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How Bright is the Future of Intelligent Design?

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Series on the Future of ID


This Post (Part 1): How Bright is the Future of Intelligent Design?
Part 2: Post-Dover Education Victories for Intelligent Design
Part 3: Circumventing the Post-Dover Media Blackout
Part 4: It’s Time for Some Folks to Get Over Dover

In past years, on the December 20 anniversary of the publication of Judge Jones’s ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover, we’ve often posted something about the decision. Inevitably, some critic says that after all this time we’re still “obsessed” with the Dover case. The charge is ironic. It’s the Evolution Lobby, not Discovery Institute, that talks about Dover incessantly, reliving a pyrrhic victory that struck down a version of “intelligent design” that was little more than the invention of ID’s critics. We’ll have more to say on that in a future article.

Anyway, some of us who write for ENV got a laugh this past Wednesday morning when we arrived at the office and someone pointed out that it was the sixth anniversary of the Dover ruling — the previous day. As Maxwell Smart might say, we had missed it by that much. Nobody at Discovery had even noticed. So I do humbly apologize for the delayed post commemorating Dover.

Why did we forget about Dover? Because it hardly matters. Contrary to the hopes and expectations of the Darwin lobby, the post-Dover years have seen ID’s scientific and cultural footprint grow only more prominent and impressive.

Critics of ID who fume on the Internet, preach in university classrooms, and feign knowledge and authority in the media love to proclaim that the ID movement is dead. As their story goes, in 2005 a federal judge ruled in the Kitzmiller v. Dover lawsuit that ID is religion and thus unconstitutional to teach in public schools. This supposedly dealt a “deathblow” to the ID movement, which according to critics, has since lost momentum and all but dissipated.

This tall tale may reassure the barons in the ivory tower that they need no longer fear the barbarians at the gate. But those who actually follow the ID movement and know the facts about the debate understand that the critics’ preferred narrative could not be further from the truth.

ID’s Scientific Renaissance
Despite what you hear — or don’t hear — from critics (especially those in the media), the past 5 to 10 years have been a boom period for pro-ID scientific research and peer-reviewed scientific publications.

You could trace the current boom back to 2004, when Discovery Institute senior fellow Stephen Meyer published a groundbreaking paper explicitly advocating intelligent design in the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Now, in 2011, the ID movement has reached another landmark with the publication of its 50th peer-reviewed pro-ID scientific paper. We’ll have more to say on that soon. But this is a milestone that undeniably speaks to the scientific progress of ID.

There are multiple hubs of ID-related research producing these papers.

First, there’s Biologic Institute, headed by molecular biologist Doug Axe, which is “developing and testing the scientific case for intelligent design in biology.” Biologic conducts both laboratory and theoretical research on the origin and role of information in biology, the fine-tuning of the universe for life, and methods of detecting design. Its research topics include:

  • Building and testing computer models that study the ability of unguided mechanisms, compared to intelligent causes, to produce new information.
  • Examining the cosmological, physical, and biological fine-tuning required of life.
  • Investigating the ways that humans go about designing complex structures so scientists can recognize the hallmarks of design.

Another ID research group is the Evolutionary Informatics Lab, founded by senior Discovery Institute fellow William Dembski along with Robert Marks, Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. Their lab has attracted graduate-student researchers and has published multiple peer-reviewed articles in technical science and engineering journals showing that computer programming “points to the need for an ultimate information source qua intelligent designer.”

There are other pro-ID scientists around the world publishing peer-reviewed pro-ID scientific papers. These include biologist Ralph Seelke at the University of Wisconsin Superior, Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig who recently retired from the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Germany, and David Abel and his colleagues at of the Origin of Life Science Foundation.

Another productive researcher is biochemist Michael Behe at Lehigh University. In 2010, he published an article in the prestigious journal Quarterly Review of Biology arguing that Darwinian evolution tends to destroy or diminish molecular functions rather than building them.1 This followed his article with physicist David Snoke in the journal Protein Science showing that the Darwinian evolution of a simple bond between two proteins would be unlikely to arise in multicellular organisms if it required two or more mutations to function.2 In 2008, Behe and Snoke’s critics tried to refute them in the journal Genetics, but found that to obtain only two specific mutations via Darwinian evolution “for humans with a much smaller effective population size, this type of change would take > 100 million years.” The critics admitted this was “very unlikely to occur on a reasonable timescale.”3

In 2010, Doug Axe published another peer-reviewed research paper which seemed to confirm Behe and Snoke’s results.4 He presented calculations modeling the evolution of bacteria evolving a structure that required multiple mutations to yield any benefit. Making assumptions that were exceedingly generous towards Darwinian evolution, he found that molecular adaptations requiring more than six mutations to function would not arise in the history of the earth.

