How Bright is the Future of Intelligent Design? - Evolution News & Views

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How Bright is the Future of Intelligent Design?

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In past years, on the December 20 anniversary of the publication of Judge Jones's ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover, we've often posted something about the decision. Inevitably, some critic says that after all this time we're still "obsessed" with the Dover case. The charge is ironic. It's the Evolution Lobby, not Discovery Institute, that talks about Dover incessantly, reliving a pyrrhic victory that struck down a version of "intelligent design" that was little more than the invention of ID's critics. We'll have more to say on that in a future article.

Anyway, some of us who write for ENV got a laugh this past Wednesday morning when we arrived at the office and someone pointed out that it was the sixth anniversary of the Dover ruling -- the previous day. As Maxwell Smart might say, we had missed it by that much. Nobody at Discovery had even noticed. So I do humbly apologize for the delayed post commemorating Dover.

Why did we forget about Dover? Because it hardly matters. Contrary to the hopes and expectations of the Darwin lobby, the post-Dover years have seen ID's scientific and cultural footprint grow only more prominent and impressive.

Critics of ID who fume on the Internet, preach in university classrooms, and feign knowledge and authority in the media love to proclaim that the ID movement is dead. As their story goes, in 2005 a federal judge ruled in the Kitzmiller v. Dover lawsuit that ID is religion and thus unconstitutional to teach in public schools. This supposedly dealt a "deathblow" to the ID movement, which according to critics, has since lost momentum and all but dissipated.

This tall tale may reassure the barons in the ivory tower that they need no longer fear the barbarians at the gate. But those who actually follow the ID movement and know the facts about the debate understand that the critics' preferred narrative could not be further from the truth.

ID's Scientific Renaissance
Despite what you hear -- or don't hear -- from critics (especially those in the media), the past 5 to 10 years have been a boom period for pro-ID scientific research and peer-reviewed scientific publications.

You could trace the current boom back to 2004, when Discovery Institute senior fellow Stephen Meyer published a groundbreaking paper explicitly advocating intelligent design in the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Now, in 2011, the ID movement has reached another landmark with the publication of its 50th peer-reviewed pro-ID scientific paper. We'll have more to say on that soon. But this is a milestone that undeniably speaks to the scientific progress of ID.

There are multiple hubs of ID-related research producing these papers.

First, there's Biologic Institute, headed by molecular biologist Doug Axe, which is "developing and testing the scientific case for intelligent design in biology." Biologic conducts both laboratory and theoretical research on the origin and role of information in biology, the fine-tuning of the universe for life, and methods of detecting design. Its research topics include:

  • Building and testing computer models that study the ability of unguided mechanisms, compared to intelligent causes, to produce new information.
  • Examining the cosmological, physical, and biological fine-tuning required of life.
  • Investigating the ways that humans go about designing complex structures so scientists can recognize the hallmarks of design.

Another ID research group is the Evolutionary Informatics Lab, founded by senior Discovery Institute fellow William Dembski along with Robert Marks, Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. Their lab has attracted graduate-student researchers and has published multiple peer-reviewed articles in technical science and engineering journals showing that computer programming "points to the need for an ultimate information source qua intelligent designer."

There are other pro-ID scientists around the world publishing peer-reviewed pro-ID scientific papers. These include biologist Ralph Seelke at the University of Wisconsin Superior, Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig who recently retired from the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Germany, and David Abel and his colleagues at of the Origin of Life Science Foundation.

Another productive researcher is biochemist Michael Behe at Lehigh University. In 2010, he published an article in the prestigious journal Quarterly Review of Biology arguing that Darwinian evolution tends to destroy or diminish molecular functions rather than building them.1 This followed his article with physicist David Snoke in the journal Protein Science showing that the Darwinian evolution of a simple bond between two proteins would be unlikely to arise in multicellular organisms if it required two or more mutations to function.2 In 2008, Behe and Snoke's critics tried to refute them in the journal Genetics, but found that to obtain only two specific mutations via Darwinian evolution "for humans with a much smaller effective population size, this type of change would take > 100 million years." The critics admitted this was "very unlikely to occur on a reasonable timescale."3

In 2010, Doug Axe published another peer-reviewed research paper which seemed to confirm Behe and Snoke's results.4 He presented calculations modeling the evolution of bacteria evolving a structure that required multiple mutations to yield any benefit. Making assumptions that were exceedingly generous towards Darwinian evolution, he found that molecular adaptations requiring more than six mutations to function would not arise in the history of the earth.

