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What’s Wrong with Calling Intelligent Design “Anti-Evolution”?

Charles Darwin
Photo: Charles Darwin in 1855, by Maull and Polyblank, Literary and Scientific Portrait Club, via Wikimedia Commons.

The term “anti-evolution” has been used for decades, over and over, by untold numbers of defenders of Darwin and critics of the theory of intelligent design. Eugenie Scott titled a 1997 essay in Annual Review of AnthropologyAntievolution and creationism in the United States,” using the term some 50 times. She was hardly the first. In 1985 an article in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine cited the “antievolution movement,” and a 1977 letter in The American Biology Teacher by National Center for Science Education founder Stanley Weinberg mentioned the “Arkansas anti-evolution statute.” This followed a 1971 letter in the same journal that lamented “antievolutionist polemics.” 

So this kind of rhetoric goes way back. And it is used frequently among scholars as if it were an accurate academic term. 

What’s wrong with the term, at least as it is applied to intelligent design (ID)? Well, it’s a vague and ambiguous characterization that seeks to smear ID as if ID were against all forms of evolution. However, intelligent design is not against all forms of evolution.

Three Definitions of “Evolution”

There are three general definitions of evolution used in the scientific literature:

  • Evolution #1: Change over time: small-scale changes in a population of organisms.
  • Evolution #2: Universal common descent: the view that all organisms are related and are descended from a single common ancestor.
  • Evolution #3: Natural selection: The view that an unguided process of natural selection acting upon random mutation has been the primary mechanism driving the evolution of life.

Everyone agrees that ID is compatible with Evolution #1 and Evolution #2. Everyone also agrees that Evolution #1 is true. There is a diversity of views within the ID camp about Evolution #2. But design proponents all agree that as a scientific theory ID is at least potentially compatible with some form of common descent. Whether the evidence supports common descent is a separate question.

All ID proponents also agree that Evolution #3 has some merit and explains at least some features of nature. The vast majority of ID proponents would hold that Evolution #3 has explanatory limits, meaning there are many complex features of biology not amenable to neo-Darwinian explanations, nor explanation by other related blind mechanisms (e.g., neutral mutations, genetic drift, etc.). But everyone agrees that natural selection and random mutation are real forces in nature with at least some explanatory power. We’d all agree that neutral evolution occurs as well.

Because ID proponents (a) agree with certain definitions of evolution and/or (b) agree that certain definitions of evolution are true, to use the term “anti-evolution” against ID misrepresents us. ID is not “anti-evolution” and in fact, depending on how you define evolution, ID may be quite comfortable with evolution. Depending on how you see ID, it could even form a type of theory of evolution.

“Anti-Evolution” and “Anti-Science”

There’s one last reason we should reject the “anti-evolution” moniker: As Paul Nelson has suggested, it tries to paint ID in a negative light, as purely “anti-” something, a knee-jerk opposition, as, in fact, “anti-science.” If ID is anti-anything, it’s anti-presupposed answers. What accounts for life’s complexity and diversify? If the answer is evolution (in one or more of its various definitions), then great — the ID community wants to know that. For my part I’ve taken or TA’d over a dozen courses covering evolution at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I did this because I wanted to learn about and study evolution. I’m not anti-evolution – I want to know more about what evolution can and cannot explain!

In my view, the term “anti-evolution” ought to be rejected by everyone in the ID debate because (a) it is inaccurate as a description of ID, and (b) it aims to paint ID in an unfair and negative light. As I said, the term has a long history of use by ID critics who want to obscure what ID is. Such a low level of dialogue — seeking to win by obfuscation — is unworthy of serious debate.