Debating Darwin and Design: Science or Creationism? (2)

A dialogue between two Christians

‘Is Intelligent Design science or ‘creationism in a cheap tuxedo?’

2nd November, 2011

Francis Smallwood – 2nd Response

Joshua and I are both agreed, then, that the equation of ID with biblical (young-earth) creationism is illegitimate. However, Joshua avers ‘the stronger claim that scientifically it [ID] isn’t even a form of creationism in any theistic sense.’1 I think that this is an interesting point, to which I would offer two responses. The first is that I would disagree. With Joshua’s proposed inclusion of Stephen C. Meyer, the four fathers of the ID movement—Johnson, Dembski, Behe and Meyer—are all Christians. They all, presumably, believe the intelligent designer to be the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, despite their insistence that this is not inferred from the detection of design. Behe writes that ‘the identity of the designer will be ignored by science.’2 However, I argued in my previous response that ‘A design is nothing more than a concept, a plan, and [that] we would have no evidence that a design ever existed unless someone had taken it and used it to produce a concrete object that we observe and study.’3 What design theory identifies, therefore, is not a designer but, rather, a creator, as ‘Intelligence… is manifested in creativity.’4 The design theorist purports that natural law, capable of so much, requires some non-natural interposition to achieve a flagellum, blood clotting system, or some such other complex construct.

My second response would be that I agree that ID ‘isn’t even a form of creationism in any theistic sense.’ I believe that the whole of Creation, in its glorious entirety, autopoietic, inherent with potential, testifies to God’s authorship—not just the fiddly bits. I would agree with Father George Coyne that ID belittles God, reducing him to ‘an engineer who designs systems…’5 Similarly, Denis Alexander writes that ID’s conception of the intelligent designer ‘is really nothing like the biblical revelation of God as Creator, the author of everything that exists, who is sovereign over every aspect of the created order. Indeed, the idea of God as “designer” in this engineering sense is not found in the Bible…’6

Regarding my accusing Paul Nelson of ‘base “history denial,”78 I don’t believe that this is incorrect. In an interview with Ronald Numbers, Hilldale Professor of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Numbers asked Nelson if he was a young-earth creationist, to which Nelson replied, ‘theologically, yes’—whatever that may mean! When Numbers then asked him if he could put an age on his earth, he said, ‘No… My understanding of the Bible internally gives a certain view of the history of the world that is in apparent conflict with what most geologists, what most cosmologists see as a reasonable date for the earth and cosmos respectively, but I live with that tension.’9 Nelson does not explicitly deny the findings of modern geology and cosmology, but by his very refusal to affirm them he is guilty of ‘history denial.’

‘Francis singles Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Phillip Johnson as being the three fathers of ID. The temptation he feels to call them ‘stooges’ reveals his low opinion of them and their work and I feel that it is an unwarranted denigration. This discussion will hopefully tell us whether or not they are indeed stooges.’10 I admit that my jocund temptation to call them ‘stooges’ was rather mischievous—it wasn’t intended as a denigration per se. I do not deny the professionalism of the three.

‘In his response Francis points out that Behe, amongst the three mentioned [Behe, Dembski, Johnson] is the only qualified biological scientist. This is true but so what?’ 11 I should probably point out that I did not issue this as any form of substantive criticism, nevertheless interesting, and, perhaps, telling. There were four primary founders of neo-Darwinism, or the ‘synthetic theory’—Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist; Ernst Mayr, an ornithologist; G.G. Simpson, a palaeontologist; and G. Ledyard Stebbins, a botanist and geneticist—and all were highly acclaimed and highly influential biological scientists who sought to construct a mature, professional science. As I said, I do not advance this as any substantive criticism of ID or consider it sufficient for the espousal of Darwinism—it was merely a comment in passing. My main point was that the neo-Darwinian synthesis was not founded, primarily, by a lawyer.