Research published by molecular biologist Ann Gauger of Biologic Institute along with Ralph Seelke provided empirical backing to the claims of Axe and Behe. Their team started by breaking a gene in the bacterium Escherichia coli required for synthesizing the amino acid tryptophan. When broken in just one place, random mutations in the bacteria's genome were capable of "fixing" the gene.5 But when only two mutations were required to restore function, Darwinian evolution could not do the job. Likewise, a 2011 paper by Axe and Gauger found that converting one protein into a closely related protein -- the kind of transformation that evolutionists claim happened easily in the history of life -- would require at least 7 mutations.6 This confirms that there is too much complex and specified information in many proteins and enzymes to be generated by Darwinian processes on a reasonable evolutionary timescale.

There's one additional important note about Axe and Gauger's paper. It was published in BIO-Complexity, a journal that "aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life." With over two dozen PhD scientists on its editorial board in fields such as biochemistry, evolutionary computing, evolutionary biology, microbiology, cladistics, and physics, BIO-Complexity appears uniquely poised to make a significant contribution to the scientific debate over ID.

Together, these labs and individual researchers have published peer-reviewed pro-ID scientific papers in journals such as Protein Science, Journal of Molecular Biology, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, Journal of Advanced Computational Intelligence and Intelligent Informatics, Quarterly Review of Biology, Cell Biology International, Rivista di Biologia/Biology Forum, Physics of Life Reviews, Annual Review of Genetics, and multiple others. Collectively, this body of research is converging upon a consensus: complex biological features cannot arise by Darwinian mechanisms, but require an intelligent cause.

As more ID research is published, more heads are turning in the scientific community. Many of those heads belong to up-and-coming young scientists. Since 2007, Discovery Institute has hosted summer seminars where undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences and humanities from around the world have learned about ID from leading theorists. (For details, see To date, well over 100 students -- many of them future faculty members and researchers -- have graduated from the program with a deep understanding of ID's bright scientific prospects.

ID's record shows it deserves -- and is increasingly receiving -- serious consideration by the scientific community. This is seen too in the fact that pro-ID research conferences have taken place worldwide over the past few years where pro-ID scientists have presented their research in fields such as genetics, biochemistry, engineering, and computer science.

Hardcore ID-critics, of course, have no interest in acknowledging ID's scientific successes. Back in March, journalist Lauri Lebo (a card carrying member of the Darwin lobby) blithely declared "there is no such thing as ID research, which has not yet produced one single legitimate peer reviewed paper." The purpose of ID's research programs is not to convince unconvincible critics like Ms. Lebo. Rather, ID research seeks to engage open-minded scientists -- and thoughtful laymen -- with credible, persuasive, peer-reviewed, empirical data supporting intelligent design. And this is happening: the scientific progress of ID is cauing skeptics in the scientific community to increasingly turn their heads towards ID, attend private scientific conferences with ID proponents, and engage in serious scientific dialogues. You won't know it from reading the New York Times, an NCSE-staffer blog, or Judge Jones's manifesto, but ID has already gained the kind of scientific legitimacy we'd expect from a young (and vastly underfunded) scientific field. With scientific productivity leading the way, ID's future is looking bright.

Alas, the kind of folks who are still waving the banner of Kitzmiller over their heads probably will never admit to ID's progress. Like Rick in Casablanca, they'll always have Dover.

References Cited:

[1.] Michael J. Behe, "Experimental Evolution, Loss-of-Function Mutations, and 'The First Rule of Adaptive Evolution,'" The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 85(4):1-27 (December 2010).

[2.] Michael Behe & David W. Snoke, "Simulating Evolution by Gene Duplication of Protein Features that Require Multiple Amino Acid Residues," Protein Science, Vol. 13 (2004).

[3.] Rick Durrett and Deena Schmidt, "Waiting for Two Mutations: With Applications to Regulatory Sequence Evolution and the Limits of Darwinian Evolution," Genetics, Vol. 180: 1501-1509 (November 2008).

[4.] Douglas D. Axe, "The Limits of Complex Adaptation: An Analysis Based on a Simple Model of Structured Bacterial Populations," BIO-Complexity, Vol. 2010(4):1-10.

[5.] Ann K. Gauger, Stephanie Ebnet, Pamela F. Fahey, and Ralph Seelke, "Reductive Evolution Can Prevent Populations from Taking Simple Adaptive Paths to High Fitness," BIO-Complexity, Vol. 2010 (2).

[6.] Ann K. Gauger & Douglas D. Axe, "The Evolutionary Accessibility of New Enzyme Functions: A Case Study from the Biotin Pathway," BIO-Complexity, Vol. 2011(1) (2011).

