Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Creationism and Intelligent Design

The recent rise in popularity of the intelligent design movement has attracted the interest and ire of laymen and scientists alike. Many of these men and women consider their criticisms to be in defense of what they consider good science, and see themselves as crusading against the forces of anti-intellectualism and ignorance. In particular, many of these figures, so zealous for the faith, misunderstand what they are fighting against. Indeed, many people writing the anti-Intelligent design literature are condemning it for being creationism in sheep’s clothing. Conversely, many anti-evolutionists are whole-heartedly embracing the ID movement as a sort of messiah for high education. While there are similarities between ID and creationism, they are significantly different and deserve to be treated as such.

There are three points on which ID and Creationism must be differentiated. The first is that they have very different theses. The second has to do with the identity of the designer. The last point is the role that natural selection plays in the development of life. The difference in these two positions will ultimately show that while Creationism is a kind of Intelligent Design theory, Intelligent Design does not automatically entail Creationism.

The first point has to do with the main theses of both theories. The main thesis of intelligent design is that there are, in the natural world, some complex systems that cannot be explained by purely naturalistic means. Inference to the best explanation suggests that some intelligent agent was responsible for the design of such complex systems and thus was designed. In short, purely naturalistic theories are useful and sufficient in most cases, but do not sufficiently explain everything.

The central thesis of Creationism is that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis provides man with a literal, historical account of how life came about and developed. The evolutionary natural selection contradicts this account, and therefore, it cannot be true. The key point is that God is the creator of everything and that Genesis accurately tells us how he did it.

The difference is clear: Intelligent design is concerned with complexities in nature that cannot be explained solely on the basis of natural selection and simply posits that a designer is responsible. Creationism is advancing the position that a supernatural entity, God, created the world and the life in it according to a specific reading and interpretation of a Christian text. Clearly these are not the the same theses.

Intelligent design theorists posit no identity of the designer. As far as they are concerned, the designer could be anything from advanced extra terrestrials to time-traveling scientists. While the designer could be God, and many ID proponents, such as William Dembski, believe it is, the theory does not, at least explicitly, rest on the assumption that the designer is God. The identity of such a designer is not relevant to the ID theory and is thus either down-played or ignored by ID proponents.

Creationism clearly articulates who they believe to be behind the design of Creation. This being is God, who has revealed himself to mankind through the Judeo-Christian tradition. He is attributed omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. Further, he commands all men to believe in him and conform their will to his.

Again, the contrast between ID and Creationism is clear. ID is silent on the identity of the designer, and Creationism clearly and boldly articulates who is behind creation. As stated above, it is not impossible for the Intelligent Designer to be identical with the Judeo-Christian God, and ID proponents such as Dembski believe that to be the case. However, it is not the case that ID necessarily entails Jehovah God as the designer. ID proponents have been clear that the designer’s identity is not essential to their theory.

The last point of contrast, and the most important one, has to do with the relation of natural selection to ID and to Creationism. In Intelligent Design, natural selection accounts for almost everything in nature. They do not argue that everything was intelligently designed, but that only certain irreducibly complex systems were specifically designed. However, there is little room for natural selection in Creationism. God directly creates every kind of creature, and thus, there is nothing for nature to select. While more recent Creationists have allowed for some natural selection to take place, they insist that it can and does only happen on a micro-level, that is, within a species. So, God originally creates the dog species and through micro-evolution all of the various breeds are derived.

Creationism and Intelligent design are clearly not the same thing. Intelligent Design is concerned with proposing an intelligent designer to explain a few complex systems that they do not believe could have evolved naturally. Creationism is concerned with affirming the theological doctrine of special creation and a particular interpretation of the Genesis text. Further, ID makes no assertions about the identity of the designer, whereas Creationists firmly assert that the Judeo-Christian God is responsible. Lastly, intelligent design is not hostile to evolutionary natural selection and most proponents are comfortable with it accounting for much of the organs and organisms in nature, save for a few specific cases. Creationists have little room for natural selection, which contradicts their interpretation of Genesis, which calls for the special creation of all things, not the slow, gradual development of organisms over long spans of time.

