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Dembski and Ruse Look Back on 20 Years of Debate — And a Special Anniversary

Photo credit: Dustin Humes, via Unsplash.

In 2004 Cambridge University Press published Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA, edited by William Dembski and Michael Ruse, a brilliant landmark anthology showcasing the vibrancy of the debate between intelligent design and evolution. Contributors included Angus Menuge, Kenneth Miller, Elliott Sober, Robert Pennock, Stuart Kauffman, Paul Davies, John Polkinghorne, Richard Swinburne, Walter Bradley, and Stephen Meyer. In 2024, it seemed worthwhile to look back at the two intervening decades and see how the debate has developed. So with great pleasure I invited Dembski and Ruse for a conversation on my podcast:

When Debating Design was published, an ambiguity hung over it. Was this the beginning of a new chapter for ID? Or was it a swansong? Critics believed there were good reasons to think ID would peter out. The New Atheism — new at the time, in the years immediately following 9/11 which called it into being — was on the rise, enjoying far more popularity than ID did. People read New Atheist books and came away feeling courageous and victorious. Yet the New Atheism has since turned passé. Nothing guaranteed that ID would not suffer the same fate. 

Intelligent Design in Two Senses

Twenty years later, ID is still here. How did it persevere? The secret, I think, has to something to do with ID being the flipside of discontent with Darwinian orthodoxy. Design can be thought of in two senses: a strict one, and an expansive one. The strict sense is design as advocated by ID proponents. It is the positive case for ID. Most atheist-leaning scientists remain averse to this. The expansive sense is design as a critique of current evolutionary theory, with the latter’s difficulties in explaining features of biology. That explanatory weakness is not, per se, evidence of design, but it does cause one to wonder about the possibility of intelligent design. Many scientists acknowledge the shortcomings of current neo-Darwinian theory. These two senses of design were discernible in Debating Design

Debating Design gathered essays arguing respectively for four different viewpoints: Darwinism, Complex Self-Organization, Theistic Evolution, and Intelligent Design. As presented in the book, the ID viewpoint argued forcefully for design in nature. It is also true that out of the four viewpoints represented, three recognized that Darwinism by itself was an insufficient explanation for the sublime complexities in life. Seen this way, design in its expansive sense, reflected in a mass of pointed, well-reasoned criticisms, dwarfs Darwinism. By leveraging design in its expansive sense, ID proper provided a platform for scientific discussion. ID then became a viable option by championing the strict sense of design. Critics of ID who are nonetheless skeptical of Darwinism can be read as agreeing with ID that in principle evolutionary theory is not the end-all explanation for biological complexity. 

Growing Doubt About Darwin

Since 2004, doubts about neo-Darwinian mechanisms have only grown. In 2014, Laland, Uller, Feldman, et al.published in Nature an influential article calling for an urgent rethink of evolutionary theory. They wrote: 

The number of biologists calling for change in how evolution is conceptualized is growing rapidly. Strong support comes from allied disciplines, particularly developmental biology, but also genomics, epigenetics, ecology and social science. We contend that evolutionary biology needs revision if it is to benefit fully from these other disciplines. The data supporting our position gets stronger every day.

Yet the mere mention of the EES often evokes an emotional, even hostile, reaction among evolutionary biologists. Too often, vital discussions descend into acrimony, with accusations of muddle or misrepresentation. Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to science. Some might fear that they will receive less funding and recognition if outsiders — such as physiologists or developmental biologists — flood into their field.

…This is no storm in an academic tearoom, it is a struggle for the very soul of the discipline.

Laland, K., Uller, T., Feldman, M. et al. Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Nature 514, 161–164 (2014)

The protest about the “spectre of intelligent design” was telling. When critics start talking that way, as if looking over their shoulder, you can’t help wondering if the ID program is onto something. Darwinian mechanisms, as they stand today, are widely recognized as out of tune with the latest scientific discoveries in a variety of fields. This lends credence to ID, in its expansive sense, as the passage above grudgingly let’s slip. The ID community can take it as a matter of pride that from the very beginning, it has consistently been pointing out the inadequacies of evolutionary thought. Contrast this with recent fledgling viewpoints popping up in the scientific community where weaknesses in the evolutionary narrative are belatedly recognized under the euphemistic terms of “puzzles” rather than “problems,” in need of “revisions” rather than a brand new perspective. It is this trend that has encouraged a certain conciliatory quality in the debate. 

Eschewing Polarization

As I listened to Dembski and Ruse, what struck me most is how their views today eschew the bitter polarization that characterized earlier discussions of ID. In the conversation, Ruse acknowledged that contemporary science has not explained how molecules could have led to mind. The mind-body problem is a fundamental question that science cannot answer. Ruse also explicitly distanced himself from the crude materialism championed by Daniel Dennett, one of the New Atheism’s Four Horsemen. While crucial differences between them remain, as Dembski aptly highlighted, overall the discussion was characterized by amiable restraint, cordiality, and even chumminess. Moreover, Dembski is a Christian, Ruse is an agnostic, and I am a Muslim, and it is significant that all three of us can take ID seriously as a topic deserving of critical engagement rather than dismissive caricaturing. It can be hoped that ID will continue making inroads in the evolution debate. Grand victories are not needed. Slow-but-steady will be far more productive than a quick-dash attempt to the finish line.

Any biological theory that cannot adequately explain the “appearance” (as Richard Dawkins puts it) of design cannot adequately explain life. ID positions itself as explaining this appearance — seen as actual, not illusory — while allowing ample space for competing non-ID theories to air their dissatisfaction with Darwinian orthodoxy. The stricter sense of design can thus be defended as a more reasonable, and a more intuitively straight-forward option amongst this plurality of the dissatisfied. Using this strategy, the ID community can hope to bolster its credibility and contribute to a greater push for a paradigm shift in origins science. 

The continuation of ID across two decades where New Atheism failed shows that ID is closer to the scientific enterprise than the New Atheism ever was. The debate is not over. But as of now, it is clear that ID is heading in the right direction. Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous saying, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” has gradually evolved into “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of design.”