Cover story article

Intelligent design

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The divine comedy
Icon creationism.svg
Running gags
Jokes aside
Blooper reel
Evolutionism debunkers
For a look at some of the "controversies" around ID, see Intelligent design and academic freedom
Try this experiment if you ever find yourself talking to a proponent of ID. Say, "OK, for the sake of argument let's say evolution is wrong and let's forget about it. Now tell me how intelligent design works." Having tried this a few times myself, I am confident that you will be met with nothing but an awkward silence.
—Amanda Gefter[1]
But ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. 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 J. Gould, “The Panda’s Thumb”[2]

Intelligent design creationism (often intelligent design, ID, or IDC) is a pseudoscience that maintains that certain aspects of the physical world, and more specifically life, superficially look designed, and hence were designed, by an intelligent being (usually, but not always, the God of the Christian religion). Although the concept is pre-scientific, it only really came into common circulation after the 1980's.

Supporters of intelligent design (termed design proponents, less respectfully, IDiots) usually claim that the idea is not based on Christian creationism, although the existence of the Wedge Document is a pretty big hint that there is a link, and a now-infamous epic editing fail in an early draft of the ID textbook Of Pandas and People also accidentally revealed the God man behind the curtain. Although it attempts to present itself as a form of agnostic creationism, it is made abundantly clear that intelligent design in its various incarnations inevitably invokes a God, and as such, is inherently religious. Attempts to have ID taught in public schools have been defeated in court, and science papers proposing a "designer" usually cannot get past peer review — although not for reasons of prejudice against the subject matter.

Intelligent design is widely criticised for its failure to state what mechanism drives it, its lack of falsifiability, and many other problems that leave it lacking as a scientific theory. Where it has faced the scrutiny of the law, the US court system (apparently the only one to have considered the question) has appeared to consider it a form of Old-Earth creationism, making its teaching in public schools constitutionally impermissible under the Supreme Court's holding in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987).


Use of the terms "creationism" versus "intelligent design" and "design proponent" in sequential drafts of the book Of Pandas and People
Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates are the same thing. Like a clown and a clown carrying an umbrella.
—David Thorne[3]

The concept of the world and its creatures and people having been intelligently designed is a very old one, central to creationism and common to many of the world's religions. It is one of the oldest themes of philosophy, having been explored by Plato and Aristotle. In Christianity, the concept of intelligent design by a creator is perpetuated by the Biblical account of the creation. That the world and its creatures aren't just the product of, but actually evidence of, intelligent design is known as the teleological argument or argument from design. It is used more frequently in modern times than previously, particularly after the complexity of the biological cell was realised. One famous example was William Paley's 1802 use of the "watchmaker analogy," which posits that the complexity of natural life must be the product of an intelligent creator in the same way that a watch must be the product of a watchmaker — and specifically that it is possible to tell the difference between designed and non-designed objects intuitively.

The term "intelligent design" emerged much more recently than the design argument itself. It had been used occasionally during the twentieth century, but was popularized after the aforementioned 1987 legal case of Edwards v. Aguillard, in which "creation science" was ruled to be complete bollocks a religious concept, and therefore unfit to be taught in public schools under American constitutional law. Subsequently, many aspects of creation science were rebranded as "intelligent design", which is ostensibly a non-religious concept since its adherents claim that it leaves open the question of who the designer might be.


Do you see how all proponents of intelligent design eventually sound just like Kent Hovind if you listen to them long enough?
Professor Dave[4]

The Discovery Institute has taken the lead in promoting intelligent design, and urging for it to be incorporated into public education. The Discovery Institute's Wedge Document specifically states that the intelligent designer is the Christian God, thus undercutting the claims that the intelligent design movement is not strictly religious. In the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case (2005), the Court found that intelligent design was primarily religious and fostered unnecessary entanglement of church and state. The Court further found that intelligent design is not science. As Thunderf00t later noted, the Discovery Institute abruptly altered its stance in light of Kitzmiller, claiming that it considered Intelligent Design a valid scientific theory but did not advocate its integration into public school curricula.

Scope and definition[edit]

The theory of evolution by natural selection deals only with the question of how organisms develop and form new species. Logically it can have nothing to say about the origin of the universe or the origin of life. It appears that some of the more, shall we say, scientifically-minded believers in ID attempt to constrain themselves similarly and claim no more than God somebody is controlling evolution. Others however go further and claim that ID explains not only the origin of life but even the origin of the universe. This expansion in the claimed scope of the theory is probably caused by two things:

  • If you see ID as a code word for "God" then the temptation to ascribe all of existence to "ID" is very strong.
  • There is a common misconception among fundamentalists about what evolution actually is. For many, any scientific theory is an example of evolution and, to compete, ID must be capable of including anything which they erroneously believe evolution includes.