Joshua says that ‘ID’s creationist associations only exist in the mind of its critics and not in reality.’12 Certainly, ID theorists are adamant in their insistence on the dissociation of ID with biblical creationism, and you can’t blame them when the likes of Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne13 and P.Z. Myers14 paint ID with the same brush as they would use to paste young-earth creationism. And whilst I would insist on a distinction between the two, simply, and prosaically, because they are not identical—‘Many, if not most, of the leaders of the ID movement subscribe to, or at least are open to, some form of evolution’15—ID does claim that natural law is exhaustible or insufficient, incapable of achieving certain structures, requiring some non-natural (creative) interposition. Whilst Dawkins, Coyne and Myers should acknowledge the distinction between varieties of creationism, I think that their sense of association is entirely warranted. In the words of Michael Ruse, ‘the point of the intelligent design movement is to promote the intellectual respectability of interventions outside the natural order of things.’16 In a similar vein, Alexander writes, ‘That “the Emperor has no clothes” at this point is readily shown by asking ID proponents about how and when this supposed design was injected by the presumed designer into the biological process and at what stage. The type of answers given sound very like miraculous interventions…’17

Nevertheless, Dembski writes that ‘intelligent design does not require miracles. Just as humans do not perform miracles every time they act as intelligent agents, so there is no reason to assume that for a designer to act as an intelligent agent requires a violation of natural laws.’18 (He writes that ID does not invoke miraculous creation, but that, rather, ID simply demarcates between ‘undirected natural causes on the one hand and intelligent causes on the other.’19) This ‘extrapolation’ from observations of human agency to the agency of an intelligent designer is tellingly prevalent in the ID literature: ‘Disciplines as diverse as animal learning and behavior, forensics, archeology, cryptography, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence thus all fall within intelligent design.’20 This is the standard validation for ID. If we dig up a vase or come across a case of homicide, we understand and identify both as products of intelligent agency. ID presumes that, as we identify certain complex structures (such as vases and murders) as obvious products of intelligent agency, so too, when we observe complex structures in nature (such as bacterial flagella) we can also identify these as products of intelligent agency. An intelligent agent obviously crafted the vase, an intelligent agent obviously committed the murder, and, therefore, by the same logic, an intelligent agent obviously had to have fashioned the ‘irreducibly complex’ bacterial flagellum. But is this really so? Larry Arnhart puts it well: ‘We have all observed how the human mind can cause effects that are humanly designed, and from such observable effects, we can infer the existence of humanly intelligent designers. But insofar as we have never directly observed a divine intelligence (that is, an omniscient and omnipotent intelligence) causing effects that are divinely designed, we cannot infer a divinely intelligent designer from our common human experience.’21 The intelligent agents which Dembski (correctly) states that we identify in the sciences are all agents that we have experience of, and all are acknowledged products of evolution.22 This is a crucial detail which ID theorists ignore. Unless the intelligent designer is also a product of evolution, this comparative extrapolation cannot hold true.23

‘Although I don’t see a legitimate connection between evolution and atheism it is tempting to turn the original question around and ask: How is it that evolution just simply can’t seem to get rid of its atheistic association? …just because it can’t seem to get rid of a certain philosophical view doesn’t discredit the theory or imply that it is a form of atheism.’24 This reversal of my question is an interesting one. Certainly, in the minds of many, evolution equals atheism—once, talking with someone after Church one morning about evolution, I was asked if I accepted evolution and when I replied that I did, I was then asked, ‘But you wouldn’t call yourself an atheist?’—and when people hear the so-called ultra-Darwinists, such as Dawkins and Coyne, maintaining that atheism is practically a logical extension of Darwinism—‘the branch of science that conflicts most directly with religion,’25 in the words of Coyne—this is hardly surprising. However, one must demarcate between evolutionary science and evolutionism. Michael Ruse warns that we ‘should be careful to distinguish when we are doing science and when we are extrapolating from it…’26 This is not to say that evolution, as a professional science, does not have bearings on metaphysics, but it does mean that whilst Dawkins and Coyne are, of course, permitted to extrapolate from their science to their metaphysical naturalism (and, therefore, atheism), that they cannot expect their science to justify their atheism, however harmonious they purport the two to be.

