Intelligent Design

What is Intelligent Design?

Intelligent design (ID) is the hypothesis that there are some elements of natural systems that are too complex to have been created by undirected processes and could only have been created by an intelligent designer. The hypothesis of ID focuses heavily on biological systems and claims to offer an alternative method for the creation of the natural forms that we observe today. A term coined to support ID is irreducible complexity. The idea of irreducible complexity is that some biological systems are to complex to have arisen without the act of an intelligent designer; that systems where many different parts act together could not have arisen naturally because they cannot function without all of their parts (Behe, 1996). Obviously, the introduction of the ID 'theory' sparked a large debate in the scientific community and in the general public.

The History of Intelligent Design

The ID theory directly challenges the theory of evolution. Evolutionists claim that all of the various forms of life that we observe in the world today originated from a common ancestor. The theory of evolution also relies on mutations, changes to the blueprints of organisms, to explain differences that arise over time as a result of natural selection. Natural selection is a process by which organisms that posses mutations that give them an advantage over other 'normal' organisms are more likely to reproduce. Over time, the number of organisms with these mutations grows as reproduce at a comparatively greater rate. After a number of generations—from days to thousands of years depending on the organism—if the mutation provides a great enough advantage it becomes the new normal. Proponents of ID theory believe that all organisms appeared on Earth abruptly and as we observe them today (Davis, 1993). Intelligent design theory acknowledges the existence of mutations and microevolution (changes which produce different forms of the same species like different breeds of dogs) but contests the existence of macroevolution (changes which produce new species like the evolution of land mammals from sea creatures) (Davis, 1993).

The term intelligent design gained widespread use after it appeared in a book entitled Of Pandas and People. The book was published in 1993 and was integrated into science classrooms, most famously in Dover, Pennsylvania. There are a wide variety of beliefs regarding the origin of the human species, and teaching the theory of evolution in schools has always been controversial. In 2004, the Dover Area School District decided that ID should be taught alongside evolution in science classrooms and that students should be allowed to decide for themselves which theory to believe. The school board further required that a disclaimer stating that the theory of evolution had not been proven to be correct be read to students and that Of Pandas and People be used as a reference book (Jones, 2005).

Teachers and parents later filed a lawsuit against the Dover Area School District claiming that ID was not science; that it was religious in nature and that being forced to teach it in a public school violated their First Amendment rights (Jones, 2005). The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion' . Proponents of ID theory claim that intelligent design is not a form of creationism; that it is not based in religion and that it is a science. Critics of ID maintain that ID is simply creationism re-branded and that it is not a legitimate scientific theory. The decision of the court would rely on the status of ID as a legitimate scientific theory and any basis it may have in religion.

Scientists who were experts in their field were called as witnesses for both the prosecution and the defence. At the end of the trial, which lasted over a week, Judge John E. Jones III ruled that ID was not scientific, that it was based heavily in religion, and that the Dover Area School District violated the First Amendment by mandating that it be taught in public schools (Jones, 2005). The ruling was, like the case, highly controversial. Supporters of ID maintain that it is a legitimate scientific theory and that Judge Jones' decision was in error. Critics of ID claim that this case was the final nail in the coffin of the 'theory.' The overwhelming majority of the scientific community does not regard ID as a legitimate scientific theory.

But is Intelligent Design a Science?

The demarcation between science and pseudoscience will be discussed in greater detail in the next section. Intelligent design is not science. It fails to meet every one of the criteria laid out to define science and offers no practical purpose for its investigation. As was concluded in the aforementioned court case, ID is simply creationism renamed for political reasons. Religion is not science. That is not to say that religion is without benefit to humanity, but this is not the point of this debate. Religion is based on the existence of a supernatural being. The supernatural cannot be explained using natural laws, and therefore cannot be examined using the scientific method.

There is no scientific proof for intelligent design. Proponents of the theory suggest that the appearance of design is proof enough; that the complex forms we observe in nature could not possibly have been produced naturally. Intelligent design proponents also hold that any failings of the theory of evolution are counted as confirmation of ID. Neither one of these claims are even remotely scientific. Behe offers one element of ID that may be testable: irreducible complexity. Unfortunately for ID, irreducible complexity falls apart. Behe uses the example of a bacterial flagellum as a structure that is irreducibly complex; without all of its parts, it cannot function and therefore had to be created as is (Behe, 1996). However, there are examples of structures which contain only some parts of the flagellum and are still able to fulfill a useful role. These structures are useless as a flagellum, but are perfectly adapted to perform the role that they do.

