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Intelligent Design Proponents, Critics, Go Head-to-Head on

Casey Luskin

The website is currently hosting an online debate between intelligent design (ID) proponents and critics on the question “Does Intelligent Design Have Merit?” Michael Behe, Jay Richards, and I (Casey Luskin) head up the pro-ID side. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), The Ayn Rand Institute, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) take the anti-ID side. Last night they posted the opening statements from all parties. Now there are opportunities to make rebuttals, and then there will be final opportunities for surrebuttals, concluding the debate. Some highlights of the first round of posts include:

Other opening statements from us can be found at Below I’ve posted the text of my first opening statement as I originally submitted it to design (ID) has scientific merit because it uses the scientific method to make its claims and infers design by testing its positive predictions.

By Casey Luskin

“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.”1
–Stephen C. Meyer (Ph.D. Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University) & Scott Minnich (Professor of Microbiology, University of Idaho).

Intelligent design (ID) has scientific merit because it uses the scientific methods commonly used by other historical sciences to conclude that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.2 ID theorists argue that design can be inferred by studying the informational properties of natural objects to determine if they bear the type of information that in our experience arise from an intelligent cause.

Proponents of neo-Darwinism contend that the information in life arose via purposeless, blind, and unguided processes.3 ID proponents contend that the information in life arose via purposeful, intelligently guided processes. Both claims are scientifically testable using scientific methods employed by standard historical sciences. ID thus is based upon the claim that there are “telltale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause.”4

Scientists employing ID compare observations of how intelligent agents act when they design things to observations of phenomena whose origin is unknown. Human intelligence provides a large empirical dataset for studying the products of the action of intelligent agents. Mathematician and philosopher William Dembski observes that “[t]he principal characteristic of intelligent agency is directed contingency, or what we call choice.”5 When “an intelligent agent acts, it chooses from a range of competing possibilities” to create some complex and specified event.6 Dembski calls ID “a theory of information” where “information becomes a reliable indicator of design as well as a proper object for scientific investigation.”7 ID thus seeks to find in nature the types of information which are known to be produced by intelligent agents, and reliably indicate the prior action of intelligence.

The form of information which reliably indicates design is generally called “specified complexity” or “complex and specified information.”8 Dembski suggests that design can be detected when one finds a rare or highly unlikely event (making it complex) that conforms to an independently derived pattern (making it specified).

Incidentally, the term “specified complexity” did not originate with proponents of intelligent design. In 1973, the leading origin of life theorist Leslie Orgel (who opposes ID) explained that “living organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity”:

“[L]iving organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals are usually taken as the prototypes of simple, well-specified structures, because they consist of a very large number of identical molecules packed together in a uniform way. Lumps of granite or random mixtures of polymers are examples of structures which are complex but not specified. The crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; the mixtures of polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity.”9

In applying ID to biology, pro-ID biologists use commonly the term “irreducible complexity,”10 a term popularized and elaborated by my Opposing Views co-participant Michael Behe. Irreducible complexity is a form of specified complexity,11 which exists in systems composed of “several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”12 Because natural selection only preserves structures that confer a functional advantage to an organism, it is argued that such systems would be unlikely to evolve through a Darwinian process because there exists no evolutionary pathway wherein they could remain functional during each small evolutionary step.13 According to ID theorists, irreducible complexity thus is an informational pattern which may be taken as a reliable indicator of ID because “[i]n 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.”14

ID is a historical science, meaning it employs the principle of uniformitarianism, which holds that the present is the key to the past. ID investigations thus begin with observations about how intelligent agents operate and then proceed to convert those observations into positive predictions of what scientists should find in nature if intelligent design was involved in the origin of a given natural object.

For example, Stephen C. Meyer observes that “[a]gents can arrange matter with distant goals in mind. In their use of language, they routinely ‘find’ highly isolated and improbable functional sequences amid vast spaces of combinatorial possibilities.”15 Meyer further observes:

“[W]e have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents-in particular ourselves-generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts. … Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent.”16

Using these observations, ID theorists then construct testable predictions about the type of informational properties we expect to find in nature if an intelligent agent were at work in designing a natural object. Specifically, the theory predicts that we will find large amounts of specified complexity in natural objects. The theory then looks at the historical record and performs experimental investigations to test those predictions and determine whether those same informational properties exist in nature, warranting explanation by design.

Design proponents thus use standard uniformitarian reasoning of historical sciences to apply an empirically-derived cause-and-effect relationship between intelligence and certain types of informational patterns to the historical scientific record in order to account for the origin of various natural phenomena.17 As Meyer explains, “by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.”18

In this regard, ID uses the scientific method to make its claims. The scientific method is commonly described as a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion.19 As noted, ID begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information.20 One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can tested and discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures through genetic knockout experiments to determine if they require all of their parts to function.21 When experimental work uncovers irreducible complexity in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed.
My Opposing Views co-participants, Michael Behe and Jay Richards, have expounded upon some of the examples of specified and irreducible complexity that we find in biology and cosmology.

