Intelligent Design Debate Still Raging on Two Decades Later

The landmark book that made "intelligent design" into an anti-evolution battle cry turns 20-years-old next week.

Phillip E. Johnson's Darwin on Trial has provoked extreme reactions ever since it first challenged Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in 1991. Now considered a classic defense of intelligent design, it's still stirring debate in the scientific community with its 20th anniversary edition.

"Phillip E. Johnson’s work brought the intelligent design movement together," said Casey Luskin, a research coordinator for the Discovery Institute, an intelligent design advocacy group. "It is a criticism of Darwin's theory of evolution on scientific grounds. It has really united a lot of people."

Darwin, an English naturalist from the 19th century, set the stage for the evolution debate when he published his 1859 treatise On the Origin of the Species. It argued that all life descended from common ancestors and then evolved through "natural selection," or the process by which favorable biological traits are passed to a species' offspring to preserve that species. The theory is now an essential part of contemporary science.

"Evolution is one of the most robust and widely accepted principles of modern science," wrote the Board of Directors for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in their 2006 "Statement on the Teaching of Evolution." "It is the foundation for research in a wide array of scientific fields, and accordingly, a core element in science education."

Darwin's theory soon courted detractors concerned about its reliance on random chance for explaining natural selection. Such a theory, they worried, turned life into something ultimately chaotic and meaningless.

"Darwin's theory of evolution can best be understood as a theory of unintelligent design," said Art Battson, the director of instructional resources for the Access Research Group, a scientific information group. "Johnson rightly pointed out in Darwin on Trial that most scientists consider unintelligent design to be the only scientific explanation because natural science is restricted to purely natural philosophy."

Johnson's theory of intelligent design thus deeply moved thinkers who disliked science's reliance on events that exist only in empirically-testable nature. Intelligent design arose out of this initial protest, and has since proposed that evolution is guided by a creative intelligence rather than randomness.

"In biodiversity we find organisms with huge increases in complexity as you move up the ladder," said John Calvert, managing director of the Intelligent Design network. "From a scientific standpoint, the data leads you to the conclusion that the universe arose from intelligence and design. Matter, energy and forces are so fine-tuned that if even one were slightly different, life couldn't have arisen."

The implications of Johnson's argument allowed for the presence of the supernatural in everyday reality. Luskin said it has since downgraded Darwin's theory by revealing its overreliance on random chance.

"The basis of life is the information in our DNA," he said. "We are finding that in many organisms, multiple mutations in their DNA must be present before any benefit is incurred upon that organism. Darwinian Theory has utterly failed to explain many of these complex features. Unguided natural processes don't produce complexity in our experience."

Battson said regardless of whom was right or wrong in the evolution versus intelligent design debate, it afforded a valuable opportunity to discuss God's role in the universe.

"Creation preceded evolution," he said. "Descartes said 'I think, therefore I am.' My bet is that God replied, 'I am, therefore think.'"

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