There is also a difference of opinion about what is actually involved biologically in ID. Again, for the more scientifically-minded it is simply evolution which is guided by God and common descent is fully accepted. For the more fundamentalist believers it is equivalent to progressive creationism in which complete new species are periodically created by God someone. It is patently absurd for something which is presented as a scientific theory to be so lacking in any clear definition of scope and definition. (A reader who takes a close look at the pro-ID description of Expelled will notice a number of these contradictions.) The contradictions exist as a consequence of the fact that ID attempts to include so many creationist ideas under the guise of science.

During an interview with R. C. Sproul, Ben Stein defined intelligent design as the "hypothesis" that "an all-powerful designer" created the universe, including living things in their present forms.[5] John G. West and Casey Luskin have compared this hypothesis to the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. They have concluded that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection."[6] They refer to their conclusion as "the scientific theory of intelligent design."[7]

Does their conclusion transform the intelligent design hypothesis into a "scientific theory"? No. A scientific theory, by its own merit, cannot be based on "all-powerful designers" or other supernatural causes (unless their existence can be shown by evidence, in which case, they cease to be supernatural and are merely unexplained). Their conclusion that intelligent design is the "best" explanation is an example of a propaganda technique called "assertion."[8]

Scientific evaluation[edit]

[T]he most credible philosophical argument against ID being treated as science is to point out the absence of any positive specification of its fundamental concepts, intelligence and design[.] ... The basic claim is that, in the absence of such a specification, ID cannot be a substantive theory, scientific or not. In the case of intelligence, there is no positive specification at all. In the case of design, there is no coherent specification.
—Sahotra Sarkar[9]
I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that’s comparable.
Phillip Johnson[10]
Some, reasoning that science admits it is fallible, but that God (or the Vedas, or the Buddha) cannot be wrong, decide to jettison science instead. In this camp we find creationists, and Intelligent Design theorists like William Dembski.
—Mark Owen Webb[11]


An outstanding issue of intelligent design is what mechanism the hypothesized "designer"[12] uses to initiate design diversity. According to the theory of evolution, this mechanism is genetic mutation resulting from environmental stresses and point mutations caused by the cellular chemical environment. As of this time intelligent design supporters have yet to offer a plausible mechanism to which diversity can be attributed that differentiates from the mechanisms listed by the theory of evolution. As such the intelligent design proponents have yet to offer any empirical evidence to support the claim of a designer.


ID proponents such as Michael Behe promote hypotheses such as "irreducible complexity" as evidence for their ideas. Irreducible complexity posits that there are certain organs and structures found in nature that have no convincing gradual evolutionary pathway, and are too complex to have come about in whole by chance. These ideas are hotly disputed (or dismissed as non-science) by scientists, but regardless of their truth value they do not constitute evidence for an intelligent designer. Proponents of intelligent design make an assumption unwarranted by the evidence in that their logic goes along the lines of "The origins and diversity of the species cannot be accounted for by evolution and natural selection alone, therefore there must have been a designer involved."

The very lack of positive scientific evidence suggesting that there is a designer involved in creating life raises the question of how the design hypothesis came about. Opponents of the design hypothesis would suggest that proponents are religiously motivated, and that their ideas are not about understanding how life came to exist but rather about promoting a particular religious world view — as espoused in the Wedge Document.

One problem with finding evidence for intelligent design is the inability to distinguish "naturally" evolved mechanisms from "designed" mechanisms. Nobody knows what the "design" of a supernatural creator looks like; how can we tell what was and was not designed?


There has also been no attempt to specify the periodicity of the miraculous interventions by the hypothesized "intelligent designer". In other words, the hypothesis does not state if the miraculous interventions take place annually, monthly, daily, or only when the designer feels that miraculous intervention is necessary.


See the main article on this topic: Falsifiability of creationism

ID proponents have yet to demonstrate that their idea is even remotely scientific by identifying what they believe could falsify it.

In fact, we await with interest any submission from supporters of this concept which would elevate it to the realms of science. Our article on what could disprove intelligent design remains embarrassingly void of valid arguments.


Slightly better educated supporters of ID sometimes complain that the theory of evolution lacks any mention of, or generally accepted hypothesis about, abiogenesis. It is of interest, however, that versions of ID which pretend to be science also lack any such mechanism — though the unstated assumption is that it was the work of God.

The objection also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory of evolution, which does not propose an explanation of how life started. It merely describes what happens after some form of life is extant.


IDers have come up with some ideas as to how ID works and why ID is true. They're unequivocally flawed.

