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Intelligent Design’s Founding Father

Photo: Small Magellanic Cloud, by NASA, ESA and A. Nota (STScI/ESA).

Well, that headline is a little misleading since, as I pointed out last week, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Holly Compton had already endorsed intelligent design – by that name – in 1940. Other Nobel laureates would join him in decades to come. But chemist Charles Thaxton, co-author (with engineer Walter Bradley and geologist Roger Olsen) of The Mystery of Life’s Origin, was arguably modern ID theory’s founding father, or one of the three. Writing at The Federalist, Emily Nordhagen Sandico describes the origins of Thaxton’s book, published in 1984, which had such a profound influence on Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, and others.

An Interdisciplinary Nature

I wrote the historical introduction to the recent expanded edition of Mystery, but a lot of this I did not know. Much is drawn from Thaxton’s new memoir A Leg to Stand On. As Sandico writes, the interdisciplinary nature of the book was key to its importance.

From, “How A Chemist, An Engineer, And A Geologist Destroyed Darwin’s Warm Pond Theory”:

Thaxton recounts a session with about 25 professors and graduate students during which scientists in different disciplines objected to his critique, each by calling upon another scientist in another field. As each man in turn unexpectedly affirmed the correctness of Thaxton’s points, it became clear that the scientists had relied on what they believed to be true outside of their own areas of expertise to shore up their own theories, where they recognized weaknesses. These scientists needed an interdisciplinary view of evolutionary theory to see its true state.

Thaxton was the man for that job. In 1976 he was asked to review a manuscript about the origin of life by Walter Bradley, an engineer, and Roger Olsen, a geologist. Thaxton saw the value in what he read, and he knew what was missing: more chemistry! “You’re the chemist,” said the others. 

So after years of research and collaboration, in 1984, Bradley, Olsen, and Thaxton published a rigorous interdisciplinary critique of origin-of-life research: “The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories.” (The book was republished in 2020 with several new chapters by leading experts.) In it they delved deeply into, among other things, the geochemistry of the early Earth, the role of thermodynamics in ordered systems, and the need for information, not just energy, to accomplish the order that we see in life.    

Their work was persuasive. The book garnered unexpectedly positive responses from fellow scientists, many of whom accepted their critique on its merits, and even welcomed it as an accurate and much-needed evaluation of the state of the field. Thaxton, et al. had withheld their alternative hypothesis — that an intelligent cause was behind the origin of life — until the end of the book, allowing materialist readers to consider the evidence against chemical evolution on their own terms before being invited to make the paradigm-shifting concession that the evidence warrants a nonmaterial conclusion.

Sandico notes that, after obtaining a chemistry PhD at Iowa State, Thaxton himself had been influenced by chemist Michael Polanyi:

Thaxton’s interest turned specifically toward chemical evolution and the origin of life after he read Michael Polanyi’s 1967 article “Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry” in Chemical and Engineering News. Polanyi, a physical chemist, argued that life is not reducible to mere chemistry and physics. Thaxton may have forgotten the paper had he not, soon after reading it, happened to hear an analysis of it by Francis Schaeffer, who called Polanyi’s assertion “one of the most outstanding propositions of the twentieth century.” Thaxton was intrigued. He began to examine the state of the origin-of-life field, and found it… well, let’s say unproductive.

 It’s a helpful and very interesting intellectual lineage. Read the rest at The Federalist.