Is intelligent design really science?

Two contending explanations of evolutionary change, Darwinism and intelligent design (ID), have been fighting proxy battles in the United States in recent months. Earlier this month, two cases were settled with each side claiming a victory. In the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania, voters tossed out eight out of nine members of a school board which had backed ID. A judge is still deliberating over a court challenge which was reported throughout the world. And in Kansas, the State Board of Education narrowly approved a set of guidelines which highlights gaps in the Darwinian explanation of evolution. ID supporters described it as “a huge victory for students”.

The issues underlying the debate over evolution are complex and come with a long and bitter history stretching back to the Nineteenth Century. ID, the theory that some biological structures are so complex that an intelligent designer must have intervened in shaping their development, is supported by many Christians, especially in the United States. Apart from its scientific merits, they feel that it defends the existence of God. While many scientists call ID a kind of disguised creationism, many Christians retort that their children are being taught disguised atheism in biology classes.

To shed some light on the topic, MercatorNet interviewed a Spanish philosopher who has been studying the intelligent design debate, Dr Santiago Collado.

MercatorNet: Is ID theology dressed up as science, or "an injection of superstition into science teaching", as the journal Nature recently described it?

Collado: Intelligent Design is neither theology dressed up as science nor a superstition someone wants to inject into science lessons. Theology is a science in its own right: it must follow its own methods and satisfy it own demands of rigour. The champions of ID are not using a theological methodology. They are merely highlighting important issues in relation to living beings which, up until now, have not been satisfactorily explained by science and, specifically, not by neo-Darwinism.

MercatorNet: Have the proponents of ID made a real contribution to the philosophy of science?

At this stage I'd say they have not really contributed to the philosophy of science or the philosophy of nature, although they do touch upon matters of perennial interest both to scientists and to philosophers. The debate is of interest not so much because of any novelty in the matter but because it serves to renew an important philosophical debate and because it forces a re-think about issues where there is still much to be learnt.

MercatorNet: Is the notion of "irreducible complexity" a genuine conundrum for Darwinism?

I think the notion of complexity is a real challenge for Darwinism. In my opinion, without abandoning discoveries of proven validity as a result of Darwinism, it forces its supporters to seek other avenues within science that will help explain the amazing evolution and complexity of living beings.

MercatorNet: Do you think that intelligent design deserves to be taught in schools as an alternative to Darwinism?

I don't think it is a matter of having to choose between alternatives. Darwinism has contributed many scientific results. ID is not the first to argue that Darwinism is not acceptable as a theory for explaining absolutely everything about evolution or, indeed, even about the principal aspects of evolution. ID, however, does not cover all the ground that Darwinism has, whilst Darwinism does not seem to have found a way to explain the formation of living structures which ID claims are by design.

Science knows that there are important gaps in its answers to the questions that life raises. I do think that this can and should be said in schools. I don't think it would be fair to place Darwinian theories and ID theories on the same scientific level in the classroom although it might be fine to explain the main points made by ID in order to demonstrate the shortcomings of Darwinism: these arguments do have a scientific foundation.

MercatorNet: Many words have been spilt in arguments over intelligent design, especially in the US. Are the contending parties always talking about the same thing? When they use terms like "evolution", "Darwinism", "theory" or "fact" are they sometimes talking at cross-purposes?

I'd say that the main debaters have a good understanding of what the other side is saying. The problem is that often they are arguing issues that go beyond the ambit of the strictly scientific. I believe that this is the main cause of the apparent confusion of the debate.

MercatorNet: Is "intelligent design" the only explanation of evolutionary change which is compatible with Christian theology?

Christian theology has always held that the physical world, and with even more reason the human world, leads to the knowledge of God and of his existence. For a Christian, the world has been created by God and radically depends, in its very being, on God. This is what is meant by God's "ordinary providence" over the world. The laws that rule the behaviour of natural reality form part of the ordinary providence of God over his creatures. God's action, which refers to his being, is displayed over time and is not limited to a particular moment or a specific period of that display. God acted at creation and continues to act at the present time with his ordinary providence in a no less amazing fashion. This activity is the very foundation of reality.

God may act upon his creatures in an extraordinary way, that is, over and above the natural laws, but this is not essential even if it has occurred at various times, as in the case of miracles. ID agrees with Christian theology in that God acts upon the world, but it seems to reduce the scope of ordinary providence in so far as it demands of God, or of some other intelligent being unknown to us, a series of out-of-the-ordinary interventions to explain the complexity of nature as we now know it.

At first glance it seems as if ID is reinforcing what Christianity has to say: that God acts upon the world. But it is really saying something quite different. I agree with those who say that a God who is forced to design and implement, in an extraordinary way, certain structures to enable life or some life forms, would be a very poor God indeed. To conclude, I would have to say I doubt the supposed compatibility of ID with Christian theology.

MercatorNet: What do you think accounts for the bitterness with which this battle is being fought in the US? Leading scientists are denouncing ID as a menace to science and a return to medieval superstition.

The causes of the bitterness of the debate are complicated and involve many factors. I would say that one of them, importantly, may be traced to the links between the beginnings of Darwinism and certain cultural outlooks. Ever since the publication of The Origin of Species the scientific debate has been ideologically coloured by both detractors and defenders. Part of the problem is the particular sociological context of the US and the fact that some evolutionists adopt a materialist stance that is not open to a transcendent outlook.

MercatorNet: You have argued that ID and Darwinism have a lot in common. Could you explain what you mean by that?

This would require a lengthy reply and is part of what I am currently working on. Briefly I would say that both parties are speaking at the level of science. The trouble is that together with scientific issues they very easily slip into discussions that go beyond the scientific level. This happens to defenders of both positions. It is quite difficult to reach an agreement over something held as a scientific issue when this is really not the case. In other words, the issues involved are much deeper than the level of most of the current discussion. Philosophers must handle the challenge of explaining these aspects.

MercatorNet: Is there a positive side to this debate? It seems to have prompted many scientists to examine the underpinnings of evolutionary theory more carefully.

I think that this debate has been a very good thing. Obviously the occasionally confrontational tone is not positive, but a more detailed and profound study of the issues at stake is a good outcome. Importantly, the debate highlights the role of philosophy of nature, which nowadays is mainly left to scientists, in understanding the material world and the cosmos.

I am not saying that scientists cannot or should not philosophise, only that philosophical rigour and depth must be exercised. And this demands, for example, that philosophical reflections about these issues should clearly state what ideology, whether philosophical or theological (or anti-theological for that matter), underlies the opinion, because they are often left unstated.

Dr Santiago Collado, lectures in the philosophy of nature at the University of Navarra, in Spain. He is reseaching the philosophical underpinnings of the intelligent design movement.


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  • Sheila Liaugminas