Making the Case for Design

William Dembski, a key proponent of intelligent design, talks with Vision publisher David Hulme and contributor John C. Anderson about some of the issues and challenges facing the movement.

William Dembski is a leader in the Intelligent Design movement, which challenges traditional explanations of the origins of life through Darwinian evolution. Dembski has written many articles as well as a number of books on the subject, including The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (InterVarsity, 1999). He holds doctorates in mathematics and philosophy, has done postdoctoral work in mathematics and physics, and is currently an associate research professor in the conceptual foundations of science at Baylor University.


Vision  What are the fundamental issues for the proponents of intelligent design [ID], and why are they relevant?

WD The issue is whether reality is fundamentally the product of mind, intelligence and purpose, or of mindless, natural, material forces that evolve over time. Are we here as a result of an intelligence that intended us for a purpose, or are we an evolutionary by-product? The evolutionary case doesn’t want to put it in those stark terms, but that’s really the fundamental issue. There’s no good evidence for thinking that all biological complexity and diversity can be accounted for in terms of a blind evolutionary process.

Richard Dawkins, in his book The Blind Watchmaker, writes on the first page: “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” His three hundred additional pages argue that it is only an appearance of purpose. The burden for the ID theorist is to show that there are some aspects of biology, like the bacterial flagellum or other molecular machines, that are intelligently designed, whereas the burden of the Darwinist is to argue that no aspect of biology is intelligently designed.

One of the problems with biology is that biologists are not engineers. Engineers understand how hard it is to get things to work. Evolutionary biologists spin just-so stories about how various forms of biological complexity might have evolved, but there’s no way to test whether it would work, or could work, or what actual genetic changes would have to happen to bring about the system in question.

Vision  Charles Darwin was about to become a curate in the Anglican church when he was invited to join the scientific expedition aboard the Beagle. As a result, he ended up in a very different place religiously. You seem to have made a similar major course change, but you’ve arrived at an opposite conclusion in your work.

WD Yes, I have. My dad was a biologist, so I simply accepted evolutionary theory when I was growing up. I didn’t investigate it. Those were not even my interests in high school.

I was never an atheist, but certainly in the first part of my life I was not a Christian either. Then I started seeing things in a Christian light. I began thinking about the implications of my faith and reading some critiques of evolutionary theory that made sense to me, and I saw no reason to hold on to Darwinism. It struck me as highly improbable that the material processes that were supposed to be running the show in evolution could build all this biological complexity and diversity. I was working mainly with intuition; I didn’t have a coherent set of arguments then.

Darwin’s deistic faith eroded over time and just kept eroding, so that at the end of his life he was convinced that no knowledge of God was really possible; it was just an inscrutable mystery. There is a force of logic to his ideas that compels powerfully in an unfortunate direction.

Vision  How do you respond to those who find the basic principles of ID to be valid but who are not Christians?

WD I see ID as part of God’s general revelation—the common property of all people. I certainly don’t want to deny it to anybody. I am in touch with Hindus and Buddhists, and I respect them. I see them as allies in the cause of ID. In fact, I’m delighted that ID is getting as much play as it is among non-Christians. So I think it’s important to be clear that ID is not identical with the gospel, which speaks about Jesus Christ and His message.

Vision  Can we really expect Western society to turn against Darwinian evolution as an idea, given the secular bias that exists even in some religious institutions?

WD Speaking from the American context, you have a populace that is quite skeptical of Darwinian theory. I don’t think we’re dealing with something that is invincible by any means. The arguments are on our side. A physicist at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] has informed David Berlinski, a colleague who writes against Darwinism, that he has a whole fan club there. It’s not out in the open, but there is already a lot of doubt and dissent against Darwinism that’s quietly going on.

Vision  What are the most serious challenges faced by people like yourself, who are promoting ID?

WD There’s a lot of ostracism—being considered cranks by a good deal of the academic establishment. But there’s also the sense that we’re not your run-of-the-mill cranks. Cranks don’t normally hold much sway in the public sector, but ID does now have the ear of the public. So while the general population is largely with us, what we’re doing is perceived as threatening and dangerous among the academic and scientific elite. Most of my colleagues and I do move in those circles, and that means that we come into quite a bit of conflict.

Vision  How can the ID movement gain wider acceptance?

WD We have a great deal of work and clarification to do. Many people still haven’t read our work. A colleague of mine got in touch with the people on a committee of the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] who had written a denunciation of ID, and it turned out that they hadn’t read any of our primary literature. So there’s still a lot of ignorance out there.

