Young-Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design:
A Comparison of Two American Creationist Movements
In the last 15 years Intelligent Design has emerged as a radical new movement within the American Christian creationist community. At the same time, young-earth creationism is still popular, and its influence on American culture may be growing with the political power of evangelical Christianity. Creationism of all sorts has a strong impact on nonscientists’ understanding of science in the United States, and is thus becoming an important part of the history of American science despite its outsider role. In order to understand creationism, though, it is necessary to examine not only the scientific and pseudo-scientific arguments of creationists but also the motivations behind them. Young-earth creationism and Intelligent Design, the two most vocal creationist factions, have substantially different motivations, assumptions, and arguments, so a comparison of the two may be fruitful.
Young-earth creationists by definition believe the earth is only thousands of years old and that all species were created at the beginning of existence or shortly thereafter. Christian young-earth creationists believe that chapters one and two of Genesis comprise a literal account of God’s creation of the earth. Contemporary Christian young-earth creationists, the subjects of this essay, generally follow the worldview of Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research and coauthor of the 1963 book The Genesis Flood, which further argues for the “historicity of Noah’s Flood.”
Intelligent Design (ID) is the name given by its adherents to the hypothesis that organisms are too complex to have originated through what they describe as “random” evolution, and thus must have been created by an intelligent designer. Although this thesis is less explicitly Judeo-Christian than that of young-earth creationism, Intelligent Design theorists are also mostly evangelical Christians. The modern ID movement began with the 1989 publication of the textbook Of Pandas and People by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon and has become an increasingly powerful force in American politics and in the public perception of science.
One critical aspect of the ID movement is that its intellectual and scientific leaders are not in any sense young-earth creationists, but are primarily progressive creationists who believe that God created all species, but not all at the same time. They do not interpret Genesis literally and thus disagree fundamentally with the religious assumptions upon which young-earthers build their ideas. While some laypeople accept both young-earth and Intelligent Design arguments for creationism, and ID theorists themselves use and accept some arguments against evolution developed by young-earthers, ID theorists do not accept the arguments for a young earth.
The differences in assumptions made by these two forms of creationism are related to different motivations. Though nearly all American creationist thinkers share evangelical Christianity, young-earth creationists are often concerned with defending their literal interpretation of Genesis from not only modern science but also other modern interpretations of Christianity. The website of Answers in Genesis, an organization with the motto “upholding the authority of the Bible from the very first verse,” advertises the book Refuting Compromise by Jonathan Sarfati, which sets out to disprove the tenets of progressive creationism.
Progressive creationist Intelligent Design theorists, on the other hand, do not defend an absolute and literal interpretation of Genesis. In anthropologist, observer, and activist Eugenie Scott’s review of ID theorist and law professor Phillip Johnson’s 1991 Darwin on Trial, she describes Johnson as “almost contemptuous of” young-earth creationism. Well-known ID theorists, including Johnson and biochemist Michael Behe, are not concerned with the age of the earth, and indeed tend not to bring up the issue, which is of course a central aspect of young-earth creationism.
While less outspoken than young-earthers about the evils of evolutionism, the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement often argue that evolution is in some way antireligious. In Darwin on Trial, for instance, Johnson argues that scientific naturalism, the principle that phenomena should be described in natural, not supernatural, terms, allows one only to imagine “a God who can never do anything that makes a difference.” He concludes that “the absence from the cosmos of any Creator is therefore the essential starting point for Darwinism.” Based on these writings, Scott provides a clear explanation of Johnson’s motivation. “His concern with evolution,” she writes, “is primarily religious: if evolution by natural selection (Darwinism) really happened, then it is not possible for life to have purpose and for the universe and Earth to have been designed by an omnipotent, personal God.” This explanation also describes young-earth creationists, of course, but their more particularly biblical motivations tend to be more prominent in their writings.
Indeed, the professed motives of young-earthers consist of both biblical apologetics and moral arguments, and the best-known traditional creationists portray the concept of evolution as both antireligious and corrupt. In the words of Henry Morris, “No Adam, no fall, no atonement; no atonement, no Savior. Accepting Evolution, how can we believe in a fall?” Morris also wrote that “evolution is at the foundation of communism, fascism, Freudianism, social Darwinism, behaviorism, Kinseyism, materialism, atheism, and in the religious world, modernism and neo-orthodoxy”. Similarly, the Pittsburgh Creation Society credits evolution as the source of “humanism, alcohol, abortion, cults, sex education, communism, homosexuality, suicide, racism, dirty books, relativism, drugs, moral education, terrorism, socialism, crime, inflation, secularism,… hard rock, and… women’s and children’s liberation.” As historian of science Michael Shermer concludes, “the perceived implications of evolution for ethics and religion are what really disturb [prominent young-earth creationist Duane] Gish and the creationists; for them, all other arguments against evolution are secondary.”
