a supernatural power? Maybe it was, maybe it was not. But only if we start with the premise of a natural explanation can we continue a search.

Behe also points out that some hard science is not testable, such as “extinct common ancestors”. [Behe 1996: 242] Many critics of evolution point this out, that we can not empirically observe one species turn into another, and that there are countless missing links. True. But a lack of observation does not mean a lack of testable evidence. With an endless supply of fossils, we have two tools that point towards evolution: DNA analysis, showing some animals more closely related than others. And dating, which shows some creatures dying off and others starting up. Even without the missing link, there are only so many conclusions that an be drawn from this. (And even Behe believes in common ancestry, so he must find this compelling.)

Should We Teach Intelligent Design?

This section raises the question: should we teach intelligent design in our science classrooms? It does not ask whether we should teach it in history, philosophy or other classes. And, of course, the answer is no. There may be common ground, however.

During a debate, molecular biologist and ID theorist Jonathan Wells “proposed that students be taught the scientific evidence and arguments for and against Darwinism”. [Wells: 150] This seems incredibly fair, at least to a certain degree. There should be nothing wrong with pointing out shortcomings in evolutionary theory, or even saying that various issues are still in contention (such as whether evolution happened gradually or by what Stephen Jay Gould called “punctuated equilibrium”). But this presumes the “scientific evidence” is actually science.

Physical anthropologist Eugenie C. Scott first said in 1998 (and has repeated this since) that “evidence against evolution is just a euphemism for creation science.” Wells takes issue with that comment, though I am not sure why. Does he deny evolution altogether? Apparently Behe accepts it, but disagrees on the mechanism. Does Wells deny that evolution exists in any form? He would have to produce some impressive evidence to make that claim.

Misguided ID Attacks on Evolution

Wells is a highly-educated individual, with a PhD in biology (from Berkeley) and a second one in theology (from Yale). And yet, he peppers his attacks on evolution (which he calls Darwinism) with numerous logical fallacies.

Wells makes the claim that “true wealth comes from human creativity and invention” while Darwinism “encourages the sort of government interference that conservatives abhor.” [Wells: 165; 167] He says “Darwin clearly regarded white Europeans as more highly evolved than other races” and that countries that embraced “forced sterilization and infanticide… explicitly based their deplorable policies on Darwinism.” [Wells: 162-163] Regardless of what economic system is correct, whether or not Darwin was racist and whether or not Darwin’s views influenced the Nazis, this is all beside the point and poor logic. A theory is judged on its merits, not on its creator or any misguided consequences. We would not blame Jesus Christ for the Crusades or the Ku Klux Klan or Jodie Foster for the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan.


Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Behe, Michael J. The Edge of Evolution. Free Press, 2007.

Brockman, John. Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement. Vintage Books, 2006.

Coyne, Jerry. Review of Darwin’s Black Box in Nature, 1996.

Gould, Stephen J. 1977. “Evolution’s Erratic Pace” in Natural History 86(5):12-16.

Johnson, Phillip E. Darwin on Trial. 2nd Edition. InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Johnson, Phillip E. Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Shapiro, James A. “In the Details… What?” National Review, September 19, 1996.

Stahl, Barbara. (1985) Vertebrate History: Problems in Evolution, Dover Publications, Inc., NY, p. 148.

Wells, Jonathan. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design Regnery, 2006.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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