There is one nuanced point the needs to be made: Creationism is a form of intelligent design. While this may seem to contradict the case I have just made, it does not. Intelligent design, as a theory, on its most basic level, holds that there is a designer who has a role to play in the development of life. Creationism, by virtue of the fact that it affirms that God designed the world and created life in it, meets the criteria for an intelligent design thesis. However, just as the small size of a room does not entail that the building the room is in is small, so too with Intelligent design: simply because one kind of intelligent design theory posits certain things does not entail that all intelligent design theories much posit the same things. It might be helpful to think of Intelligent Design as a meta-theory, and under this meta-theory, are several sub-theories that all meet the basic criteria of an intelligent design theory. One of these sub-theories is Creationism. Another is Intelligent Design, as the specific theory advanced by people such as Dembski and Behe. So, while Creationism and Intelligent design are taxonomically related, it is only in so far as they both posit that purely materialistic theses of life are insufficient and that there must have been an intelligent agent behind it.

Both evolutionists and creationists would do well to keep these distinctions in mind when discussing and debating the Intelligent Design issue. ID is not too different from theistic evolution, and so creationists who find such a thesis disconcerting and problematic do well to look more closely, and critically, at the specific claims of ID proponents. Finally, ID is not creationism, and for members of the scientific community to miss these important distinctions is puzzling, unless they are debating in bad faith and simply trying to poison the well of public opinion though misinformation.


BobC said...

Your "ID is not creationism" is very dishonest. ID is one of many versions of creationism. All versions of creationism, including intelligent design creationism, invoke supernatural magic, also known as God. Many proponents of ID don't want to talk about who the designer is because they are dishonest, and because if they admit the designer is God, they are admitting their intelligent design creationism is a childish idiotic religious belief in magical creation.

Intelligent design magical creation is most certainly not science. It was invented to disguise sky fairy magic to look like science, but scientists and educated non-scientists know it's nothing more than a belief in magic.

"Inference to the best explanation suggests that some intelligent agent was responsible for the design of such complex systems and thus was designed."

Here's an honest translation of your nonsense:

"Inference to the best explanation suggests that some MAGIC MAN was responsible for the MAGICAL CREATION of such complex systems and thus was MAGICALLY CREATED."

If ID proponents were not compulsive liars, they would rename "intelligent design" to "idiotic magic".

The constant lying of ID proponents has been going on for a very long time. Their compulsive lying was boring several years ago, and it's still boring today.

May I please suggest that you and other ID proponents grow up, educate yourselves, and face facts. Your stupid belief in magic and your constant lying about it has made America the laughing-stock of the Western world. It's about time for this childish idiotic nonsense to stop.

Jacob said...

Bob, I don't take too kindly to childish name-calling and I highly suggest you learn about something called respect, courtesy and civility before leaving any more comments on anyone's blog.

My logic is sound and you have failed to show where it breaks down.

ID does not necessarily invoke a supernatural. There are other possibilities that ID proponents freely acknowledge, such as time-traveling scientists and extra-terrestrials (the ET theory has been advanced by some evolutionary scientists, such as Francis Crick as well).

I am not an ID proponent and thus I don't feel inclined to defend its specific scientific claims. I am, however, a proponent of honest intellectual dialog and the mis-characterizations of ID by people such as yourself, who are either ignorant of the issues at hand or have ulterior motives for sowing disinformation is offensive.

John the Skeptic said...

The modern ID movement grew in the aftermath of the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Edwards v. Aguillard. The creationist provenance of the ID movement is meticulously documented in Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross.

Even more evidence for the true nature of ID as a stalking horse for creationism came to light during the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, which gave us the memorable neologism “cdesign proponentist”.

RandyT said...

Jacob, thank you for some honest discussion concerning Intelligent Design and Creationism. I am currently reading a book on Intelligent Design called The Design Matrix A Consilience of Clues by Mike Gene. The thing that amazes me is that the Author of the book believes in evolution and to a certain degree in Intelligent Design and it makes sense to me. If people can believe in God and the Bible and Evolution. Why can't people believe in Evolution and Intelligent Design? I am getting the impression more and more that the critics of Intelligent Design have no clue of what Intelligent Design is and this can be seen by the way they refer to Intelligent Design as Creationism. I have also seen the DVD called Unlocking the Mystery of Life and have yet to hear any legitimate criticism against the science that is set forth in the movie.

