INTELLIGENT DESIGN'S CONTRIBUTION TO THE DEBATE
OVER EVOLUTION: A REPLY TO HENRY MORRIS

 

By William A. Dembski

 

1 February 2005

 

In the spring of 1992, I had lunch with Michael Ruse during a symposium at Southern Methodist University. The symposium addressed Phillip Johnson's then recently published book, Darwin on Trial. Johnson and Ruse were the keynote speakers, with Johnson defending his critique of evolution, Ruse challenging it. My role, and that of several other speakers, including Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, Fred Grinnell, and Arthur Shapiro, was to contribute to the primary discussion between Johnson and Ruse. (The symposium proceedings, under the title Darwinism: Science or Philosophy? are available through the Foundation for Thought and Ethics at www.fteonline.com.)

 

During our lunch conversation, Ruse commented that for all his disagreements with the young earth creationists, and Henry Morris in particular, he did give them credit for, as he put it, "keeping this issue alive." The "issue" here was the debate over biological evolution and, in particular, the possibility of design providing a viable alternative to existing materialistic accounts of evolution.

 

My own experience has abundantly confirmed Ruse's remark. In traveling outside the United States, I've found that evolutionary theory goes largely unchallenged. In the United States, by contrast, there remains widespread skepticism toward evolution. And even though intelligent design has emerged as the most visible banner under which evolution is now being challenged, the challenge would not exist without the efforts of Henry Morris and young earth creationists.

 

I myself would not be a design theorist today without them. To be sure, I am not a young earth creationist nor do I support their efforts to harmonize science with a particular interpretation of Genesis. Nonetheless, it was their literature that first got me thinking about how improbable it is to generate biological complexity and how this problem might be approached scientifically. A. E. Wilder-Smith was particularly important to me in this regard. Making rigorous his intuitive ideas about information has been the impetus for much of my research.

 

In his book Darwin and Design (Harvard University Press, 2003), Michael Ruse makes clear that the key question in the debate over biological evolution is not whether evolution is progressive but rather how biological complexity originated. Creationists have always, and rightly, kept this question at the forefront.

 

For these reasons, I regard Henry Morris as a great man. I've met most of the leading lights associated with his Institute for Creation Research (e.g., Duane Gish, John Morris, and John Baumgardner). Moreover, I corresponded in the 1980s with the late A. E. Wilder-Smith. Unlike many Darwinists and theistic evolutionists, young earth creationists have been extraordinarily gracious to me, and I've always tried to return the favor. I therefore regret never meeting Henry Morris in person. I hope still to do so in this life.

 

Despite my disagreements with Morris and young earth creationism, I regard those disagreements as far less serious than my disagreements with the Darwinian materialists. If you will, young earth creationism is at worst off by a few orders of magnitude in misestimating the age of the earth. On the other hand, Darwinism, in ascribing powers of intelligence to blind material forces, is off by infinite orders of magnitude.

 

Still, it will not do to paper over our differences. Intelligent design and creationism diverge at some key points. Morris recently described how he sees the disagreement. This he did in reviewing my book The Design Revolution for the February 2005 issue of Back to Genesis (his review was titled "The Design Revelation"). I want here to respond to some of his charges and to give my own view on the divergence between intelligent design and creationism.

 

Criticism 1: Morris regards intelligent design as not faithful to the full Christian revelation. For instance, he is concerned that "many Christians now seem to think that [the intelligent design movement] has freed them from having to confront the Genesis record of a young earth and global flood." He sees intelligent design's focus on an unspecified designer--indeed, a designer who need not even be a theistic creator God--as disingenuous and a matter of expedience, done simply "to build a very large tent, allowing anyone except pure materialists to take refuge there." Moreover, he implies that intelligent design advocates are guilty of snobbery, stating that "ID advocates would be embarrassed" to be associated with young earth creationism's "Biblical literalism."

 

Response 1: Morris fails to address the fundamental issue here, namely, what is the proper scope of design-theoretic reasoning. In inferring design from aspects of the world, we are always looking at finite arrangements of material objects and events involving them. There is no way, logically speaking, to infer from such objects to an infinite, personal creator God. Thomas Aquinas understood this. Kant understood this. That's why intelligent design is not a biblical or religious doctrine. Morris is right that anyone except pure materialists can take refuge with intelligent design. This, however, should not be regarded as a bad thing. Creationism is a package deal, with a particular interpretation of Bible being part of the total package. Intelligent design, by contrast, is a partial truth, not the whole truth.

