Intelligent Design (hereafter, ID) is a view of nature older than Plato. Cambridge University philosopher David Sedley finds design (i.e., purposeful agency, rooted in mind, or nous) posited as the cause of the world, in Anaxagoras (c. 520-428 BCE). In its most recent incarnation, however, ID is still an obstreperous early 20-something, which to many observers has failed to earn its self-professed status as a scientific theory. ID appears to these critics to be a disreputable and noisy late adolescent.

Consider, for instance, the question motivating the present Sapientia dialogue. While at first blush the question may seem reasonable—after all, doesn’t everyone know that ID has failed to make its case to the grown-up scientists in the room—on closer inspection, we can locate three buried assumptions within it that need to be challenged:

  1. The religious motivations of ID scientists repel mainstream scientists.
  2. Mainstream scientists, by contrast, do not themselves possess religious motivations influencing their scientific work. That absence, in fact, is what the adjective “mainstream” denotes in this context: no extra-scientific biases affecting one’s empirical reasoning.
  3. Because of (1) and (2), mainstream scientists largely ignore ID: the idea has failed to “gain traction.”

Let’s start with the last assumption, (3), and work our way backwards.

More Than You Think

Mainstream Scientists Largely Ignore ID: The Idea Has Failed to “Gain Traction”

Now, if by “gaining traction,” one means “winning acceptance or endorsement from major science organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, or the National Academy of Sciences,” then of course ID has not gained traction. But no one expected that to happen any time soon, and if, or when, the day of such official acceptance arrives, exchanges like this Sapientia dialogue will be remote objects vanishing in the rear view mirror. The debate will long be over.

If, however, by “gaining traction” one means “thinking about or paying close attention to something,” then as a young idea (in its modern form, anyway), ID has done remarkably well for itself. Francis Crick often quipped about his “gossip rule”—namely, that what scientists gossip about also turns out to be what they really care about, whether the idea is orthodox or not (e.g., already present in the peer-reviewed literature). Philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn have observed that if a scientist working within the dominant paradigm takes the time to criticize, in depth, an upstart or minority viewpoint knocking at the door, or changes his research focus to address the worries raised by that minority view, then the engines of scientific debate have already been fully engaged. No biologist who spends years working on a detailed reply to ID arguments, and publishes it in the best science journal he can find, can claim in the same breath that “Oh, I ignore all that ID silliness—it’s not worth my serious attention.”

Serious scientific attention? ID has already gained it, in spades, much of which I witnessed first-hand. In October 2005, for instance, at the national headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC, I walked into a standing-room-only auditorium with hundreds of audience members, to hear a lecture by evolutionary theorist Christoph Adami of Michigan State University. Adami and his colleagues had recently published a major article in the journal Nature, “The evolutionary origin of complex features” (May 8, 2003), whose first sentence reads as follows:

A long-standing challenge to evolutionary theory has been whether it can explain the origin of complex organismal features.

Notice the passive voice here. The “challenge to evolutionary theory” floats serenely alone in the atmosphere, as if it happened to materialize spontaneously there one fine morning, not brought forward by any discernable agent or person.

But that wasn’t the story at the AAAS event in 2005. Adami opened his talk by showing a slide with the dust jacket of Michael Behe’s 1996 pro-ID book, Darwin’s Black Box. It was Behe’s design-based challenge to neo-Darwinian mechanisms that required a scientific response, Adami said, because if Behe was right, evolutionary theory was in trouble.

Adami is hardly alone in paying serious attention to ID arguments. When Joseph Thornton, now a professor of evolutionary genetics at the University of Chicago, burst onto the biology scene in 2006 with a publication in the AAAS journal Science, claiming to show the evolution of an irreducibly complex system (hormone receptors), he situated his experiments precisely in the context of responding to Behe’s ID challenge. “Dr. Thornton,” reported the New York Times (April 7, 2006), “said the experiment refutes the notion of ‘irreducible complexity’ put forward by Michael J. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University . . . our findings show that [the hormone-receptor system] is not irreducibly complex.”

