Debating Darwin and Design

 A Dialogue Between Two Christians

Francis Smallwood-Opening Statement

Explanations must stand on their own evidence, not on the failure of their alternatives.1

Francisco J. Ayala

Evolution is a fact as certain as gravity or heliocentrism. From all corners of scientific investigation, from cosmology to geology to biology, the story of this universe and this small, though marvellously distinguished planet residing within it, is one of constant change; a story of evolution. Things have not always been as they are now and we can assume with great certainty that things will look very different in years to come. The story of life on earth is told very basically as the generation of complexity from simplicity; the creation of ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful,’2 each blaring design, yet replete in the marks of their tangled past, evincing their true origins, constrained by ancestry and principles of engineering and economy and shaped and re-shaped and shaped again according to the specifications of their natural environment.

I, like Joshua, am a Christian and believe this marvellous world to be the creation of a God revealed to us in the words of Scripture. However, as to the nature of that creation we must look to science. I stand with Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne in his proclamation that ‘Religion, if it is to take seriously its claim that the world is the creation of God, must be humble enough to learn from science what that world is actually like.’3

The statement that ‘life has evolved’ is uncontroversial (at least it should be!) and accepted by me and Joshua, although perhaps to slightly different degrees. So it is not a debate over evolution, as such, but a debate over causal mechanisms. I subscribe to the school of neo-Darwinism, which acknowledges Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as the primary evolutionary mechanism, certainly the ‘only explanation we have of how complex life can evolve…’4 Clearly, as Darwin was eager to admit, natural selection is not the sole cause of evolution, other factors such as geographical separation (which is thought to be the main cause of speciation) and genetic drift are also responsible for change, but natural selection is the only intrinsically non-random mechanism capable of actual ‘design’.

Neo-Darwinism is the synthesis of two separate, though gloriously complementary, theories: Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics. (The synthesis ‘may be traced to Theodosius Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origin of Species, published in 1937.’5) Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA6 then unlocked Mendel’s genes and allowed us to understand the molecular properties and processes responsible for inheritance and the emergence of variation, the stuff of evolution.

The replication of DNA is ‘astonishingly faithful’, yet ‘Mistakes will happen,’7 and when a mutation occurs in the genotype (the genetic recipe) of an organism, this may, though not always, result in an alteration in its phenotype (the physical manifestation of the genotype). If this mutation improves the ‘fitness’ of the organism, allowing the organism to produce more offspring than its competitors, then the beneficial mutation will be selected and, over time, will spread throughout the population. The process of selection is gradual and cumulative, the accretion of mutations increasing the fitness of the organism responsible for the production of those ‘Organs of extreme perfection…8 which most justly excite[...] our admiration.’9

So, where do I stand with ID? Its advocates are eager to distance the movement from creationism and ‘creation science’ and to assert the theory as a purely scientific one, claiming that by pointing out holes in Darwinian theory – holes which are continuously being filled in – that the enterprise ‘detects intelligence without speculating about the nature of the intelligence,’10 as if, therefore, that without recourse to the ‘nature of the intelligence’ the theory remains scientific. Similarly, to distance ID from Christianity, biochemist Michael Behe has said, ‘All that the evidence points to is some very intelligent agent…  we focus simply on the observation of design. We don’t say from biochemistry the designer is God.’11 Despite these efforts to distance ID from religion and Christianity, in particular, it is interesting to note that the creationist Phillip E. Johnson, Michael Behe and William Dembski – perhaps the three biggest names in ID – are all Christians. They all, I presume, believe the elusive designer to be one and the same God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Is ID just a ‘new strain of creationism,’12 perhaps?

