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It may well be the most important intellectual movement to occur in the last 200 years, if not the last half-millennium. Its roots are in the sciences, but when it reaches full flower, it may branch into nearly every discipline, from theology, philosophy, and the social sciences to history and literature, and redefine almost every aspect of culture, from morality and law to the arts.
It’s the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, and it’s reshaping the face of science.
The revolution began in the latter half of the 20th century as a result of discoveries in the various sciences that seemed to point to an intelligent being as the cause of nature’s amazing intricacies. The aim of ID is included in its origin: the ever-deeper investigation of nature to uncover every aspect of its stunningly contrived complexity. Such complexity is the sure sign of intentional design, and the discovery and contemplation of it is also the natural delight of our intellect.
The ID movement directly contradicts the modern secularist intellectual trend that has so thoroughly dominated Western culture for the last two centuries (even though this trend began 500 years ago, in the early Renaissance). Although this secularization has reached nearly every aspect of our culture, its source of authority has always been in a kind of philosophic and scientific alliance.
In philosophy, the secularized intellect denies the existence of any truth beyond what is humanly contrived, and this denial (a kind of intellectual non serviam) manifests itself in the wild, manic-depressive intellectual swings so characteristic of modernity, between self-congratulatory claims of omniscience and self-pitying lamentations of complete skepticism. The secularization of science manifests itself in the belief that nature has no need for an intelligent designer but is self-caused and self-contained. Secularized science has as its aim the reduction of apparent design, whether cosmological or biological, to the unintelligent interplay of chance and brute necessity (either the necessity of law or of the physical constituents). Since nature itself has no intrinsic order, then (by default) the human intellect is the only source of intellectual order. Secularized science thus supports secularized philosophy, and secularized philosophy functions as the articulate mouthpiece of the alliance.
The ID movement seeks to restore sanity to science, philosophy, and hence culture by investigating the possibility that nature, rather than being the result of unintelligent, purposeless forces, can only be understood as the effect of an Intelligent Designer. But again, to say that the ID revolution contradicts the claims of secularized science does not mean that the contradiction arises from some contrariety or conspiracy on the part of ID proponents. It arises from the evidence of nature itself, and the ID movement is merely pointing to the evidence nature has provided (even while, as an active mode of scientific inquiry, it seeks to uncover more). In science, it points to the growing evidence of intelligent fine tuning, both cosmological and biological, and to the various failures of secularized science to make good its claims that the order of nature can be completely reduced to unintelligent causes. As more and more evidence is gathered, secularized philosophy will be forced to confront the scientific evidence that truth is not, after all, a mere human artifact, because a designing intellect has provided the amazingly intricate beings and laws to which the scientific intellect must conform if it is truly to have scientia—a knowledge of nature. Soon enough, secularized culture will be compelled to realign.
That is not, however, the story you will hear from the critics of ID, who seek to declaw it by denying that it is, at heart, a scientific revolution. According to its most acerbic adversaries, ID is merely a religious ruse wearing a scientific facade. For philosopher Barbara Forrest, “The intelligent design movement as a whole…really has nothing to do with science,” but is rather “religious to its core…merely the newest ‘evolution’ of good old-fashioned American creationism Zoologists Matthew Brauer and Daniel Brumbaugh charge that the ID movement “is not motivated by new scientific discoveries” but “entirely by the religion and politics of a small group of academics who seek to defeat secular ‘modernist naturalism’ by updating previously discredited creationist approaches.” The most outspoken critic of ID theory, philosopher Robert Pennock (who has published two anti-ID books), likewise asserts in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics that ID is merely a “theological movement” with a “game plan…little different than that of the ‘creation scientists’” and suspects that at the heart of the ID urge is a regrettable and benighted “tendency to anthropomorphize the world,” to see design in nature only because we are designers ourselves.
