The Discovery Institute is correct – intelligent design is not creationism

The title of this post may be controversial, but I assure that I haven’t lost my mind… just yet. What I want to address is a point that needs to be addressed if the scientific community, especially the part of the community that communicates science to the public, is to counter the rhetoric that spews from the mouths and fingers of the intelligent design (ID) proponents at the Discovery Institute.

That point is the issue of whether or not intelligent design is creationism – if it is, decrying the movement as religious in nature is an effective tactic, but if it is not, that tactic is dishonest and will only result in effective PR-esque backlashes against the assertion from the media-savvy intelligent design think-tank. Getting this issue right may seem like a small, possibly insignificant, little thing, but every bit helps, and honesty really is the best policy when it comes to science communication, especially in this new age of social media, where mistakes and errors can be magnified beyond imagination and what was possible decades ago.

So, is intelligent design just another form of creationism? To start with, let’s have a look at what the Discovery Institute (DI) itself has to say on the matter. It stalwartly maintains that intelligent design is a secular scientific theory, and that creationism and ID as laid out by John West in 2002:

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. Instead, intelligent design theory is an effort to empirically detect whether the “apparent design” in nature observed by biologists is genuine design (the product of an organizing intelligence) or is simply the product of chance and mechanical natural laws.

While I disagree with West that ID is a “theory” and that it can be empirically tested (ie. that it is scientific in nature), I do agree that intelligent design and creationism, at their cores, are separate. Why? It comes down to the roots of the ideas – creationism is based on a deity, usually the Christian God, being the creator of life, whilst ID has a nondescript “Designer” that could, technically, be anything, be it a deity, an extraterrestrial race or a parallel universe version of the human race (which raises weird issues to do with physics, but what the hell, I’m a biology student). A universe where intelligent design as a process has occurred does not necessarily have to be one in which supernatural or paranormal beings exist. ID can be devoid of religious meaning – it is essentially a blank slate on top of which any “story” to do with who the Designer was and how they did their designing can be placed.

As such, it is inaccurate to label intelligent design as a form of creationism – if God doesn’t have to have taken part, it doesn’t fit into that category of idea.

However, what we were just dealing with was the ideal notion of intelligent design, the pure concept, if you will, divorced from the history of the idea and floating in the vacuum of philosophy. In reality, very few proponents of ID are neutral to religion, and most are actively and passionately Christian (or at the very least theistic). Well-known examples of these religious ID proponents are Michael Behe, a Roman Catholic; Jonathan Wells, a member of the Unification Church; and Phillip E. Johnson, Stephen C. Meyer and William Dembski, who are all born-again evangelical Protestants. Their biases are clear – while they may not all be full-blown young earth creationists, they all clearly attribute the Christian God as the Intelligent Designer. In fact, this can be pretty much said for the Discovery Institute as a whole (all the ID proponents listed above are fellows) – for a majority of this organisation, the Designer is God.

Once of the main reasons why this is the case is something called the “Wedge Document”, a 1998 document drafted by DI staff about the broad goals of the organisation, relating to the scientific community and education. Within it many mentions are made to the appearance of “moral relativism” and other effects that “materialism” has supposedly had on society. This is a clearly religious document, and many attempts have been made by the Discovery Institute to downplay its significance.

In fact, references to “materialism” can still be found on the About page of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (even the title is a giveaway):

[The Center for Science and Culture] supports research by scientists and scholars in the social sciences and humanities exploring the impact of scientific materialism on culture.

The Discovery Institute also doesn’t censor who it is associated with. The Discovery Institute-affiliated blog Uncommon Descent regularly features posts about arguments for the existence of God, mostly the Christian God, as well as plugging books, by people like DI fellow William Dembski, about Christian apologetics. Uncommon Descent, as well as the more closely-associated DI blog Evolution News & Views, regularly talk negatively in passing about atheism and philosophical naturalism, both ideas that run counter to a religious worldview. The Discovery Institute is steeped in religion.

