Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
It may well be the most important intellectual movement to occur in the last 200 years, if not the last half-millennium. Its roots are in the sciences, but when it reaches full flower, it may branch into nearly every discipline, from theology, philosophy, and the social sciences to history and literature, and redefine almost every aspect of culture, from morality and law to the arts.
It's the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, and it's reshaping the face of science.
The revolution began in the latter half of the 20th century as a result of discoveries in the various sciences that seemed to point to an intelligent being as the cause of nature's amazing intricacies. The aim of ID is included in its origin: the investigation of nature to uncover every aspect of its stunning complexity. Such complexity is the sure sign of intentional design, and the discovery and contemplation of it is also the natural delight of our intellect.
The ID movement directly contradicts the modern secularist intellectual trend that has so thoroughly dominated Western culture for the last two centuries. In the "secularist" branch of philosophy, one denies the existence of any truth beyond what is humanly contrived. The secularization of science manifests itself in the belief that nature has no need for an intelligent designer, but is self-caused and self-contained. Secularized science tries to reduce apparent design (whether cosmological or biological) to the unintelligent interplay of chance and brute necessity. If nature itself has no intrinsic order, then (by default) the human intellect is the only source of intellectual order.
The ID movement investigates the possibility that nature, rather than being the result of unintelligent, purposeless forces, can only be understood as the effect of an Intelligent Designer. This contradicts secularized science. The contradiction arises from the evidence of nature itself. In science, the ID movement points to the growing evidence of intelligent fine tuning (both cosmological and biological) and it opposed the idea that the order of nature can be completely reduced to unintelligent causes. As more and more evidence is gathered, secularized philosophy will be forced to confront the scientific evidence that truth is not a mere human artifact. Soon enough, secularized culture will be compelled to realign.
The critics of ID deny that it is a scientific revolution. They say ID is merely a religious ruse wearing a scientific facade. Often they assert a close connection between ID and creationism, using such terms as "Intelligent Design Creationism," and criticize ID on grounds of mixing religion and politics. A major source of the critics' ire is that ID has entered the realm of biology and raised questions concerning the established canons of Darwinism. It is all fine and good, they say, to investigate cosmological fine-tuning, but anathema to consider biological fine-tuning. Indeed, such critics very strongly oppose anyone who would doubt the claims of evolutionary theory (that design has been eliminated from biology). The outspoken Richard Dawkins puts it stridently: "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." This overstatement about ID is typical of the critics' approach.
Against this, I argue not only that it is quite reasonable to have doubts about evolutionary theory, but that the rise and development of ID theory, as an antidote to Darwinism, is both intellectually welcome and historically inevitable. It is intellectually welcome because Darwinism is too small to fit the facts it claims to explain, and ID is large enough to include a modified form of Darwinism. ID is historically inevitable because it is part of a larger, cosmological revolution that has already forced itself upon physics and astronomy. Let's begin with the latter claim because it is both most startling and most obvious.
The Design Revolution in Cosmology
In physics, the term "the anthropic principle" refers to the discovery that the universe appears rigged, astoundingly fine-tuned to produce life (indeed, intelligent life). This fine-tuned conspiracy occurs on all levels, from the fundamental constants governing the formation of all the elements in the cosmos, to the extraordinarily precise relationship of planets in our solar system, to the delicate balances on our own planet.
If, for example, the strong nuclear force that holds together the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of atoms were a tad weaker, elements other than hydrogen would either be unlikely or impossible; if a tad stronger, you wouldn't have hydrogen. Change the ratio of the mass of the electron to the proton just a mite and molecules cannot form. If gravity were made just a bit weaker, stars large enough to produce the heavier elements necessary for biological life would not exist; a bit stronger, and stars would be too massive, producing the necessary elements but burning too rapidly and unevenly to support life. Fiddle a smidgeon with the expansion rate of the universe, and you either cause it to collapse or exceed the ideal rate at which galaxies, and hence solar systems, can form.
The conditions of our solar system are wonderfully intricate. For example, our sun is both massive and very stable. The sun hits the Goldilocks mean for life -- neither too hot (like a blue or white star) nor too cold (like a red star). Earth has the right combination of atmospheric gases to block out harmful radiation but opens like a window for visible light. Jupiter acts as a debris magnet, keeping Earth from being pummeled. Our moon is just the right size and distance to stabilize Earth's axial tilt, and so we have seasonal variations but not wildly swinging temperature changes.