Why Intelligent Design is a Pseudoscience


To understand why ID is not scientific, we must first understand what defines a science. It is very important for humanity to have a definition for what science is. Technology and scientific knowledge improve our lives and it is important to know what has has the potential to be of benefit to humanity. Research programs have to receive funding. It seems logical that medical treatments should be given more government support than magical practices for research into curing disease, but how do we decide this? Science is taught in schools starting at a very young age and what children are taught will define the way they look at the world. How do we decide what should be taught in science classrooms?

Philosophers of science have been struggling with the question of what separates science from non-science since the days of the Ancient Greeks and there is still not a universally accepted definition. Although modern philosophers still struggle to determine an exact definition, there is a widely accepted set of criteria to separate science from non-science, or pseudoscience. These criteria were established to limit science to theories that were based in the natural world, practical, progressive, and based on observation and experimentation.

First of all, a scientific theory must rely on a natural law or a set of natural laws; it cannot rely on a supernatural explanation (Bortolotti, 2008). Supernatural acts are not testable and therefore, as we will discuss in a moment, not scientific. Some theories on creation maintain that the Earth was created only 6,000 years ago, despite the overwhelming geological evidence that places the Earth at about 4.6 billion years of age. It is entirely possible that the Earth was created by a supernatural being and that when it was created it was created with all of the geological features that make it appear to be much older, but there is absolutely no way to test this! An example more relevant to our day-to-day lives is the evolution of the flu virus. Again, it is entirely possible that there is a supernatural being controlling the evolution of the virus but there is no way to confirm or deny that. In the meantime if we take a scientific approach to the problem, we are able to make life-saving vaccines based on the probabilities of certain mutations using our scientific theory of evolution.

Second, a scientific theory must be testable (Bortolotti, 2008). Any claims can be made to explain any observable phenomenon but unless tests are conducted to examine the validity of those claims, science is not being done. It would not be scientific to observe that all objects fall towards the Earth's surface and conclude that this was due to an unobservable particle emitted from another universe. This may well be the case, but there is no way to confirm or deny this hypothesis because we have no way of testing it. Experimentation is a critical part of the scientific method.

The third criterion is falsifiability. Falsifiability is a term brought into widespread use by philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper. To say a scientific theory must be falsifiable means that there must be some conceivable test that is capable of disproving it (Bortolotti, 2008). Consider the scientific theory of gravity, which states that all objects experience the same acceleration towards the Earth's surface. If we observe a single example of an object that does not fall towards the Earth's surface, without an observable explanation, we have disproved the theory of gravity. Popper also said that scientific theories must make risky predictions (Bortolotti, 2008). In the gravity example it is a universal statement; ALL objects experience the SAME acceleration towards the Earth's surface. It is also a very risky prediction; if a single example is observed that does not follow the universal statements laid out by the theory, the theory is disproved and must be altered to account for the observation or completely discarded if no reasonable alterations are possible. An example of a theory that is not falsifiable is astrology. Astrologists use the position of the planets in our solar system at the time of a persons birth to make predictions about their life (Thagard, 1978). However—if you have ever read your daily horoscope you will know—these predictions are very vague. Horoscopes claim that a person MAY feel this way today or that something MAY happen to them. Astrology does not make specific, risky predictions and is therefore not falsifiable. If you claim that it may ray rain tomorrow you cannot be wrong! However, you are also not doing science.

Scientific theories must be progressive and must be altered or discarded in the light of new evidence (Lakatos, 1970). To be legitimately scientific a theory must make universal and risky predictions, as stated previously, but just because an observation is made that contests the predictions made by the theory does not mean that the latter must be thrown out immediately. Perhaps the theory was comprised of several concepts and only one of these concepts was faulty. If that concept is replaced by an altered concept which accounts for the unexpected result, you again have a theory that is supported by all observations made so far. Eventually though, new evidence will show that a theory may simply be way off the mark. This was the case with the Newtonian Model of physics, which could not account for the movement of particles at the atomic level no matter what modifications were applied to it. The theory was subsequently replaced with the Quantum Mechanics theory which has yet to be disproved. Science must be completely unbiased. Proponents of pseudoscientific theories often refuse to budge even when contradictory evidence it presented. Instead of drawing conclusions from facts, pseudoscientists only consider facts which support their foregone conclusions.

Finally, scientific theories must follow the scientific method (Bortolotti, 2008), classically described as following these steps: observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion. Scientists first make an observation of the natural world that raises a question. A hypothesis is then formed which attempts to explain the observations that were made. Conclusions on the validity of the hypothesis are drawn after experimentation, and the hypothesis is either supported or not supported. If the hypothesis is supported, additional experiments are carried out in an attempt to replicate the results of the original experiment. If the hypothesis is not supported, a new hypothesis is created and the experiment is run again (Bortolotti, 2008). Any practice that skips one of these steps is not scientific. In the case of most pseudosciences, it is the step of experimentation that is either performed inadequately or is skipped altogether.

