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Confusion at the Times Higher Education Supplement: Intelligent Design Theory is NOT Creationism

As we reported earlier this week, there were a number of articles equating intelligent design with creationism in the THES recently. Bruce Gordon, research director for Discovery's Center for Science & Culture, has written the following response to the THES, correcting their mistakes and outlining some of the key points of intelligent design theory.

In a spate of articles published on June 23rd in the Times Higher Education Supplement, (here, here, here, here, and here) Jessica Shepherd and Steve Farrar, perhaps unintentionally, have succeeded in spreading the misconception that intelligent design (ID) theory and young earth creationism are so closely allied as to merit being identified with each other. They are not the same. As a logically astute member of the British Cheese Board might tell you, being cheddar is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for being cheese. Similarly, being a young earth creationist is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for being an advocate of intelligent design. Most current ID theorists of consequence not only are not creationists, some of them aren't even theists.

The reason for this divergence is not far to seek. Young earth creationists are biblical literalists who circumscribe their approach to science by deduction from Holy Writ. Intelligent design theorists are scientists or philosophers of science who derive their conclusions inductively from the empirical study of nature, following the evidence where it leads without regard to antecedent constraints artificially imposed by theodical desiderata or philosophical naturalism. In this latter respect, ID theorists are more thoroughgoing in their scientific approach than, say, Richard Dawkins, who continues to promulgate his misunderstanding of science to the public from his bully pulpit at Oxford University. Dawkins' presuppositions are evident in his definition of biology as the study of complex living systems that "give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." ID theorists prefer not to preclude design as a possible explanation in given instances without first examining the evidence.

What sort of evidence do we have in mind? Consider an example: bacterial cells are propelled by flagellar motors that function as rotary engines spinning at up to 100,000 rpm. These miniscule engines look like they were designed by engineers since they are made of proteins that comprise distinct component structures serving the same mechanical functions as rotors, stators, O-rings, bushings, U-joints and drive shafts. As the biochemist Michael Behe has pointed out, this flagellar motor depends on the coordinated function of 30 protein parts and it will not work if even one of them is removed -- it is, in his terminology, "irreducibly complex." Since natural selection works (in neo-Darwinian theory) by environmental "selection" of functional advantages manifested in the phenotype that have arisen through random genetic mutations, it can select the motor once it has arisen as a functional whole, but it cannot produce it in the step-by-step fashion required by neo-Darwinism because every stage of lesser complexity is completely nonfunctional.

Our uniform and repeated experience tells us, on the other hand, that there is one and only one cause sufficient to produce irreducible complexity: intelligence. By putting intelligence forward as the causal basis for irreducible complexity in nature, ID theorists are therefore following a standard procedure employed across a spectrum of scientific explanations from particle physics and cosmology to neuropsychology: the postulation of something unobserved (and perhaps in principle never directly observable) as the best explanation for what is observed. Such "inferences to the best explanation" are standard in scientific theorizing and should be no more controversial in this case than elsewhere. Unlike creationism, therefore, ID is an empirically driven inference from biological data.

I could multiply examples, speaking, for instance, of the precisely sequenced nucleotides in DNA that constitute the four-character digital code for the construction of biologically functional proteins, and explaining in principled fashion why no theory of undirected chemical evolution can explain the origin of its informational content, but my point has been adequately made. Why, then, the continued conflation of ID with young earth creationism? Setting aside suspicions that this is a mere rhetorical move designed to discredit without the difficult work of confronting the evidence, perhaps it's because ID may give scientific aid and comfort to theistic belief -- and this despite ancillary issues of dysteleology. To reject the theory on these grounds, however, would be to ignore the evidence because of its implications, something even Dawkins would admit to be an error -- and that despite his pathological atheism.

What we are observing with ID is not a novel event in the history of science. Many astrophysicists and cosmologists initially rejected the Big Bang theory because it seemed to point to the need for a transcendent cause of the universe as a whole, but the scientific community eventually came to accept the theory because the evidence overwhelmingly supported it. A similar prejudice confronts ID today, but this new theory must also be evaluated on the basis of the evidence, not prior philosophical prejudice. As the distinguished British philosopher Antony Flew counseled after making world-wide news for repudiating his lifelong atheism in response to the evidence for ID: "we must follow the evidence, wherever it leads." Just so.

Bruce L. Gordon, Ph.D.
Research Director
Center for Science and Culture
Discovery Institute