This article is too short to summarize the already vast but continually growing literature on such cosmic fine- tuning. I have given just a taste so that I could return to an earlier point and make it more explicit: The ID movement, understood in its proper and widest context, is cosmological in scope, looking for evidence of design in all of nature, and biology is just one aspect of nature where it seeks evidence of fine-tuning. Against those who would so jealously guard biology from ID, one must ask: How could the fundamental physical constants be fine-tuned, our solar system be fined-tuned, the atmospheric and geological features of our planet be fine-tuned, but all biological beings and processes be the result of unintelligent, purposeless forces?
In addition, the ID approach is both quite natural and scientifically fruitful. The discovery of such exceedingly precise fine-tuning not only draws one to the conclusion that a designer is behind it all but also leads to further scientific discovery. In the mid - 20th century, astronomer Fred Hoyle concluded that "a commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature." That statement came as a result of Hoyle discovering the wildly improbable presence of just the right nuclear resonance levels in carbon and oxygen to allow for the formation of these elements necessary for life. For Hoyle, such wonderful calibration could not be an accident: "I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce inside the stars."
But as the growing anthropic evidence attests, the conviction that the universe is finely tuned has led many scientists to look for additional instances of fine-tuning -- and they have not been disappointed. ("The Anthropic Cosmological Principle" by John Barrow and Frank Tipler goes into detail -- or simply browse Amazon.com for books on the anthropic principle or cosmology.) Thus, the common charges made by critics of ID that it is mere religion disguised as science, and that the assumption of ID has led to no scientific discoveries, is misplaced. Since the last half of the 20th century, the discovery of fine-tuning has been the impetus leading to the discovery of more fine-tuning, and the inference to a designer (as we see from Hoyle) is quite natural and quite respectable on the cosmological level.
In fact, one of the leading scientists using this mode of scientific discovery is astronomer and ID proponent Guillermo Gonzalez, who extends the anthropic principle to its logical conclusion, arguing that human beings are an intended effect of an intelligent cause. Gonzalez has found that the parameters for life are very finely drawn, and that means that they are rarely met. He has published this work in both technical and popular scientific journals (see an article defining the limited zones in galaxies capable of sustaining life in the October 2001 Scientific American). Gonzalez and fellow ID proponent Jay Richards are writing "Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery," demonstrating that the rare parameters that allow for life also allow for the development of science.
Rather than the ID movement being mocked as some kind of creationist backlash, then, it should be understood as part of a larger revolution within science that began on the cosmological level in physics and chemistry. What raises the hackles of ID critics is that ID proponents have taken the next logical step, daring to enter the biological domain and question Darwinian orthodoxy. But again, the move from cosmology to biology is inevitable. The larger cosmological question "Is the universe so finely tuned that it must have had a designer?" entails the more local question "Are biological entities and systems so finely tuned that they must have had a designer?"
The Design Revolution in Biology
To understand the design revolution as it applies to biology, we need to look at evolutionary theory itself. Contrary to popular belief, the notion of evolution was not discovered by Charles Darwin. As I argue in "Moral Darwinism," evolution is an inference from a larger theoretical framework that goes back to the ancient Greeks. All who think Darwin discovered evolution are amazed when they read it.
The materialist inference to evolution runs something like this: Despite what most people think, the universe has no designer. It has no need of an external cause of its existence because the universe itself is eternal. It has no need for an external cause of its order because the random motions of its material components, given infinite stretches of time, bring about all that appears to have been designed by an intelligence -- the stars, the sky, the earth, rocks, sand, water, plants, animals, and even human beings.
Note, in this string of assertions, that the evolution of living things is just a special case of the larger materialist explanation of how everything, living and non-living, came to be as we see it. In such a universe, the need for intelligent fine-tuning has been replaced by the slow and sloppy meanderings of unintelligent chance acting on the brute necessities of matter.
Darwin, working in the 19th century, was handed the materialist universe in which evolution was already an inference. He had no need of discovering it. Darwin refined it, by providing it with the particular mechanisms that would transform the general inference to a well-formed theory, yielding a designer-free account of biology (again, see my "Moral Darwinism" for the complete argument).