Regarding ID, then, I think that the reversal of my question, whilst certainly interesting, is not a true parallel, as ID’s apparent union with creationism is not simply a philosophical view, but an integral feature of the (supposedly) scientific theory. Irreducibly complex structures such as the flagellum are too complex to evolve—which, incidentally, appears not to be the case27—and, therefore, defy naturalistic explanation, so the design theorist feels warranted in declaring design—which, as I have argued, means creation. Despite the semantic squirming of ID advocates, there simply seems no other word for it.

Unfortunately, space has not allowed me to address each of Joshua’s points, although, I am sure, there will be opportunity in future exchanges.

References & Notes

  1. Gidney, J. Debating Darwin and design: science or creationism? (1), Opening. Available at: [Accessed 15 October 2011]
  2. Behe, M. Darwin’s black box: the biochemical challenge to evolution. (New York: Touchstone, 1998). p.251.
  3. Miller, K.R. Only a theory: evolution and the battle for America’s soul. (New York: Viking Penguin, 2008). p.52.
  4. Young, M. and Taner, E. Why intelligent design fails: a scientific critique of the new creationism. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005). p.12.
  5. Coyne, Father G. V, cited in Lombard, M. Intelligent design belittles God, Vatican director says. Catholic Online, January 30, 2006. Available at: [Accessed 16 October 2011]
  6. Alexander, D. Creation or evolution: do we have to choose?. (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2008). p.316.
  7. The term ‘history denial’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The greatest show on earth: the evidence for evolution. (London: Bantam Press, 2009).
  8. Smallwood, F. Debating Darwin and design: science or creationism? (1), First response. Available at:[Accessed 17 October 2011]
  9. Nelson, P. in an interview with Ronald Numbers. Science Saturday: inside the mind of a creationist., 25 July 2009. Available at: [Accessed 16 October 2011]
  10. Gidney, op cit.
  11. ibid.
  12. ibid.
  13. Coyne, J. and Dawkins, R. One side can be wrong. Guardian, September 1, 2005. Available at: [Accessed 19 October 2011]
  14. ‘Intelligent Design creationism is all about hiding Jesus under a blanket of pseudoscience and smuggling him into the public schools. Nothing more, nothing less.’ In: Myers, P.Z. Intelligent design is warmed over creationism. Pharyngula, April 30, 2009. Available at: [Accessed 23 October 2011]
  15. Ruse, M. The evolution-creation struggle. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). p.256.
  16. ibid. p.255.
  17. Alexander, op cit. p.315.
  18. Dembski, W. A. Intelligent design: the bridge between science and theology. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999). p.259.
  19. ibid.
  20. —. Is intelligent design a form of natural theology?. Metanexus Institute, November 5, 2001. Available at: [Accessed 23 October 2011]
  21. Arnhart, L. Conservatives, Darwin & design: an exchange. First Things, 107, November, 2000. Available at: [Accessed 24 October 2011]
  22. Regarding the claim that extraterrestrial intelligence is the product of evolution, whilst unproven, is considered likely by Richard Dawkins. He has made the prediction ‘that, if a form of life is ever discovered in another part of the universe, however outlandish and weirdly alien that form of life may be in detail, it will be found to resemble life on earth in one key respect: it will have evolved by some kind of Darwinian natural selection.’ (Dawkins, R. The blind watchmaker. (London: Penguin, 2006). p.288.)
  23. If the intelligent designer was like us, in regards manner of design, as Dembski claims, he would also have to be a natural being, and this would mean that the intelligent designer would—as a significantly more complex natural being—have likely been the product of intelligent design too, necessitating the invocation of another intelligent designer, ad infinitum, ad absurdum.
  24. Gidney, op cit.
  25. Coyne, J. Intergalactic Jesus: review of Can a Darwinian be a Christian?: the relationship between science and religion by Michael Ruse. London Review of Books, 24 (9), May 9, 2002. Available at: [Accessed 2 November 2011]
  26. Ruse, M. Is evolution a secular religion?. Science, New Series, 299 (5612), 2003. p.1524.
  27. Miller, K. R. The flagellum unspun: the collapse of “irreducible complexity”. In: Dembski, W. A., Ruse, M. Debating design: from Darwin to DNA. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). p.81-97.

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