By: Stephen C. Meyer
The modern theory of intelligent design was not developed in response to a legal setback for creationists in 1987. Instead, it was first formulated in the late 1970s and early 1980s by a group of scientists-Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, Roger Olson, and Dean Kenyon-who were trying to account for an enduring mystery of modern biology: the origin of the digital information encoded along the spine of the DNA molecule.
In the book The Mystery of Life’s Origin, Thaxton and his colleagues first developed the idea that the information-bearing properties of DNA provided strong evidence of a prior but unspecified designing intelligence. Mystery was published in 1984 by a prestigious New York publisher-three years before the Edwards v. Aguillard decision.
Even as early the 1960s and 70s, physicists had begun to reconsider the design hypothesis. Many were impressed by the discovery that the laws and constants of physics are improbably “finely-tuned” to make life possible. As British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle put it, the fine-tuning of numerous physical parameters in the universe suggested that “a superintellect had monkeyed with physics” for our benefit.
Nevertheless, only the most committed conspiracy theorist could see in these intellectual developments a concealed legal strategy or an attempt to smuggle religion into the classroom.
But what exactly is the theory of intelligent design?
Contrary to media reports, intelligent design is not a religious-based idea, but instead an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins-one that challenges strictly materialistic views of evolution. According to Darwinian biologists such as Oxford’s Richard Dawkins, livings systems “give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” But, for modern Darwinists, that appearance of design is entirely illusory.
Why? According to neo-Darwinism, wholly undirected processes such as natural selection and random mutations are fully capable of producing the intricate designed-like structures in living systems. In their view, natural selection can mimic the powers of a designing intelligence without itself being directed by an intelligence.
In contrast, the theory of intelligent design holds that there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause. The theory does not challenge the idea of evolution defined as change over time, or even common ancestry, but it does dispute Darwin’s idea that the cause of biological change is wholly blind and undirected.
Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes or a guiding intelligence played a role. Design theorists favor the latter option and argue that living organisms look designed because they really were designed.
But why do we say this? What tell-tale signs of intelligence do we see in living organisms?
Over the last 25 years, scientists have discovered an exquisite world of nanotechnology within living cells. Inside these tiny labyrinthine enclosures, scientists have found functioning turbines, miniature pumps, sliding clamps, complex circuits, rotary engines, and machines for copying, reading and editing digital information-hardly the simple “globules of plasm” envisioned by Darwin’s contemporaries.
Moreover, most of these circuits and machines depend on the coordinated function of many separate parts. For example, scientists have discovered that bacterial cells are propelled by miniature rotary engines called flagellar motors that rotate at speeds up to 100,000 rpm. These engines look for all-the world as if they were designed by the Mazda corporation, with many distinct mechanical parts (made of proteins) including rotors, stators, O-rings, bushings, U-joints, and drive shafts.
Is this appearance of design merely illusory? Could natural selection have produced this appearance in a neo-Darwinian fashion one tiny incremental mutation at a time? Biochemist Michael Behe argues ‘no.’ He points out that the flagellar motor depends upon the coordinated function of 30 protein parts. Yet the absence of any one of these parts results in the complete loss of motor function. Remove one of the necessary proteins (as scientists can do experimentally) and the rotary motor simply doesn’t work. The motor is, in Behe’s terminology, “irreducibly complex.”
This creates a problem for the Darwinian mechanism. Natural selection preserves or “selects” functional advantages. If a random mutation helps an organism survive, it can be preserved and passed on to the next generation. Yet, the flagellar motor has no function until after all of its 30 parts have been assembled. The 29 and 28-part versions of this motor do not work. Thus, natural selection can “select” or preserve the motor once it has arisen as a functioning whole, but it can do nothing to help build the motor in the first place.
This leaves the origin of molecular machines like the flagellar motor unexplained by the mechanism-natural selection-that Darwin specifically proposed to replace the design hypothesis.
Is there a better alternative? Based upon our uniform and repeated experience, we know of only one type of cause that produces irreducibly complex systems, namely, intelligence. Indeed, whenever we encounter irreducibly complex systems–such as an integrated circuit or an internal combustion engine–and we know how they arose, invariably a designing engineer played a role.