As should be clear from the incessant cry of alarm—“Creationist! Creationist!”—the source of the critics’ ire is that ID has dared to enter the realm of biology and raise questions concerning the near sacrosanct canons of Darwinism. (And if one starts questioning the Darwinian account of man’s origin and nature, what aspect of our secularized culture could escape uprooting?) ’Tis all fine and good, they say, to investigate cosmological fine-tuning but anathema to consider biological fine-tuning. Indeed, such critics seem to think that doubting evolutionary theory’s claims to have eliminated design from biology could only occur if one has either lost one’s mind or placed it on an out-of-the-way shelf marked “Do Not Disturb” (the embarassing result of irrational adherence to an entirely mytho-theological account of creation). They seem—to get to the bottom of it—to agree with the words of zoologist and evolutionary spokesman laureate Richard Dawkins: “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”
Against this, I argue not only that it is quite reasonable to have doubts about evolutionary theory, but that the rise and development of ID theory, as an antidote to Darwinism, is both intellectually welcome and historically inevitable. It is intellectually welcome because Darwinism is too small to fit the facts it claims to explain, and ID is large enough to include a modified form of Darwinism. ID is historically inevitable because it is part of a larger, cosmological revolution that has already forced itself upon physics and astronomy. Let’s begin with the latter claim because it is, perhaps, both most startling and most obvious.
The Design Revolution in Cosmology
Allow me to point out to Pennock that the “tendency to anthropomorphize the world” is coming from the world itself, or more accurately, from the entire cosmos. In fact, in physics it is called the anthropic principle. In short form, it is the discovery that the universe appears rigged, astoundingly fine-tuned, suspiciously calibrated as part of some kind of a conspiracy of order to produce life—indeed intelligent life. This fine-tuned conspiracy occurs on all levels, from the fundamental constants governing the formation of all the elements in the cosmos, to the extraordinarily precise relationship of planets in our solar system, to the delicate balances on our own planet.
If, for example, the strong nuclear force that holds together the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of atoms were a tad weaker, elements other than hydrogen would either be unlikely or impossible; if a tad stronger, you wouldn’t have hydrogen. Change the ratio of the mass of the electron to the proton just a mite and molecules cannot form. If gravity were made just a bit weaker, stars large enough to produce the heavier elements necessary for biological life would not exist; a bit stronger, and stars would be too massive, producing the necessary elements but burning too rapidly and unevenly to support life. Fiddle a smidgeon with the expansion rate of the universe, and you either cause it to collapse or exceed the ideal rate at which galaxies, and hence solar systems, can form.
Or to focus on our own home in the Milky Way, it has become increasingly clear that the conditions of our solar system are wonderfully intricate. For example, our sun is not a typical star but is one of the 9 percent most massive stars in our galaxy, and it is also very stable. Further, the sun hits the Goldilocks mean for life—neither too hot (like a blue or white star) nor too cold (like a red star)—and its peak emission is right at the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum—the very, very thin band where not only vision is possible but also photosynthesis. Earth just “happens” to have the right combination of atmospheric gases to block out almost all the harmful radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum but, strangely enough, opens like a window for visible light. Jupiter is deftly placed and sized so that it not only helps to balance Earth’s orbit but also acts as a kind of debris magnet keeping Earth from being pummeled. Our moon is just the right size and distance to stabilize Earth’s axial tilt so that we have seasonal variations but not wildly swinging temperature changes.
This article is too short to summarize the already vast but continually growing literature on such cosmic fine- tuning. I have given just a taste so that I could return to an earlier point and make it more explicit: The ID movement, understood in its proper and widest context, is cosmological in scope, looking for evidence of design in all of nature, and biology is just one aspect of nature where it seeks evidence of fine-tuning. Against those who would so jealously guard biology from ID, one must ask: How could the fundamental physical constants be fine-tuned, our solar system be fined-tuned, the atmospheric and geological features of our planet be fine-tuned, but all biological beings and processes be the result of unintelligent, purposeless forces?
