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.