Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

On the Origin of the Term “Intelligent Design”


Critics of intelligent design often allege that the term was invented by lawyers to get around the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Edwards v. Aguillard which struck down the teaching of creationism because it referred to a “supernatural creator.” This is plainly wrong, and it can’t hurt to explain, not for the first time, why it is wrong.

The terms “intelligent design” and “intelligent designer” have lengthy histories, long predating 1987. Charles Darwin himself referred to “intelligent design” in a 1861 letter:

One cannot look at this Universe with all living productions & man without believing that all has been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence of this.1

In fact, the term was in use throughout the 19th century. A search of Google books from prior to 1900 confirms this, with multiple instances.2 Here’s one from 1847 in Scientific American:

And where must we look for this fountain but to the great store-house of nature — the innumerable and diversified objects there were presented to our view give evidence of infinite skill and intelligent design in their adaptation to each other and to the nature of man.3

Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller wrote as early as 1897 that “it will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.”4 The term was also used by John Tyndale in 1874 in an address given to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.5 Prominent 19th-century scientists held similar views, including even Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-developer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection. By the late nineteenth century, Wallace came to believe that natural selection acting on random variations could not explain a number of things in biology, especially the development of the human brain. He concluded that “a Higher Intelligence” guided the process.6 In 1892, George John Romanes published his book Darwin After Darwin which stated:

  • “I have heard an eminent Professor tell his class that the many instances of mechanical adaptation discovered and described by Darwin as occurring in orchids, seemed to him to furnish better proof of supernatural contrivance than of natural causes; and another eminent Professor has informed me that, although he had read the Origin of Species with care, he could see in it no evidence of natural selection which might not equally well have been adduced in favour of intelligent design. But here we meet with a radical misconception of the whole logical attitude of science. For, be it observed, this exception in limine to the evidence which we are about to consider does not question that natural selection may be able to do all that Darwin ascribes to it. The objection is urged against his interpretation of the facts merely on the ground that these facts might equally be ascribed to intelligent design.”7
  • “Innumerable cases of adaptation of organisms to their environments are the observed facts for which an explanation is required. To supply this explanation, two, and only two, hypotheses are in the field. Of these two hypotheses one is intelligent design manifested directly in special creation; the other is natural causation operating through countless ages of the past.”8
  • “For it is quite inconceivable that any known cause, other than intelligent design, could be competent to turn out instantaneously anyone or these intricate pieces or machinery, already adapted to the performance or its special function.”9
  • “Now the question whether organic evolution has been caused by physical agencies or by intelligent design is in precisely the same predicament.”10

But the research and ideas that ultimately inspired today’s ID proponents were conceived in the 1960s and 1970s. Highly influential in this respect was the discovery that life depended upon information, whose structure was not only independent of its physical or chemical form, but whose ordering was not amenable to explanation by physical or chemical laws. As the chemist Michael Polanyi wrote in an article, “Life’s Irreducible Structure,” published in the journal Science in 1968:

Suppose that the actual structure of a DNA molecule were due to the fact that the bindings of its bases were much stronger than the bindings would be for any other distribution of bases, then such a DNA molecule would have no information content. Its code-like character would be effaced by an overwhelming redundancy. […] Whatever may be the origin of a DNA configuration, it can function as a code only if its order is not due to the forces of potential energy. It must be as physically indeterminate as the sequence of words is on a printed page.11

The term “intelligent design” appears to have been coined in its contemporary scientific usage by the atheist cosmologist Dr. Fred Hoyle. In 1982 he argued 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.”12 The term “intelligent design” was also used by a non-scientist, James E. Horigan, in his 1979 book Chance or Design? Horigan framed his argument as an empirical one, “without resort to biblical or other religious references,” and without investigating questions about “ultimate purpose.”13

Horigan and Hoyle themselves did not become part of the later ID movement, although their ideas were certainly very influential upon those who did. Thus, in 1984 — three years before the Edwards ruling — three scientists who did help found the ID movement published a book, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, argued for an “intelligent cause” behind the origin of the information in DNA:

We have observational evidence in the present that intelligent investigators can (and do) build contrivances to channel energy down nonrandom chemical pathways to bring about some complex chemical synthesis, even gene building. May not the principle of uniformity then be used in a broader frame of consideration to suggest that DNA had an intelligent cause at the beginning?14

Those three scientists were Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen. Soon thereafter, Thaxton, a chemist and academic editor for the textbook Of Pandas and People, adopted the term “intelligent design” after hearing it mentioned by a NASA engineer.15

So ID proponents started using the term “intelligent design” for reasons having nothing to do with legal concerns. Nor was the term initiated by lawyers.

In the early 1980s, “creationism” — i.e., Young Earth Creationism — was really the only game in town as an alternative to evolution. It not only taught that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, but also liberally mixed theology with science, identifying the designer as God and trying to use science to support various interpretations of the Bible. Some theorists wondered if a more scientific approach could be taken — one that didn’t challenge mainstream scientific views on the age of Earth, but instead used a strictly scientific approach to detecting design in nature. This approach would not mix theology with science, and thus would not investigate questions about the identity of the designer or enter into debates about how to interpret the Bible.

Again, up to this point, “creationism” was the only game in town. Sometimes in the earliest days, in fact, ID advocates used that very term. But they clearly meant something different by it than did actual “creationists.” Obviously, they could not have anticipated the way Darwin defenders would later seize on the strategy of using ambiguous or multivalent language (“creationism,” “evolution”) to sow confusion among the public and in the media.