The Status of Intelligent Design as a Scientific Theory

Intelligent design fails to meet the first criterion outright, by definition. The very premise of ID is that it requires the action of an intelligent designer, a supernatural being. Supernatural causes must be eliminated from scientific endeavours because they are by their very nature uncontrollable, unpredictable, unnatural. A supernatural cause may indeed be at the root of the natural world. It is entirely possible that an intelligent designer created the universe as is and has dictated the way that molecules interact. However, stopping when we observe something we don't understand makes no practical sense. It is the exact opposite of science. If we simply conclude, for example, that disease is the result of the actions of an intelligent designer, we would have no doctors, no treatments, no medicines. As humanities' knowledge grows, so too does the rate at which that knowledge is acquired. It is vital that we take a scientific approach to questions that we don't understand. Supernatural explanations offer no practical solutions.

The theory of ID is not testable. It is impossible to conduct an empirical test on a supernatural phenomenon. Advocates of ID theory dance around this issue by giving a scientific-sounding definition of what design is. Design is defined as an element of the natural world that does not appear to have arisen from a natural cause. The ID book Of Pandas and People uses the example of seeing “John loves Mary” written in the sand on a beach, among others (Davis, 1993). Proponents of ID use this as an analogy for highly complex and machine-like elements of nature such as the bacterial flagellum, a very efficient biological motor. However simply defining what is to be interpreted as design offers no way of testing it. Of course a complex biological system could have been assembled by God—or by aliens for that matter—but we have absolutely no way of determining that. The very notion that parts of the natural world appear designed is a faulty one; the natural world has had millions of years to perfect its systems. Perhaps it is not the natural world that appears to mimic human creations, perhaps human creations mimic the natural world.

Intelligent design is, again by definition, not falsifiable, not only because it is based in religion but also because it is not testable. It is impossible to falsify something that cannot be tested. By this point it is established that ID is simply creationism with a different name and creationism comes directly from religion. Religion is highly unfalsifiable. It is impossible to prove that God does not exist. Historically, religious institutions have always been resistant scientific discoveries that challenge their traditional beliefs. Any theory that holds to its original conclusions despite contrary evidence, is not scientific; since ID stems from religion, it is such a theory. For these reasons ID also fails the progressive criterion. Intelligent design theory does not progress. When presented with conflicting evidence proponents of intelligent design will propose explanations, no matter how ludicrous, before they will alter their hypothesis.

Intelligent design skips or makes a mockery of the most crucial step of the scientific method: experimentation. We have already concluded that experimentation on ID theory is impossible because it is not testable. Again, it is impossible to test a supernatural phenomenon. Intelligent designers attempt to contest this fatal flaw by again turning to their definition of design. Proponents claim that looking for elements in the natural world that appear to be designed is experimentation, however this is an outright falsification. Observing natural phenomenon and claiming that they were designed but offering no method—other than 'God did it'—and no proof is not experimentation. Proponents also claim that ID is testable in the sense that it is falsifiable by evolution; that if evolution provides definitive proof of its own validity then ID is disproved. This is simply not how science works. It is the responsibility of a theory to provide the evidence for its validity; the burden of proof must lie with it. It is not scientific to confirm one theory by failing to prove another.

The Problem With Creation as a Science

Throughout history, religion has been a science stopper. Scientific discoveries directly challenge some of the deepest religious beliefs. Teaching religion as a science has several consequences. First, it gives students a false impression of what science is. Second, it undermines the scientific method. Simply throwing up our hands when we encounter something we don't understand and saying 'god did it' does not do us any practical good. Holding back scientific progress for religious reasons would throw us back into the dark ages. The idea that the world was round was once a highly controversial idea too.


Intelligent design is a pseudoscience because it tries to present itself as a science but fails to meet the criteria of a scientific theory. The ID theory uses non-scientific or misinterpreted evidence and uses the perceived failings of the theory of evolution as support for its own validity. Considering ID to be a science would undermine the scientific method and threaten to hinder discoveries that may be made if resources were concentrated on legitimate scientific theories. Intelligent design theory may not be wrong, but it is not science.


  1. Behe, Michael. Darwin's Black Box. New York: The Free Press, 1996. Print.
  2. Bortolotti, Lisa. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008. Print.
  3. Davis, Percival, Dean Kenyon. Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. Dallas: Haughton Publishing Company, 1993. Print.
  4. Jones, John III. Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al., 342, (PA, 2005).
  5. Lakatos, Imre. “Falsification and the Methodology of Research program.” Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Ed. Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970. 91–197. Print.
  6. Thagard, Paul. "Why Astrology is a Pseudoscience." CCLWeb: PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association Vol. 1978, Volume One: Contributed Papers (1978): 223-234. Web.