Design Hypotheses

The intelligent design movement is diverse, encompassing not only creationist views but also many non-Christian and even non-religious perspectives. Not all intelligent design theorists are Christians, nor do all Christians endorse the ID movement as defined earlier in this chapter. Nevertheless, Christians are united in affirming that life was made by an intelligent designer, despite our disagreements on the details of when and how God implemented His designs.

Christians have developed, and continue to develop, many ideas—many different hypotheses—about how God carried out his creative work. All of these hypotheses are, in a broad sense, theories of intelligent design. However, not all design hypotheses imply that mainstream evolutionary science is mistaken. Some Christians see design and evolution as compatible with each other. Philosopher Peter van Inwagen argues that even a simple Darwinian account of evolution is compatible with the claim that God designed living creatures. “As a Christian,” he writes, “I am committed to the thesis that the biological world is a product of intelligent design. I am not committed to any very specific thesis about this design, to any thesis about the exact nature of the connection between the mind of God and the structures of organisms.”Peter van Inwagen, “The Compatibility of Darwinism and Design,” in Neil A. Manson (ed.), God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science. (New York: Routledge, 2003), 349. Although he defends the compatibility of Darwinism with Christianity, van Inwagen himself rejects Darwinism for scientific reasons. In arguing for his central claim that “Darwin’s account of evolution is compatible with the thesis that organisms—the components of the biosphere—are the product of intelligent design,” van Inwagen says, “I can claim that my arguments are disinterested, for I do not think that the Darwinian account of evolution is true. (I do not exactly think it is false, but I do find it highly implausible.)” (p. 349) He goes on to mention his reasons for rejecting Darwinism, which we’ll revisit shortly.

Evolutionary creationists hold that God created life via natural evolutionary processes. So, on their view, a complete scientific explanation of God’s creative work need not make explicit reference to design. Evolutionary creationism itself is, nonetheless, a design hypothesis: it makes a claim about the way in which God designed living creatures. Some evolutionary creationists advocate additional hypotheses that are compatible with mainstream science but extend it (or go beyond it) in various ways. The ID movement, in contrast, focuses on design hypotheses that differ in significant and potentially testable ways from mainstream evolutionary theory. My own opinion is that both kinds of hypotheses are worth exploring. We can and should examine a wide range of possibilities to discern which hypotheses fit the scriptural and scientific evidence best.

Far from constricting scientific inquiry, our Christian faith should continue to inspire scientific curiosity, just as it did during the scientific revolution.See this page from Chapter 1 for further discussion of the role of Christian faith in the scientific revolution. In his insightful and thought-provoking book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, philosopher Alvin Plantinga contrasts Christianity with a prominent secular worldview called ontological naturalism—roughly, the view that only nature exists and there are no supernatural beings or entities.The term “naturalism” has a number of different uses in philosophy. I am referring here to a popular view that is also called ontological naturalism, though that term too has several meanings. For further discussion, see The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Naturalism” by David Papineau. Plantinga points out that Christianity affords greater intellectual freedom than a naturalistic worldview, enabling us to consider a broader range of hypotheses:

For the nontheist, undirected evolution is the only game in town, and natural selection seems to be the most plausible mechanism to drive that process. Here is this stunningly intricate world with its enormous diversity and apparent design; from the perspective of naturalism or nontheism, the only way it could have happened is by way of unguided Darwinian evolution; hence it must have happened that way … The theist, on the other hand, has a little more freedom here: … God has created the living world and could have done it in any number of different ways … In this way the theist is freer to follow the evidence where it leads.Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 24.

For this reason, among other reasons that Plantinga discusses, a biblically-informed Christian worldview provides a superior vantage point for evaluating scientific evidence about the history of life.

Plantinga also addresses a view called methodological naturalism, which is a philosophical view about scientific methodology.Plantinga discusses methodological naturalism briefly in the preface and in Chapter 6 of his aforementioned book (Where the Conflict Really Lies), but he provides a thorough examination and critique of the view in his excellent essay “Methodological Naturalism?”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (September 1997): 143-154. According to methodological naturalism, genuine science always restricts its hypotheses and explanations to include only natural causes. Unlike ontological naturalism, methodological naturalism doesn’t deny the existence of God; it only stipulates that divine activity and other non-natural causes are not the subjects of scientific inquiry. Since it is strictly a view about the nature of science rather than about the nature of reality, methodological naturalism is compatible with Christianity. In fact, many of its advocates are Christians.