Photo credit: Tattooed JJ.


Sorry that it took me a few days to get to the comments--the Christmas holiday took precedence. I think Ven asks an interesting question:

"it's still disheartening to see the idealogical disdain and contempt that many reputable scientists have for it. What seems to be the problem?"

Sure, ideology plays a role in some opposition to ID. But speaking from experience, the most common reason that the average anti-ID scientist opposes ID is because he/she has been told much misinformation about ID.

Certain anti-ID lobbying groups like the NCSE work hard, going around to scientific conferences and writing articles, promoting myths about ID. These myths include: (1) ID is nothing more than warmed over creationism, (2) ID is simply a negative argument against evolution that appeals to the supernatural, (3) ID isn't science, (4) ID has no scientific research, or (5) ID has no peer-reviewed publication.

Those who follow ID are well-aware that each these claims are false. However, in 2005 the NCSE managed to give some credence to these false myths about ID when one federal judge (Judge John E. Jones) bought their false version of ID and attacked it into the Dover ruling. As I explained in this article in this end-of-the-year series, Judge Jones's ruling "gave an easy out to critics who were hoping for a convenient way to dismiss intelligent design (ID)". This is especially true for people who were already looking for an excuse to dismiss ID, and thus take the "Judge Jones Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It" approach to ID.

So where does that leave us? As I explained long ago here, scientists generally fall into 1 of 3 categories with respect to ID:

Type I Critics: These are informed critics of ID. Many of these people genuinely believe in the false myths about ID. But Type I critics have a clear-cut task ahead of them: the best way for them to defeat ID is to keep putting out misinformation about ID.

Type II Critics: These are uninformed scientists who oppose ID. In my experience, the vast majority of scientists who oppose ID fit into this category. They are tragically uninformed about what ID really is, and oppose a false version of ID that only exists in the minds of Type I critics. All they know about ID is what they heard Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller, or Barbara Forrest say at some scientific society conference, or what they read in some editorial published in a journal that uncritically rubber-stamped the Dover ruling. These scientists oppose ID, but they know nothing about ID beyond the misinformation they have been fed about it. This cutesy diagram explains a little about how this "misinformation-train" works.

In my experience, these Type-II critics are informed about the true nature of ID, they are much more open to it, and they feel it's much more credible than what they had heard. If their minds are open, they're often surprised to learn how misinformed they had been. They are also glad to have had their minds opened.

There are many scientists like this out there, but it often takes a lot of patience and a winsome attitude to help them open their minds to the fact that nearly everything they knew were told ID was wrong. For many scientists, unfortunately, it’s much easier and safer to just stay in the dark about ID.

Type III Supporters: These are informed scientists who support ID. Many scientists who take the time to investigate ID will immediately learn that it's a very promising theory which is (1) different from creationism, (2) a positive argument which respects the limits of science and only appeals to an intelligent cause, (3) meets any rigorous definition of a scientific theory, (4) has a vibrant research program, (5) and publishes peer-reviewed research. People who investigate ID quickly learn that every one of the Dover myths is demonstrably false. Thus, many Type III supporters used to be Type II critics who had their minds opened.

The encouraging news here for ID proponents is that the reason many scientists reject ID isn't because they are actually rejecting ID. They are rejecting a false version of ID they heard from some Type-I critic. We can be encouraged that when people understand what ID truly claims and is, it's compelling.

This also means that the best way for ID to gain traction is for the ID movement to continue to correct that misinformation and educate people about what ID actually is. If you're thinking "It sounds like we're in for a long battle of correcting misinformation and getting out the facts about ID," then you're absolutely right.

Ven closed with another useful question:

How has Professor Behe's 2010 article arguing that "Darwinian evolution tends to destroy or diminish molecular functions rather than building them" been received by the scientific community? Do critics simply appeal to the "anything can happen given vast periods of time" style of arguing?

Actually, the response to Behe's 2010 paper in Quarterly Review of Biology (QRB) illustrates the type of uninformed rants against ID that often appear in journals. In the same issue where Behe published his 2010 article in QRB, the journal also published a would-be rebuttal to Behe.

