Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

A Child’s Intuition of Purpose in Nature Is No Accident

Young children perceive intuitively that the world is designed. 

In 1929, child psychologist Jean Piaget called children “artificialists” who tend to regard everything as “the product of human creation.”1 Piaget’s claim that young children’s minds are not sophisticated enough to distinguish between human and nonhuman causes was controversial, and subsequent studies have shown that he was wrong.2 Yet he was right in saying that children start out with the intuition that the natural world was made for a purpose. In 2004, child psychologist Deborah Kelemen suggested that young children are thus “intuitive theists” who are “disposed to view natural phenomena as resulting from nonhuman design.”3

Intervention for Indoctrination

By the time they are adolescents, many children have suppressed their intuition of design. This suppression is largely due to influences from the community, especially from parents and teachers striving to acculturate children to a secular society, often in the name of “scientific literacy.” Kelemen and her colleagues have proposed to facilitate this process with “theory-driven interventions using picture storybooks.” They wrote in 2014:

Repeated, spaced instruction on gradually scaled-up versions of the logic of natural selection could ultimately place students in a better position to suppress competing intuitive theoretical explanations such that they could elaborate a richer, more abstract, and broadly applicable knowledge of this process. Storybook interventions such as the ones reported here seem a promising start from which to promote scientific literacy in the longer term.4

“Intervention” usually refers to an action taken to help someone give up an abnormal addiction. For these psychologists, however, it means convincing children to give up a normal intuition. And it is not enough for them to teach “the logic of natural selection.” That logic is quite simple: If organisms vary in certain heritable features, and some variations are more likely to survive in a given environment, then those variations will be more common in the next generation. But natural selection can only operate on variations that already exist; it has no creative power. So in addition to being taught the logic of natural selection, children must also be taught the Darwinian dogma that selection has the creative power to produce the illusion of design — a power that has never been observed. Only then might children be persuaded to suppress their natural intuition.

“Scientific literacy” usually refers to learning about current hypotheses and how to evaluate them critically by comparing them with evidence. For Kelemen and her colleagues, however, it requires believing uncritically in unguided evolution. Thus education becomes indoctrination.

A Gaping Hole

But the intuition of design never completely goes away. Even highly trained biologists retain it, though most consciously resist it. As Richard Dawkins wrote in 1986, “Biology is the study of complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose.”5 In 1988, Nobel laureate Francis Crick wrote: “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”6 Why must they do so? Because (we are told) evolution is the “scientific consensus” of the experts, and who is qualified to challenge that?

Well, Douglas Axe, for one. He is a molecular biologist who earned a PhD at Caltech and subsequently did research at the University of Cambridge, the Cambridge Medical Research Council Centre, and the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, England. Axe now directs the Biologic Institute near Seattle, where he is engaged in laboratory research and computer simulations that examine limitations on protein evolution.7 In 2016, he published a book titled Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed.8

In 2014, Bill Nye (television’s “science guy”) published a book titled Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, defending (you guessed it) evolutionary theory. Doug Axe’s book, however, dismantles the widespread belief that Darwin’s theory of evolution is indisputably true, and shows instead that there is a gaping hole at its center. The gaping hole is that evolutionary theory ascribes inventive power to natural selection, when invention actually requires intelligence. 

According to Axe, the “universal design intuition” is: “Tasks that we would need knowledge to accomplish can be accomplished only by someone who has that knowledge.”9 Axe then highlights two facts. First, we all validate our design intuition through firsthand experience. Second, we all make mental notes of our experience and build conceptual models to make sense of it, and we then compare those models to subsequent experiences and correct them if necessary. This is exactly how science works, so we are all scientists. Axe calls this “common science,” to emphasize its connection to common sense. “People who lack formal scientific credentials,” Axe writes, “are nonetheless qualified to speak with authority on matters of common science.”10

Too Sophisticated to Be Accidental

Axe himself has impeccable scientific credentials. He has published articles in the prestigious Journal of Molecular Biology on the extreme improbability of getting functional proteins by chance.11 In one experiment (discussed in the book), Axe took a weakly functional penicillin-inactivating enzyme, made lots of variants of it, and then tested the variants to determine whether any of them were as good at inactivating penicillin as the original. The results were striking: the odds of finding a functional protein were comparable to the odds of successfully targeting a single hydrogen atom at the edge of the universe. Axe concluded, “That’s a target we can safely write off as lost in space!”12 In other words, it is irrational to believe that a protein could realistically be produced by “accidental invention,” as Darwinian theory requires.

Yet a protein is just one molecule. Axe defines “functional coherence” as “the hierarchical arrangement of parts needed for anything to produce a high-level function — each part contributing in a coordinated way to the whole.” (This is reminiscent of the notion of “irreducible complexity” that Michael Behe laid out in his 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box.13) For example, the photosynthetic apparatus in relatively simple single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria has hundreds of molecular parts that are precisely positioned to enable the apparatus to gather photons from the sun and convert their energy into the chemical energy in sugar. The photosystem’s overall function depends on an extensive hierarchy of subfunctions, all “contributing in a coordinated way to the whole.” Axe concludes that such “functional coherence makes accidental invention fantastically improbable and therefore physically impossible.” Instead, functional coherence “can only come from deliberate, intelligent action.”14

Photosynthesis is only one of the many hierarchical systems that cyanobacteria need to survive and reproduce. Axe compares these organisms to a solar-powered underwater vehicle called Tavros 2, a human invention that required considerable knowledge to build. Even so, the vehicle is not nearly as sophisticated as cyanobacteria, so Axe argues that the invention of these tiny organisms — though non-human — required far more knowledge than the invention of Tavros 2. In other words, the origin of cyanobacteria required design.

Could variations in cyanobacteria be naturally selected to produce higher forms of life, as evolutionary theory claims? Not really. Natural selection has never been observed to produce anything more than minor changes within existing species, but higher forms of life contain many more inventions than we find in cyanobacteria. And accidental mutations don’t help, any more than the variants Axe made at the level of a single protein helped him produce functional enzymes. So Axe concludes: “Because each new life form amounts to a new high-level invention, the origin of the thousandth new life form is no more explicable in Darwinian terms than the origin of the first.”15

So our intuition was right all along.


  1. Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World, Joan and Andrew Tomlinson, trans. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1929), 253.
  2. Susan A. Gelman and Kathleen E. Kremer, “Understanding Natural Cause: Children’s Explanations of How Objects and Their Properties Originate,” Child Development 62 (1991), 396–414.
  3. Deborah Kelemen, “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’?Psychological Science 15 (2004), 295–301.
  4. Deborah Kelemen et al., “Young Children Can Be Taught Basic Natural Selection Using a Picture-Storybook Intervention,” Psychological Science 25 (2014), 893–902.
  5. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (W. W. Norton, 1986), 1.
  6. Francis H. C. Crick, What Mad Pursuit (Basic Books, 1988), 138.
  8. Douglas Axe, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed (HarperOne, 2016).
  9. Ibid., 20.
  10. Ibid., 60–64.
  11. Douglas D. Axe, “Extreme Functional Sensitivity to Conservative Amino Acid Changes on Enzyme Exteriors,” Journal of Molecular Biology 301 (2000), 585–595; and “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology 341 (2004), 1295–1315.
  12. Axe, Undeniable, 182.
  13. Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (The Free Press, 1996), 39.
  14. Axe, Undeniable, 144–170.
  15. Ibid., 194.

Photo credit: cocoparisienne, via Pixabay.

Editor’s note: Dr. Wells’s latest book is Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution. This article first appeared in Salvo 39. It is published here with the permission of Jonathan Wells.