Jacob said...

I beg to differ.
In 1966, The Wistar Institute hosted scientists Schutzenburg and Murrary, who argued that it was mathematically impossible for Darwinism to account for small changes.
In 1967, Michael Polanyi publishes "Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry," arguing that DNA shows an order of complexity and meaning that cannot be explained by reductionism.
1969, Kenyon and Steinman write paper on Biochemical Predestination: http://www.iscid.org/encyclopedia/Biochemical_Predestination
1971 Norman MacBeth argues that Darwinist theory is a tautology.
1972: Grasse publishes "Evolution of Life," arguing that in spite of selection, no new species have been born.
1973: Orgel first uses term "specified complexity"
1981 Hoyle and Wickramasinghe argue for "evolution from space:"Arguing that life must have its source from somewhere other than earth to explain inconclusive work on origins.
1982: the Arkansas Creation battle

I could on. The fact remains that ID has independent root system from the Creationist movement.

I've looked at Gross and Forrest's book and found it to be shrill and reactionary. They wrote:
(1) [B]elief in the creation of the universe by a supernatural designer and (usually) the designer’s continuing intervention in the creation; (2) implacable anti-evolutionism, stemming from opposition to the scientific consensus on the evolution of the universe and life, such opposition being based on theological, moral, ideological, and political, but never scientific grounds; (3) criticism of all or most methodologies underpinning current scientific evidence for the evolution of life, without presenting for peer review any competing theory of origins; and (4) the most fundamental aspect of creationism: the explicit or implicit grounding of anti-evolutionism in religious scripture. (pg. 283)

Are these points true of many, if not most, Creationists? With a few qualifications, yes. But are these views the same as those advocated by intelligent design? Forrest and Gross think so: “ID meets all these criteria.”(283) Yet, Intelligent Design needs not agree with these points. As I noted in my post, ID theory does not conjecture on the identity of the designer, who need not be supernatural. Further, ID theory does not necessarily stand against evolution of life and universe, just the sufficiency of evolutionary explanations at a few certain points. Further, there need not be any grounding of ID theory in anti-evolutionism or religious scripture. While the case can be made that ID shares (3) in common with Creationism, this point alone hardly entails a correspondence between the two theories.

John the Skeptic said...

Regarding Randy T's comment, there have been quite a few assertions made in Unlocking the Mystery of Life that have been debunked.

One claim the producers made is that "Evolutionists propose that irreducibly complex systems can arise by co-option of parts from other existing systems. But approximately thirty of the proteins needed for the bacterial flagellum are unique to it; closely similar proteins are not found in other living systems. Thus, there is apparently no place they could have been co-opted from."

This is simply untrue, however. Of the twenty proteins in the representative Salmonella bacterial flagellum which appear to be required in all bacterial flagella, only two have no known homologies, that is, are "unique". Of course, there is no reason to believe that homologies for those will not be discovered later.

The existence of many homologous proteins shows that the parts of the flagellum can function for purposes other than motility.

John the Skeptic said...


Perhaps, then, you could explain the provenance of the phrase "cdesign proponentist"?

Jacob said...

By and large, most of the Anti-ID literature falls into this trap. I looked at a collection of Anti-ID essays in a volume called "Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement" and the authors are all fighting the "last war" against the creationists of the '80s. Seldom do they actually address ID and its actual arguments. So far the only Anti-ID representative who seems to honestly and civilly address the issue is Michael Ruse.

Jacob said...

Do you happen to have a link to that line in the case? While I read the Dover case back when it first came out, my memory, sadly, doesn't work too well remembering one-liners from two years ago.

John the Skeptic said...


The phrase "cdesign proponentist" was discussed in one of Dr. Forrest's expert reports, and I believe it was also discussed during her testimony.

The gist of her testimony was that Of Pandas and People had started out as a creationist text. Immediately following the Edwards decision, however, the authors systematically replaced "creationism" and its cognates with "intelligent design".

"Creation means that the various forms of life began abruptly through the agency of an intelligent creator with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc."

gave way to

"Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, wings, etc."

See generally Dr. Forrest's testimony, archived at

Of particular interest is the exhibit showing the word counts for the text strings "creationis" and "intelligent design" changed over time. You will paricularly note that there is a striking correlation between the features in this exhibit and the timing of the Edwards decision.