 

Morris, however, thinks that stressing this partial truth does disservice to the Christian faith. According to him, intelligent design is freeing Christians from having to confront the Genesis record of a young earth and global flood. But if Christians are ignoring Genesis, that's not a problem with intelligent design but with Christians not devoting sufficient care to biblical studies. Christians have an obligation to confront the Genesis record. But having confronted that record, must they end up where Morris and his colleagues end up? In particular, does confronting the Genesis record require interpreting it as teaching a young earth and a global flood?

 

Let me concede that young earth creationism was largely the position of the church from the Church Fathers through the Reformers (though there were exceptions, such as Origen and Augustine). Yet, during that time, church teaching also held that the earth was stationary. Psalm 93 states that the earth is established forever and cannot be moved. A literal interpretation of Psalm 93 seems to require geocentrism. And yet everyone at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) accepts the Copernican Revolution. Moreover, if literalism is the key to biblical hermeneutics, what are we to make of the seventh day of creation, the day of God's rest? Was it too a literal twenty-four hours in length? Many biblical scholars think that we are still in the seventh day.

 

This is well-worn ground, and young earth creationists have answers to these questions, just as those who interpret Genesis more figuratively have rebuttals. As Christians we have an obligation, as the Apostle Paul put it, to "rightly divide" (i.e., interpret) the Word of God. But what informs our interpretation of the Word? Clearly, our knowledge of the world plays some role. Our knowledge of physics from the 17th century on has made geocentrism no longer a viable option. In trying to balance the science of the day with the interpretation of Scripture, I therefore often come back to an observation of Charles Hodge. Early in his systematic theology, he noted that even though the Word of God is inerrant, our interpretations of it need not be; as a consequence, it can be a trial for the church when long-held interpretations are thrown into question.

 

Are Christians who advocate intelligent design being less than faithful to Christianity? Are we embarrassed to be associated with Biblical literalism? These questions are beside the point. Christians of many stripes are ID advocates, including biblical literalists who hold to a young earth. Non-Christians, too, are ID advocates. Biblical literalism is simply not an issue for intelligent design because the problem of explaining biological complexity holds independently of the age of the earth or one's interpretation of Genesis. Moreover, no one in the ID movement claims that ID is the Gospel. If you want the Gospel, read the Bible and especially the New Testament.

 

ID is part of God's general revelation. Consequently, it can be understood apart from the Bible. That's why, for instance, the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies invited me to lecture on intelligent design and warmly embraced my message (this happened in October 2003). Just about anyone who is not wedded to a pure materialism agrees that some sort of design or purpose underlies nature. Intelligent design not only gives a voice to these people, but also gives them the tools to dismantle materialism.

 

Dismantling materialism is a good thing. Not only does intelligent design rid us of this ideology, which suffocates the human spirit, but, in my personal experience, I've found that it opens the path for people to come to Christ. Indeed, once materialism is no longer an option, Christianity again becomes an option. True, there are then also other options. But Christianity is more than able to hold its own once it is seen as a live option. The problem with materialism is that it rules out Christianity so completely that it is not even a live option. Thus, in its relation to Christianity, intelligent design should be viewed as a ground-clearing operation that gets rid of the intellectual rubbish that for generations has kept Christianity from receiving serious consideration.

 

Criticism 2: Morris claims that intelligent design brings nothing new to the debate: "It is not really a new approach, using basically the same evidence and arguments used for years by scientific creationists but made to appear more sophisticated with complex nomenclature and argumentation." Morris notes that the bacterial flagellum, the icon of intelligent design, was used by the late Dick Bliss. So too, my use of the term "specified complexity" as a criterion for detecting design has, according to Morris, "essentially the same meaning as 'organized complexity,' which is more meaningful and which I have often used myself." And as for my universal probability bound of 10^(150), below which chance is precluded, Emile Borel proposed a less conservative one of 10^(50) and Morris himself proposed a bound of 10^(110).

 

Response 2: The debate between intelligent design and materialistic evolution is as old as civilization. Indeed, we can see this debate as far back as the ancient creation stories, some of which gave primacy to material forces and others of which gave primacy to intelligence (contrast the Babylonian with the Memphite creation stories; the former appealed to material forces, the latter to creative intelligence). We see it also at the dawn of western philosophy, in which Greek atomistic philosophers like Democritus, Leucippus, and later Epicurus, championed a materialistic evolutionary process, whereas others, such as Anaxagoras, Plato, and the Stoics, argued for an intrinsic intelligence or purposiveness underlying the material world. The current controversy over materialistic theories of evolution and intelligent design is the latest incarnation of this debate.