The biggest challenge for us is that we need to get busy and really produce. It’s one thing to say that there’s design in biological systems, but another to back it up with sound theoretical and experimental scientific work. That’s starting now—gaining real scientific insight into the biological systems; developing a research program that scientists will want to come on board with. That’s the real challenge. Design is a fruitful notion. It’s been in cold storage essentially since the time of Darwin, and it needs talented workers to develop it.

But if you declare for ID in the sciences, and especially in biology, it can be a career-slayer. So people have to move very cautiously if they’re committed to ID and want to do research. They have to play their cards very close to the vest. I know a young biologist who’s one of the brightest people in ID, but all of his work is on the Internet under a pseudonym. He’s looking to get tenure, and the word is that when he gets tenure, he’ll go public. There’s a lot of pressure.

I know a young biologist who’s one of the brightest people in ID, but all of his work is on the Internet under a pseudonym. The word is that when he gets tenure, he’ll go public.”

William Dembski

We need to be careful, though, about thinking that the academic establishment is all bad—that they’re out to keep good ideas from seeing the light of day. I don’t believe that. There are ways to get into this conversation, and the longer we persist, the more our good influence will increase.

Vision  What are the most convincing arguments for ID?

WD Just the fact that we have reliable methods of design detection should raise a question in people’s minds. Whether these methods can be applied to biology and yield design is an open and exciting question. Just that possibility is very significant.

Then there’s the issue of what happens when we do apply these methodologies to biological systems. We’re finding that at the subcellular level there are all these molecular machines of tremendous complexity that have resisted Darwinian explanations, and when these design detection methods are applied to them, they increasingly point toward intelligent agency.

We’ve made a lot of progress here, but there’s a lot to be done. Once design has been established—once it’s been shown that material mechanisms are inadequate to bring about biological complexity—then a whole host of new questions arises.

One in particular is that history has clearly had an effect in biology. Evolution to some degree has happened. So to what extent have history, natural selection, random variation and material forces been significant in biological evolution? We find that artifacts, or designed systems, are subject to erosion and wear—the effects of natural forces on them. Teasing apart the effects of these natural forces from the effect of design becomes a significant research program.

Vision  Do you think ID should be taught alongside evolution in public schools?

WD I think it deserves to be taught alongside biological evolution, if only because biological evolution is so poorly supported by evidence. It’s a terrible theory in terms of its evidential support. Alternatives deserve a place at the table.

But the approach of my colleagues at the Discovery Institute is more incremental: they see ID as not yet at a place where it can be taught with complete effectiveness. One thing we currently lack is curricular material. Hence, their approach is not so much to get ID taught as to allow criticism of Darwinian theory. And you can find criticisms, in terms of the weaknesses of the theory, in the mainstream biological literature. You don’t have to go to the ID people to find it.

My colleagues and I are against forcing ID to be taught, however. The point is to give school boards and teachers the option. But even that is being fiercely resisted by lobbying groups such as the NCSE [National Center for Science Education]. There’s a lot of social and legal intimidation going on, where these groups will approach school boards and teachers and try, often under the threat of a lawsuit, to get them to back off from allowing criticism to be raised or ID to be taught.

Vision  How do you see the relation of the science that you’re engaged in to materialism as a philosophical concept—the idea that only the material world is real?

WD My approach is very much at odds with materialism. If design can be detected in natural systems, materialism is dead. Materialism is basically a two-plank program: At the nuts-and-bolts level of reality are mindless material entities with no purpose, no intelligence. And then there’s history; there’s progress—these mindless material entities evolve over time, and so you have cosmic and biological evolution. The materialist program says that you can explain everything in nature on the basis of material entities evolving over time. That’s a metaphysical claim, not a scientific claim.

The materialist program says that you can explain everything in nature on the basis of material entities evolving over time. That’s a metaphysical claim, not a scientific claim.”

William Dembski

But what would challenge that scientifically? What should we be looking for? Certainly you can ask, as a philosopher, Is materialism the only option? Clearly it isn’t. Then you can ask, What signs of intelligent design do we find? Materialists always retreat into some further metaphysical speculation. This is what you’re seeing in physics now—bubble universes; multiworlds; instead of there just being “our” universe, there are many universes. If you have many universes, there are many lotteries, as it were, in which life could emerge. So what seems improbable from the vantage of our known physical universe actually could be quite probable from the vantage of multiverses.

You can always avoid the design conclusion. Notwithstanding, design detection methods put pressure on the materialist view, because the scientist does not want to retreat to chance. You can say, “Why did X happen? Well, it happened by chance.” But at that point you don’t need Darwin’s theory anymore; you just invoke chance for every step along the evolutionary progression.