Research published by molecular biologist Ann Gauger of Biologic Institute along with Ralph Seelke provided empirical backing to the claims of Axe and Behe. Their team started by breaking a gene in the bacterium Escherichia coli required for synthesizing the amino acid tryptophan. When broken in just one place, random mutations in the bacteria’s genome were capable of “fixing” the gene.5 But when only two mutations were required to restore function, Darwinian evolution could not do the job. Likewise, a 2011 paper by Axe and Gauger found that converting one protein into a closely related protein — the kind of transformation that evolutionists claim happened easily in the history of life — would require at least 7 mutations.6 This confirms that there is too much complex and specified information in many proteins and enzymes to be generated by Darwinian processes on a reasonable evolutionary timescale.

There’s one additional important note about Axe and Gauger’s paper. It was published in BIO-Complexity, a journal that “aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life.” With over two dozen PhD scientists on its editorial board in fields such as biochemistry, evolutionary computing, evolutionary biology, microbiology, cladistics, and physics, BIO-Complexity appears uniquely poised to make a significant contribution to the scientific debate over ID.

Together, these labs and individual researchers have published peer-reviewed pro-ID scientific papers in journals such as Protein Science, Journal of Molecular Biology, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, Journal of Advanced Computational Intelligence and Intelligent Informatics, Quarterly Review of Biology, Cell Biology International, Rivista di Biologia/Biology Forum, Physics of Life Reviews, Annual Review of Genetics, and multiple others. Collectively, this body of research is converging upon a consensus: complex biological features cannot arise by Darwinian mechanisms, but require an intelligent cause.

As more ID research is published, more heads are turning in the scientific community. Many of those heads belong to up-and-coming young scientists. Since 2007, Discovery Institute has hosted summer seminars where undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences and humanities from around the world have learned about ID from leading theorists. (For details, see To date, well over 100 students — many of them future faculty members and researchers — have graduated from the program with a deep understanding of ID’s bright scientific prospects.

ID’s record shows it deserves — and is increasingly receiving — serious consideration by the scientific community. This is seen too in the fact that pro-ID research conferences have taken place worldwide over the past few years where pro-ID scientists have presented their research in fields such as genetics, biochemistry, engineering, and computer science.

Hardcore ID-critics, of course, have no interest in acknowledging ID’s scientific successes. Back in March, journalist Lauri Lebo (a card carrying member of the Darwin lobby) blithely declared “there is no such thing as ID research, which has not yet produced one single legitimate peer reviewed paper.” The purpose of ID’s research programs is not to convince unconvincible critics like Ms. Lebo. Rather, ID research seeks to engage open-minded scientists — and thoughtful laymen — with credible, persuasive, peer-reviewed, empirical data supporting intelligent design. And this is happening: the scientific progress of ID is cauing skeptics in the scientific community to increasingly turn their heads towards ID, attend private scientific conferences with ID proponents, and engage in serious scientific dialogues. You won’t know it from reading the New York Times, an NCSE-staffer blog, or Judge Jones’s manifesto, but ID has already gained the kind of scientific legitimacy we’d expect from a young (and vastly underfunded) scientific field. With scientific productivity leading the way, ID’s future is looking bright.

Alas, the kind of folks who are still waving the banner of Kitzmiller over their heads probably will never admit to ID’s progress. Like Rick in Casablanca, they’ll always have Dover.

References Cited:
[1.] Michael J. Behe, “Experimental Evolution, Loss-of-Function Mutations, and ‘The First Rule of Adaptive Evolution,'” The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 85(4):1-27 (December 2010).
[2.] Michael Behe & David W. Snoke, “Simulating Evolution by Gene Duplication of Protein Features that Require Multiple Amino Acid Residues,” Protein Science, Vol. 13 (2004).
[3.] Rick Durrett and Deena Schmidt, “Waiting for Two Mutations: With Applications to Regulatory Sequence Evolution and the Limits of Darwinian Evolution,” Genetics, Vol. 180: 1501-1509 (November 2008).
[4.] Douglas D. Axe, “The Limits of Complex Adaptation: An Analysis Based on a Simple Model of Structured Bacterial Populations,” BIO-Complexity, Vol. 2010(4):1-10.
[5.] Ann K. Gauger, Stephanie Ebnet, Pamela F. Fahey, and Ralph Seelke, “Reductive Evolution Can Prevent Populations from Taking Simple Adaptive Paths to High Fitness,” BIO-Complexity, Vol. 2010 (2).
[6.] Ann K. Gauger & Douglas D. Axe, “The Evolutionary Accessibility of New Enzyme Functions: A Case Study from the Biotin Pathway,” BIO-Complexity, Vol. 2011(1) (2011).

Photo credit: Tattooed JJ.