One can disagree with the conclusions of ID, but one cannot reasonably claim that it is an argument based upon religion, faith, or divine revelation. Nothing critics can say–whether appealing to politically motivated condemnations of ID issued by pro-Darwin scientific authorities, or harping upon the religious beliefs of ID proponents–will change the fact that intelligent design is not a “faith-based” argument. Intelligent design has scientific merit because it is an empirically based argument that uses well-accepted scientific methods of historical sciences in order to detect in nature the types of complexity which we understand, from present-day observations, are derived from intelligent causes.

References Cited:
[1.] Scott A. Minnich & Stephen C. Meyer, “Genetic Analysis of Coordinate Flagellar and Type III Regulatory Circuits in Pathogenic Bacteria,” in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes Greece, pg. 8.
[2.] Some parts of this opening statement are drawn from David K. DeWolf, John West, Casey Luskin, “Intelligent Design will Survive Kitzmiller v. Dover,” 68 Montana Law Review 7 (Winter, 2007).
[3.] See, for example, Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, pg. 5 (3rd ed., Sinauer Associates Inc., 1998); The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity: Nobel Laureates Initiative (September 9, 2005); Biology by Neil A. Campbell, Jane B. Reese. & Lawrence G. Mitchell (5th ed., Addison Wesley Longman, 1999), pgs. 412-413; Edward O. Wilson, “Intelligent Evolution: The consequences of Charles Darwin’s ‘one long argument’,” Harvard Magazine (November-December, 2005); Francisco J. Ayala, “Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 104:8567-8573 (May 15, 2007).
[4.] Stephen C. Meyer, Not by Chance: From Bacterial Propulsion Systems to Human DNA, Evidence of Intelligent Design Is Everywhere, Natl. Post A22 (Dec. 1, 2005).
[5.] William A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities, pg. 62 (Cambridge University Press 1998).
[6.] Ibid.
[7.] William A. Dembski, “Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information,” in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, pg. 553 (Robert T. Pennock ed., MIT Press 2001).
[8.] William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, pg. xiv (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2002) (“[T]he defining feature of intelligent causes is their ability to create novel information and, in particular, specified complexity”).
[9.] Leslie E. Orgel, The Origins of Life: Molecules and Natural Selection, pg. 189 (Chapman & Hall, 1973).
[10.] Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, pg. 39 (Free Press 1996).
[11.] Dembski, No Free Lunch, pg. 115.
[12.] Michael J. Behe, “Molecular Machines: Experimental Support for the Design Inference,” in Intelligent Design Creationism, in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, pg. 247 (Robert T. Pennock ed., MIT Press 2001).
[13.] Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, pg. 39 (quoting Darwin: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down”).
[14.] Scott A. Minnich & Stephen C. Meyer, “Genetic Analysis of Coordinate Flagellar and Type III Regulatory Circuits in Pathogenic Bacteria,” in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes Greece, pg. 8.
[15.] Stephen C. Meyer, “The Cambrian Information Explosion,” in Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA, pg. 388 (William A. Dembski and Michael W. Ruse eds., Cambridge University Press, 2004).
[16.] Stephen C. Meyer, “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Vol. 117(2):213-239 (2004).
[17.] Stephen C. Meyer, “The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design: The Methodological Equivalence of Naturalistic and Non-Naturalistic Origins Theories,” in The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute: Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, Vol. 9, pg. 182-92 (Ignatius Press 1999).
[18.] Stephen C. Meyer, “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Vol. 117(2):213-239 (2004).
[19.] Many biology textbooks define science as “a way of knowing” where that “way” is the scientific method. See Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, Biology A Molecular Approach, 8th ed. (Learning Corporation, 2001), pgs. 14-18 (calling science a “[w]ay of knowing” which employs observations, repeatable and verifiable experiments, and tentativeness); George B. Johnson, Biology Visualizing Life (Holt, 1998), pgs. 11-13 (calling science a “search for knowledge” which uses observations, hypothesis, predictions, and testing, to create theories); George Johnson and Peter Raven, Biology (Holt, 2004), pgs. 14-19 (characterizing science as a process using observations, questions, forming hypotheses, making predictions, experimenting, and drawing conclusions); William D. Schraer and Herbert J. Stoltze, Biology: The Study of Life (Prentice Hall, 1999), pgs. 14-16 (calling science “an attempt to understand the world we live in” where the scientific method is asking questions, researching, formulating a hypothesis, performing experiments, and data analysis).
[20.] These kinds of tests were reported by pro-ID molecular biologist Doug Axe in Douglas D. Axe, “Extreme Functional Sensitivity to Conservative Amino Acid Changes on Enzyme Exteriors,” Journal of Molecular Biology, Vol 301:585-595 (2000); Douglas D. Axe, “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology, 1-21 (2004).
[21.] See for example, Scott Minnich’s genetic knockout experiments performed on the bacterial flagellum as testified about the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial at Transcript of Proceedings. Afternoon Session, pgs 99-108 (Nov. 3, 2005), Kitzmiller v. Dover, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707.


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.