Intelligent Design: Philosophy or Science?

Trouble brews for the occasional scientist who decides to publicly question the orthodoxy of neo-Darwinism in peer-reviewed journals. Occasionally there are slip-ups which help to corroborate the general rule. For example, in 2004 Richard Sternberg, evolutionary biologist, and editor of the journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, published Stephen C. Meyer’s “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” in that journal, after receiving positive peer-reviews. Meyer’s article, however, was unrepentantly favorable to the theory that “intelligent design” was involved in biological evolution. In the aftermath of the publication, Sternberg was accused by colleagues and scientists of faulty judgement, and subjected to harassment and demotion when his position as a Research Associate came up for renewal. He resigned in frustration and is currently a research scientist at the Biologic Institute.

The reason that such articles are taboo in major scientific journals is that they must pass a litmus test of “methodological naturalism,” i.e, methodological materialism, ruling out any non-material entity or activity. To interject discussion of a “designing intelligence” at the origin of the earliest biological developments is considered strictly out of the bounds of legitimate scientific inquiry—a religious approach, “Creationism” parading under the guise of science.

Occasional books by scientists have dared to flout the orthodoxy of evolutionary “natural selection” mechanisms, by challenging some tenets of Darwinian theory. For example, two books published by scientists during the 1980s, Evolution: a Theory in Crisis, by Michael Denton, and The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories, by chemist Charles Thaxton; and engineer Walter Bradley and geochemist Roger Olsen, helped to give rise to the Intelligent Design movement. More recently, card-carrying atheists have joined the battle: Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, in What Darwin Got Wrong; and Bradley Monton, in Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design.

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Such critical maneuvers are definitely not kosher in the American scientific millieu. For example, J.Y. Chen, a Chinese paleontologist, gave a lecture at the University of Washington geology department in 2000, in which he argued that the Chinese fossil evidence contradicted the Darwinian theory. One professor in the audience, not inured to such dissent, asked Chen whether he wasn’t a bit nervous about expressing his doubts about Darwinism so freely. Chen answered. “In China, we can criticize Darwin, but not the government. In America, you can criticize the government, but not Darwin.”

Certainly one of the most controversial issues in neo-Darwinism concerns the Cambrian Era, ca. 540 million years ago. According to Meyer’s 2013 book, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, 23 animal phyla appeared suddenly in the Cambrian era in less than 10 million years, which in geologic time is comparable to one minute in a 24-hour day. Some soft-bodied animals have been found in a few localities around the world from the preceding Ediacaran era (635 to 542 million years ago), but no ancestors have been found for 19 of the Cambrian phyla. (Prior to the Ediacaran era, only single-celled organisms inhabited the earth for about 3 billion years.)

Charles Darwin himself, says Meyers, had substantial doubts about the emergence of the Cambrian era, and expressed these doubts in a number of places in his writings, but hoped that future scientific explorations would turn up the missing but expected fossil ancestors. In entertaining this hope, Darwin contrasted with his contemporary critical “nemesis,” Louis Agassiz, a biologist who insisted that the lack of pre-Cambrian (“Selurian”) fossils was a major weakness in Darwin’s theory about gradual evolution through natural selection.

Meyer, current director of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, concentrates in Darwin’s Doubt on this alleged “Achilles heel” of neo-Darwinism. He examines in great detail attempts of evolutionists to answer the challenge of the Cambrian era, and to defend, if possible, the present biological orthodoxy. He starts with an account of the multiple attempts by evolutionists to find pre-Cambrian fossils, or explain why they haven’t been found—including Stephen Jay Gould’s explanation—the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” (which Gould originally claimed rendered neo-Darwinism “effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy,” but after trenchant criticism was modified to incorporate some explicit Darwinian mechanisms.) Meyers continues in his over 500-page book to examine ongoing attempts to apply neo-Darwinism to the earliest biotic developments—vain or methodologically hampered experiments to show how genetic and/or epigenetic developments could progress towards targets by means of mutations and/or natural selection—theories concerning self-organization, “Evo-devo,” “epigenetic inheritance,” “natural genetic engineering,” etc.

