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The Facts about Intelligent Design: A Response to the National Academy of Sciences’ Science, Evolution, and Creationism

I have written an extensive response to the National Academy of Sciences’ new anti-ID booklet, Science, Evolution, and Creationism. The full response, The Facts about Intelligent Design: A Response to the National Academy of Sciences’ Science, Evolution, and Creationism, can be read online here or downloaded as a PDF. Permission is freely granted to reproduce the document for educational use. Below are some excerpts from the rebuttal:

A 1982 poll found that only 9% of Americans believed that humans developed through purely natural evolutionary processes. Two years later, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued its first Science and Creationism booklet, stating that science and religion occupy “separate and mutually exclusive realms.” Public skepticism of evolution remained high–a 1993 poll found that only 11% of Americans believed that humans developed through purely natural evolutionary processes.

In 1999 the NAS released a second version of Science and Creationism, again reassuring the public that “science and religion occupy two separate realms.” Still public skepticism remains high–a 2004 poll found that only 13% of Americans believe that humans developed through purely natural evolutionary processes, and a 2006 Zogby Poll found that about 70% of Americans support including scientific criticism of evolution in public school curricula.

Fearing the public’s unyielding skepticism of evolution, the NAS has now issued another ex cathedra edict promoting misinformation about intelligent design (ID) and bluffs about the scientific status of Darwinian evolution. What follows is a discussion of some of the errors in Science, Evolution, and Creationism.


  • The NAS misrepresents irreducible complexity and the flagellum.

The NAS accurately defines irreducible complexity — “If one component is missing or changed, the device will fail to operate properly”–but then promotes a false test of irreducible complexity, wrongly claiming that if one part of the flagellum can perform some other function, then irreducible complexity is refuted.
The NAS claims that the fact that some flagellar components can function as a needle-nosed pump–the Type III Secretory System (T3SS)–shows that the flagellum is not irreducibly complex. However, a number of biologists have concluded that that the T3SS was not a precursor to the flagellum. Moreover, microbiologist Scott Minnich explained during the Kitzmiller trial that the fact that some sub-components of the flagellum can perform other functions is not sufficient to demonstrate a Darwinian explanation for the origin of the flagellum because there is still a huge leap in complexity from a the needle-nosed pump to a flagellum. The unresolved challenge that the irreducible complexity of the flagellum continues to pose for Darwinian evolution is summarized by William Dembski:

“At best the TTSS represents one possible step in the indirect Darwinian evolution of the bacterial flagellum. But that still wouldn’t constitute a solution to the evolution of the bacterial flagellum. What’s needed is a complete evolutionary path and not merely a possible oasis along the way. To claim otherwise is like saying we can travel by foot from Los Angeles to Tokyo because we’ve discovered the Hawaiian Islands. Evolutionary biology needs to do better than that.”

Dembski’s critique is apt because it recognizes that Darwinists wrongly characterizes irreducible complexity as focusing on the non-functionality of sub-parts. Conversely, pro-ID biochemist Michael Behe, who popularized the term “irreducible complexity,” properly tests it by assessing the plausibility of the entire functional system to assemble in a step-wise fashion, even if sub-parts can have functions outside of the final system. The “leap” required by going from one functional sub-part to the entire functional system is indicative of the degree of irreducible complexity in a system. Contrary to the NAS’s assertions, Behe never argued that irreducible complexity mandates that sub-parts can have no function outside of the final system.
None of this compares to the NAS’s most egregious error regarding the flagellum: the NAS states that “there is no single, uniform structure that is found in all flagellar bacteria.” While technically this statement may be true if one looks at the fine-grain of the amino-acid sequence of every single protein among flagellum-bearing bacteria, there most certainly are highly conserved flagellar parts and there is an identifiable core set of structures to the flagellar machine. In this regard, the NAS’s statement is extremely misleading and inaccurate. Consider the conclusions, directly to the contrary of the NAS’s claims, of Mark J. Pallen et al.’s 2005 article in Trends in Microbiology, “Bacterial flagellar diversity in the post-genomic era”:

“The E. coli/S. enterica paradigm emerges remarkably intact from our survey of flagellar diversity in the postgenomic era and appears to provide a perfect example of Darwin’s epithet: ‘prodigal in variation but niggard in innovation’. We have been able to provide functional assignments to many conserved, but previously unrecognized, flagellar genes in diverse systems, emphasizing the continuity of flagellar structure and function. These observations will provide a firm foundation for future experimental studies, enabling conserved (and therefore presumably important) domains and residues to be identified. Surprisingly, we have determined the conservation of some regulatory components of the flagellar apparatus; for example, the FliA–FlgM system is common to flagellar systems spanning four bacterial phyla (proteobacteria, spirochaetes, firmicutes and thermotogales).”

Finally, the NAS’s abridged booklet asserts that biologists “have found intermediate forms of flagella.” But no reference or description is given for these alleged “intermediate forms of flagella,” because this claim is false. In 2006 Pallen co-wrote, “it is clear that all (bacterial) flagella share a conserved core set of proteins,” observing that “[t]his reduced flagellum is still a challenge to explain.” Pallen co-identified a core set of structural components “at the heart of the bacterial flagellum”:

“Three modular molecular devices are at the heart of the bacterial flagellum: the rotorstator that powers flagellar rotation, the chemotaxis apparatus that mediates changes in the direction of motion and the T3SS that mediates export of the axial components of the flagellum.”

Pallen’s article further admitted that “the flagellar research community has scarcely begun to consider how these systems have evolved.” By claiming “there is no single, uniform structure that is found in all flagellar bacteria” and that there are “intermediate forms of flagella,” the NAS is promoting incorrect information about the flagellar structure, and the NAS is wrong to imply that the evolution of the flagellum is understood.
In contrast to the NAS’s assertions, proponents of intelligent design have done experimental tests on the bacterial flagellum showing it is irreducibly complex, indicating that it is derived from an intelligent cause:

“In all irreducibly complex systems in which the cause of the system is known by experience or observation, intelligent design or engineering played a role [in] the origin of the system. . . . Although some may argue this is a merely an argument from ignorance, we regard it as an inference to the best explanation . . . given what we know about the powers of intelligence as opposed to strictly natural or material causes.”

The flagellum is a self-assembling, irreducibly complex microscopic rotary engine that contains parts known from human technology–such as a rotor, a stator, a propeller, a u-joint, and an engine–yet it functions at a level of efficiency that dwarfs any motor produced by humans. In any other context we would immediately recognize such an information-rich, integrated system as the product of intelligence. The NAS can only dismiss the scientific case for the design of the flagellum by distorting the facts about the structure.
Conclusion: The NAS dismisses the scientific case for intelligent design.
The NAS claims that “[n]o scientific evidence supports” intelligent design and that intelligent design “reject[s] scientific findings and methods” because it hopes the public will trust their pronouncements rather than looking at the evidence. On the contrary, each section of this rebuttal has discussed scientific evidence supporting intelligent design and challenging evolution. This evidence–which the NAS largely ignores–comes from fields such as biochemistry, paleontology, genetics, systematics, anthropology, and information theory.
The NAS’s new Science, Evolution, and Creationism booklet will not reduce public skepticism of evolution because no pronouncements or edicts from the NAS can change the facts of science. For those who are willing to investigate the facts of this issue for themselves and not engage in blind adherence to the pronouncements of scientific authorities, it seems clear that legitimate scientific dissent from Neo-Darwinism is possible. Unfortunately, if science educators follow the NAS’s approach, science education will become science indoctrination. Perhaps when it comes to evolution, that’s exactly what the NAS wants.
For the facts about intelligent design, don’t merely consult the misrepresentations of critics, read what ID proponents actually themselves say:


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.



NASNational Academy of Sciences