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Are there Any Important Differences between Intelligent Design and Creationism?

Jason Rosenhouse

February 24, 2006

The Court’s decision in the recently completed trial Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board contains the following revealing passage:

A “hypothetical reasonable observer,” adult or child, who is “aware of the history and context of the community and forum” is also presumed to know that ID is a form of creationism. The evidence at trial demonstrates that ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism.

With these two, blunt sentences, the Court managed to pierce an illusion crafted by the leading proponents of Intelligent Design (ID).

The illusion was that ID and creationism were fundamentally different things. Scientific creationism (SC), they claim, is inextricably linked to the creation story in Genesis. ID, by contrast, is a solid scientific theory resting upon a firm foundation of biological fact. And while theological inferences could certainly be drawn from it, such inferences are unrelated to the theory itself.

ID’s finest minds presented this argument to the Court, and the Court, confronted with unambiguous evidence to the contrary, laughed in their faces. There has been no end to the teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing in the ID community ever since. In light of this, let us determine once and for all whether it is the Court, or the ID proponents, who have it right.

In his immodestly titled question and answer book The Design Revolution, William Dembski devotes a four-page chapter to the query, “Is intelligent design a cleverly disguised form of scientific creationism?” This seemed a reasonable place to begin my analysis. Dembski writes:

Intelligent design needs to be distinguished from creation science or scientific creationism. The most obvious difference is that scientific creationism has prior religious commitments whereas intelligent design does not. Scientific creationism is committed to two religious presuppositions and interprets the data of science to fit those presuppositions. Intelligent design, by contrast, has no prior religious commitments and interprets the data of science on generally accepted scientific principles. In particular, intelligent design does not depend on the biblical account of creation. The two presuppositions of scientific creationism are as follows:

  • There exists a supernatural agent who creates and orders the world.
  • The biblical account of creation recorded in Genesis is scientifically accurate. (p. 41) (Emphasis in original).

My main reference on the subject of what SC entails is the book What is Creation Science? by Henry Morris and Gary Parker. They make it very clear right in the introduction that Dembski’s characterization is incorrect:

Creation Science, therefore, is a perfectly valid area of scientific study. The Creation Model is as legitimate a scientific model as the Evolution Model. In fact, we believe we can show it to be a better scientific model, but readers can make their own judgments on that score, after they have read the book. (Emphasis in original.)

Later in the introduction they write:

In this book, we have tried to present in summary form some of the main scientific evidences supporting the Creation Model. We have not used theological literature or arguments — only science.

They also include this important statement:

Creationists believe that both scientific creationism and scientific evolutionism should be taught in public schools, but not religious creationism or the humanistic and pantheistic implications of evolutionism.

From these quotations we see that, as described by two of its leading practitioners, the assertions of SC are defended in entirely scientific terms. There is also a clear distinction between the scientific and religious aspects of creationism, paralleling the ID advocates’ claim that the theological implications of ID are separate from its scientific basis. Consequently, Dembski’s first attempt at distinguishing SC from ID is unsuccessful.

Dembski next tries to locate the difference between ID and SC in the specific factual claims made by the two sides. He lists six defining characteristics of SC and four for ID. He then writes, “A comparison of these two lists shows that intelligent design and scientific creationism differ markedly in content.”

Let us take a closer look. The four defining characteristics of ID, as presented by Dembski, are the following (p. 41): 1. Specified complexity and irreducible complexity are reliable indicators or hallmarks of design. 2. Biological systems exhibit specified complexity and employ irreducibly complex subsystems. 3. Naturalistic mechanisms or undirected causes do not suffice to explain the origin of specified complexity or irreducible complexity. 4. Therefore, intelligent design constitutes the best explanation for the origin of specified complexity and irreducible complexity in biological systems.

As I have argued elsewhere, all four of these points are mistaken. Of more relevance to the present discussion, however, is the fact that all of them feature prominently in the literature of scientific creationism.

Let me remind you that Michael Behe introduced the concept of irreducible complexity as follows:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. (Darwin’s Black Box, pp. 39).

Morris and Parker present the same argument in their book:

Perhaps the biggest problem for evolutionists is “the marvelous fit of organisms to their environment.” As I mentioned in the first chapter, an adaptation often involves a whole group of traits working together, and none of the individual pieces has any survival value (“Darwinian fitness”) until the whole set is functioning together. (pp. 84)

And later:

Creationists and evolutionists agree that adaptations such as the woodpecker’s skull, cleaning symbiosis, and the bombardier beetle’s cannon all have survival value. The question, then, is not one of survival value or fitness, but rather, how did these adaptations originate: by time and chance or by design and creation. When it comes to adaptations that require several traits all depending on one another, the more logical inference from the evidence seems to be creation. (pp. 86)

Likewise, Dembski’s arguments about specified complexity and information theory are also commonplace in creationist literature (for example, see the book In the Beginning was Information, by Werner Gitt). SC’s accept and promote all four of the propositions Dembski offers as characteristic of ID.

Therefore, Dembski’s description of ID implies only that it is a subset of SC. If there is a difference in content between the two, it must reside in extra commitments made by the creationists.