Due to this clear connection between the Discovery Institute and religion, I would like to propose that the term “intelligent design creationism” be used as much as possible instead of “intelligent design” when talking about what the Discovery Institute is trying to put into university courses and public schools. They are people with a religious agenda, and the pure, secular idea of ID instantly becomes a kind of creationism when it comes into contact with any form of religion. The DI may appear at first glance to be secular, but they would unleash creationism into the scientific world if they were to get their way.

Of course, after all this, I don’t want to give the impression that pure intelligent design, the kind untouched by the soiled hands of the Discovery Institute and friends, is acceptable as either a scientific idea or as something that should be taught in public schools. ID doesn’t have to be religious to be unscientific – the reason it doesn’t meet the standards of a scientific hypothesis or theory is that it is still unfalsifiable. Any set of data can fit with the idea that an intelligent designer had a hand in producing life, and that means that there is no way to test whether it is true, and by extension, no way to know that it is true. ID must be restricted before it can be falsified – the Designer must be identified and proven to exist, and its design patterns must be identified and checked against what we find in nature. Before this happens, ID is on very shaky ground.

In short, intelligent design is not creationism. However, the Discovery Institute is not a secular organisation, so the best name for what they try to sell to the public and the scientific community is intelligent design creationism, a weaker form of the overtly-religious creationism found in churches all over the world.

The best way to move forward when talking to the public about evolutionary biology and intelligent design is to acknowledge the true natures of these ideas (the former scientific, the latter not) and not get bogged down in the implicit religion being put forward by ID’s proponents – unless, of course, they try to make it an issue. In that case, go for your life.

18 thoughts on “The Discovery Institute is correct – intelligent design is not creationism”

    1. Well, there are, supposedly, some people affiliated with the Discovery Institute who aren't religious – Thomas Nagel for one (I don't know much about him, I suppose I should do some research), as well as David Berlinski, who claims to be agnostic, so it is possible to be an ID proponent and non-religious.

      When we're talking about pure philosophical concepts, like pure, "ideal" ID, it doesn't matter if there aren't any people who believe it, it still exists as a concept. Of course, this makes such a concept rather stupid to argue over, when there are more important things at hand, but the point still stands – you COULD be an ID proponent without wanting religion in schools like the DI does. Those people might not exist, but it's still a possibility.

      1. Are you also saying, then, that when discussing the DI, we should always prefix the "ID" part with "creationist"? Shouldn't we also then prefix this with "christian" as opposed to islamic or any other religious motivation? What about adding "protestant", etc. too?

        Nobody is arguing for any kind of, as you say, "pure" ID in a vacuum, without laying claim to precis knowledge about the nature of the designer(s). Well, I suppose deists might, but the best answer they can come up with is an argument from either ignorance or incredulity, neither of which seem to bother them one iota. Not that I particularly mind this attitude…

        ID, by definition, is creationist (or at the very least "designerist", but again nobody is arguing for just design.

        What the DI do is the creationist flavour of "intelligent design": it's still creationism. It's just wearing a stolen labcoat and pointing stupidly at empty Erlenmeyer flasks while waving a bible hidden by a clipboard.

        BTW, it seems that Nagel isn't directly associated with the DI, he just made an argument that they happen to like (to paraphrase and précis: "what reason do we have to assume that it was evolution by natural selection that created 'the mind'?"). They've decided—unsurprisingly—to interpret this as "evolution didn't make mind, therefore design (and therefore Jesus)".

  1. I think the old Firing Line Debates between Discovery Institute and NCSE are still up on YouTube somewhere. That was 1999 and cdesign proponentsists were using the terms "creationism" and "intelligent design" interchangeably. A federal judge in the US determined that the "preponderance of the evidence" showed ID to be creationism as exemplified by the pre-1989 drafts of "Of Pandas and People."

