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What Precipitated the Intelligent Design Movement?

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Here are some thoughts prompted by a rather curious question posed to me in an email, namely, “What were the findings that most helped ID since the turn of the millennium?” Now, I say “curious” for two reasons: First, the modern ID movement really precedes the turn of the millennium, so to me this question misses its historical target. And second, the “findings” one might think to mention — e.g., modeling of biological systems, improvements in sequencing techniques, the development of cryo-electron microscopy — also fall short of the mark. 

I’d prefer to ask: What developments set the stage for the Pajaro Dunes meeting, Phil Johnson’s path-breaking Darwin on Trial, and Mike Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box? I would say all of this stood on a platform of molecular biology, modern genetics, etc., but none of it would be said to have actually precipitated the movement toward intelligent design. 

Three Advances Set the Stage

After all, all of these scientific advances can be interpreted in various ways, from those amenable to ID to those commensurate with neo-Darwinism or other reductionist models, many of which are described by The Third Way of Evolution. So what discoveries or what advances set the stage for the modern ID movement? I would say primarily three. 

First, Michael Denton’s book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1986). This profoundly influenced Michael Behe and I suspect many others associated with the movement early on. 

Second, there is the persistent question of the mind/body problem. Attempts to apply reductionist models have either been woefully incomplete or failures altogether. Less reductionist approaches by people like neurophysiologist and Nobel laureate John C. Eccles pointed the way towards more ID-friendly solutions. 

Finally, the complete discrediting of the Vienna Circle and the logical positivists. Their principle of hard verificationism made them, in Nicholas Fotion’s words, “science-intoxicated.” As the disabilities of their extreme scientism became more manifest, being pointed out by philosophers like Willard Van Orman Quine, J. L. Austin, Michael Polanyi, and Hilary Putnam, a richer and more dynamic array of philosophical alternatives were offered. I’m not saying these thinkers were in any sense ID proponents, but I am saying they rejected the reductionist scientism that started with Comte and carried through to the 1930s and ‘40s with the logical positivists.

Photo: Phillip E. Johnson reading in a beach house, Pajaro Dunes, California, June 1998, by Suzanne Nelson.