Since Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, scientific study has been conducted according to so-called methodological naturalism. ID proponents insist that the scientific method (methodological naturalism) is some sort of naturalistic atheistic philosophy, when it is nothing of the sort. It is simply how we do science. And here’s the clinch: ‘Methodological naturalism works! … because scientists have persisted in taking a methodologically naturalistic approach, problems that hitherto seemed insoluble have given way to solutions.’13 The ID theorist demands a paradigm shift – and understandably! – because without it their ‘scientific theory’ cannot be so. When we explain something by saying that it is designed, not only do we contribute nothing useful to science, but we have stepped out of the very realms of science. (This severe deficiency has been one of the chief reasons that ID has not made it into school science classes, despite the shifty shenanigans of disreputable textbook authors.)

And thank goodness scientists have kept with methodological naturalism over the years! Believing that we can find natural explanations for natural phenomena, we have made bounding leaps in such important fields as medicine (to which evolutionary theory is constantly applied, although I am unaware of any applications of ID theory). The reason I am so grateful is that the moment you claim that something is intelligently designed, all form of further inquiry stops there. Phillip Johnson boldly claimed, ‘Give us five or ten years, and you’ll see scientific breakthroughs biologists hadn’t dreamed of before ID’14 Alas, the damning conclusion appears to positively contend Johnson’s bold claim; it seems that he made a promise he couldn’t keep.15 ID either tells us nothing or simply halts all investigation. If we actually want to understand the nature of this glorious world we inhabit, it seems that we should not look to ID.

Darwinism is, admittedly, an incomplete theory, but this simply means that there is more work to be done, as scientists are pleased to know! Despite the claims of ID, the theory of evolution – falsifiable as any other proper scientific theory must be – it seems that the same cannot be said for ID – has not been disproven.

That being said, even if Darwinian evolution was not the answer, that in no way supposes that design, by default, is. As Francisco Ayala writes in the quote I placed at the beginning of my statement, ‘Explanations must stand on their own evidence, not on the failure of their alternatives.’

After briefly trying to state where I stand on the matter before we embark on what (hopefully!) promises to be a fruitful discussion, I would just like to close with a few further words from Ayala:

‘There is “design” in the living world: eyes are designed for seeing, wings for flying, and kidneys for regulating the composition of the blood. The design of organisms comes about not by intelligent design, but by the interaction of mutation and natural selection, in a process that is creative through the interaction of chance and necessity.’16


  1. Ayala, F. J. (2009). There is no place for intelligent design in the philosophy of biology: Intelligent design is not science. In: Ayala, F. J. and Arp, R., eds. (2009). Contemporary debates in philosophy of biology. (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell). Ch.20. p.375.
  2. Darwin, C. (2009). The origin of species and the voyage of the Beagle. (London: Vintage). p.913.
  3. 3.      Polkinghorne, J. (2006). Science and creation: The search for understanding. (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press). p.117.
  4. 4.      Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. (London: Penguin). p.154.
  5. 5.      Ayala, F. J. (1982). Beyond Darwinism? The challenge of macroevolution to the synthetic theory of evolution. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1982(2). p.275.
  6. Watson, J. D. and Crick, F. H. C. (1953). Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid. Nature 171, p.737-738.
  7. Dawkins, R. (2006). The selfish gene, 30th anniversary ed. (New York: Oxford University Press). p.16.
  8. Darwin, C. (2009). The origin of species and the voyage of the Beagle. (London: Vintage). p.671.
  9. ibid. p.538.
  10. Dembski, W. A. (1998). ‘The intelligent design movement’. Cosmic Pursuit, March 1. Available at: <;
  11. Behe, M, in conversation with Sutherland, J. (2005). ‘A design for life’. Guardian, 12 Sep. Available at: <;
  12. Zimmer, C. (2001). Evolution: the triumph of an idea. (London: William Heinemann). p.325.
  13. Ruse, M. (2006). Darwinism and its discontents. (New York: Cambridge University Press). p.48.
  14. Slack, G. (2007). The battle over the meaning of everything: evolution, intelligent design, and a school board in Dover, PA. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass). p.vii.
  15. Alexander, D. (2008). Creation or evolution: do we have to choose?. (Oxford: Monarch Books). p.308-311.
  16. Ayala, op cit. p.364.
About these ads