    Yes, there are: Moonie creationists, Hare Krishna creationists and even Raalians (who claim to be atheistic) all of whom reject the well-established science of evolutionary biology because it conflicts with their religious beliefs. Young Earth Creationism really only goes back to the early 1960s. William Jennings Bryant believed in an ancient Earth and called himself a creationist.

    "Creationist" was used as a pejorative by Fred Hoyal and Hannes Alfvén to belittle Gamov and others back in the 1950s when it wasn't true and that was wrong.

  2. Jack, so you think that despite having the exact same definition, using the exact same arguments, including the exact same sort of people, presenting roughly the same ideas, intelligent design is not creationism?

    The argument from the conservation of information has been shown to be identical to the notion that the second law of thermodynamics contradict evolution (Stenger, 2003). Behe's ideas about irreducible complexity is the same old "what good is half a wing" canard. Even the concept of irreducible complexity can be found in earlier creationist writings (Forrest and Gross, 2005). Dembski has also stated that "intelligent design should be understood as the evidence that God has placed in nature to show that the physical world is the product of intelligence and not simply the result of mindless material forces" and that "Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory" (Dembski, 1999).

    Please reconsider your position.

    1. Emil – I'm sorry, I probably haven't made myself clear.

      The Discovery Institute, as I argue in the post, is pushing "intelligent design creationism". This is a type of creationism, I agree with you. The modern intelligent design movement has all the hallmarks of being a continuation of the same old religious thinking. (Although, the parallels between modern DI arguments and classic creationist arguments don't necessarily point to pure ID having a religious basis – however, the DI *is* religious, so your point sort of stands. Sort of.)

      The point of my post (or one of them) is that ID, as a philosophical concept, doesn't have to be religious. That is basically a fact – the Designer doesn't have to be a deity.

      The fact that the Discovery Institute has homologous arguments to older Christian creationist movements is irrelevant, because I argue that the DI isn't pushing pure intelligent design (which is religion neutral and secular) – they're arguing for intelligent design creationism, which is a form of creationism.

      I laid all this out in my blog post. I'm sorry if you misunderstood it.

      1. What exactly do you mean with "pure ID" or "ID as a philosophical concept"? Does anyone believe in "pure ID"? If not, what does it mean to say that "pure ID" exists? What, in essence, is their positive explanatory model? That's right, there is none? How do you suggest that "pure ID" can uncouple itself from its creationist origin and content? It seems to me that "pure ID" (whatever that is) is merely an argument from ignorance (Miller, 2003).

        Is this not the same old argument that "well, the designer could be an alien, so pure intelligent design creationism isn't really creationism"? If "pure ID" is not creationism or religious, the entire legal argument against teaching it (because it violates the establishment clause) vaporizes, especially when intelligent design creationism is evolving into various "academic freedom", "critical analysis", "free speech" bills. If the argument from homology is invalid, as you seem to think it is, then there is really nothing that can stop this encroachment into public schools. So it seems to me that a byproduct of your argument is that it is undermining the effort spent over decades to defend the teaching of evolution against creationism.

        However, I might have dropped the ball and completely misunderstood what you are trying to say?

      2. If according to ID dogmatism a designer is complex specified an his first cause cannot be natural, then the only logical conclusions I see are either an infinite regression of designers or an uncaused designer, which by all purporses is a deity. Therefore ID is an argument for de existance of god, and creationism.

  3. I notice you have made no comment regarding the new book Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer. That is probably just because you haven't had the time to read it.

    Until you Darwinists come up with a better explanation of how life originated – you will not make any new converts. Sorry!

    1. Haven't had the time to read it? True! I also don't have the money to buy it. I just wish that the Discovery Institute would put their rather large amounts of money where their mouth(s) is (are) and send me a copy. ;)

      I love how you didn't address any of the points I raised in this post, Gerald – perhaps you could distill some of the arguments from Signature in the Cell down for me? I'm going to assume you've read and understand it. Cheers. :)

    2. I'll type this slowly, so that I don't confuse you:

      Evolution. Does. Not. Deal. With. Abiogenesis. At. All.