The reader may be objecting that these responses to ID, whether successful or not, do not show the steady advance of ID into science, but rather the very opposite: scientists are trying to keep ID out. Which brings us to the second assumption, mentioned above—science itself is philosophically or theologically neutral, and ID’s putative failure stems from its manifest theological motivations.

We’re Not the Only Ones

Mainstream Scientists Hold No Extra-Scientific Biases That Influence Their Empirical Reasoning, Whereas ID Scientists Do

Not only is this assumption false, it is spectacularly false. What evolutionary theorists are trying to keep out of historical biology is not theology, because they have been employing it with abandon since 1859. What they want to repel are evidence-based approaches, such as ID, which do not assume their preferred theologies.

Evolutionary theory since Darwin has been the most theologically entangled science in the academy. Few biologists realize this, however, because the theological premises at work are so widely shared by their colleagues that those premises have become all but invisible. Consider the following, for instance, from the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould:

Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution—paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1980), 20.

In March 1990, during a conversation in his office at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, I asked Gould about this claim, specifically in the context of his favorite example, the giant panda’s pseudo-thumb. He denied that the claim was theological, but based on a comparative functional analysis of the pseudo-thumb against the human thumb.Every science, if one digs deeply enough, rests on assumptions that cannot be proven, but must be assumed to investigate anything at all. Yet nothing he said could eliminate the theology (and, in any case, the comparative analysis he cited does not exist). Once one has called upon “a sensible God” to derive an empirical conclusion from one’s theory—i.e., the “proof of evolution”—the invoked deity will not go away, but sets up housekeeping in that same theory. The “sensible God” is still living there in evolutionary reasoning, in fact, as you are reading this.

Thus, on my office shelves, I see Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press, 2010), by National Academy of Sciences geneticist John Avise, where “God wouldn’t have done it that way” is the core argument. Evolutionary biologist and atheist Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True (Norton, 2009) devotes an entire chapter to “imperfect design,” because “perfect design would truly be the sign of a skilled and intelligent designer.” There are other examples, too.

Every science, if one digs deeply enough, rests on assumptions that cannot be proven, but must be assumed to investigate anything at all. So the problem is not the existence of unprovable assumptions, even theological assumptions, underlying evolutionary theory.

The problem is restricting those assumptions to materialist or physicalist philosophies, garnished—profoundly inconsistently, to be sure—with the shallow theology of “God wouldn’t have done it that way.” We can do better.

Which brings us to the last point for discussion:

Weigh the Evidence, Not the Motivations

The Religious Motivations of ID Scientists Repel Mainstream Scientists

Everyone has a nose; everyone has motivations. Evolutionary biologists often exhibit anti-theistic motivations, but so what? What matters is the evidence and how best to explain it. Motivations constitute a sideshow, which, if distracting enough, inevitably becomes a destructive fallacy (i.e., the genetic fallacy), culminating in an orgy of irrelevant accusations and motive-mongering. Science and logic then lie neglected.

TheEvolutionary biologists often exhibit anti-theistic motivations, but so what? What matters is the evidence and how best to explain it. wisest critics of ID, such as University of Wisconsin philosopher of science Elliott Sober, never say a word about motivations. They focus on arguments. When a critic of ID says, “But I saw you going into church on Sunday!” one can be sure they have forgotten what matters, and can safely be ignored.

Mainstream scientists have not adopted ID. Wait, that’s not true—some have (see the accompanying essay by Günter Bechly, for instance). But, ultimately, this too is a distraction: counting noses and opinions to see what direction the science herd is heading in, does not, and indeed cannot, tell us how to evaluate the truth claims of ID. Anyone who waits for a safe majority of ID proponents as a demographic trend, before making up his mind, is not doing science. He is taking a poll, which may be interesting, but has as little to do with truth and understanding as the local barometric pressure does on any given day.

If mainstream scientists are put off by the motivations of ID theorists, that’s their problem to sort out. Science is as science does.