The designer-free cosmos is the cosmos according to the secularized view of science. But the growing evidence of cosmological fine-tuning is calling that view into question. Therefore, it is both legitimate and inevitable that the designer-free inference in biology should likewise be called into question. Now there are, in science, two intimately related ways of calling a theory into question: First, you notice its defects, and then you demonstrate that another approach has more merit. Given this, it's no surprise that ID theorists concerned with things biological would first work on a negative critique of Darwinists' claims, before hammering out a complete alternative.
What are the most significant defects in Darwinism? Not that it has provided an account of descent with modification - that's one of its merits -- but that its proposed mechanisms allowing it to eliminate intelligence as a cause are woefully insufficient. To understand this, let's return to the cosmological level.
ID theory affirms the universe to be 15 billion years old (more or less) and endorses the generally accepted account of the wonderful unfolding of stellar and planetary evolution, but says that it is the original and inherent fine-tuning that allows the unfolding to occur. ID proponents look at the history of life the same way. They do not deny many of the marvelous things that Darwinism has uncovered. What they question, however, is the Darwinian assertion that such things are explicable solely as the result of purposeless, unguided mechanisms. Just as stellar (and hence planetary) evolution requires finely tuned parameters written into nature in order to bring about the conditions for life, so also biological evolution will require finely tuned parameters written into nature. ID critics overlook the obvious. Since biological evolution depends on stellar evolution, the necessity of fine-tuning for biological evolution has already been proven. Even now, Darwinism cannot claim to be designer-free.
But ID proponents also want to investigate the mechanism proposed by Darwin to eliminate design from biology. If the elimination of design in biology was wrongheaded, then the mechanism by which Darwin tried to exclude it must somehow be faulty or incomplete. To that mechanism we must now turn.
The initial evidence for design-free evolution provided by Darwin is powerful, especially if one understands the particular context of belief reigning at the time of Darwin. At that time, the common belief about species was that God created all the stunning varieties of plants and animals as they now appeared (and did so, a mere 6,000 years prior). Darwin effectively demolished this particular belief in "The Origin of Species." Breeders of animals, by selecting desired traits and breeding to exaggerate them, are able to produce, in comparatively few generations, radically different stock. Obviously, these breeds were created by man and did not come, ready-made, from the hand of God.
From the example of the plasticity of breeds under domestication, Darwin then asked: "Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply under nature?" How could it not? the reader asks himself. Darwin concluded that "individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind."
A brilliant step forward in the history of science, for which we owe Darwin a great debt. Had he stopped there, Darwin would have successfully defeated the particular belief that God had immediately created every variety of plant and animal. That small victory could not establish the larger claim that biology was designer-free. In order to eliminate a designer completely Darwin had to make the great inferential leap from partial, legitimate insight to an all-encompassing theory, from change within limits, to unlimited change. The test of this great leap is whether or not what it predicts appears in nature over a sufficient length of time. Has everything unfolded smoothly according to the assumptions, or has Darwinism found its critical assumptions ramming into stubbornly recalcitrant facts?
Where has Darwinism succeeded grandly? Exactly where it succeeded at first, in describing relatively small-scale evolution, often called microevolution. So where has it failed? In those precise places where it would need to have succeeded in order to make good on the great daring inference. We will look at two: (1) the need for a gradual appearance of the highest biological taxa and (2) the extension of design-free biology backwards to a gradual non-directed rise of the first cells from pre-biological materials. Both of these are necessary to exclude ID from biology.
The sharpest rocks to dash the expectations of Darwinism were quarried in Canada at the beginning of the 20th century, and the fossils taken from this wonderful site, called the Burgess Shale, lay entirely misinterpreted for almost three-quarters of a century. They provide us with a most illuminating window into the Cambrian explosion, where, in evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould's words, "in a geological moment near the beginning of the Cambrian [about 570 million years ago], nearly all modern phyla made their first appearance, along with an even greater array of anatomical experiments that did not survive very long thereafter" (emphasis added). This appearance is not the result of a gradual rise of increasingly more complex life leading up to the Cambrian period. Rather, in Gould's words, it occurs in a "geological flash" as a "gigantic burp of creativity."
