by H. ALLEN ORR
Why intelligent design isn’t.
Issue of 2005-05-30
f you are in ninth grade and live in Dover, Pennsylvania, you are learning things in your biology
class that differ considerably from what your peers just a few miles away are learning. In particular,
you are learning that Darwin’s theory of evolution provides just one possible explanation of life, and
that another is provided by something called intelligent design. You are being taught this not because
of a recent breakthrough in some scientist’s laboratory but because the Dover Area School District’s
board mandates it. In October, 2004, the board decreed that “students will be made aware of
gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to,
While the events in Dover have received a good deal of attention as a sign of the political times, there
has been surprisingly little discussion of the science that’s said to underlie the theory of intelligent
design, often called I.D. Many scientists avoid discussing I.D. for strategic reasons. If a scientific claim
can be loosely defined as one that scientists take seriously enough to debate, then engaging the
intelligent-design movement on scientific grounds, they worry, cedes what it most desires: recognition
that its claims are legitimate scientific ones.
Meanwhile, proposals hostile to evolution are being considered in more than twenty states; earlier this
month, a bill was introduced into the New York State Assembly calling for instruction in intelligent
design for all public-school students. The Kansas State Board of Education is weighing new standards,
drafted by supporters of intelligent design, that would encourage schoolteachers to challenge
Darwinism. Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, has argued that “intelligent design is a
legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes.” An I.D.-friendly amendment that
he sponsored to the No Child Left Behind Act—requiring public schools to help students understand
why evolution “generates so much continuing controversy”—was overwhelmingly approved in the
Senate. (The amendment was not included in the version of the bill that was signed into law, but
similar language did appear in a conference report that accompanied it.) In the past few years, college
students across the country have formed Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness chapters. Clearly,
a policy of limited scientific engagement has failed. So just what is this movement?
First of all, intelligent design is not what people often assume it is. For one thing, I.D. is not Biblical
literalism. Unlike earlier generations of creationists—the so-called Young Earthers and scientific
creationists—proponents of intelligent design do not believe that the universe was created in six days,
that Earth is ten thousand years old, or that the fossil record was deposited during Noah’s flood.
(Indeed, they shun the label “creationism” altogether.) Nor does I.D. flatly reject evolution: adherents