In addition, the ID approach is both quite natural and scientifically fruitful. The discovery of such exceedingly precise fine-tuning not only draws one to the conclusion that a designer is behind it all but also leads to further scientific discovery. As a famous instance of the first, astronomer and mathematician Fred Hoyle was so astonished at the remarkable chain of “coincidences” necessary for the production of oxygen and carbon in the universe, he concluded that “a commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.” That statement was uttered mid–20th century as a result of Hoyle discovering the wildly improbable presence of just the right nuclear resonance levels in carbon and oxygen to allow for the formation of these most necessary elements for life. For Hoyle, such wonderful calibration could not be an accident: “I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce inside the stars.”
But as the growing anthropic evidence attests, the conviction that the universe is not just accidentally pitched together, but finely tuned, has led many scientists to look for additional instances of fine-tuning—and they have not been disappointed. (Have a go at the incredibly dense Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tipler, if you have doubts, or simply browse Amazon.com for books on the anthropic principle or cosmology.) Thus, the common charges made by critics of ID that it is mere religion disguised as science, and that the assumption of ID has led to no scientific discoveries, is misplaced. Since the last half of the 20th century, the discovery of fine-tuning has been the impetus leading to the discovery of more fine-tuning, and the inference to a designer (as we see from Hoyle) is quite natural and quite respectable on the cosmological level.
In fact, one of the leading scientists using this mode of scientific discovery is astronomer and ID proponent Guillermo Gonzalez, who extends the anthropic principle to its logical conclusion, arguing that human beings are an intended effect of an intelligent cause. This has led him to question the so-called Copernican Principle or Principle of Mediocrity, that Earth-like planets are as common as dandelions in spring. Against this assumption, Gonzalez has found that the parameters for life are very finely drawn, and that means that they are rarely met. He has published his work about the rarity of these conditions in both technical and popular scientific journals (see, for example, the October 2001 Scientific American cover story defining the limited zones in galaxies capable of sustaining life) and is credited with the discovery of the high mean metallicity of stars hosting giant planets (stars that lack sufficient metallicity could never host a habitable planet). He and fellow ID proponent Jay Richards are finishing up a book titled Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery, demonstrating that the rare parameters that allow for life (which, of course, Earth meets), oddly enough, allow for the development of science.
Rather than the ID movement being mocked as some kind of creationist backlash, then, it should be understood as part of a larger revolution within science that began on the cosmological level in physics and chemistry. What raises the hackles of ID critics, as we have seen, is that ID proponents have taken the next logical step, daring to enter the biological domain and question Darwinian orthodoxy. But again, the move from cosmology to biology is inevitable. The larger cosmological question “Is the universe so finely tuned that it must have had a designer?” entails the more local question “Are biological entities and systems so finely tuned that they must have had a designer?”
The Design Revolution in Biology
To understand the design revolution as it applies to biology, we need to step back a bit from the heat and dust currently being generated by ID/anti-ID arguments about evolution and look more closely at evolutionary theory itself. Contrary to popular belief, the notion of evolution was not discovered by Charles Darwin. As I argue in Moral Darwinism, evolution is an inference from a larger theoretical framework, a particular kind of materialism, the historical roots of which can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (d. 270 b.c.). In fact, about 50 years before the birth of Christ, the Roman Epicurean Lucretius provided the first extended evolutionary account in the fifth book of his philosophic poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). All who think Darwin discovered evolution are amazed when they read it.
The materialist inference to evolution runs something like this: Despite what most people think, the universe has no designer. It has no need of an external cause of its existence because the universe itself is eternal. It has no need for an external cause of its order because the random motions of its material components, given infinite stretches of time, bring about all that appears to have been designed by an intelligence—the stars, the sky, the earth, rocks, sand, water, plants, animals, and even human beings.
Note, in this string of assertions, that the “evolution” of living things is just a special case of the larger materialist explanation of how everything, living and non-living, came to be as we see it. In such a universe, the need for (and hence the existence of) intelligent fine-tuning has been replaced by the slow and sloppy meanderings of unintelligent chance acting on the brute necessities of matter.
