Intelligent Design: Get ready for another round

President Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is very likely a supporter of teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in public schools. Her husband, Dick DeVos, ran for Governor of Michigan in 2006 and explicitly stated his support for ID ( ). It is not unlikely, then, that ID proponents will be emboldened to make a fresh push to include it in school science curricula.

A key strategic claim for ID proponents is that ID is not merely a repackaging of creationism.

“The theory of intelligent design is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the “apparent design” in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. “

The unstated details of ID tell another story, however. Here is why:

Consider one of the favorite examples of ID proponents – the bacterial flagellum. Some bacteria have a little whip-like tail that allows them to propel themselves forward like a little motor. Distilled to its essential core, the ID claim is that it is massively improbable that such a structure could have come about by purely natural means. But it is at least less improbable that it should have come about by supernatural means (intelligent agency). The claim is usually made using the term “design.” But this avoids the question of how, exactly, the design is implemented. That is, if the bacterial flagellum begins as a design in the mind of an intelligent designer, how does the designer get the flagella into the world?

Since ID rejects the claim that there is any natural pathway from flagella-less to flagella-ed bacteria, there are only a few apparent options. The designer could simply create flagella-ed bacteria were before there were only flagella-less bacteria. Or, the designer could start with a population of flagella-less bacteria and then create, by supernatural intervention, flagella for them (“let these bacteria become flagella-ed!”) and simultaneously modify their DNA so that their descendants would also be flagella-ed. Or, the designer could start with a population of flagella-less bacteria and only modify their DNA so that their descendants would be flagella-ed. Each these options postulates a miraculous intervention. (I suppose that the second and third options might not fit a narrow enough definition of creationism, but positing miraculous intervention is close enough.)

We could design experimental protocols that would test for each of these options. For the first, we could set up some sterile pertinent dishes devoid of any bacteria and periodically check to see whether any flagella-ed bacteria had appeared in them. Preferably, we would hope for a previously unknown strain. This should not be too unreasonable an expectation on the ID view, since according to ID, history contains many many instances – perhaps millions – of complex structures appearing in the world as a result of intelligent intervention. Why think the designer has permanently rested and no longer implements intelligently designed organisms? True, there is the religious doctrine that God is the designer and rested after the 6th day, where perhaps “resting” could be interpreted as being permanently finished, but this would be scientifically ad hoc, and ID is supposed to be a scientific (not religious) hypothesis that doesn’t invoke religious doctrines.

Or, we could stock some petri dishes with flagella-less bacteria and watch them carefully to see whether they become spontaneously modified to have flagella or suddenly produce offspring with flagella. Oddly enough, this is actually how many people commonly understand (or rather misunderstand) the naturalistic story to go, when in fact the naturalistic story involves much more gradual changes over very long spans of time. But if such a thing were observed, we would have to choose which of several competing hypotheses was the most reasonable: (1) An extremely unlikely natural event happened, or (2) spontaneous mutations resulting in complex structures are far more likely than we had previously thought, or (3) intelligent agency (design) is responsible.

We are also supposed to impose probability estimates in isolation from what would surely be relevant teleological questions in the case of intelligent agency. So, for example, we are supposed to consider the relative probabilities that an intelligent designer is responsible for the complexity of bacterium B without also considering the probability that an intelligent designer (who may or may not be God) would be responsible for the fact that B causes extremely unpleasant death for many of those who end up being infected by it. So if one were to take the view that intelligence and morality are correlated (a position I am not arguing for but which does have a rich historical pedigree), then instances of moral neutral or morally negative complexity would seem to count more strongly in favor of a naturalist explanation than an ID explanation. To those who say, “I don’t know who or what the designer is, but whatever it is must be intelligent” it seems fair to reply “I don’t know who or what the designer is, but whatever it is must be morally disinterested in what this complex bacterium actually does when let loose in the world.”

Of course, the strongest pushback of all against the ID strategy is to provide empirical evidence showing that (and how) the highlighted instances of complexity very plausibly can be built up stepwise by naturalistic evolutionary processes. The more often scientists can respond to the examples trotted out by ID proponents and say, “Sure this could come about naturally. Here’s how…” the weaker the ID case becomes.