What is intelligent design?

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Below in the left column is the Discovery Institute's page on "What is Intelligent Design?"[1] In this side-by-side analysis, we look at their definition and commentary.[2]

Definition of Intelligent DesignIndeed, What is intelligent design?
What is intelligent design?

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds 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. Through the study and analysis of a system's components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.

See New World Encyclopedia entry on intelligent design.
The first sentence makes intelligent design (ID) sound like a movement, emphasizing the people involved in intelligent design and their actions; this doesn't start well since science involves ideas and evidence. The second sentence has more weight to it, referencing the natural world. It's not clear why the universe is in this sentence; Michael Behe, William Dembski and Stephen C. Meyer, arguably the three most prominent proponents of ID have stuck to biology. Many have argued before that while natural selection may be "undirected" that there is a certain deterministic component to it, as some organisms have genetic predispositions that make them less able to survive in their environment, and that the genes for these organisms are no longer in the gene pool after a few generations. More importantly, what cases have the ID proponents described that unambiguously are cases of ID? All of the examples from Behe's Darwin's Black Box book either have been verified to have evolutionary roots or have been merely shown to require more research. William Dembski has described mathematical algorithms than bear no relationship to biological systems; certainly he has never applied them to a biological system. It's also unclear why the Cambrian explosion is cited here: other than Meyer's debunked assertions about the increase of information during this time period, what evidence is there for an intelligent agent's participation? Certainly without more text, it is difficult to determine if there has even been any evidence considered.

The New World Encyclopedia is a biased source, as it was created by the Unification Church. For example Jonathan Wells is a member of both the Discovery Institute and the Unification Church.

In all there is very little in the way of a definition that can help a reader determine what is design research and what isn't design research, which makes for a problematic definition.

Is intelligent design the same as creationism?Depends on what you mean by creationism.
No. The theory of intelligent design is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the "apparent design" in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. Creationism typically starts with a religious text and tries to see how the findings of science can be reconciled to it. Intelligent design starts with the empirical evidence of nature and seeks to ascertain what inferences can be drawn from that evidence. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design does not claim that modern biology can identify whether the intelligent cause detected through science is supernatural. Honest critics of intelligent design acknowledge the difference between intelligent design and creationism. University of Wisconsin historian of science Ronald Numbers is critical of intelligent design, yet according to the Associated Press, he "agrees the creationist label is inaccurate when it comes to the ID [intelligent design] movement." Why, then, do some Darwinists keep trying to conflate intelligent design with creationism? According to Dr. Numbers, it is because they think such claims are "the easiest way to discredit intelligent design." In other words, the charge that intelligent design is "creationism" is a rhetorical strategy on the part of Darwinists who wish to delegitimize design theory without actually addressing the merits of its case.While intelligent design does not use a particular god in its formulation, it is clear that there must be some supernatural agent involved in "directed" process of intelligent design. Is the Discovery Institute implying that there were beings that were farming species during the Cambrian explosion? Are the physical intelligent agents not around any more and they don't involve themselves with today's organisms? At some point we must ask who these beings are.

Certainly ID proponents have never excluded the supernatural from their explanations. And the sentence in the Wedge Document that says that a goal of the ID movement is "To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God" shows that there is a lot more going on here. Besides, there always is the infinite regress of "who designed the designer?" to deal with.

The text states:

  • Intelligent design starts with the empirical evidence of nature and seeks to ascertain what inferences can be drawn from that evidence.
If ID were no more than this then it would not really differ from conventional science. But in reality an investigative method called "Intelligent Design" has clearly already reached its conclusions (that the world was intelligently designed) and is really in the business of cherry-picking the data to see what it can find to support its pre-formed conclusion.

Is intelligent design a scientific theory?No.
Yes. The scientific method is commonly described as a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion. Intelligent design begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can be discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures to see if they require all of their parts to function. When ID researchers find irreducible complexity in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed.If irreducible complexity is testable, where is the experiment in which a population develops an irreducibly complex structure with no precursor? Certainly Michael Behe, the leading proponent of irreducible complexity, has not done so. Certainly organisms must adapt to the deactivation of a gene, which is the experiment described here, but it is not clear that the now less fit population will follow the same path back to a more fit population. Organisms can, in fact, survive with these less functional genes, so is this then really irreducibly complex? And if the organism dies, does this say anything about intelligent design? In reality, new genes have been discovered having arisen from evolution, and organisms have adapted to their environments, all without the need to invoke a designer. As for the overall question as to whether ID is scientific, it's not clear why the ID proponents start with intelligent agents; should they not be starting to look at biological systems? If anything, CSI is an analogy that ID proponents attempt to apply to biology, when it is not clear that they can. And since ID researchers have produced no non-trivial results and certainly no peer-reviewed publications that link the designer to the observations, it's unclear how ID is science.


  1. What is intelligent design? Discovery Institute — Center for Science and Culture
  2. Parts of this side-by-side analysis were inspired by a blog post at the Sensuous Curmudgeon.