Jacob said...

Thanks for the link...I'll take a look at it.

John the Skeptic said...

Please . . . take your time.

Read the entire transcript of her testimony, because the heart of her testimony is that (i) ID is a form of creationism, and (ii) ID is essentially religious in nature. Her testimony, and her expert reports, go directly to the thesis of your posting. I think you will find that her testimony contradicts your posting.

The defendants in this case tried very, very hard to keep Dr. Forrest off the stand. They failed in that effort, and her testimony you see in this link.

But then, of course, the defendants had their opportunity to discredit her testimony. Defense counsel cross-examined Dr. Forrest, trying their best to show that her opinions were flawed. They had her on the witness stand, with all of the resources of the Thomas more Law Center (The Sword and Shield for People of Faith) behind them, to once and for all discredit the notion that ID is a form of creationism. This was the golden opportunity of the ID movement!

As you can see for yourself, they utterly failed. It was not surprising that Judge Jones relied heavily on Dr. Forrest's testimony in rendering his decision.

(By the way, I believe I was inaccurate in quoting the singular form "cdesign proponent". It appears that the neologism that actually appeared in the draft of "Pandas" was the plural form "cdesign proponentsists". I hope that did not cause you any confusion in trying to track that down.)

Jacob said...

I read through that testimony (and intended to do so again to make sure I didn't miss anything but I was either busy or didn't have the time or reliable internet connection).

Still, from what I did read, it seems like the problem is that the Pandas editors decided to play with the term ID as I describe it in the second-to-last paragraph of my original post (ID-As-MetaTheory). I would agree that the definition they gave of ID certainly fits the definition of creationism and I can't say I approve of such a swap in terminology.

However, I don't see how this proves that Intelligent Design (non-MetaTheory) is the same as Creation. If anything, to shows that some creationists decided to ride on the coat-tales of ID(Non-Meta) on the technicality that creationism is ID (MetaTheory).

As to the allegation that ID(non-Meta) is inherently religious, I still have to strongly disagree. I studied ID in a philosophy seminar in college and we went over over a whole lot of very technical and mathematic theory as set forth by Dembski. If you look through at the rest of my blog, you'll see I read and study a decent amount of theology, so I think I'd know what I was looking at if it'd been in what we looked at. I'd like to direct you to the specific texts we looked at (one was an anthology with essays from both Pro-ID(non-meta) and Anti, as well as Theistic Evolutionists and a fourth group that I'd never heard of that seemed rather obscure. Additionally, one of the professors involved in teaching the course (which included most of the philosophy faculty, a die-hard evolutionary biologist, a historian of science and some religion professors) took us through, as I said, the technical details of Dembski's ID(non-meta) arguments. Further, at the beginning of the course, the historian of science outlined the histories of both the creationism/creation science movement and the ID(non-meta) movement, and I honestly don't think the claim that ID(non-meta) is creationism holds.

psiloiordinary said...

My comment appears to have disappeared.

Lets try again.

I was asking how ID and Creationsim can be different when a text book on Creationism can be turned into a text book on intelligent design simply by replacing the word creationism with the word Intelligent Design?



Jacob said...

Hm....this is the only comment I have record of you leaving...strange...

I think the answer lies in the taxonomy. As I said in the second to last paragraph of the post, and in the comment that precedes your comment, Creationism and Intelligent design both fall under the Meta theory that you can call "intelligent design." In the same way, a house cat and a tiger are both felines, but there are differences between the two.

I can't say I agree with the change in terminology in the Pandas and People text book and it seems a little dishonest. However, I do not think that this is anywhere near proof that Intelligent Design (in the non-meta theory use of the word) is simply creationism by another name.

The distinctions are clear: ID (non-meta) does not claim to have any knowledge as to who or what the designer is, though admittedly, many proponents do think that designer was God. The key point, however, is that it is not necessary for it to be God. I could have been an advanced alien civilization. Further, creationism is hostile toward any macro-evolutionary processes, and ID is comfortable with natural selection accounting for almost everything but the few instances they see of irreducible complexity.

That even creationists are confused about ID is reason enough for me to emphasize the importance of keeping these distinctions.