A pre-Edwards draft of Pandas and People said things like:

Thus, from the observation that human intelligence can communicate by manipulating sequences of alphabetic letters, creationists infer that a similar kind of intelligence was responsible for the message sequences of nucleotide letters in DNA. Some master intellect is the creator of life. But such observable instances of information cannot tell us if the intellect behind them is natural or supernatural. This is not a question that science can answer.

Similar passages can be found throughout the pre-publication drafts of Pandas. Though this passage uses the word “creator,” you’d never hear a creationist say that the data “cannot tell us if the intellect behind them is natural or supernatural.” Creationism always explicitly refers to the supernatural. Thus, even when using language referring to “creation” or derivative terms, the proto-ID project was fundamentally different from creationism.

It’s simple to understand why the early ID advocates switched to a different sort of terminology — referring to intelligent design. The reason “intelligent design” came into widespread use was because ID proponents knew their project was distinct from creationism in important ways. They sought a new term to make clear that fundamental distinction.

Thaxton’s adoption of the term “intelligent design” came before Edwards and was not part of some nefarious conspiracy to evade a court decision. He was guided by the awareness that unlike creationism, ID remains strictly “within the empirical domain.” As Thaxton testified during his deposition in the Kitzmiller case:

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. 16

Thaxton, who is a scientist and not a lawyer, adopted the terminology of “intelligent design” out of respect for the limits of scientific inquiry. As he explained:

Unfortunately for Westerners … anytime you use the word creation it automatically conjures up any of a number of religious discussions. We knew from the beginning of our project, that turned out to be the making of Of Pandas and People, that we wanted to avoid this automatically concluding that what you’re talking about was religion because in fact we were dealing with a biological discussion. So we were trying to operate entirely within the empirical domain. And my thought was, how to arrive at a set of terms that would allow us to traffic the literature and the discussion and build an argument without having to use terminology that would automatically bring one into the religious realm?17

Thaxton continues, saying “we did what we could do to stay within the empirical domain and make legitimate inferences.”18 He then explains the terminology that was originally in the early pre-publication drafts of Pandas:

I realize that the charge was that we were trying to just use a substitute word for creation, but that isn’t the case at all. In the early days of writing the Pandas book, for example, although we understood what we were doing, most other people who we were talking to didn’t know our objectives really. And if you have a whole culture that knows about creation as a term … So we used that word early on, not for deception so we could later switch on them but because we wanted the materials to be understood that we were focused on. It was always clearly within the empirical domain, even the things that we wrote early on.19

Thaxton recounts that after speaking widely on the subject of origins, “gradually it became clear that there was a real good way that there was a case we wanted — completely within the empirical domain — and we looked for a term that would do this and reading the literature and ah, ‘intelligent design,’ is the most appropriate term. And that’s why we did it.”20

The term “intelligent design” not only long pre-dates the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard ruling, but, far from being a Christian invention, the basic arguments for design pre-date Christianity itself.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the teaching of creationism in 1987, it did so on the grounds that creationism requires belief in a “supernatural creator.”21 As we have seen, from its pre-Edwards days, the ID project never claimed to infer a “supernatural creator” from the data. Even when early ID proponents used “creationist” terminology, their nascent theory was fundamentally different from creationism. It lacked, indeed, the very quality that led the Supreme Court to declare teaching creationism unconstitutional.

References Cited:
[1.] Letter from Charles R. Darwin to Darwin, C. R. to J.F.W. Herschel, J. F. W. (May 23, 1861),
[2.] Link.
[3.] Scientific American, Volume 2, Issue 48, p. 381, (August 21, 1847).
[4.] F. C. S. Schiller, Darwinism and Design Argument, in Humanism: Philosophical Essays, 141 (F. C. S. Schiller, New York, The Macmillan Co. 1903). This particular essay was first published in the Contemporary Review in June, 1897.
[6.] Alfred Russel Wallace, Sir Charles Lyell on Geological Climates the Origin of Species, An Anthology of His Shorter Writings 33-34 (Charles H. Smith ed., Oxford University Press 1991).
[7.] George John Romanes, Darwin After Darwin, p. 278 (Open Court, 1892).
[8.] George John Romanes, Darwin After Darwin, p. 280 (Open Court, 1892).
[9.] George John Romanes, Darwin After Darwin, p. 281 (Open Court, 1892).
[10.] George John Romanes, Darwin After Darwin, p. 283 (Open Court, 1892).
[11.] Michael Polanyi, “Life’s irreducible structure,” Science, Vol. 160: 1308-1312 (June 21, 1968).
[12.] Fred Hoyle, Evolution from Space (The Omni Lecture) (Enslow Publishers 1982), p. 28.
[13.] James E. Horigan, Chance or Design? (Philosophical Library, 1979).
[14.] Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, Roger Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin (Lewis & Stanley, 1984), p. 211
[15.] Jonathan Witt, The Origin of Intelligent Design: A Brief History of the Scientific Theory of Intelligent Design,
[16.] Deposition of Charles Thaxton at 53:5-11, Kitzmiller, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (emphasis added).
[17.] The Mystery of Life’s Origin: An Interview with Dr. Charles Thaxton, Part Two, at 3:50
[18.] The Mystery of Life’s Origin: An Interview with Dr. Charles Thaxton, Part Two, at 5:15.
[19.] The Mystery of Life’s Origin: An Interview with Dr. Charles Thaxton, Part Two, at 16:55.
[20.] The Mystery of Life’s Origin: An Interview with Dr. Charles Thaxton, Part Two,, at 18:15.
[21.] Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 592 (1987).

Photo source: Trevor/Flickr.

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.



historyLaw and CourtsThe Positive Case for Design