 

At issue in Morris's criticism, therefore, is what have been the relative contributions of scientific creationism and intelligent design to this debate. My own view is that Morris at once overstates creationism's contributions here and understates those of intelligent design. Take Morris's notion of "organized complexity." The concept attempts to grasp something that is beyond the remit of purely material factors and could only result from a designing intelligence. But how are we to give rigor to this concept? Does, for instance, a river, as it carves out a convoluted path, constitute an instance of organized complexity? And if not, why not?

 

The problem with creationism's approach to design detection and ruling out chance is that its relevant concepts (like "organized complexity") were never developed beyond the intuitive, pretheoretic level (and this is true even of A. E. Wilder-Smith's ideas about information). Morris confirms this charge near the close of his book review: "A school child can easily tell a rounded stone from a crafted arrowhead--one shaped by natural forces, the other by skilled human hands. Just so, the incredible organized complexity of even the simplest one-celled organism speaks clearly of intelligent design, and one should not need sophisticated rhetoric or math to recognize this."

 

But that's just the problem: the logic of design detection is not perspicuous and, at the hands of creationists, was never developed with sufficient rigor. Evolutionary biologists look at a cell and see the effects of material mechanisms, most notably natural selection and random variation. If Morris wants simply to say that these scientists are being willfully ignorant, instances of those who suppress the truth as in Romans 1, then there is no point even in introducing a concept like "organized complexity." In that case, Morris should simply say that the design in creation is self-evident. End of story.

 

By contrast, much of my own work on intelligent design has been filling in the details of these otherwise intuitive, pretheoretic ideas of creationists. For instance, I learned about Emile Borel and his universal probability bound of 10^(50) through the writings of the creationists. Indeed, I recall as an undergraduate reading on the Chicago subway a book by ICR associates Clifford Wilson and John Weldon debunking UFOs. That book had an appendix that examined the chance formation of the origin of life and mentioned Borel's universal probability bound.

 

Nonetheless, I found the probabilistic reasoning in the creationist literature incomplete and imprecise. For instance, authors often referred to the probability of the chance formation of a particular protein, but failed to note that the relevant probability was that of any protein that performed the same function (this is a much more difficult probability to calculate, and one with which recent ID research has been having some success). Another problem was taking the small probability of events as sufficient reason to rule out their chance occurrence without acknowledging that small probability by itself is not enough to rule out chance. What else is needed? In my theory of design detection, I argue that what's needed is a specification, that is, a type of pattern with certain mathematical and logical characteristics.

 

Hence, within my scheme, "specified complexity" or "specified improbability" becomes the key to identifying intelligence. This concept, however, is rigorously developed, as evidenced by the fact that my book on design detection was published as a research monograph with a mainstream academic publisher (The Design Inference, Cambridge University Press, in their series Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction, and Decision Theory--note that I cite the Wilson and Weldon book here). Morris's concept or organized complexity, by contrast, was never rigorously developed and is the reason that, to this day, it has no traction within the scientific community.

 

There is an irony in Morris claiming that intelligent design brings nothing new to the table. Intelligent design is turning the study of design in nature into a bonafide science. By contrast, making design into a science has rarely been a priority for creationism. A. E. Wilder-Smith's work constitutes an exception, though without the relevant technical expertise, he was not in a position to develop his ideas rigorously. Moreover, I remember in the late 1980s him complaining to me that ICR would no longer publish his books. Instead of emphasizing and developing work pertinent to design, creationists have tended to focus on other issues, such as dating the earth or accounting for geology in terms of a global flood.

 

To be sure, creationists have made arguments from complexity that attempt to demonstrate the incapacity of material factors to bring about biological forms. But they have also argued that neither creation nor evolution are scientific at all because no one was there at the key origination events in the history of life to observe what really happened. Moreover, creationists have at times explicitly identified design as an intuitive idea not subject to rigorous scientific formulation (cf. the 1998 edition of Junker and Scherer's creationist biology text Evolution: Ein Kritisches Lehrbuch, which toward the end of the book makes precisely this point). The bottom line is that intelligent design is methodically developing a line of research about which creationism has been ambivalent.

 

I've focused here on my own contributions to ID. But the work of my ID colleagues falls in this same pattern of, on the one hand, refurbishing old ideas and, on the other, charting new research paths. Morris aptly notes that Dick Bliss used the bacterial flagellum "in his talks on creation a generation ago." Yet, for an analysis of the probabilistic hurdles involved in trying to evolve the protein parts of a flagellum by purely materialistic means so that the parts properly mesh (i.e., so that their interfaces are compatible, which is a necessary condition for the parts to work together to form a functioning protein machine), you will need to look to the ID literature and, specifically, to a 2004 article in Protein Science by Michael Behe and David Snoke.