Irreducible complexity[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Irreducible complexity

Irreducible complexity is the idea that there are things in nature which are so complex that they could not have evolved, but must indeed have come directly from Santa's workshop Jehova's drawing board. This concept is not only false on its own terms, but also relies on the prior assumption that complexity entails design.

While the IDiot phase of the Creationist movement was accompanied by a marked increase in the outright reliance on technobabble, this stylistic change didn't come without its fair share of overhead. And speaking of complexity for complexity's sake — today, it would be considered unwise to construct one's central thesis on the basis of the supposed ability to 'rationally measure' (never mind define) "complexity" in the very same context wherein intentional cascades of technobabble are relied upon to obfuscate the many flaws otherwise apparent in the arguments presented.

Ergo, the design inference ultimately rests on a conception of "complexity" with the crystal clarity of a physically derivable comparative absolute quality of an essentially abstract relational property of relative particulars.[note 1]

Designed by whom?[edit]

Actually God did intelligently design a creature for the cage, only it was designed in such a way that it could get out of the cage.
—Michael Behe, grasping at straws while failing to understand how the burden of proof works[13]

Behe raises the issue of a "new age force" or "space aliens" being the causal agent.[13] Others have made the object of their complaint naturalism, while the name "Intelligent Design" does not suggest the supernatural. An intelligent designer need not be supernatural, and the supernatural need not be an intelligent designer. Genies are not "teleological" - they fulfill your wishes without concern for the consequences, and a magic ring can be used for good or evil. And, of course, humans, other intelligent animals and (presumably) space aliens are not supernatural. In order to solve a complaint about the "random" in evolution, one is looking for a goal-directed (a possible sense of "intelligent") agency, and whether or not it is supernatural is irrelevant. While in resolving a complaint that sciences are improperly ignoring supernatural causes, intelligence is not required.

Almost all proponents of intelligent design have promoted theism, arguing that the creator must be God. Many "Young-Earth creationists" advocate for ID (somewhat ironically, since none of the prominent promoters of ID dispute the scientific consensus on the age of the Earth - Jonathan Wells, for specific example, has used the Cambrian explosion, which he claims (as do many more-credible scientists) occurred hundreds of millions of years ago, as a "dramatic refutation" of evolutionary biology). Such YEC-supporters use ID to rebut the theory of evolution, and, by extension, the facts that support it. They generally take the position that evolution through natural selection and physical forces and principles alone are not solely responsible for the current diversity of life on earth. However, some believers in "Old Earth creationism" believe intelligent design to be the guiding mechanism behind theistic or "guided" evolution.[14]

The intelligent-design argument is not inherently incompatible with atheism: even if one accepts that the complexity of nature proves an intelligent designer, it does not logically follow that the "designer" has the characteristics of a god or is worthy of worship. Some (largely obscure) intelligent-design theories conjecture that life on earth could have been cultivated by intelligent extraterrestrial beings. Francis Crick (1916-2004) is sometimes cited as an example of an atheist ID-proponent, since his concept of directed panspermia arguably shared some concepts with ID. Crick later partially retracted his claim based on an what he called an overly pessimistic model for abiogenesis.[15] The Raëlians constitute a less scientific example of atheistic ID-proponents - their belief that all life on earth is the creation of ancient astronauts posits intelligent agency but does not (necessarily) attribute divinity to the designer.

Some ID proponents honestly acknowledge that their critique is informed by a rejection of methodological naturalism (by which physical science examines the world) and consequently cannot be science. Others are a bit more evasive, but the overwhelming majority of scientists dismiss intelligent design as pseudoscience.

Ironically, most intelligent design proponents appear to consider the idea that aliens designed everything on Earth as "silly", which is strange considering extraterrestrial design has the following advantages over God-based design:

  • Not scientifically impossible (assuming that FTL or time-dilating travel technologies exist). No superstitious or supernatural elements that couldn't be duplicated by any "normal" being (one clearly and objectively bound by the laws of nature) are assumed.
  • Doesn't necessarily conflict with evolution. Even in a designed ecosystem evolution could still occur and nothing prevents the aliens from having evolved normally themselves.
  • A plethora of reported sightings, carvings, photographs, radar signatures, all of which (regardless of their authenticity) provide a lot more evidence than the number of sightings and photographs of God.
  • Explanation for mistakes, illness, nature's cruelty etc. Since physical beings do not have any obligation to be "all-perfect" or "all-loving", and are by definition not all-powerful, aliens get a free pass on all of that.