If the larger materialist account of the designer-free universe sounds familiar, there’s a reason. Historically, a revived form of Epicurean materialism provided the theoretical foundation of modern scientific materialism. As part of the Renaissance recovery of ancient texts, Epicurean materialism was reintroduced to the West in the 15th century and became, in slightly modified form, the reigning scientific view by the 18th century. The materialist universe, thus accepted, provided the fuel for the engine of secularization that steamed so headily through Darwin’s century.
Darwin, working in the 19th century, was handed the materialist universe in which evolution was already an inference. He had no need of discovering it. The general inference to evolution was already available in Lucretius’s well-known poem and in the 18th- and early 19th-century writings of Benoit de Maillet; the comte de Buffon; Jean Lamarck; Geoffrey St. Hilaire; Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin; William Wells; Patrick Matthew; Robert Grant; and Robert Chambers. Darwin’s task was to refine it, by providing it with the particular “mechanisms” that would transform the general inference to a well-formed theory, so as to allow for a designer-free account of biology (again, see my Moral Darwinism for the complete argument).
As should be clear, the designer-free cosmos is the cosmos according to the secularized view of science (as buttressed by the secularized view of philosophy). But that is the view of the cosmos that the growing evidence of cosmological fine-tuning is calling into question. Therefore, it’s both legitimate and inevitable that the designer-free inference in biology should likewise be called into question. Now there are, in science, two intimately related ways of calling a theory into question: First, you notice its defects, and then you go about the more difficult secondary task of demonstrating that another approach has more merit. Given this, it’s no surprise, then, that ID theorists concerned with things biological would first spend significant efforts on a negative critique of Darwinists’ claims, before hammering out a full-scale alternative.
What then are the most significant defects in Darwinism? Not that it has provided an account of descent with modification—that’s one of its merits—but that its proposed mechanisms allowing it to eliminate intelligence as a cause are woefully insufficient. To understand this, let’s return to the cosmological level.
ID theory affirms the universe to be 15 billion years old (more or less) and endorses the generally accepted account of the wonderful unfolding of stellar and planetary evolution, but it makes clear that it is the original and inherent fine-tuning that allows the unfolding to occur. ID proponents look at the wonderful and wonderfully strange history of life the same way. They do not deny many of the marvelous things that Darwinism has uncovered, and so an ID account of biology would include much of what Darwinists have discovered. What they question, however, is the Darwinian assertion that such things are explicable solely as the result of purposeless, unguided mechanisms. Just as stellar (and hence planetary) evolution requires finely tuned parameters written into nature in order to bring about all the necessary material conditions for life, so also biological evolution will require finely tuned parameters written into nature. ID critics overlook the obvious. Since biological evolution depends on stellar evolution—where else would all the necessary chemical elements to make those incredibly complex molecules come from?—the necessity of fine-tuning for biological evolution has already been proven. Even now, Darwinism cannot claim to be designer-free.
But ID proponents suspect that the necessity for biological fine-tuning is more immediately and intimately necessary for evolution, and that means an investigation of the mechanism proposed by Darwin to eliminate design completely from biology. If the elimination of design in biology was wrongheaded, then the mechanism by which Darwin tried to exclude it must somehow be faulty or incomplete. To that mechanism we must now turn.
The initial evidence for design-free evolution provided by Darwin is powerful, especially if one understands the particular context of belief reigning at the time of Darwin. The common belief about species at the time was that God created all the stunning varieties of plants and animals as they now appeared (and did so, a mere 6,000 years prior). Darwin effectively demolished this particular belief in the Origin by beginning with incontrovertible evidence of the malleability of species right under the English nose. After all, he noted, we must admit that breeders of animals, through the artifice of selecting for desired traits and breeding to exaggerate them, are able to produce, in comparatively few generations, radically different looking stock. Obviously, these very different breeds were created by man and did not come, ready-made, from the hand of God.