The six features Dembski lists as characteristic of SC are: 1. There was a sudden creation of the universe, energy and life from nothing. 2. Mutations and natural selection are insufficient to bring about the development of all living kinds from a single organism. 3. Changes of the originally created kinds of plants and animals occur only within fixed limits. 4. There is a separate ancestry for humans and apes. 5. The earth’s geology can be explained via catastrophism, primarily by the occurrence of a worldwide flood. 6. The earth and living kinds had a relatively recent inception (on the order of thousands or tens of thousands of years).

Let us begin our analysis of this list with the fact that item six is not an essential tenet of SC. Morris and Parker write:

The question of the date of creation is separate and distinct from the question of the fact of creation. The basic evidences supporting the Creation Model — for example, the laws of thermodynamics, the complex structures of living organisms, the universal gaps between types in both the living world and the fossil record — are all quite independent of the time of creation. Whether the world is ten thousand years old or ten trillion years old, these and other evidences all point to creation, not to evolution, as the best explanation of origins. (p. 253)

And later:

The fact is, however, that the question of the age of the earth and the universe, while an important question in its own right, is quite independent of the question of creation or evolution, at least as far as the facts of science are concerned. (p. 253)

Compare these sentiments with the following statement by Dembski, from an essay responding to Henry Morris’ review of The Design Revolution:

Biblical literalism is simply not an issue for intelligent design because the problem of explaining biological complexity holds independently of the age of the earth or one’s interpretation of Genesis.

Once again there is no distinction to be found between ID and SC.

Points two and three likewise fail to distinguish SC from ID. If you believe, as ID advocates do, that natural selection is fundamentally incapable of crafting certain complex biological structures, then you must also believe it is incapable of explaining the development of complex life from single-celled beginnings. You must likewise believe that such evolutionary changes as occur do so only within fixed limits. As for point four, while ID may not commit you to such a view, it is certainly true that most ID proponents do not believe that humans and apes share a common ancestry.

That leaves only points one and five. And here we have our first genuine difference. SC literature routinely extols the virtues of catastrophism and an instantaneous creation of the universe. The catch is that they claim to believe these things not because of any prior religious convictions, but solely because their interpretation of the evidence tells them that it is so. And ID does not reject SC arguments related to these assertions, it merely takes no stand on them. There is a difference here, but hardly one of any significance.

We have now exhausted the reasons provided by Dembski for making a distinction between ID and SC. The remainder of his chapter consists almost entirely of restatements of the points discussed thus far. But let us probe a little farther, looking for distinctions Dembski might have overlooked.

Perhaps there is a difference in political strategy. Both groups seek changes in school science curricula. For ID’s the rallying cry is “Teach the Controversy.” In an op-ed published in The Cincinnati Enquirer, design advocate Stephen Meyer described it like this:

  1. First, I suggested—speaking as an advocate of the theory of intelligent design—that Ohio not require students to know the scientific evidence and arguments for the theory of intelligent design, at least not yet.
  2. Instead, I proposed that Ohio teachers teach the scientific controversy about Darwinian evolution. Teachers should teach students about the main scientific arguments for and against Darwinian theory. And Ohio should test students for their understanding of those arguments, not for their assent to a point of view.
  3. Finally, I argued that the state board should permit, but not require, teachers to tell students about the arguments of scientists, like Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, who advocate the competing theory of intelligent design.

And here’s how Morris and Parker describe their educational ambitions:

Nevertheless, evolutionism has been taught almost exclusively in the public schools for decades. This obviously unfair situation has been defended by saying that evolution is science. The fact is, however, that the Creation Model fits the real facts of science at least as well as the Evolution Model, as we have tried to show in this book. At the very least, the two should be considered as equally valid scientific alternatives. The evidences and arguments on each side, pro and con, should all be presented in the schools, letting the students then make their own choice as to which model they believe best fits the available data. If evolution is really as scientific as evolutionists maintain, they would surely have nothing to fear from such a two-model approach. Creationists are perfectly willing to let the issue be decided on the basis of the scientific evidence alone, so why aren’t the evolutionists.

(Emphasis in original).

I see no distinction between these views.

Is there a difference in the anti-evolution arguments made by the two sides? There is not. Whether you are reading the literature of ID or SC, you can expect to read fallacious assertions about how the fossil record tells against evolution, that anatomical homologies are better explained as the result of common design, that evolutionists rely on outdated or fraudulent evidence such as Haeckel’s embryo drawings or the peppered moth experiment, that evolution is inherently atheistic, that simple probability arguments militate against evolution, or that natural selection is a meaningless tautology. Indeed, one of the hoariest anti-evolution arguments ever devised by SC’s, that evolution runs afoul of the second law of thermodynamics, was recently featured prominently in the conservative publication The American Spectator. Its author, Granville Sewell, is an ID advocate, and his article was linked to favorably by several ID friendly blogs.

And we shouldn’t overlook the most important similarity of them all. The literature of both ID and SC presents a ridiculous caricature of modern biological science, routinely quotes scientists out of context, and impugns the integrity of the scientific community.

So what has our investigation revealed? We find that both sides claim to be following standard scientific methodology in arriving at their conclusions. Both abjure any prior religious commitment. Their pro-design arguments and assertions are nearly identical. Their anti-evolution arguments are likewise nearly identical. Their goals for education policy are the same, and they make use of the same, sleazy rhetorical tricks in their writing.

Our search for a significant difference between ID and SC has been in vain.

Jason Rosenhouse

Jason Rosenhouse is the author of EvolutionBlog, providing commentary on developments in the endless dispute between evolution and creationism.