The arguments made by proponents of Intelligent Design and young-earth creationism vary as well, but interestingly didn’t much 13 years ago, when Phillip Johnson and Darwin on Trial represented the IDers. Scott wrote then that “the criticisms of evolution he offers are immediately recognizable as originating with the ‘scientific’ [young-earth] creationists” (noting again at the same time that “Johnson disdains young-earth creationism, and speaks disparagingly of Biblical literalism”). The tactical difference that has developed between the two movements, though, is that the ID movement, fitting its name, focuses on proving the “argument from design” formulated by William Paley in 1802.
The argument from design is actually a very simple one: since we see around us organisms, including humans, that function as if designed, we should conclude that there is or was a designer. In Paley’s Natural Theology he compares a biological organism to a watch, noting that the parts fit together well and serve a purpose and that one can thus make “the inference, that an artificer had been originally employed and concerned in the production.” Intelligent Design theorists make this same inference but in some cases back it up with modern scientific evidence. (Or perhaps in some cases pseudo-scientific evidence, but this depends on definitions.)
(The argument from design is, as Cletus the Foetus reminded me, not an empirical argument. It relies on metaphysical concepts like design and especially on a particular conception of how designer and designed relate to each other, but there can be no sensory evidence for or against this view. The conception itself is expressed by Paley when he states that “there is precisely the same proof that the eye was made for vision, as there is that the telescope was made for assisting it.” There is, in fact, no proof that the telescope was made for assisting vision. All that one can tell from looking at and using a telescope is that it is capable of assisting vision, not that this was its purpose. Similarly, all that one can tell from looking at and using eyes is that it they are capable of vision; purpose, design, and creator are not proven, but assumed.)
The most prominent example of the use of modern science to argue for Intelligent Design is Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box, published in 1996. Behe is not a biblical literalist, and Scott notes that “Behe accepts that natural selection produces most of the complex structural adaptations of plants and animals, and he even accepts that modern living things descended with modification from common ancestors.” Behe thus gives up nearly everything young-earthers fight for, and clearly positions himself as distinct from them. In debate, Behe even “accepted that human beings and chimps share a common ancestor.”
In his own writing, Behe argues that many organic structures are “irreducibly complex… composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” As a biochemist, he argues that some biochemical processes could not have arisen from evolution alone, and that, at some point in natural history, an intelligent designer must have created some chemical components of life.
While these arguments have come under extensive attack from biologists and others, the conflict between intelligent design theory and mainstream evolutionary biology is outside the scope of this essay. What is important to an understanding of creationism on its own is Behe’s statement that “the scientific community [does] not greedily embrace its startling discovery” of ID because “while one side of the elephant is labeled intelligent design, the other side may be labeled God.” He goes on to argue that this shouldn’t be a big deal, as “more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God” anyway, but the conflict between Behe’s concepts of intelligent design and biblical literalism is just as interesting as that between his concepts and agnosticism. Even if accepted by the scientific community and fully supported by empirical evidence, Behe’s findings demonstrate only the existence of God, or perhaps some anonymous other designer, but say nothing about the length of the earth’s history, the origins of humans ourselves, and the other issues that many creationists care about. If widely accepted Behe’s ideas could only change the theology of the fewer than ten percent of Americans who are nontheists, so his ideas are not capable of igniting the kind of societal moral change that young-earth creationists yearn for.
The argument from design itself is simultaneously elegant and open to complex modifications and arguments. It is in fact much like Darwinian evolution in these traits, but is attractive to those who object to evolution as a purposeless origin of intelligent life. Young-earth creationism contrasts with this position by being very dogmatic, due to its ties to the Bible, but these same ties allow its arguments to support a stricter theology. The two movements are thus related to different religious trends, one opposing what Phillip Johnson refers to as “naturalism,” the other opposing a much broader range of scientific, religious, philosophical, social, and ethical positions. Though I was unable to cover the subject in this essay, the movements also have different conceptions of the role of science in society. The current states of the movements suggest that they will remain distinctly separate in the future.
Philip Appleman, editor, Darwin (New York: Norton, 2000).
Answers in Genesis, <http://answersingenesis.org/> accessed May 7, 2004 (Florence, Kentucky: Answers in Genesis, 2004).
Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (New York: Freeman, 1997).
The above-listed anthology Darwin includes most referenced texts.