 

ID has pushed the concept of design considerably further than creationism. This is reflected in the ID publication record, which includes books with mainstream trade presses, monographs with mainstream academic publishers, and peer-reviewed articles in mainstream scientific journals. The same cannot be said for creationism. True, there are creationist scientists with stellar academic credentials and scientific careers (e.g., Raymond Damadian, who invented the MRI). But they have made their reputations by doing work that does not explicitly argue for creation or design. My colleagues in the intelligent design movement, by contrast, are explicitly arguing for intelligent design in the mainstream academic and scientific literature.

 

Criticism 3: Finally, I want to take up Morris's concern that ID is, as he puts it, "ineffective." According to him, it is "no more convincing to evolutionists than is young-earth creationism." Here he cites Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller, and Howard Van Till as scientists who remain "unimpressed" by intelligent design.

 

Response 3: If the criterion for intelligent design's success were whether it is accepted by people like Scott, Miller, and Van Till, then Morris's concern would have merit. But that is not the criterion for its success. ID's criterion for success is rather the following: whether its arguments are sound, whether its evidence for design is solid, whether its critique of materialistic accounts of evolution holds up, whether it is developing into a fruitful scientific research program, and whether it is convincing to people with no stake in the outcome of this debate. On all these points, ID is proving quite effective.

 

To see this, ask yourself why the hard-core opponents of ID, who Morris claims are "unimpressed" with intelligent design, nonetheless spend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to debunk it. Entire books in mainstream academic presses have now been written to debunk intelligent design (Forrest and Gross's Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, published by Oxford University Press, is just one example). The same cannot be said for creationism.

 

It's been said that the worst humiliation is not to be taken seriously. Despite their dismissive rhetoric, critics of ID are taking it seriously, and not just as a cultural force. Our scientific arguments are being challenged in the scientific literature. Critics may say that they are unimpressed, and, in their heart of hearts, they may feel that ID truly is nonsense. But it is pernicious nonsense. And like a hydra, it seems to keep growing new heads faster than the critics can lop them off.

 

Thomas Kuhn, in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, clearly taught us that the old guard is not going to change its mind. By being wedded to a failing paradigm, they suffer from the misconceptions, blindspots, and prejudices that invariably accrue to a dying system of thought. Intelligent design is forcefully pointing up those failures.

 

Thus, to determine ID's effectiveness, the people to watch are those in the middle, who are viewing the debate and trying to figure out what side they should come down on. Increasingly, I'm finding that they are impressed with ID as they never were with creationism. Take, for instance, the well-known former atheist Antony Flew, whose conversion to theism (albeit a weak form of it) recently made international news. What did Flew cite as a key factor in his conversion? Not creationism but rather design-theoretic arguments for the intelligent origin of life.

 

By limiting itself to the design question and not getting distracted with the Bible-science controversy, ID is engaging the culture in ways that creationism never could. Young earth creationists have tended to operate in well insulated enclaves. True, they have been the butt of much ridicule and attack from the outside, but by having their own schools and publishing houses, they have tended to be well-supported internally. Design theorists, by contrast, have squarely confronted the cultural mainstream (scientific, academic, and media). ID's voice is heard in places where young earth creationism is ignored.

 

But cultural engagement has come with a cost. Because ID advocates are unwilling to push design farther than its logic will go, we receive criticism from young earth creationists (Morris's criticism in his review of my book is mild by comparison with Ken Ham's). At the same time, the scientific and academic establishment has spared no effort to undermine, derail, and in some cases ruin the careers and efforts of ID advocates (my own case at Baylor has been widely publicized; I can provide details of numerous other cases; the fall-out from the article by Stephen Meyer that appeared in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington is the most recent case in point).

 

The Bible warns us to take heed if everyone is speaking well of us. In that case, ID advocates may have even less to worry about than young earth creationists.

 

I close with a story about Henry Morris's son John Morris, the president of ICR. In the spring of 2001, I was invited to give some talks at UCSD and in the surrounding area. John showed up at one of my talks, introduced himself, and invited me to visit him at the ICR campus. I took him up on his offer and visited the following day. He graciously showed me around and had me speak about intelligent design to the ICR scholars who were present that day (unfortunately, neither Henry Morris nor Duane Gish were in). Toward the end of my visit, John noted that ID fell short of a full creation model, but then commended ID for conclusively showing the bankruptcy of Darwinism. He was right. As a limited tool for dislodging materialism, developing the concept of design, and applying it to biological systems, ID is the best thing going. I would therefore like to encourage Henry Morris and all young-earth creationists to view intelligent design as a friend in the destruction of Darwinian materialism and in developing the scientific understanding of design in nature.