      Also, reverting to "science can't explain X, therefore ID is true" is just the basest form of an argument from ignorance (or lack of imagination). Or perhaps too much imagination if one is happy to Make Shit Up™ just so one doesn't have to say "well, actually, you know, I don't know how it happened. I'll wait and see what any cogent evidence says".

  4. "Intelligent design" is a recently invented term. And it was what you call "ID creationism" when it was invented, and it still is. What you are trying to distinguish is basically "the Argument From Design" which does indeed have a long history, and is potentially separate. The creationists, though, deliberately dropped the label "creationist" and switched to ID, deliberately to confuse people about this, and to give their discredited creationist ideas a new lease on life — and it looks like it worked, with you! ;-) Google "cdesign proponentsists" for more…

    1. Hey Nick, thanks for commenting.

      I'm not confused about this issue – I understand who the Discovery Institute is made of and their religious history and motives, and I know that they used "intelligent design" as a replacement term of "creationism" in order to make their ideas sound more scientific.

      The point of this blog post is that "intelligent design" as the concept that the public face of the DI puts out there in their definitions of what they believe to be true and scientific (which you refer to as "the argument from design", which is correct) isn't religious, but what they *actually* believe and promote at a deeper level is religious and predominantly Christian.

      The DI's spin and pseudoscientific rationales haven't worked on me, I see through their misinformation, don't worry about that. If you read any of my other blog posts about intelligent design or the Discovery Institute, you'll see that I'm no friend of theirs at all. I hope I didn't send the wrong impression.

  5. The argument that rejects ID on the basis of the ideological motivation of the proponents is completely pointless.

    Saying "Most ID theorists believe in God, so they're probably biased" is no different from saying "Most evolutionists are atheists, so they're probably biased." Both premises are questionable anyway, but it just doesn't matter what people "believe" if they're choosing to make arguments without reference to their beliefs.

    What matters is whether the ID theories stand up to scrutiny or not on their own merits. If it is, it will stand up to scrutiny, if it isn't, it will not.

    Expressing outrage at the existence of members of the scientific community who dare to question the prevailing winds of science will not get anyone anywhere. By all means disagree with them – that's where science shines…

    Unfortunately in popular culture, people exist who argue ID on the basis of very little reading, as do most people who believe evolution without flinching. Unfortunately few have actually done any research themselves, because in modern society most of us defer those decisions to experts anyway.

    Allowing ID to engage with Evolution raises interesting questions, promotes further study,and leads to progress. Claiming to have definitive proof of all the answers is just denial. Having a personal belief about what the answers might be need not prevent you from legitimately testing that belief through fair analysis.

    1. "Allowing ID to engage with Evolution raises interesting questions, promotes further study,and leads to progress." This sort of tactic gives false legitimacy to ID. It assumes equal-footing. That's like saying "allowing astrology to engage with astronomy raises interesting questions, etc" It does not, because one thing is a legitimate science with a huge amount of evidence derived from independent lines of study, reasoning, experimentation, and data collection, the other is made up hokum.

      People – scientists or otherwise – don't "believe in Evolution", they accept it as proven fact. There is no "belief" of any sort involved. Lay people can actually know quite a bit about the evolutionary process. It is such a robust theory, easily explainable and well documented that games, iPhone apps and flow-charts can be drawn up to explain everything from the phylogenetic tree (look up: ), to relationships between different species based on molecular biology. (Google it – the pages are many).

      What has ID got? Until they come up with anything, there is no reason to have ID engage with evolution on any level. It's a non-argument. No progress can come about, because IT HAS NOTHING TO BRING TO THE DISCUSSION. That's a pretty glaring issue.

      As for the argument that "ID is not Creationism" is like saying "Birds are not dinosaurs". You cannot deny the fact they have a common ancestor, and its fossil record has been very well documented by the NCSE. :D

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