So the design program really does put pressure on the materialist system. These systems are very much at odds, and I think the other side feels that pressure. That’s one reason they’re so upset.

Vision  Science is based on observation. And yet the idea of multiple universes or parallel universes is certainly not based on observation. Haven’t people who begin to think in that way departed from their essential craft?

WD You make a good point. A book written about a decade ago by David Lindley, titled The End of Physics, noted that modern physics has given us a great technical apparatus and lots of mathematics, but it’s really, at base, no different from mythology when it gets too far past the realm of empirical evidence. For example, the superconducting supercollider was supposed to discover the next major particle conjectured by particle physics. But Lindley pointed out that to discover the next particle after that, you would need to have an accelerator whose diameter is that of the solar system—clearly an impossible technological task. So there’s really no way to confirm that next particle experimentally. What you find is that the theory is outstripping the possibility of empirical justification.

Modern physics is really, at base, no different from mythology when it gets too far past the realm of empirical evidence.” 

William Dembski

Physicists try to get around that with the concept of multiverses. But when we really press the issue, there is no empirical confirmation of these multiworlds or of so many of the things that are now increasingly talked about in cosmology.

Vision  If we don’t have a blueprint or a set of prespecifications, how can we know that something is, in fact, the result of design?

WD Prespecifications, where we already know what we’re looking for, make the design especially obvious. But when patterns are discovered after the fact, we ask whether it would have been possible to reconstruct that pattern independently of having seen it. And often that’s the case. Look at the bacterial flagellum. It’s essentially a bidirectional motor-driven propeller. Now, that fact was not discovered until the 1920s. When were bidirectional motor-driven propellers invented by humans? Well before then. So here you have a subcellular machine that has essentially been invented beforehand by humans. When you have that sort of match, I don’t think it’s even fair to say that we’re finding this pattern after the fact and therefore we’re making it up as we go along. There is a design challenge there. The fact is that we can often tell we’re dealing with artifacts, or designed systems, even if we have very minimal information.

Vision  When archaeologists look for stone tools, they don’t have to find an elaborately carved arrowhead to come to the conclusion that an item was humanly manufactured. Is there a correspondence here to irreducible complexity, in that there don’t have to be a million parts to a cellular structure to recognize that it didn’t fall together accidentally?

WD In fact, I’d go further than that. Even the simplest biologically significant structures are immensely complex. Granted, there’s simplicity at the level of nucleotide bases and amino acids. But as soon as you start stitching amino acids together to form proteins, or DNA bases together to form the double helix, there is tremendous complexity. An average protein is 250 or so amino acids in length; that’s 20,250 possible variations. Randomly hitting one particular amino acid is therefore highly improbable. About 40 different proteins are involved in the bacterial flagellum, and they have to be in the right proportions. The whiplike tail will be about 20,000 protein subunits; other parts may have a few hundred subunits of a given type of protein. So these things are tremendously complex.

The place where the analogy with archaeology breaks down is that archaeologists often already know they’re dealing with humans in a given locale. They’ve found other artifacts nearby. So all of this information will be used in looking at some stones to say, “This is an artifact and not just a random chunk of stone.”

But when we’re looking at molecular machines, we’re looking at machines that are exquisite. Howard Berg at Harvard calls the bacterial flagellum “the most efficient machine in the universe.” So we’re not looking at what at first glance looks like just a random chunk of stone but on closer examination is probably an arrowhead. We’re looking at something that is without a doubt very finely crafted. Imagine an arrowhead that’s been carefully shaped—very symmetrical. It’s been painted; it’s been signed by the artist or manufacturer. That’s the sort of thing we’re looking at in biology.

Vision  The flagellum has been spoken about and pictured often, but how many other machines have been discovered?

WD The bacterial flagellum has had a lot of play; however, as Behe has pointed out, most proteins in the cell are intrinsically involved with at least six to ten other proteins. So these protein machines—molecular machines—are everywhere.

The problem for the evolutionary biologist is not just that they haven’t explained the bacterial flagellum, it’s that they haven’t explained any of these machines in Darwinian evolutionary terms. People like James Shapiro at the University of Chicago, a noted molecular biologist, and Franklin Harold, a cell biologist at Colorado State University, say in virtually identical language that there are no detailed Darwinian pathways to any of these systems. They then add the exact same phrase: “only a variety of wishful speculations.”

And that’s the problem. If Darwinism were such a wonderfully successful theory, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. It’s precisely because of its inadequacy in accounting for such systems, and now the increasing plausibility of intelligent design in accounting for them in a scientifically fruitful way, that we are having this conversation.