Intelligent Design and Theistic Evolution

While some theories may be backed by what appears to be science, this does not in any way make that theory itself scientific.  Take for instance global warming.  This theory is backed by huge amounts of research with numerous lines of evidence converging upon the same conclusion.  Nevertheless, “global warming” is not a scientific theory or model by any means, it is a political movement.  The same can be said for the modern Intelligent Design (ID) movement.

While I shall leave the discussion of why this is so for another time, I would like to dedicate the rest of this post to clarifying what other wise seem to be the rather blurry lines which separate ID, formerly known a scientific creationism, from both Theistic Evolution (TE) and Evolutionary Creationism (EC).  Many, in fact most, assume that these three models (not scientific models mind you) are basically the same thing or at minimum have a good deal of overlap with each other.  I will attempt to show that while these models do have their similarities and points of contact with each other, they are actually quite distinct from one another.

The reason for the confusion lies in the belief that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  In other words, since I believe in a Creator God and a fully naturalistic version of Neo-Darwinism denies such, anybody who disagrees with such a model must be on my side.  Accordingly, essentially every flavor of creationist has jumped on the ID band wagon, oft times without so much as asking themselves what it is that ID allows and rejects.  

ID, as it presented by Michael Behe and company does not allow for a young earth.  Nor does it hold out for a separate creation of species, including that of humans.  In fact, I can’t think of a single system or organ which is claimed to have been intelligently designed which is unique to humans.  Nor does the theory deny that natural selection as a process does have a significant amount of creative power.  It simply points out that some unspecified organs or systems could not have been produced without intelligent foresight.  That’s it. All these points should make ID supporters far more nervous than they seem to be.  

Thus, all young earth creationists cannot wave the banner of ID.  Nor can anybody who insists upon holding out for special and separate creations of species.  This, I assume, covers at least half of those who are so vigilant in their political activism in this matter.  Of course these discrepancies tend not to bother these people in so much as they are happy to have the mere mention of a Creator (Intelligent Designer? C’mon.) in the account of creation.  While they might not accept all of ID, they at least consider it a step in the right direction.

Here I simply can’t help but sidetrack and ask if this really sounds like science to anybody at all.  Parties putting forth preconceived theories without any appeal to falsifiable evidence which can distinguish them from any others and in the end reaching a tentative compromise in order to promote what are common in their different agendas?  People supporting supposedly scientific models based not on what the theory says itself but on what it says against another model?  People voting on what is science?  Politicians’ opinions serving as a substitute for the scientific method?  When was the last time anybody ever saw a debate in a physics, chemistry or biology class?  Contrary to popular opinion, the debate is being taught… to grad students and those who are well informed enough to have informed opinions on the matter.  What kind of class “teaches the debate” in high school?  A humanities class, that’s what kind.  The same kinds of classes that the politicians and lawyers, but not the scientists are accustomed to. But I have digressed.

Having shown how ID differs from the less sophisticated versions of creationism, we should also proceed to show how it differs from other more scientific versions of creationism.  Theistic Evolution maintains that evolution is “the pen which God used to write the book of life” so to speak.  It comes in two varieties.  First, Deistic Evolution (DE) states that God created the world and its laws knowing what would evolve and therefore had no reason to ever interfere with the process of creation.  The other version is that of Evolutionary Creationism which holds that God somehow guided evolution in some undisclosed way.  Both versions accept what ID denies, namely macroevolution.

Part of the appeal which TE offers to the scientific mind is that it makes no claims whatsoever to actually being science.  It offers no theories whatsoever as to how, where or when divine intervention played a role in the creative process.  It simply accepts that it did on simple, unpretentious faith.  But again I have digressed somewhat.

The differences between both forms of TE and ID should not be trivialized.  ID does not accept macroevolution, namely the idea that natural selection along with other purely naturalistic mechanisms could have possibly been responsible for the wide diversity of highly complex life which we now observe. The very idea of ID is that at some time an Intelligence came along and designed something. This is not natural selection, self-organizing complexity or any form of evolution at all which, be it theistic or non-theistic is defined as the accumulation of design through the (differential) replication of living entities.  Coagulation, flagella and the immune system, for example, didn’t evolve into existence at all, but were instead designed all at once.

Either something is designed by an Intelligence or not. I while back at Times and Seasons Glen Henshaw posted on evolutionary algorithms and their use in creating new designs in software programs and the like. This process is very akin to EC in a number of ways.  While the designers did design the computer algorithms they used as well as control the selective pressures, they did not design the products of that process.  Naturally if any person is to receive credit for having designed the products it would definitely be those programmers.  The real credit, however, belongs not with the programmers’ creative genius, but with the creative power of the entirely mindless algorithms themselves.  The programmers simply took advantage of this vast creative power and used it to their own advantage.

To give the designers the full credit for the resulting designs would be to miss the entire point of evolution by natural selection.  One of Darwin’s earliest critics understood this perfectly well when he shrieked:
“In the theory with which we have to deal, Absolute Ignorance is the artificer; so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, in order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not requisite to know how to make it... This proposition will be found…to express in a few words all Mr. Darwin's meaning; who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in all the achievements of creative skill.”


The differences between this and ID should be clear.  Had the engineers been intelligent designers they would have simply built the end product themselves rather than letting a long, wasteful and cumbersome process work on it for a while.  Had they intelligently designed the end product, then they would have indeed deserved full credit for the creative process, but they didn’t so they weren’t.  