Why is the Cambrian such a stick in the craw of Darwinism? The sudden appearance of nearly all modern biological phyla completely contradicts the expectations of Darwin's theory. Darwin's principle natura non facit saltum (nature does not make a leap) is the principle by which evolutionary theory can eliminate intelligence as a cause. If the unintelligent meanderings of natural selection are to displace an Intelligent De-signer, then, as Darwin realized, all big differences must be the result of the addition of countless very little differences. The taxonomic hierarchy in biology, from greatest difference to least, is kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. As Darwin well understood, the greater the difference, the greater the number of transitional species required, and the greater amount of time natural selection will need, working through slight variations, to produce the far greater differences characteristic of phyla. For Darwin, phyla simply cannot appear abruptly but must be the result of a long, arduous, winding path of slight variations among a discrete population -- leading by natural selection to new varieties, which in turn lead to new species, and so on, until one reaches the level of divergence indicative of phyla. If Darwin were right, the fossil evidence would support him.
The sudden appearance of all known phyla in the Cambrian, therefore, represents a first-order theoretical crisis for Darwinism. For an ID approach, it indicates the presence of causal intelligence. While nature itself non facit saltum, such leaps are the hallmark of a designing intellect, especially since the phyla level acts as a kind of plan allowing for future evolutionary development (in a somewhat analogous way that fine-tuning of physical constants allows for stellar evolution).
Does that prove that ID theory has won in biology by default? No. It only proves that (1) it is reasonable to doubt that natural selection, powerful as it may be in certain domains, can displace intelligence as a cause in the origin of animal design, and more particularly, (2) it is reasonable to investigate the fossil evidence from the perspective of design.
To turn to the question of the origin of life, Darwin dodged the question of origins by attaching a hasty deus ex machina evolutionis at the very end of "The Origin of Species": "There is a gran-deur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
Soon evolutionists began to wonder if a deus was really all that necessary to the machina evolutionis and sought a purely material origin to life. If such could be found, then an intelligent designer would not only be locked out of the ongoing flow of nature but would no longer even be needed as a first cause. Biological evolution could then be subsumed under design-free cosmic evolution.
There are insuperable problems in trying to explain, via design-free evolutionary theory, how the first cells could have arisen. Nobel laureate biochemist Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA, has even remarked, "An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going." The enigma drove Crick to offer a non-evolutionary solution to the origin of life, the theory of panspermia, the belief that intelligent aliens seeded life on earth.
Others, such as Richard Dawkins, lapse into an irrational faith in the powers of chance to avoid an ID inference. While Dawkins agrees with Crick that the origin of life is a miracle, by that he means a miracle of chance. But Dawkins believes that anything can be explained by chance, even a miracle. Speaking of a marble statue, Dawkins (with a straight face) argues that "if, by sheer coincidence, all the molecules [in the hand of the statue] just happened to move in the same direction at the same moment, the hand would move. If they then all reversed direction at the same moment the hand would move back. In this way it is possible for a marble statue to wave at us. It could happen."
Of course, someone wedded to materialism would need more faith in the powers of chance than any theist has in the powers of God to believe an actual waving statue was not a miracle. With this faith in the random jostling of molecules, Dawkins sees no trouble in believing (even without evidence) that a materialist miracle occurred, albeit he knows not how, allowing for the rise of the first living cells. Such faith, however, is not evidence itself but a telling lapse into a materialist credo quia absurdum est.
Now What? Now Where?
The ID movement is larger than its attempts to question Darwinism; and it is justified in doing so. There is merit in the work done so far by ID proponents Michael Behe and William Dembski. Behe's explanation of the irreducible complexity of biological structures ("Darwin's Black Box") show clearly that biological fine-tuning is a real problem for Darwinism, precisely because of the discovery of the unfathomable complexity of even the smallest biological structures. Dembski (most recently, "No Free Lunch") has attacked the kind of irrational reliance on chance characteristic of Darwinism. Such reliance is rooted in the desire to eliminate the design inference in biology. Dembski's arguments are essential to removing such irrational obstacles.
Where is the ID revolution headed? Time will tell. But it's a young movement, after all. We cannot predict what this mode of scientific inquiry will discover.