The Problem with Intelligent Design

The evolution wars are about purpose in human life. But to focus on ID is to miss more interesting debates about Darwinism.

Reprinted with permission of the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science.

The English theologian William Paley wrote an influential book in 1802 entitled "Natural Theology: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature". Paley employed the metaphor of a watch discovered on a beach. One would not know who made the watch, but one could infer that there was certainly a watchmaker. In such a way, humans studying nature could also come to understand God as its creator and designer. This metaphor of nature as watch is perhaps one of the most famous metaphors in the philosophy of science and haunts us to this day, as we see in the current debates about "equal time" for Intelligent Design Theory in the science curriculum of public schools.

Today, some read the evidence of nature and find no evidence for the existence of a Deity. Richard Dawkins, the contemporary biologist, notorious atheist, penned a book with the title "The Blind Watchmaker". He argues that "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference". In the context of the warfare between evolution and creationism in the United States, the problem is perhaps less with believers who read the Bible as a literal account of Creation and more with believers who read Richard Dawkins as a literal account of evolution.


Intelligent Design advocates argue that random genetic drift and natural selection alone cannot account for the "irreducible complexity" in certain natural phenomena. The classic example of this is the human eye, to which Charles Darwin himself called attention. How could such a complex mechanism with so many independent parts have arisen by gradual incremental changes, when the mechanism would not function without all of the parts working together? Intelligent Design advocates argue that some outside agency would be needed to "specify complexity", though they do not define who or what the "designing" agency is. This can be seen as a new version of the God-of-the-Gaps argument and suffers from all of the earlier attempts to insert God as an explanatory fix in science's progressive history of accounting for the unknown. Besides, God is either everywhere present in all processes of creation or God might as well be nowhere.

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William Grassie
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