We’ll revisit methodological naturalism in Chapter 12, where I’ll question its philosophical merits. Regardless of whether we accept that view of science, though, Christians need not—and should not—ignore the possibility that the development of life was driven by supernatural causes in addition to natural ones. Our faith is based on evidence that God can and sometimes does act beyond the bounds of nature. As Plantinga points out, “the scientiļ¬c evidence base, constrained as it is by methodological naturalism, is only a part of the Christian evidence base.”Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), xiii. Since we know that God sustains nature but also transcends it, the Christian worldview gives us intellectual freedom to explore many possibilities, including some that contradict the assumptions behind mainstream scientific methodology.For a compelling defense of this inclusive approach, see Plantinga’s essay “Methodological Naturalism?”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (September 1997): 143-154. Not only can we examine hypotheses within the strictures of methodological naturalism, we also can take seriously hypotheses involving mind-directed causation throughout the history of life and at all levels of biological organization.

Whether we consider design hypotheses “scientific” or not is unimportant, in my opinion. What matters is that we do consider them. Christians can and should exercise our intellectual freedom to consider numerous hypotheses, including possibilities beyond the scope of methodological naturalism. Although I cannot offer a comprehensive survey of all design hypotheses that have been proposed, a brief sampling of ideas will suffice to illustrate the diversity of possibilities consistent with a Christian view of reality. To structure the discussion, I’ll separate design hypotheses into two categories: hypotheses compatible with mainstream evolutionary science, and hypotheses incompatible with it.

Hypotheses Consistent with Mainstream Science

Not all design hypotheses contradict the theory of evolution. As noted above, evolutionary creationism is a design hypothesis. Evolutionary creationists believe God ordained natural processes—including mutation, natural selection, and other evolutionary mechanisms—to carry out His creative decrees. This general idea can be combined with more specific hypotheses about the way in which God acted as a designer. For example, God might have set up the physical laws, constants, and initial conditions of the universe in such a way that they would inevitably produce the specific forms of life He intended. Alternatively, God might have guided the course of evolutionary history in various ways, actively directing it toward certain designs along the way. The latter idea, sometimes called guided evolution, has been endorsed by many Christian thinkers beginning with the eminent nineteenth-century biologist Asa Gray, a contemporary of Darwin’s.

There are countless ways in which God might have guided the course of evolution, many of which are fully consistent with mainstream evolutionary science. As Plantinga observes:

The scientific theory of evolution just as such is entirely compatible with the thought that God has guided and orchestrated the course of evolution, planned and directed it, in such a way as to achieve the ends he intends. Perhaps he causes the right mutations to arise at the right time; perhaps he preserves certain populations from extinction; perhaps he is active in many other ways.Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 308.

Moreover, divine guidance of evolutionary processes need not involve supernatural miracles or exceptions to the laws of nature. If the fundamental laws of physics are indeterministic, as some interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest,The Copenhagen, von Neumann–Wigner, and Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber interpretations (along with many others that were not introduced in Chapter 7) are indeterministic. Indeterministic interpretations imply that the exact state of the world at a particular moment does not fully determine its state at other moments. In other words, according to these interpretations, there is some flexibility built in to the laws of physics. God might actively guide the workings of nature without contravening any of the laws and regularities He has established.Plantinga considers a specific possibility along these lines. If an objective collapse theory like the GRW interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, Plantinga suggests, God might influence or even determine the outcomes of the collapse events which constantly occur at the microphysical level, thereby steering the course of nature without contravening the fundamental quantum laws. For further discussion of this point, see chapter 4 of his book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), especially pp. 115-119.

