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ANALYSIS: Discovery Institute gives overview of intelligent design

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following question-and-answer analysis was prepared by Rob Crowther of the Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and adapted for Baptist Press. The Discovery Institute, founded in 1990, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy and research organization. The Center for Science and Culture, in addition to encouraging schools to improve science education by teaching students more fully about the theory of evolution, supports the work of scholars who challenge various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory and scholars who are working on the scientific theory known as intelligent design.

SEATTLE (BP)–The theory of intelligent design is in the news right now, but some of the purportedly factual descriptions of the theory being offered by reporters are highly inaccurate. Part of the reason for this is that some reporters are citing as fact partisan descriptions of design theory offered by anti-design groups such as the ACLU.

When reporting on the debate between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design theory, it is important for reporters to allow the scientific proponents of design to describe their own theory, not to put words in their mouths. Just as good reporters would not rely on the Republican Party to provide an objective description of the platform of the Democratic Party, reporters describing the content of design theory should not rely on design’s critics to provide a factual definition of a theory they oppose.

Here, as a backgrounder on intelligent design, are several questions and answers:

1. What is the theory of intelligent design?

The scientific 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.

Note: Intelligent design theory does NOT claim that science can determine the identity of the intelligent cause. Nor does it claim that the intelligent cause must be a “divine being” or a “higher power” or an “all-powerful force.” All it proposes is that science can identify whether certain features of the natural world are the products of intelligence.

2. Is intelligent design theory the same as creationism?

No. Intelligent design theory 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 is focused on defending a literal reading of the Genesis account, usually including the creation of the earth by the biblical God a few thousand years ago. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design is agnostic regarding the source of design and has no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text.

3. Is intelligent design theory incompatible with evolution?

It depends on what one means by the word “evolution.” If one simply means “change over time,” or even that living things are related by common ancestry, then there is no inherent conflict between evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory.

However, the dominant theory of evolution today is neo-Darwinism, which contends that evolution is driven by natural selection acting on random mutations, a purposeless process that “has no specific direction or goal, including survival of a species.” In biology, it is this specific claim made by neo-Darwinism that intelligent design theory directly challenges.

4. Is intelligent design based on the Bible?

No. The intellectual roots of intelligent design theory are varied. Plato and Aristotle both articulated early versions of design theory, as did virtually all of the founders of modern science. Indeed, most scientists until the latter part of the 19th century accepted some form of design.

The scientific community largely rejected design in the early 20th century after neo-Darwinism claimed to be able to explain the emergence of biological complexity through the unintelligent process of natural selection acting on random mutations.

However, new research and discoveries in such fields as physics, cosmology, biochemistry, genetics and paleontology have caused a growing number of scientists and science theorists to question neo-Darwinism and propose design as the best explanation for the existence of specified complexity in the natural world.

5. Are there established scholars in the scientific community who support intelligent design theory?

Yes. Intelligent design theory is supported by doctoral scientists, researchers and theorists at a number of universities, colleges and research institutes around the world. These scholars include biochemist Michael Behe at Lehigh University, microbiologist Scott Minnich at the University of Idaho, biologist Paul Chien at the University of San Francisco, emeritus biologist Dean Kenyon at San Francisco State University, mathematician William Dembski at Baylor University (who will join the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary next year) and quantum chemist Henry Schaefer at the University of Georgia, among others.

6. Do scientists supportive of design publish peer-reviewed articles and research?

Yes. Although open hostility from those who hold to neo-Darwinism sometimes makes it difficult for design scholars to gain a fair hearing for their ideas, research and articles by intelligent design scholars are being published in peer-reviewed publications.

Dr. Stephen Meyer has published an article supportive of design in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (a peer-reviewed biology journal published at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution). Biochemist Michael Behe has defended the idea of “irreducible complexity” in the peer-reviewed journal Philosophy of Science, as well as publishing research critical of the mechanism of neo-Darwinism in the peer-reviewed journal Protein Science. Examples of peer-reviewed books supporting design include “The Design Inference” (Cambridge University Press) by William Dembski and “Darwinism, Design, and Public Education” (Michigan State University Press).

7. Should public schools require the teaching of intelligent design?

No. Instead of mandating intelligent design, the Discovery Institute recommends that states and school districts focus on teaching students more about evolutionary theory, including telling them about some of the theory’s problems that have been discussed in peer-reviewed science journals. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.

8. Is teaching about intelligent design unconstitutional?

Although the Discovery Institute does not advocate requiring the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, it does believe there is nothing unconstitutional about discussing the scientific theory of design in the classroom. In addition, the Discovery Institute opposes efforts to persecute individual teachers who may wish to discuss the scientific debate over design in a pedagogically appropriate manner.

9. What is the Discovery Institute and the Center for Science and Culture?

The non-profit, non-partisan Discovery Institute is a policy and research organization, or secular think tank, with programs on a variety of issues, including regional transportation development, economics and technology policy, legal reform, bioethics, science and culture. The institute’s founder and president is Bruce Chapman, who has a long history in public policy at both the national and regional levels. Chapman is a former director of the United States Census Bureau and a past American ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, Austria.

The Center for Science and Culture, on the Web at www.discovery.org/csc, has more than 40 fellows, including biologists, biochemists, chemists, physicists, philosophers and historians of science, and public policy and legal experts, many of whom have affiliations with colleges and universities. Challenges to various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory and advocacy of the scientific theory known as intelligent design are being advanced by institute-supported scholars. The center also encourages schools to improve science education by teaching students more about the theory of evolution.

Discovery Institute board members and fellows represent a variety of religious traditions, including mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish and agnostic. Until recently, the chairman of Discovery’s board of directors was former Congressman John Miller, who is Jewish. Although it is not a religious organization, the institute has a long record of supporting religious liberty and the legitimate role of faith-based institutions in a pluralistic society. In fact, it sponsored a program for several years for college students to teach them the importance of religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
For more detailed information about the science of intelligent design theory and/or the legality of teaching intelligent design, visit the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture website at www.discovery.org/csc.

    About the Author

  • Rob Crowther