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The Relevance of Intelligent Design to Science and Society: A Primer

Photo: John West, by Chris Morgan.

This past summer, the Italian Center for Intelligent Design held its public launch at a conference in Turin, Italy. Following that event, Discovery Institute Vice President John West was interviewed by veteran Italian journalist and human rights activist Marco Respinti. The interview is being published this month in the Italian-language magazine Il Timone. Evolution News is pleased to publish the original English-language version of the interview, which discusses the history, impact, and relevance of the idea of intelligent design.

Dr. West is Managing Director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture and author of the book Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of ScienceHe is also editor of The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Society, and Society.

RESPINTI: What is the “intelligent design” (ID) hypothesis? 

WEST: Intelligent design is the idea that nature manifests clear evidence of purpose, planning, and foresight. In other words, nature reflects the brilliance of a master artist, not the haphazard results of an unguided process.

RESPINTI: How does Darwinian evolution differ from intelligent design?

WEST: Darwinian evolution sees nature — including human beings — as accidental byproducts of unintelligent matter and energy. According to Darwinism, “man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind,” to quote the words of evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson. In other words, nature is the result of an unguided process, not the creative activity of a master designer. 

RESPINTI: Why do debates over Darwinism and intelligent design matter to society?

WEST: In the Darwinian view, nature was created by blind unguided forces rather than a wise Creator, and humans are merely animals who are the unintended result of a process of “survival of the fittest.” Over the past century, this bleak view of nature and humanity has encouraged many abuses, including the denial of God’s existence, “scientific” justifications of racism, and efforts to breed humans like cattle through the so-called science of eugenics. The Darwinian view has promoted despair in many people, including young people, by portraying human life as an accident with no intrinsic dignity and no higher purpose.

By contrast, the intelligent design view upholds human beings as inherently valuable. Our lives have meaning and worth because we are the intentional result of a supreme artist and Creator. Humans are a masterpiece, not something cobbled together by an unguided process. In the words of former Pope Benedict, “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”

RESPINTI: What are the origins of the intelligent design idea?

WEST: Intelligent design is one of the foundational ideas in the history of human civilization. It has deep roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions as well as among non-Christian thinkers. In the Jewish tradition, both the Psalms and the Book of Wisdom speak of how nature reveals evidence of its Creator. In the words of Wisdom 13:5, “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.” In the Christian tradition, Jesus, St. Paul, and the fathers of the church likewise argued that nature provides evidence of God’s wisdom, foresight, and artistry. For example, Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch in the second century AD, argued that God “is beheld and perceived through His… works,” which for him included the regularities of nature seen in astronomy, the plant world, animals, and ecosystems. 

Among non-Christian thinkers, we find a similar idea that nature displays evidence of purpose and foresight in Greek philosophers such as Plato, Roman thinkers such as Cicero, and medieval Islamic thinkers such as Al-Ghazali. 

RESPINTI: Did intelligent design play any role in the historical development of science?

WEST: Definitely. The idea of intelligent design provided a foundation for modern natural science. Because early scientists thought nature was the product of intelligent design, they expected nature to be orderly, purposeful, governed by laws rather than chaos, and understandable through human reason. These scientists’ belief in intelligent design spurred them to research the natural world. 

RESPINTI: That was in the past. What about today? Does intelligent design still play a role in science?

WEST: Yes! Even today, scientific investigation proceeds because scientists assume for the sake of their research that the natural features they are studying are orderly and exist to fulfill a specific purpose. This is the essence of much scientific investigation — we treat things as designed so we can understand them. The reality is that intelligent design is a guiding assumption for scientific research even for scientists who claim not to believe in it.

RESPINTI: What light do recent scientific discoveries shed on whether nature was intelligently designed?

WEST: The more we investigate nature, the more we see layer after layer of purpose and planning throughout nature. The laws of physics and chemistry are exquisitely fine-tuned to make life possible. Inside each of our cells, there exist sophisticated “molecular machines” that make human technologies appear primitive. At the foundation of life, we find DNA, which functions as a code directing many aspects of an organism’s development, just like computer software. Codes and information systems are hallmarks of mind — of intelligent design. Based on what we now know, it is very hard to conceive of the operations of nature without viewing them as products of intelligent design. It is little wonder that a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Cambridge University recently declared that “intelligent design is valid science.”

RESPINTI: What do you say to those who claim that Darwinian evolution has refuted the idea of intelligent design?

WEST: The evidence shows otherwise. First, Darwinism assumes that a universe fine-tuned for life already exists. It also assumes that the first self-replicating organisms already exist. So Darwinism can’t refute the evidence of design at the level of the universe or in the origin of the first life. It assumes those very things! Now Darwinism does claim that unguided processes can produce everything else. But we have a lot of data from experiments in bacteria that show just how little change unguided evolution can accomplish. Darwinian processes can produce small variations, but the major changes in the history of life — such as the origin of new body plans in animals — seem beyond the power of unguided evolution. Random mutations in DNA are supposed to drive Darwinian evolution, but we have learned that such mutations are usually either harmful or neutral to organisms. Mutations aren’t capable of producing major new biological features. Biochemist Michael Behe, molecular biologist Douglas Axe, and many other scientists have shown this.

RESPINTI: Why, then, do so many scientists continue to embrace Darwinian evolution?

WEST: I think it is primarily due to culture, not science. The distinguished Italian geneticist Giuseppe Sermonti once called Darwinism “the ‘politically correct’ of science.” I think he was right. Many people continue to embrace Darwinism because it is fashionable. Others support it because they think it provides a scientific justification to reject God.

RESPINTI: Where can you find scientists who support intelligent design?

WEST: Scientists and scientific groups that support intelligent design can now be found throughout Europe, in South America, in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. In Italy, there is the Italian Center for Intelligent Design, which just held its public launch in June at a conference in Torino, where I had the privilege to speak.

In the United States, there is Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture. The Institute is a non-profit organization founded in 1991, and its Center for Science & Culture was started in 1996 by historian of science Stephen Meyer and myself. The Center serves as a hub for the growing international network of scientists and scholars who think there is evidence of intelligent design in nature. The Center funds scientific research, sponsors educational programs, and produces books and educational videos related to intelligent design.