On the other hand, God can and sometimes does perform special miracles; but even if He acted in special ways to guide evolutionary history, His actions wouldn’t necessarily be detectable using scientific methods.Plantinga points out that if God guided the course of nature (and evolutionary processes) at the quantum level, the distinction between special and general divine action is blurred; but even if God performed miracles (or “intervened” in “special” ways) in the distant past, this doesn’t necessarily mean we would be able to detect that He did so. For further discussion, see pp. 117 – 119 of his book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). The scientific detectability of design is a key point of contention between ID theorists and many evolutionary creationists. Are natural processes adequate to explain the evolution of life, or is there scientific evidence that God acted more directly? Since evolutionary creationists accept the theory of evolution, they tend to eschew hypotheses that contradict its predictions, insisting that divinely-orchestrated laws of nature are sufficient to produce all kinds of biological diversity and complexity.

Interestingly, however, some design hypotheses that are consistent with evolutionary theory yield additional predictions beyond what is expected on the mainstream account. For example, biochemist Michael Denton accepts the theory of evolution as far as it goes, but he argues that it doesn’t go very far: it fails to explain the origins of many structural features and homologs, especially at higher taxonomic levels, as we saw in Chapter 10.See this page for a brief summary of Denton’s objection to the prevailing account of homology. So, Denton proposes to supplement the theory with a design hypothesis that could, if correct, provide deeper explanations. Like the 19th-century anatomist Richard Owen, who coined the term homology in the first place, Denton believes the designer employed archetypes (common patterns or blueprints) in designing homologous features of diverse organisms. He hypothesizes that certain biological forms are pre-programmed into the physical properties of matter. In other words, the fine-tuning of the universe is even more exquisite than we have recognized. If Denton is right, the properties of matter are finely-tuned not only to permit the emergence of life but to bring about the evolution of specific forms of life:

I see the Types (as did Owen and many pre-Darwinian typologists) as part of the order of nature, a manifestation of the universal fitness of nature for life, and the actualization of their defining homologs during the course of evolution to be the inevitable outcome of perfectly natural processes. … the origin of these homologs was determined primarily by internal causal factors, ultimately derived from the basic properties of biomatter and not by the external action of natural selection via long series of functional intermediates as Darwinism implies. I do not deny a causal role for selection in some or perhaps many of the transitions, but I believe that its role was secondary to the primary internal and natural causal factors which drew life, to cite Owen, “nomogenously” from chemistry to its cellular stirrings in the primeval ocean to the diverse forms which grace the world today.Michael Denton, Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2016), 114-116. Denton further clarifies his hypothesis in subsequent paragraphs: “As to how the successive emergence of the taxa-defining homologs actually occurred as evolution unfolded, I take the view that all the various vertebrate homologs actualized during the course of evolution—limbs, amnion, hair, mammary glands, feathers—were in some sense prefigured into the design of the vertebrate Type, what one might call the Urvertebrate. However, … , I do not see this as a simple kind of preformism, i.e., that all the information for the actualization of the successive vertebrate taxa-defining homologs was already present in the Urvertebrate in the way gene-centrists claim all the information necessary for development is in the egg or in DNA sequences. Rather, on the typological view I am inclined to favor, phylogeny is emergent and analogous to epigenesis in ontogeny. … On this naturalistic view, phylogeny is strictly analogous to the folding of a protein into its native form where the amino acid sequence is drawn through a set of preferred structures to the emergent vastly complex 3-D arrangement of the atoms in the native form of the protein. In this model the evolutionary pathways are in nature, not in the Urvertebrate itself. The facilitated paths are part of nature’s deep causal structure, prefigured into the order of things from the beginning, drawing the various vertebrate subtypes from the Urvertebrate during the course of evolution.” (p. 116)

Denton is not religious,In an interview quoted here, Denton describes himself as “pretty agnostic,” adding “I’m not in any sense a fervent believer in a God, or the Christian God.” but his design hypothesis is compatible with Christianity. It is also fully consistent with the two central claims of evolutionary theory described in Chapter 10, and some evolutionary creationists (including critics of the ID movement) have endorsed design hypotheses similar to Denton’s.Biochemist Denis Alexander is one example. In his book Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?, Second Edition (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2014), Alexander writes: “My own view … highlights God’s faithfulness in both creating and sustaining the properties of matter, properties which as a matter of fact do perfectly fulfil his intentions and purposes. The idea here is not of the divine puppet-master, but of the God who actively endows the universe with all those properties and potentialities that bring about his will.” (p. 377)

