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What is Wrong with Sober’s Attack on ID? (Part I): Defining ID and its Historical Origins

Casey Luskin

University of Wisconsin philosopher Elliott Sober has published an article in Quarterly Review of Biology entitled, “What is Wrong With Intelligent Design?” It seems that mainstream biology journals are more than willing to publish articles attacking intelligent design (ID) while choosing not to include any companion piece supporting ID. Regardless, from Sober’s article it would appear that very little is wrong with ID because he ultimately fails to disclose the predictions of the theory. He starts by defining ID fairly well in a vague sense, stating “mini-ID is that … complex adaptations that organisms display (e.g., the vertebrate eye) were crafted by an intelligent designer.” He even acknowledges that those who state the designer is supernatural “go beyond mini-ID’s single claim.” But he wrongly asserts that the reason that “proponents of ID think that mini-ID is so important” is for constitutional concerns, failing to recognize the real reason is due to a bona fide desire to stay within the scientific realm.

The actual history of ID shows that in 1982, the astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle (an atheist who did not express sympathy for Biblical creationism) was perhaps the first scientist to use the term “intelligent design” in its modern form, arguing that “if one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design.” (Fred Hoyle, Evolution From Space (The Omni Lecture), pg. 28 (1982). Soon after, this modern usage of the term “intelligent design” was also adopted by chemist Charles Thaxton. Thaxton used the term “intelligent design” prior to the Edwards v. Aguillard case and explained his reasons for preferring ID over creationism:

“I wasn’t comfortable with the typical vocabulary that for the most part creationists were using because it didn’t express what I was trying to do. They were wanting to bring God into the discussion, and I was wanting to stay within the empirical domain and do what you can do legitimately there.”

Thaxton, who is a chemist and not a lawyer, adopted ID out of a desire to respect the limits of scientific inquiry, not as some conspiracy to avoid a Supreme Court ruling. No matter how often Darwinists might say otherwise, the fact of the matter remains that ID was first promoted as a legitimate scientific alternative to Darwinism that had key differences from creationism. Sober is wrong to claim that ID was developed because creationism had a “Constitutional problem.” It seems clear that ID was developed by scientists due to the unobjectional motive of constructing a theory which stayed within the empirical domain.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Elliott Sober