Proponents of intelligent design sometimes make the leap from "design" (the abstract concept) to a designer (a singular agent). However, the theory of design, as well as the tradition of design (dating back at least as far as Aristotle) and the experience of contemporary design practice can all emphasize the role of design teams.[16][17] If the metaphor of intelligent design implies a divine creation, the implied divine system suggests a metaphorical polytheism of multiple designers rather than the monotheism of a single designer.

Intelligent design also suggests an obvious research program that proponents do not follow through on. It proposes that an intelligent designer has/had a technology or ability to create new types of living things. This sounds like something that would make current human technologies involving genetic modification of organisms obsolete. This technology would appear to have obvious commercial potential for the people lucky enough to reverse-engineer this process. And it sounds like fun to play with. Given this, the apparent lack of curiosity among ID advocates about the tech used by the intelligent designer to create living things from scratch is disappointing.

Front Loading[edit]

In order to reconcile the ID hypothesis with the fact that billions of years ago only unicellular organisms existed, the ID advocates have invented the idea of "front loading" which is that ALL the features of every single organism that exists today were loaded into the original single-celled organism by the Intelligent Designer billions of years ago, somehow, so that they would eventually emerge at some point in the future, thus allowing what appears to be evolution to happen.

The old argument against front loading is genetic decay. If the genes were loaded into the DNA but were not used until billions of years later, mutations would rapidly destroy them. This happened for example to the Y chromosome. The ID rebuttal to this argument is that the genes which were originally loaded into the unicellular organism were useful for a different purpose, and that the intelligent designer somehow foresaw that the genes loaded were going to be adapted to perform a different function (this is known as exaptation). The only way to verify this hypothesis of course is to find an organism that contains every single gene of every single organism on the planet. Nobody has ever found such an organism.[18]

Compare front loading with the 18th century theory of PreformationWikipedia, that each individual exists with its major organs formed within the bodies of its ancestors back to the beginning of creation.

Legal issues in education[edit]

Teaching the controversy.
See the main article on this topic: Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District
If we are going to teach creation science as an alternative to evolution, then we should also teach the stork theory as an alternative to biological reproduction.
—Judith Hayes

No appellate precedent exists by which to judge the legality of teaching intelligent design in public schools. However, in the landmark district federal court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Judge John E. Jones III ruled that given that the policy of teaching intelligent design was supported by religious rhetoric, it amounted to a teaching of religion by the state, in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Intelligent design was "religion" because, in the legal language applied, a reasonable person (based on the events surrounding the policy's adoption) could have concluded that it had the purpose or effect of establishing a particular religion. In short, when a school board tries to teach intelligent design, the level of religious rhetoric is directly related to the likelihood of its unconstitutionality under the Lemon v. Kurtzmann test.

This precedent, and the correlation it establishes between religious rhetoric and the likelihood of any intelligent design policy being found unconstitutional, will be vitally important in heading off future school boards which attempt to teach intelligent design as "science." Intelligent design's "wedge" appeal rests on its attempt to characterize itself as non-religious, after all. Fortunately, the idea that intelligent design is non-religious is being rebutted on a practically daily basis... by its own proponents.

Consider a Kentucky schoolteacher who sought to teach intelligent design to her seventh grade biology class. The teacher curiously taught the "scientific theory" as something practically indistinguishable from creationism, complete with flood geology and young earth chronology.[19] The school board, after being made aware of the same by the ACLU, and the likely legal troubles it would face, terminated its tacit approval of intelligent design.

Additionally, the leading light of intelligent design, Michael Behe, is only able to publish his pro-intelligent design theories in one scientific journal - Philosophia Christi - the proceedings of the Evangelical Philosophy Society.[20]

And finally, the "movie" Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which bills itself as describing how intelligent design is systematically excluded from academia for no other reason than bias, describes intelligent design in its own advertisements as "creationism."[note 2]

Wedge strategy[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Wedge strategy

Intelligent design is strongly pushed by the Discovery Institute as part of the wedge strategy as outlined in the Wedge Document in their attempt to create a sciency-sounding version of creationism. It is roundly rejected by most scientists on the grounds that it has no peer-reviewed publications of any standards, and has produced no positive evidence for its claims. The wedge strategy itself is to create a public furor over the concept of "teaching the controversy." In the real scientific world, of course, there is no such controversy over the facts and theories underlying modern concepts of evolution.

To date, intelligent design has been officially introduced into exactly one school district - and there, it tore apart the community, cost the school board millions of dollars, and was eventually thrown out after the Kitzmiller trial. Although intelligent design is always a "Trojan horse" for creationism - that is to say, creationism with a new name and a few obfuscating principles - there is a sliding scale of how egregious and visible the disguise is. Some people actually believe it to be real science (albeit erroneously), while others use it as a clear pretext for preaching, er, teaching creationism.