From the example of the plasticity of breeds under domestication, Darwin then asked: “Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply under nature?” How could it not? the reader asks himself. “Can it, then, be thought improbable,” Darwin mused, that “variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should occur in the course of many successive generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind?” Yes, of course, the reader concludes, natural selection, the source of the endless varieties we find within natural species—innumerable varieties of sparrows, oodles of turtles, countless variations of snakes!
A brilliant step forward in the history of science, for which we owe Darwin a great debt. Had he stopped there, Darwin would have successfully defeated the particular belief that God had immediately created every variety of plant and animal. Of course, that small victory could not, by itself, establish the larger claim that biology was designer-free. In order to eliminate a designer completely Darwin had to make the great inferential leap from partial, legitimate insight to an all-encompassing theory, from change within limits, to unlimited change: “Slow though the process of selection may be,” Darwin intoned, “if feeble man can do much by artificial selection, I can see no limit to the amount of change…which may have been effected in the long course of time through nature’s power of selection, that is by the survival of the fittest” (emphasis added). Small changes add up to distinct varieties; with time, the varietal branches become more distinct until they rank as species; with yet more time, the changes become so pronounced that we class them as being in distinct genera, and so on, until voilà, we have the famous evolutionary tree.
The test of this great leap is, of course, whether or not what it predicts, according to its assumptions, pans out if we study nature under its rubric for a sufficient length of time. Has everything unfolded smoothly according to the assumptions, or has Darwinism found its critical assumptions ramming into stubbornly recalcitrant facts?
Where has Darwinism succeeded grandly? Exactly where it succeeded at first, in describing relatively small-scale evolution, often called microevolution. So where has it failed? In those precise places where it would need to have succeeded in order to make good on the great daring inference. We will look at two: (1) the need for a gradual appearance of the highest biological taxa and (2) the extension of design-free biology backwards to a gradual nondirected rise of the first cells from prebiological materials. Both of these are necessary to exclude ID from biology.
The sharpest rocks to dash the expectations of Darwinism were quarried in Canada at the beginning of the 20th century, and the fossils taken from this wonderful site, called the Burgess Shale, lay entirely misinterpreted for almost three-quarters of a century. They provide us with a most illuminating window into the Cambrian explosion, where, in evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould’s words, “in a geological moment near the beginning of the Cambrian [about 570 million years ago], nearly all modern phyla made their first appearance, along with an even greater array of anatomical experiments that did not survive very long thereafter” (emphasis added). This appearance is not the result of a gradual rise (through innumerable intermediate species) of increasingly more complex life leading up to the Cambrian period. Rather, in Gould’s words, it occurs “with a bang” in a “geological flash” as a “gigantic burp of creativity.”
Why is the Cambrian such a stick in the craw of Darwinism? Darwin’s principle natura non facit saltum (nature does not make a leap) is the principle by which evolutionary theory can eliminate intelligence as a cause. How so? Intelligence, as a cause, can create elaborate order quickly and efficiently: ratio facit salta (reason does make leaps), we might well say. If the unintelligent meanderings of natural selection are to displace an Intelligent Designer, then, as Darwin realized, all big differences must be the result of the addition of countless very little differences. The sudden appearance of nearly all modern biological phyla completely contradicts the expectations of Darwin’s theory. The taxonomic hierarchy in biology, from greatest difference to least, is kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. As Darwin well understood, the greater the difference, the greater the number of transitional species required, and the greater amount of time natural selection will need, working through slight variations, to produce the far greater differences characteristic of phyla. For Darwin, phyla simply cannot appear abruptly but must be the result of a long, arduous, winding path of slight variations among a discrete population leading, by natural selection, to new varieties, which in turn, lead to new species, which in turn…and so on, until one reaches the level of divergence indicative of phyla. If Darwin were right, the fossil evidence would support him.
