Is Intelligent Design identical to Creationism?
Confusion abounds concerning what ID (Intelligent Design) is and isn’t. So, we must be careful to clearly define it. The media, for the most part gets it wrong by calling ID a form of Creationism (we will discuss the difference below). And opponents of ID label it Creationism for rhetorical reasons so as to paint ID with the same ignorance brush as those who still believe the earth is flat. So instead of engaging with the scientific evidence marshaled by ID scientists and philosophers,[i] DE (proponents of Darwinian Evolution) resorts to name calling and institutional bullying. To get at the truth, here are some definitions straight from leading ID proponents.
William Dembski argues that the basic claim of ID is that “there exist natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural causes and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to design.” For example, imagine you are driving through the mountains and all of the sudden you come across a rock face that demands your attention—it is different than the others. Whereas wind and erosion can account for the random appearances of most of the mountains you have seen that day, it cannot account for the four shapes embedded in this rock face. Why not? Because there is a recognizable pattern of intelligence that went in to the formation of this mountain. This becomes obvious by the fact that there are four specific shapes / patterns matching the faces of four former presidents of the United States (Mt. Rushmore). The natural inference here is not to the blind and unguided natural processes of wind and erosion but rather to design.
Consider another example from the science of Archaeology.[ii] When archeologists excavate sites and sift through dirt, how do they distinguish between authentic artifacts and rocks? Answer: they look for marks of design or what Dembski calls Specified Complexity (highly improbable patterns). Now what happens when scientists apply this same principle to biology at a molecular level? Michael Behe did just that and observed that some systems (e.g., Bacterial Flagellum) cannot be accounted for by blind natural selection.[iii] In fact, he concluded from his research that the most probable inference for the origin of irreducibly complex systems is design. A system is irreducibly complex if “it consists of several interrelated parts for which removing even one part destroys the system’s function.” If this concept is still a little fuzzy think of a mouse trap. What is necessary for a mouse trap to work is its having all the parts (wood, spring, cheese, latch etc.) working together. But it is not as though a block of cheese catches some mice, so adding a spring would catch more, then adding a block of wood would catch even more. The point is that the individual components serve no function by themselves. It is only when they function together as a whole do you get a beneficial function. Charles Darwin in 1859 admitted that “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not have possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” That is quite a statement! Dembski pinpoints the crucial issue, “the point is whether nature (conceived as a closed system of blind, unbroken natural causes) can generate specified [or irreducible] complexity in the sense of originating it when previously there was none.” After one hundred and fifty years, it does not seem that it can. So by Darwin’s own admission, his theory is breaking down. It should also be noted that as we learn more and more about the complexity of the cell and DNA, the problem is only going to get worse for DE.
It is imperative to recognize that ID is not making a claim based on religious presuppositions. On the contrary, scientists have observed the relevant data and inferred design as the best explanation. Gaps exist in the understanding of molecular biology that DE has no way of bridging according to their theory. ID does have an explanation. As noted above, DE is stuck with the problem of where information comes from and how it is transferred (See Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell). ID has an explanation for this, inferred from the data, as well. These systems and organisms appear designed because they are designed. Now to be sure, ID research has religious implications but it is not religious in nature. It does not claim to say who this designer is or what he is like—that is a question for Theology and Philosophy of Religion to debate. ID is not Creationism in sheep’s clothing adorned with fancy vocabulary.
[i] I include philosophers as well, because it is actually impossible to separate scientific inquiry from philosophical assumptions.
[ii] We could also talk about cryptology or the SETI project (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence—regardless of what you think about this, these scientists are assuming that intelligence can be recognized—like a series of prime numbers 1,3,13 etc. [see the movie Contact]). So if Scientists know what does and doesn’t count as intelligence, then why the hesitance to apply that understanding to what they observe in biology?
[iii] Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).