Evolution Icon Evolution
Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design Is Older Than You Think — A Lot Older

Michael Flannery


The modern intelligent design movement may be traced to a seminal meeting organized by Phillip Johnson at Pajaro Dunes in 1993, although the Wistar Symposium of 1966 and a persistent march of Darwinian skeptics certainly prepared the soil for that fertile meeting. But ID as a concept long predates the twentieth century. Just as modern materialism and physicalism have their roots in the ancient atomists (notably Leucippus, Democritus, Lucretius), so too ID has a deep and rich history.

If one figure can be identified as the founder of ID, Anaxagoras may well fit the bill. One of the preeminent pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, Anaxagoras (ca. 500-428 BC) held many ideas that would seem strange to us. He believed in the infinite divisibility of matter and that all natural elements could only give rise to their own kind, thus nothing in nature could spring from that which was not like itself.

Anaxagoras’ biographer in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, James Longrigg, points out that his ideas on matter and astronomy “although strikingly rational” were not that influential. But his view of an “immaterial moving cause,” the Nous or Mind, that set everything in motion, “paved the way for a fully teleological view of nature.” It has been said that his concept of Nous as an activating motive force in nature earned him the sobriquet “Mr. Mind.”

Anaxagoras gave explanations for the luminescence of the moon, the solstices, comets, eclipses, and other astronomical phenomena. He even delved into embryology, meteorology, geology, and cosmology. He, along with the other pre-Socratics who tried to establish a rational explanation for everything, fostered the kind of systematic thinking essential to scientific inquiry.

Far from being an opponent of evolution, Anaxagoras was actually an early contributor to it. “According to Plato and Aristotle,” writes the famous American geologist-paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, “this philosopher was the first to attribute adaptation in Nature to Intelligent Design, and was thus the founder of Teleology” (From the Greeks to Darwin: The Development of the Evolution Idea Through Twenty-Four Centuries). According to Osborn, Anaxagoras’ contribution of design in nature was actually predicated upon an appreciation of the processes of adaptation, a foundational concept in evolutionary thought.

Although teleology as a component in Anaxagoras’s thought has sometimes been downplayed and, in some cases, even denied, Jonathan Barnes observes the following:

Personal teleology is not normally a feature of natural science; yet it will enter the world of nature if natural phenomena are viewed as the operations of an intelligent artificer. Anaxagoras took just such a view; and it is simply perverse to deny that he was a teleologist in that perfectly intelligible sense. . . . Mind “wanted” (boul�theis) to make a world; the existence of the cosmos is explicable as the aim of an intelligent actor. If the word “want” does not occur in Anaxagoras’ fragments, the verbs “know” and “order” do: mind ordered or arranged things; and it knew what was to be (The Presocratic Philosophers).

Respecting the limits of what science can tell, modern ID says little about the nature of the designer it infers, only that, as Stephen Meyer puts it, “there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause — that is, by the conscious choice of a rational agent — rather than by an undirected process” (Signature in the Cell). In proposing Nous, Anaxagoras employed the abductive reasoning that paved the way for a very long and venerable tradition of ID.

Anaxagoras offers some instructive lessons to those who claim that ID is little more than Christian creationism opposed to evolution and science:

  1. This founder of ID was no opponent of evolution, in fact, he helped in its development;

  2. His example demonstrates that there is nothing in evolution per se that opposes purpose in nature;

  3. Predating Christianity and Genesis, his contributions could hardly be called Christian or creationist;

  4. Since Anaxagoras introduced Ionian philosophy and scientific inquiry to Athens, his teleology was not a science-stopper but a science-starter;

  5. The conflation of Darwinism as a synecdoche for science is inaccurate and utterly unhistorical.

It seems clear that if ID’s detractors had as much regard for science education as they claim, they would at least have to acknowledge the foundations of a concept that has a long and enduring history in Western thought. Science is much more than a bench-bound activity; it has historical and cultural contexts as well. The latter even serves to inform the former in the questions we ask and the answers we give.

Image: Anaxagoras, by Jos� de Ribera [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.