Meyer compares his approach, and the procedures of “historical sciences” in general, to the work of detectives in solving mysteries. He cites the example of Chesterton’s novel, The Invisible Man, in which all the clues and suspects regarding a murder had been examined, until the one suspect who had been overlooked, because of a mental block by witnesses, was pointed out by the perspicacious sleuth, Fr. Brown. He concludes that if scientists could divest themselves of their own mental blocks, they would see that only an intelligence could be responsible for the highly specified type of information in DNA, RNA, dGRNs, etc. He justifies this as a scientific conclusion: it is science in the sense of historical sciences like paleontology and archeology.  If evolutionary science goes back to the very beginning of biological “information,” he argues, we cannot avoid encountering what can only be some kind of intelligence.

Meyer’s reference to the special attributes of “historical sciences” brings to my mind some memories of a transition that took place at my university, some years ago, when the history department, which embodied studies of what then fell under the category of “science” in the catalogue of courses, was reclassified to be incorporated into the College of Liberal Arts. Debates are still rife as to whether history is a bona fide science or a branch of the humanities—or perhaps a hybrid.

My own conclusion is that investigations of early development of the biotic information and “codes” that are at the basis of all living beings, like the investigations of cosmologists trying to piece together the origins of the Big Bang, are getting beyond the empirical to the metaphysical. I think of the famous woodcut, A Man Exploring the Meeting of Earth and Sky, which shows a man at the edge of the universe peeking out into the yonder. In recent decades cosmologists and astronomers seem to have been the most prominent in exploring scientific grounds for theistic belief. The physicist, Robert Griffiths, recently remarked, “If we need an atheist for a debate, I go to the philosophy department.  The physics department isn’t much use.”

Such discoveries at the “edge” of the empirical have been a syndrome in Western philosophy for millennia. Plato, considering all the gradations of goodness in the world, concluded to an absolute Form of Good of which all finite goods are mere partial participants. Aristotle in his Physics concluded from all movements to a first Mover, and from all causality to a first Cause, the examination of which was included in Aristotle’s treatise on First Philosophy (the Metaphysics).  St. Thomas Aquinas incorporated these conclusions into his “5 ways” for proving the existence of God.

But Plato’s absolute Good, separate from all its reflections in finite goods, is clearly outside the empirical. And Aristotle’s God, as an uncaused cause (and even the cause of all causality) and as an unmoved mover, is not like any of the causes or movers we are familiar with.

So also, Meyer’s “Intelligence” is unlike any intelligence we are familiar with, but a paradoxical, metaphysical type of intelligence—an Intelligence whose thinking or ideas are in no way separated from objects thought about, but automatically imbedded in reality, for us to try to investigate and appreciate. St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, includes an article in his Summa (I.14.8) in which he argues that the design in God’s intellect (scientia artificis) is the cause of all created things.

It is through the science of cosmology that the atheistic astronomer, Fred Hoyle, finally came to the conclusion that a “superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology”; and it was through the science of biology that the “dean” of atheistic philosophers, Anthony Flew, towards the end of his life concluded, to the consternation of his colleagues, that God existed. When asked why, he responded that he came to this conclusion “almost entirely because of the DNA investigations.”

So also, proponents of Intelligent Design, finding complex and specified information, surpassing the most elaborate computer codes, at the dawn of living organisms, even prior to all possibility of “natural selection,” have concluded to a Designer. But their work is not, strictly speaking, scientific investigation, but rather the sort of specific analyses we might expect in the philosophy of science, a specialized subdivision of philosophy. And the evidence put forward of “intelligent design” is a philosophical conclusion, indebted to, and dependent on, the methodology and quantitative analyses of scientists, but not, strictly speaking, scientific theories.

Occasionally, even hard-nosed evolutionary biologists may wonder whether neo-Darwinism is up to the job of explaining the origin of life; but the leap to an Intelligent Designer is a leap into metaphysics, and is often considered “above their paygrade.” If they are philosophically committed to methodological materialism, their hesitance is unavoidable, and the ongoing debate is not just about scientific credentials but philosophical presuppositions.


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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