This excellent synopsis of the position of Creationists and the Discovery Institute is the work of a commenter here, Richard Edwards, an evolutionary biologist from down the road from me in Hampshire, UK. Visit his blog here. Thanks for letting me post this Richard!
In their FAQ, the Discovery Institute write in response to the question “Is intelligent design theory the same as creationism?”:
“No. Intelligent design theory 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. Creationism is focused on defending a literal reading of the Genesis account, usually including the creation of the earth by the Biblical God a few thousand years ago. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design is agnostic regarding the source of design and has no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text. Honest critics of intelligent design acknowledge the difference between intelligent design and creationism.”
Well, I am an “honest critic” and I will acknowledge the difference between ID and the restrictive definition of Creationism that they choose to use but I will not acknowledge the difference between ID and Creationism in general. Creationism is the belief that some being outside nature (as we know it) created everything, as opposed to everything arising naturally without any causal agent or intervention. This totally encompasses ID.
The fact that they try to make claims that their designer need not be a deity – and, in particular, is not necessarily the god of the Bible – is irrelevant and demonstrates their intellectual paucity and/or dishonesty. The only ultimate conclusion that can be drawn from the ID “hypothesis” is that the Universe was created by a non-physical intelligence. That sounds a lot like a deity (and Creationism) to me. If “aliens did it” then ID also predicts that those aliens must be the product of ID and the problem is moved but not removed.
The only thing that could part ID from Creationism would be if they came out and stated in pure black and white that they are willing to accept that the proposed Designer of this Universe and/or life on Earth was itself the product of purely natural processes and devoid of input from an external Intelligence. In other words, state clearly that their extrapolation of design ONLY applies to the observed Universe. It wouldn’t help their “scientific” claims at all but at least they could honestly cut the ties to their clear and documented Creationist ancestry. (I predict that they will not because I think that even they can see that making this statement would be tantamount to admitting that ID is a wholly unnecessary hypothesis – the only thing that keeps it alive is a stubborn refusal to let go of certain key (flawed) assumptions.)
Even should they take this extra step, the DI and their ID friends have a serious problem that cannot be ignored. The reason that so many critics make the link between ID and Creationism is that, when it comes to the scientific observations and interpretations, ID has the same core ideas as certain flavours of “Theistic evolution” Creationism, and thus all the same criticisms and problems apply.
Creationism is a spectrum with Young Earth Creationism at one end and an almost entirely naturalistic Theistic Evolution at the other. In the former, the Designer (“God”) did essentially everything. In the latter, the Designer just kicked things off at the start – designing the Universe to be able to support life – and did nothing else. ID, as described, is indeed incompatible and different to both of these. (They do accept evolution – ruling out YEC – but do not accept that it was a purely naturalistic, unguided process – ruling out naturalistic Theistic Evolution.)
There is a whole spectrum of Theistic Evolution Creationism in between that invokes an on-going intervention of the deity to a greater or lesser extent.
☛ intervening to start life by making the first replicators (abiogenesis). Note that this (and designing the Universe) is a wholly separate question as to whether evolution could occur by purely natural (unguided) means
☛ intervening for the “major transitions” in evolution. (The first cell, multicellularity, eukaryotes etc.)
☛ intervening at key points throughout to drive the evolution of complexity
☛ intervening to drive all “macroevolutionary” events but staying out of “microevolution”. (A false dichotomy in itself but that’s one for another post.)
☛ intervening to drive all evolution by directing all mutations
ID sits at some fuzzy point along this spectrum, as do Creationists. The fact that, for a Biblical Creationist, the Designer was God is largely irrelevant – unless they go the whole hog and deny evolution entirely as a Young Earth Creationist. (A much more intellectually honest position than ID but also so demonstrably wrong position that even the DI appears to disown it on their homepage.)
In fact, ID has a bigger problem than Theistic Evolution Creationism – the motives of the Designer. As ID advocates will be free to point out when critics point out the numerous apparent design flaws in nature, one can only really talk about “good” versus “bad” design if one knows what the design is for. Natural Selection provides an inherent discriminator for things that work better than others – that is how Natural Selection is able to facilitate the evolution of complex adaptations. Theists can argue from their holy books that the end-point was mankind (or whatever) and although I suspect they cannot really get a good handle on their Designer’s objectives (why, for example, the inordinate fondness for beetles?), they can probably rule some things out. The ID crowd do not even have that.
Instead, ID is just “God of the gaps” rebranded as “Designer of the gaps”. They refuse (but not refute, for their rebuttals are all flawed) possible natural explanations for certain observed phenomena – a Universe “fine-tuned” for life, complex macromolecular machines in biology, and life itself – and make an alternative proposal that is based on unproven and erroneous extrapolations combined with a woeful ignorance of information theory and biology – all cloaked in pseudoscientific language. (Another post for another day.) They then try to find examples of where the theoretical natural explanations for specific phenomena (such as a specific protein complex or specific past evolutionary event) have not been demonstrably proven (despite having a sound theoretical explanation) and insert their Designer with no clue as to its motives or rationale for intervening at that particular point in time and space.
That certainly sounds a lot like traditional Creationism to me. (And whatever it is, it sure ain’t science.)
[Edit note: although most YEC and ID leaders are clearly at odds, it should be noted that ID does not actually rule out a Young Earth, it just does not promote it. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence for an old Earth and lack of Biblical Flood, the fact that the ID movement does not explicitly reject these is another indication of its utter lack of scientific motivation. Then, of course, there is Of Pandas and People, a Creationist text that similarly neither accepts nor rejects YEC and is famous for doing a find and replace for “Creationism” (and similar words), replacing them with “Intelligent Design”. How can you have a coherent view of biological origins if you can’t even decide on something of such fundamental importance?]