Later in the book, when Alexander tries to distance his own view from ID hypotheses, his perspective still sounds quite close to Denton’s, albeit with a distinctly Christian flavor: “Yet one still reads, in the ID literature, of the impossibility that life could emerge out of chemicals by sinister-sounding ‘blind, materialistic, naturalistic forces.’ But wait a minute: these are God’s chemicals, God’s materials, that are being talked about here. … Imagine going into an artist’s studio, seeing the tubes of paint arranged in neat rows on one side and then telling the artist ‘You’ve chosen the wrong type of paints, they’re really hopeless!’ I think we would all agree that would be insulting. But to confidently proclaim that the precious materials God has so carefully brought into being in the dying moments of exploding stars do not have the potentiality to bring about life seems to me equally insulting. Christianity, in a sense, is a very materialistic religion. We believe that all the materials of the universe without exception are God’s materials. ‘Who are you, O man’, to tell God what potentialities are or are not built into his materials? (echoing Romans 9:20, albeit in a rather different context).” (p. 437)
Despite this compatibility, however, his hypothesis yields predictions distinct from what mainstream evolutionary science predicts on its own. Denton gives several examples, including “the existence of genes, gene circuits [i.e., GRNs], and developmental modules highly conserved in very distantly related organisms.” These discoveries are unsurprising on his hypothesis, whereas they were “unexpected and unpredicted by defenders of the Darwinian faith.”Michael Denton, Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2016), 85-86. As he explains: “Based on the Darwinian conception that living things are highly pliable adaptive assemblages of parts, molded day-by-day in any direction at the hands of natural selection in the face of ever-changing contingencies, it was widely assumed by the pan-adaptationist makers of the mid-twentieth-century neo-Darwinian synthesis that over the hundreds of millions of years that have elapsed since the last common ancestor of the animal phyla, every gene would have been crafted and re-crafted multiple times, including those involved in the assembly of the homologs, so that all evidence of any commonalities would have been lost millennia ago. Based on this widely held Darwinian expectation, Ernst Mayr, one of the giants of twentieth century evolutionary biology and himself one of the key makers of the mid-century synthesis, famously claimed that ‘the search for homologous genes is quite futile except in closely related species.’ There is hardly a prediction in science that has proved so woefully wrong!” (p. 86, emphasis in original) The hypothesis also yields intriguing predictions that have yet to be tested. If Denton is correct that biological forms depend on exquisite fine-tuning of the properties of biomatter (beyond the fine-tuning already discovered in cosmology), then it should be possible—in principle, at least—to measure the degree of fine-tuning using mathematical models and computer simulations analogous to those employed in cosmology and astrophysics.Many aspects of cosmological fine-tuning were discovered using mathematical models and simulations to calculate what would happen if the physical constants or properties of matter were different. I suspect we’re nowhere close to being able to perform such calculations for biological systems, unfortunately. We do not yet have the prerequisite ability to predict complex chemical properties and behaviors in general from the fundamental quantum laws, and the level of computational power and precision required to calculate exactly how a string of amino acids will fold into a protein (for example) is, presumably, a long way off. Nevertheless, technological advances (e.g., major improvements in artificial intelligence and quantum computing) might eventually make such calculations possible.

Hypotheses Inconsistent with Mainstream Science

The ID movement has generated many hypotheses that contradict mainstream science. Young-earth creationists and progressive creationists, likewise, have developed hypotheses inconsistent with the theory of evolution. (Some of these, especially from the young-earth camp, also contradict widely-accepted theories in geology, astronomy, and other sciences.) Creationist hypotheses are design hypotheses, since they make specific claims about the way in which an intelligent Creator implemented His designs. Particularly noteworthy are the hypotheses developed by Hugh Ross and other scientists affiliated with his progressive creationist organization, Reasons to Believe. Ross and his colleagues have developed a highly detailed set of biblically-informed hypotheses concerning the history of our planet and the emergence of life. This set of hypotheses, which they call their “creation model,” yields numerous testable predictions distinct from those of evolutionary creationism and other design hypotheses.See here for a brief summary of their “creation model approach” to generating and testing hypotheses. For further explication of Ross’s creation model, see his book A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy, Second Expanded Edition (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2015). Inasmuch as they draw upon biblical revelation in addition to scientific evidence, most creationist hypotheses are ill-suited to the ID movement, which holds that evidence of design can be found in nature using strictly scientific methods; but this does not make creationist hypotheses any less worthy of consideration. To the contrary, from a Christian perspective, design hypotheses are all the more credible when they fit both scriptural and scientific evidence well.

