Interview: Jay Richards Elaborates on the Controversy Over Intelligent Design

Intelligent design (ID), a theory that argues that complex living organisms must have been created by a "designer," continues to cause disagreements all around the nation. Schools find themselves having to take a position on what they believe, and to either hold Darwinian evolution to be true or give this new emerging model a chance.

In a recent incident, science professors at Southern Methodist University (SMU) are adamantly objecting to a "Darwin vs. Design" conference that will be held on its campus, explaining that ID is complete nonsense. The debate between the two sides continues to grow.

One ID proponent, Jay Richards, research fellow of the Acton Institute and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, recently spoke at a recent "Darwin vs. Design" conference in Knoxville, Tenn. He strongly urges people to question the validity of evolution, and hopes that ID can gain more support in the future.

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Apart from his busy schedule, Richards was able to squeeze in an interview with The Christian Post to give his take the recent storm over the origins of life.

CP: There has been a lot of controversy over intelligent design and efforts to have it taught in schools. Especially at Southern Methodist University, the professors there have been extremely resistant to allowing even a conference on its campus. How do you feel about the situation right now? What is your take on it?

Richards: Well, I think intelligent design is a controversial idea, but it's also an idea that's been debated in all of western history. In fact in polls, the vast majority of people believe that the universe is a product of intelligent design and purpose.

The problem is what developed in the 19th Century; the widespread idea called scientific materialism became, essentially, the intellectual orthodoxy. It basically says that, to explain anything scientifically, it has to be explained in purely materialistic terms. What that means is that if you have some argument or evidence for nature that evokes intelligent cause, immediately it's labeled as non-science or pseudoscience or at the very least religion. In that sense, by attaching the label of religion to it, the person is essentially trying to privatize it, so it doesn't have to be considered public evidence.

But the point of intelligent design's argument is that it's based on public evidence, the evidence from nature and the natural world. It's not based off parochial interpretations, from say, Genesis 1. A good designer argument is an argument in that anyone can participate in it, because it's based off things that are publicly acceptable.

CP: Some have found the recent uproar at SMU over the upcoming "Darwin vs. Design" conference surprising because SMU is a religiously based-institution. Were you expecting the intelligent design conference at SMU to be more warmly greeted than other places because of that?

Richards: What's funny about the controversy is that, of course, SMU stands for Southern Methodist University. But what a lot of people don't realize is that the materialistic worldview is so widespread that even in schools that have Christian names, there's still not a whole lot of challenging when it comes to the materialist worldview. I'm frankly not at all surprised that the faculty at SMU didn't react any differently had they been a state school. In fact, sometimes, they are even more zealous to defend the territory, because colleagues at secular institutions might suspect something religious is going on.

It seems perplexing to people that the faculty at Southern Methodist University would object to arguments from science that would confirm some belief they have as Christians. But the truth of the matter is that scientific materialism is so pervasive that it is almost as common in Christian universities as it is at state universities.

CP: What do you think is the most difficult thing when trying to promote intelligent design, and do you feel that it is any closer to being accepted as something that could go into schools?

Richards: Well, let me bracket off the school question, because I think that any idea that is going to be widely discussed, or certainly, mandated in a public school, needs to gain a hearing in the public at large. None of us involved in the intelligent design debate think that ID should be imposed from the top down like some government bureaucrat.

I do think that the biggest impediment for ID getting a better hearing is what I would call a 'Scope's Monkey Trial stereotype.' In part, it's this idea from American history since 1925 that conveys whether a teacher can express Darwin's theory of evolution. At that time, the issue was whether the state could suppress the discussion of Darwinism. The issue actually has fled to the opposite direction since then. So now the question is whether the teacher is even free to discuss criticism of Darwinism. Now, even if the teacher tries to raise criticism of Darwinism apart from an argument for intelligent design, they can find themselves a target of a lawsuit.

The problem is that this issue is not easily squeezed into this iron box of the Scope's Monkey Trial, and there are much more complicated and subtle issues here. It's not simply a question of whether God created the universe in six 24-hour days or whether a teacher should be able to teach about Darwinism. All of us in the design movement believe that teachers should be able to talk freely and openly about Darwinism. We expect that means teaching both its strengths and weaknesses and not simply a one-sided propagandistic presentation of the evidence.

CP: I've heard many people say that intelligent design is simply evolution, except that it's evolution with a creator molding that. Do you think that's a fair assessment or are there much larger differences between evolution and intelligent design?

Richards: Intelligent design is essentially a theory about the detection of design. It's not a theory that specifically says which individual species where designed, or something like that.

Design is consistent with a variety of different natural histories. One instance is that we have one general universal common descent, that all organisms share a common ancestor. The main difference is that, for Darwinism, this is related to the Darwinian mechanism. Any design view of evolution is going to do real work; there will be real design in the process. It's not going to be a purely impersonal process like natural selection.

Also, it's not just that a designer does real work, but that it's detectable. When you look at biological forms, we would see the activities of an intelligent agent. That's the main point of intelligent design theory. It's the detectability of intelligent agency.

There's actually agreement between design theory and the details of natural history, such as that organisms do share common ancestry with one another. Some people might call themselves anti-evolutionists, but they are really just anti-Darwinists. They have this belief in God, but in their science, they are orthodox Darwinists. And the others would say that I believe in evolution in some sense, but I also believe that there's real design at work in the process. That's the sort of point of discrimination when it comes to design, whether design can be explanatory or whether it's detectable.

CP: Should intelligent design be put into schools, would you want it taught as a separate class or simply alongside evolution?

Richards: In terms of a topic, the design argument is about biology or about chemistry or about astronomy or physics. Those are all scientific disciplines, so obviously, it is relevant to science class. It wouldn't be in the discussion of, say, social studies or literature.

My own view is that Darwinism, the Darwinian theory of evolution, should be fully and honestly taught, including its strength and weakness. Teachers should be ready to explain the issue of intelligent design, but nobody should be forced to.

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