What Would Darwin Say About Intelligent Design?

In this month’s Scientific American there is a very interesting article written by Glenn Branch & Eugenie C. Scott entitled The Latest Face of Creationism in the Classroom. There are three key ideas in the article, and they highlight the controversies that have surrounded the teaching of evolution in American public schools.  Here are the key ideas:

  • Creationists continue to agitate against the teaching of evolution in public schools, adapting their tactics to match the roadblocks they encounter.
  • Past strategies have included portraying creationism as a credible alternative to evolution and disguising it under the name “intelligent design.”
  • Other tactics misrepresent evolution as scientifically controversial and pretend that advocates for teaching creationism are defending academic freedom.
What would Darwin say?
We should start by saying that Charles Darwin would probably not be surprised by the controversy.  He held off publishing his theory of evolution, and only published it when he was shocked that Alfred Russell Wallace had independently arrived at the same theory explaining the descendence of new species.  He held off publishing knowing that his ideas would raise questions about human origins, and as a result he didn’t publish his book on human origins, The Descent of Man until 1871, 12 years after Origins was published.

Darwin's second book on evolution, The Descent of Man, was published in 1871.

Darwin's second book on evolution, The Descent of Man, was published in 1871.

However, let us be clear, that Darwin was very confident that he and Wallace has discovered how species evolve, one from another.  Here is what Darwin had to say about humans and evolutionary theory:
“Man at the present day is liable, like every other animal, to multiform individual differences or slight variations, so no doubt were the early progenitors of man; the variations being formerly induced by the same general causes, and governed by the same general and complex laws as at present.  As all animals tend to multiply beyond their means of subsistence, so it must have been with the progenitors of man; and this would inevitably lead to a struggle for existence and to natural selection.”
Darwin would probably denounce creationism and intelligent design as alternative explanations of how species have evolved on the Earth.  In fact, Darwin dealt with each of these ideas especially during the period of 1840s and 1850s when he was developing his ideas on evolution.  Although Darwin was not as religious as some might hope for, he had studied religion in undergraduate school, and his parents hoped he would enter the ministry.  His ideas on religion changed over time, the death by yellow fever of one his very young children led him to reject the religious beliefs that he had developed in the Anglican Church.  He and his wife were active in the Unitarian Church.  He would oppose creationism, not based on his religious views, but because of his understanding of the nature of science, and the fact that he had considered all of the objections to his theory that he knew the creationists would raise.  In his book, On the Origins of Species, he devotes several chapters to answer the fundamental questions that would be raised about the theory.  For example, Chapter 2 of Origins is entitled “Difficulties of the Theory,” in which he discusses why transitional fossils are so rare.  Chapters 7 – 10 continue his discussion of difficulties with the evidence, and helps the reader deal with the potential questions that will arise, and provides powerful answers.
As for his view of “intelligent design,” Darwin concluded that evolution proceeded by means of natural selection without a Divine Creator, or some other intelligent agent.  The chief proponent of intelligent at the time was William Paley (1743 – 1805).  Paley had used a teleological argument using the watchmaker analogy to argue that the inner workings of a watch need an intelligent designer, and as with the watch, the complexity of some part or aspect of nature (like a complex organ, or organism) would necessitate a designer.  Darwin, during his early years, accepted, like many others, Paley’s argument of intelligent design.  Darwin, as he thought about, and as he developed his theory of the origin of the species by means of natural selection, not only challenged Paley’s idea of an intelligent designer, but saw that his and Wallace’s theory was the scientific evidence to reject intelligent design.  To Darwin, it was the diversity in nature that would result in random variations in organisms which would be result the development of new variations and species.  There is an outstanding article in Scientific American, From Atoms to Traits by David M. Kingsley that develops the idea that nature selects favorable variations in organisms, and that random changes in DNA can give rise to changes in an organism’s traits, providing a constant source of variation.
Darwin would also be very pleased with the current level of research his and Wallace’s theory has created.  As the famous biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.”
About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University