While Behe's paper is measured, carefully argued, and restrained and cautious in its conclusions, the rebuttal to him was full of outlandish rhetoric, bold sweeping conclusions, and cursory analysis. His critics used fallacious logic and ignored the facts to claim that Behe borrowed his ideas from creationists; they ignored Behe's arguments and wrongly claimed Behe "switches" his definition of irreducible complexity when convenient; and they appealed to an argument against irreducible complexity that (as far as I could tell from their paper) lacks any biological relevance. For more details on the rebuttal to Behe's critics, please see:

• Quarterly Review of Biology Publishes Outlandish Rhetoric Against Intelligent Design as Penance for Behe's Paper
• Behe's Critics Use Faulty Logic to Allege Creationist Connections to the Origin of Irreducible Complexity
• Michael Behe's Critics Misunderstand Irreducible Complexity and Make Darwinian Evolution Unfalsifiable
• Behe's Critics' Scaffolding Falls Down

So this is apparently how critics responded to Behe's paper in QRB. Thanks for the comments, and happy new year.


It's great to see that intelligent design is making headway in the scientific community. But it's still disheartening to see the idealogical disdain and contempt that many reputable scientists have for it. What seems to be the problem? Is it so repulsive to follow in the footsteps of Newton, Linnaeus, Copernicus, and countless other pioneers of science in viewing life as a product of purposeful design?
I feel there still needs to be much more progress, especially in the area of irreducible complexity. What sort of biological structures can be classified as irreducibly complex? Is it just at a molecular level, or does it extend to higher level tissues/organs? Many seem to think that simply pointing out several organisms with varying levels of complexity refutes irreducible complexity. If I were to argue that a jet engine with all its intricate inter-dependent, irreducibly complex parts were a product of intelligent design, could that argument be refuted by pointing out a variety of engines from the earliest most simplistic ones to the ones found today? No...because each one of those has to be designed by a rational intelligent being with a grasp of physics & engineering.
As for genetic research, I feel that too has to be much more rigorous -- given a finite time, say the 4.5 billion years that the earth has been around, what would the probability be of a single protein (say with 100 amino acids) evolving in that time period somewhere on the planet? The odds I would imagine are vanishingly small, but I don't know what the math would be behind it. How has Professor Behe's 2010 article arguing that "Darwinian evolution tends to destroy or diminish molecular functions rather than building them" been received by the scientific community? Do critics simply appeal to the "anything can happen given vast periods of time" style of arguing?

Well, once my contribution(s) to the movement get underway I hope both the awareness and acceptance of ID becomes more widespread in my area. To think that today is the fourth anniversary of me becoming permanently interested in this debate; boy has time flown.

And Dover? Hard to say whether that harmed the "IDM" Jones decided to rule against or if it actually made people more aware of ID in the years that followed. The Scopes trial didn't stop undirected evolution from gaining a following, so perhaps Dover really should be taken lightly as well.

While it may not have garnered much attention until long after Fred Hoyle began to formulate the roots of ID as we know it today, I think it's far from dead.

If anything it's just getting started...

By the way, this might come in handy for anyone who wants an education in a field relevant to ID but does not wish to go about getting a full degree:

Wish this option was around before I started college. Of course, MIT's new certification won't make you a tenured professor somewhere in the foreseeable future. But for any origins junkie on either side this could turn out to be useful.

Hi Casey,

thanks for all the good work this year.

For all the interesting argument over such topics as the fossil record, protein homology, c-values, vestigial parts, biogeography, so on and so forth... It seems to me that the matters at hand are most simply 'boiled down' to the questions Behe and Axe have focused on - At the molecular level, do 'step-wise' pathways to new functions exist? Are the steps traversable by evolutionary mechanisms?

To that end, your discussion with Nick Matzke on the origin of 'Sdic' was particularly interesting amongst this years ENV articles.

I hold four degrees in such diverse areas as Medical Technology, Philosophy, classical languages and Accounting/Tax and am now a CPA.

What a joy to read every day in e-mails from Discovery Institute that Darwinian Evolution has way overstated its case over the past 150 years. The whole idea that such complex systems as man, plants and animals all evolved by chance and natural selection never set well with my intellect. Behe, Johnson, Demski, Berlinski, Klingenhoffer, Luskin, Wells, Richards, et al, have surely demonstrated how intelligence can easily be detected in bilologic functions.

If we know that it would be impossible for the parts of a car to somehow come together in the right order merely by chance, how much harder is it for us to believe that man, plants and animals (and the underlying DNA structures) came together by mere chance and natural selection?

No wonder that we get such wierd statements from people like Hawking and Dawkins that ultimately life arose "spontaneously" out of nothing [didn't Aristotle say, "Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit"? (out of nothing nothing can come)] or was planted here via some other aliens from another planet (Panspemia).

You tell me which theory is more incredible - Darwinism or ID?