Not all design hypotheses inconsistent with mainstream science are religiously motivated, however. Some Christians regard evolution as fully compatible with the Bible but reject mainstream evolutionary explanations solely for scientific reasons. In his aforementioned essay defending the compatibility of Darwinism and design, for instance, Peter van Inwagen explains that his own dissatisfaction with evolutionary theory has nothing to do with his faith:

When I was an agnostic, I was a Darwinian. When I became a Christian—a very old-fashioned, orthodox one—I was a Darwinian still. And although I have experienced many intellectual difficulties with my faith, my belief in Darwinism never caused me the least intellectual discomfort. (My doubts about Darwinism began only when I discovered that the “smoothness” of the fossil record that I had always believed in was not there.)Peter van Inwagen, “The Compatibility of Darwinism and Design,” in Neil A. Manson (ed.), God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science. (New York: Routledge, 2003), 353.

Unexpected patterns in the fossil record (such as the puzzling “top-down” emergence of phyla in the Cambrian explosionFootnote: As we saw previously, Stephen Meyer highlighted aspects of the fossil record that seem to conflict with evolutionary expectations, especially the pattern in which morphological disparity among phyla precedes small-scale diversity of species.), along with other predictive failures and explanatory deficiencies of standard evolutionary accounts, have inspired both religious and non-religious ID theorists to explore new hypotheses that address these problems.

In a lengthy appendix to his 2009 book Signature in the Cell, Stephen Meyer discusses a variety of design hypotheses that yield testable predictions distinct from those of naturalistic evolutionary theory, ranging from general design hypotheses about the history of life to hypotheses positing very specific, as-yet-undiscovered nanomachines and well-orchestrated causal mechanisms within cells. I’ll focus here on the former category: hypotheses concerning the history of life. Meyer considers both monophyletic design hypotheses (i.e., hypotheses affirming universal common descent) and polyphyletic views (hypotheses denying universal common descent), identifying various predictions derived from each. In the field of comparative genomics, for instance, polyphyletic hypotheses “predict that phylogenetic analyses would often yield conflicting trees of life—that is, dissimilar measures of difference, relatedness, and divergence depending upon which molecules or anatomical structures are compared in the same two species.”Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 489.

Within each of the broad categories of design hypotheses Meyer considers, moreover, we can formulate more specific hypotheses that generate further testable predictions. For example, ID theorist Winston Ewert has developed a polyphyletic design hypothesis he calls the “Dependency Graph” model, which he argues fits the phylogenetic data much better than common ancestry hypotheses can.Winston Ewert, “The Dependency Graph of Life,” BIO-Complexity, Vol 2018. For accessible explanations of Ewert’s proposal, see this, this, and this. Similarly, within the broad category of monophyletic design hypotheses (which agree with the evolutionary doctrine of universal common descent), we can formulate many specific, testable proposals. For instance, some Christians have speculated that God might have created human beings from hominid animals via a sudden infusion of new genetic information, which enabled us to engage in abstract thought and moral reasoning. If that hypothesis were correct, we should expect to find a sharp discontinuity between the human genome and the genomes of our nearest relatives and ancestral species, especially in parts of the genome related to those cognitive functions.

Many predictions of various design hypotheses already have been tested. Some design hypotheses have been refuted, others seem quite promising, and many more have yet to be carefully evaluated. I’ll leave such evaluations to others, since I’ve already devoted a disproportionate amount of space in this chapter to the ID movement. Before leaving the topic of ID, however, let’s consider several objections critics have raised against the ID movement as a whole.