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Why the Main Argument Against Intelligent Design Is False

Photo: Upland geese, by Silvia Richardson, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1894, thirty-five years after Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was first published, William Bateson wrote that while Darwin’s theory had never been proved and lacked direct observation, it nonetheless found strong support “in the difficulty of forming any alternative hypothesis.” As the father of modern genetics explained, “any alternative hypothesis involves the idea of Separate Creation which by common consent is now recognized as absurd.” 

The significance of this passage lies not in its non-scientific, religious assertion. Such metaphysics were, and are today, common in the evolution literature. But Bateson was a dissenter. He was one of many who disagreed vigorously with Darwin’s ideas on how the species were supposed to have evolved. Ever since Darwin, such dissent over the mechanics of evolution has not been uncommon. What is uncommon is dissent over the metaphysics. The significance of the above passage is that it reveals just how widespread were evolutionary metaphysics. There is a universal orthodoxy in evolutionary thought that transcends disagreement on the mechanistic details.

An Important Claim

In the penultimate paragraph of the second of fourteen chapters of Origins, after more than 50 pages of rather dry discussion of biological variation observed across the species, Charles Darwin made an important claim. He was summarizing the chapter, but without warning Darwin made an altogether new claim: the facts described, which were rather abstract and obscure, were “utterly inexplicable if each species has been independently created.”

Readers could be forgiven if, by that point, they had grown weary. Perhaps they skimmed the text or, since this passage was a summary, they skipped it altogether in order to move on to chapter three. But if so, they would have missed the first of Darwin’s many powerful arguments for his new theory. Those powerful arguments interpreted the empirical evidence as disproving independent creation. It is important for readers to understand the form of this argument because as Darwin moved through the chapters he increasingly abbreviated the logic, leaving the metaphysics increasingly obscure, but no less crucial to the argument.

The years since 1859 have brought new empirical findings Darwin could not have dreamed of. But the arguments for evolution have stayed the same. Jerry Coyne’s 2010 book, Why Evolution Is True, discusses a wide range of evidences old and new, but the form of the arguments are unchanged: the evidence, Coyne repeatedly claims, makes no sense under independent creation or design.

Underlying Religious Premises

Whether presented centuries ago by Darwin or earlier naturalists, or by today’s evolutionists, the evidence and arguments for a strictly naturalistic origin of species is powerful and compelling. But the power of the arguments does not come from an objective empirical analysis. It comes from the underlying religious premises.

A reader might rightly ask, why exactly is it, and how do we know, that the biological variations Darwin discussed in chapters one and two are “utterly inexplicable if each species has been independently created”? Darwin never did give an explanation for this important claim. Any such explanation would have required a metaphysical rationale that Darwin was not prepared to give. This, and the other theological claims made by evolutionists, are nothing more than bare assertions. Not only are they non-scientific, metaphysical claims, but they are unsupported even by any metaphysical rationale.

Addressing the Opposing Theory

To all of this, evolutionists claim foul. There is no theological content to their theory, they claim; rather, they merely are addressing the opposing theory. If religious people make claims about the origin of species, then certainly it is fair game to address those claims. And addressing those claims requires that the failures of the religious reasoning and expectations be explained. Nothing more, and nothing less. Beyond this, evolutionary theory is strictly scientific.

But, in fact, this is false. Consider, for example, the common argument from disutility. Darwin often cited biological structures that appeared inefficient or otherwise not to function very well as refutations of design. For instance, there were birds that were mostly observed away from water yet had webbed feet. As Darwin argued, “we can hardly believe that the webbed feet of the upland goose or of the frigate-bird are of special use to these birds … We may safely attribute these structures to inheritance.” Inheritance was the right conclusion because no Creator worth his salt would have created such a utilitarian failure.

Of course, this is a religious argument. Remove the theological claim about what a Creator would and would not do, and the argument collapses. There is no scientific evidence here for evolution.

But more importantly, the theology is unique to evolutionary thought and its underlying Epicureanism. The evolutionist’s rejoinder that such arguments merely address opposing views is false for the simple reason that there are no such opposing views. Opposing views did not hold that such webbed feet would not have been divinely intended. Nor, more generally, that inefficient or otherwise non-utilitarian structures would not be intended. Even the natural theologians, often stereotyped as utilitarians, in fact consistently appealed to non-utilitarian design criteria such as aesthetics or design patterns.1

The theological claim that divine intent is strictly utilitarian is uniquely evolutionary. It makes for powerful arguments for evolution, but the power derives from the theology. Mark this: the stronger the argument for evolution, the stronger its theological commitment. Absent theology, there is little reason to believe the entire biological world arose spontaneously, as evolutionists heroically claim.

A Utilitarian Formulation

The irony in all this is that evolution itself is a utilitarian formulation. That is, natural selection describes a process in which species with greater fitness (or utility) evolve. The evolutionary process must create greater utility. Therefore, the many examples of disutility, presented as proof of evolution, in fact are problematic for evolution. We must believe that such useless designs escaped natural selection’s watchful eye which, otherwise, seems to have no limit of precision engineering.

While evolutionists fail to apply this evidence of disutility to their own theory, they inappropriately apply it to intelligent design. In other words, evolutionists subject intelligent design to the evolutionary criteria of fitness and utility, while dropping that criterion from evolutionary theory. They have it backwards.


  1. Hunter, Cornelius. 2021. The Role of Non-Adaptive Design Doctrine in Evolutionary Thought. Religions 12:282. https://doi.org/ 10.3390/rel12040282