In the Kitzmiller case, the disguise was patently obvious. "Intelligent design proponents" there sought to have the book Of Pandas and People, a creationist screed, taught as part of a new "intelligent design" curriculum at the local Dover public high school. ID supporters hoped to prove at trial that the book was legitimate science, and not creationism. However, there was one slight problem - the book was a book about creationism, with the words "creator," "creationism," etc., merely replaced with "designer," "intelligent design," etc. by a basic word-processor "find/replace" function. The ruse was made glaringly obvious by spelling errors like "cdesign proponentsists."[21]

Further reading[edit]

  • Not Very Intelligent Design Too: Planet Earth, a perfect place for human life? Neel Ingman (2020, Palaceno House) ISBN 978-0473473969
  • The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not Abby Hafer (2016, Lutterworth Press) ISBN 978-0718894207
  • Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement John Brockman (2006, Knopf Doubleday) ISBN 978-0307277220

See also[edit]

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Unintelligent design.
Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Incompetent design.

Intelligent alternatives[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Notably, cdesign proponentists have never been able to work their favorite buzzword, "complexity" — be it 'specified' or 'irriducible' — into anything remotely resembling basic applicability — let alone internal coherency. And not for lack of trying, either.
  2. See our article on the "Leader's Guide" to the movie.


  1. Tracing the fuzzy boundaries of science by Amanda Gefter (2010-05-19) New Scientist.
  2. “The Panda’s Thumb” (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980), 20-21.
  3. Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates are the same thing. Like a clown and a clown carrying an umbrella. by David Thorne (12:30 AM - 21 Sep 2009) Twitter (archived from July 30, 2014).
  4. Exposing the Discovery Institute Part 3: Michael Behe by Professor Dave Explains (Sep 23, 2022) YouTube.
  5. A discussion between R. C. Sproul & Ben Stein about evolution, and the movie "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed".
  6. The Theory of Intelligent Design: A Briefing Packet for Educators, page 4, column 1, paragraph 7.
  7. The Theory of Intelligent Design: A Briefing Packet for Educators, page 4, column 1, paragraph 1.
  8. Propaganda Techniques: Assertion.
  9. page 302 in Sahotra Sarkar, "The science question in intelligent design", Synthese, volume 178 number 2 (2011), pages 291-305, doi 10.1007/s11229-009-9540-x
  10. quoted in "In the matter of Berkeley v. Berkeley" by Michelangelo D’Agostino
  11. Hizmet, Religious Knowledge, and Scientific Education. by Mark Owen Webb (2016) Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais 31(90):9-16.
  12. Should we capitalize "designer," since we all know who they think He is?
  13. 13.0 13.1 "The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis," Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), p. 165. See: Is Intelligent Design Theory Really an Argument for "God"?, by Casey Luskin
  14. See, for example, "Progressive Creation: An Overview" at
  15. Orgel LE, Crick FH (January 1993). "Anticipating an RNA world. Some past speculations on the origin of life: where are they today?" (PDF reprint). FASEB J. 7 (1): 238–9. PMID 7678564.
  16. For example: Cockton, Gilbert (2018). "Way Back to Some Design Futures: Aristotle's intellectual Excellences and Their Implications for Designing". Critical Theory and Interaction Design. Cambridge. Massachusetts: MIT Press. p. 302. ISBN 9780262037983. Retrieved 14 February 2022. "By placing character at the heart of all intellectual excellences, Aristotle places designers center stage [...]. [...] there can be no episteme in place until nous directs attention to potential interactions [...]. Such nous can only come from a design team. Design needs designers. Without designers' nous, episteme will remain useless and will never add to sophia." 
  17. Chang, Kuang-Hua (2015). "2.5: Decisions in Engineering Design : Game Theory". Design Theory and Methods using CAD/CAE. Computer aided engineering design series. Amsterdam: Academic Press. p. 67. ISBN 9780123985163. Retrieved 14 February 2022. "In engineering design, design decisions are often not made by a single designer or a single design team. Instead, multiple designers or multiple design teams are working on the product design and are involved in design decision making, with each designer or team being responsible for one or more design objectives and/or sub-systems." 
  18. Dispatches from the Creation Wars: Exaptation vs Front Loading: Why Evolution Wins by Ed Brayton (June 8, 2007) Science Blogs (archived from November 22, 2012).
  19. "Intelligent Design Deployed in Kentucky" at Panda's Thumb.
  20. Michael J. Behe, The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis: Breaking Rules, Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Volume 3, Number 1, p. 165 (2001).
  21. PBS, "NOVA: Judgment Day, Intelligent Design on Trial."