The sudden appearance of all known phyla in the Cambrian, therefore, represents a first-order theoretical crisis for Darwinism. For an ID approach, it indicates the presence of causal intelligence. While nature itself non facit saltum, such leaps are the hallmark of a designing intellect, especially since the phyla level acts as a kind of plan allowing for future evolutionary development (in a somewhat analogous way that fine-tuning of physical constants allows for stellar evolution).
Does that prove that ID theory has won in biology by default? No. It only proves that (1) it is reasonable to doubt that natural selection, powerful as it may be in certain domains, can displace intelligence as a cause in the origin of animal design, and more particularly, (2) it is reasonable to investigate the fossil evidence from the perspective of design.
To turn to the question of the origin of life, Darwin, for whatever reason, dodged the question of origins by attaching a hasty deus ex machina evolutionis at the very end of the Origin: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
Fairly soon, of course, evolutionists began to wonder if a deus was really all that necessary to the machina evolutionis and betook themselves on a search for a purely material origin to life. If such could be found, then an intelligent designer would not only be locked out of the ongoing flow of nature but would no longer even be needed as a first cause. Biological evolution could then be subsumed under design-free cosmic evolution.
As it turns out, there are insuperable problems in trying to explain, via some mode of design-free evolutionary theory, how the first cells could have arisen. Nobel laureate biochemist Francis Crick, codiscoverer of the helical structure of DNA, has even remarked, “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” The enigma drove Crick to offer a nonevolutionary solution to the origin of life, the theory of panspermia, the belief that intelligent aliens seeded life on earth.
Others, such as Dawkins, lapse into an irrational faith in the powers of chance to avoid an ID inference. While Dawkins agrees with Crick that the origin of life is a miracle, by that he means a miracle of chance. But Dawkins believes that anything can be explained by chance, even a miracle. Speaking of a marble statue, Dawkins (with a straight face) argues that “if, by sheer coincidence, all the molecules [in the hand of the statue] just happened to move in the same direction at the same moment, the hand would move. If they then all reversed direction at the same moment the hand would move back. In this way it is possible for a marble statue to wave at us. It could happen.”
Of course, one would have to be insanely wedded to materialism and have more faith in the powers of chance than any theist has in the powers of God to believe an actual waving statue was not a miracle. With this faith in the random jostling of molecules, Dawkins sees no trouble in believing (even without evidence) that a materialist miracle occurred, albeit he knows not how, allowing for the rise of the first living cells. Such faith, however, is not evidence itself but a telling lapse into a materialist credo quia absurdum est.
Now What? Now Where?
I have spent quite a few words trying to show that the ID movement is both larger than its well-publicized and strongly criticized attempts to question Darwinism and also that it is justified in publicly and strongly criticizing Darwinism. I believe that this analysis allows us to see the merit of the work done so far by ID proponents Michael Behe and William Dembski. Behe’s wonderful arguments about the irreducible complexity of biological structures (Darwin’s Black Box) show clearly that biological fine-tuning is a real problem for Darwinism precisely because of the discovery of the unfathomable complexity of even the smallest biological structures. Dembski (most recently, No Free Lunch) has declared war, so to speak, on the kind of irrational reliance on chance all too characteristic of Darwinism and seen all too clearly in Dawkins. Such reliance, we recall, is rooted in the desire to eliminate the design inference in biology, and Dembski’s arguments are essential to removing such irrational obstacles.
Where is the ID revolution headed? Time will tell. But it’s a young movement, after all. As with all scientific and philosophical revolutions—so also with ID—one is not able to predict what this mode of scientific inquiry will discover.
Of course, I have not answered all questions one might have about ID theory. Exactly how is it related to theology? To philosophy? To morality? Happily, the kind editors of this fine magazine have given me the opportunity to answer those questions in a future issue.
Benjamin D. Wiker is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists. He is a lecturer in theology and science at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
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