Like DE, they didn’t directly create the end product, but rather the process by which that product, whatever it would turn out to be, would be created by nobody but the processes itself.  This, however, isn’t really giving the engineers their full due, for they did, presumably, supervise the process and guide it according to their tastes by a manipulation of selective pressures and variability.  Their roles were much more analogous to EC.  Nevertheless, they still did not directly create the end product and still do not deserve as much credit as if they had directly designed the end product by themselves.

Despite these similarities, there are, however, a number of differences which should not be overlooked.  In the case of the engineers survival and replication are artificially defined according to their particular tastes, desires and goals.  However in biological evolution survival and replication are in fact intrinsically self-defined.  Whereas the engineers defined the ability to survive and reproduce according to performance some particular faculty, surviving long enough to reproduce in biological systems is not defined by actually surviving long enough to reproduce.  Thus, it would seem that in this very important aspect, the User of the biological evolutionary algorithm could design nothing but creations which are good at surviving and reproducing, something which is done by all living organisms, irrespective of cognitive capability or Whose “image” they come in.

Other ways could be conjured up as to how God could have guided this evolutionary process though.  He could have some how protected from harm those organisms which He saw had mutations which, although not contributing to their genetic fitness, did contribute to His own definition of fitness.  He could have also negatively selected mutations which although increase genetic fitness, were contrary to His particular definition of fitness at that particular time.  This, however, would appear to be a serious uphill battle.  One would also have to wonder why, if He knew what was good or bad, didn’t He simply design it according to ID?

This is an important point worth mentioning and giving more thought to.  The reason why the engineers in our example used those mindless algorithms to discover those wonderful designs was because they didn't know what that design would eventually be. If they had known what that optimal design was beforehand, they simply would have intelligently designed it that way rather than taking the long and wasteful route.  One wonders how this point applies to a EC devoid of all intelligent design as I have defined it. If the Designer knew the design then why waste so much time, energy and life in taking the long route? Why take the longer and more exploratory route if no exploration was necessary? The ID answer is that He (to one degree or another) didn't. The evolutionary creationist, on the other hand, doesn't really have much of an answer.

The other way in which God could have guided the evolutionary process is by influencing the mutations in organisms as well as the variation within the populations making them less than random.  Of course, this starts to look an awful lot like full blown ID.  ID, as far as I can tell, does accept that while the irreducibly complex features we now observe could not have come about by natural selection, they do arise within the embryonic development of each organism in a purely naturalistic manner.  Thus, their design wouldn’t amount to building a system as much as simply tinkering with the genetic sequence with a specific goal in mind.  Is this really all that different from what TE is suggesting?

A few comments are in order.  First, if that is the form of design which ID promotes then they really need to abandon any hope of special creation, for this mechanism has common descent written all over it.  This, as we have already seen, should come as no surprise since Behe himself has already acknowledged this.Second, the manner in which "irreducibly complex" systems can arise due to simply manipulations in the genetic sequence actually works against ID attacks on evolution. They are quite fond of quoting Darwin's admission that gradualism is necessary, but here is exactly where Darwin's ignorance regarding genetics plays a crucial role. Modern Neo-Darwinism doesn't necessarily hold out for gradual change in the phenotype as much as it does for gradualness in the change of the genotype, and even then there are some important qualifications which have recently come to light.  The gradualism which ID attacks is no longer a strict prerequisite as it once was. Thus, ID simply must hold out for changes in the genetic sequence which are virtually impossible without some intelligent "help" for their "theory" to have any meaning whatsoever. And this is where the separation between ID and EC comes in. God's causing or influencing particular mutations in the genome would, I suggest, count as EC if the change COULD have come from entirely naturalistic causes, whether it actually did or not. Such mutations would count as ID if they could not have possibly been the effect of "random" mutations and this by their own definition.Thus the EC should be careful to not get too greedy and/or specific in his claims that God influence mutations and/or variation or else he might find himself in the ID camp after all.  The difference between EC and strict ID (a long earth creationism, complete with common descent and microevolution) is one of degree rather than kind, for the possible/impossible divide as to whether a mutation could have arisen by itself is blurry at best.
This then serves as a sufficient test as to whether somebody rejects the ID movement for pragmatic reasons or due to its falsity. Those who reject ID due to its falsity don't think that there are any mutations which COULD NOT POSSIBLY have been entirely blind and naturalistic. Those who reject the ID movement for pragmatic reasons think that there just might be some mutations which really couldn't have been random and therefore do require an Intelligence Designer.  “It’s just,” they claim, “that we probably won't ever be able to find any such mutation events with any degree of surety.  Therefore it is best that we leave that explanation out of science altogether for it is only by assigning naturalistic explanations to all we can that the exceptions will be revealed.”

ID says that those mindless algorithms aren't powerful enough to have done the work we now observe.  Therefore the design which we see now is not a product of indirect design through the tool of blind forces, but is instead the products of direct design. That is why it is "intelligent" rather than "blind."  Thus, either design came directly from God as ID claims or it came, at best, indirectly from God as EC suggests. It can't be both. If we accept any breaks at all in the genealogical lines of accumulated design then we have at that very moment left evolution altogether and are now in ID land.