A frequent theme in BioLogos writing is that Intelligent Design (ID) theory has contaminated the notion of divine design in nature, so much so that some Christians have shied away from even using the word “design.” One can find this notion expressed in remarks of Jim Stump, who wrote a whole column on “reclaiming” the language of design from the alleged damage it had received at the hands of ID people, and in comments by people like Brad Kramer and Casper Hesp. Casper’s latest remark along this line (in a reply to a new poster, Allison) is:
“… the cultural baggage that is linked to the term “design” could be a reason to avoid the term.”
Jon Garvey has already replied adequately to Casper regarding the unwisdom of avoiding important terms merely because some people misuse them. But I want to dwell a bit on the term “baggage.”
What the BioLogos crew means by “baggage” in this case is that, while the idea that God designed nature is not in itself a problem, the idea of design in nature promoted by ID writers is a problem. That is, the ID movement, or the Discovery Institute, or the various books of Meyer, Behe, Dembski, etc. are the “baggage” that the idea of divine design would be better off without.
But what is this ID “baggage”? Simply put, it’s the argument that there is evidence of design in nature. Certain aspects of nature, ID people say, just scream out “design” when they are carefully studied. That is, God has to some extent revealed himself in “the book of nature”; his intelligence, planning, adjustment of means to ends, etc. can be seen if one understands the laws, structure, and organization of natural things — especially living things.
Now, why should this notion of inferable design be “baggage” for a Christian? In fact, the idea that God reveals something of himself in nature is very old, and can be found in the Bible, in the Fathers, in the Medieval writers, the magisterial Reformers, etc. No Christian found it problematic until very modern times. There might be debate over details — there might be skepticism over the claim that God designed the nose to be useful to set eyeglasses on, for example — but there was no doubt that some things in nature bore the hallmarks of intelligent design.
Now why it is that certain modern Christians find the idea of detectable design dubious? And why is that the leaders of this anti-design movement among Christians are so often biologists, or people who are very chummy with biologists?
I think the answer is plain, and is a six-letter word: Darwin.
Darwinian / neo-Darwinian biology is the orthodox dogma among most American TE/EC leaders. They take for granted that Darwin was, if not entirely right in all details, at least right on the major things, and that the neo-Darwinian school or Modern Synthesis of the mid-20th century was a faithful developer of Darwin’s ideas. And the essence, the very heart, of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian biological thinking (against all previous biological thinking) is that no design is necessary in order for nature to produce complex living organisms. Time and chance (in the form of random mutations) plus natural selection constitute an effective designer-substitute; they together can produce anything that a conscious designer could produce. The design of life, then, is a redundant notion; by Ockham’s Razor, we can do away with it. Give me some molecules, and give me time, the TE/EC leaders seem to be saying, and I can produce for you a world that will look well-designed, a world that will look as if some Mind was trying to design eyes, wings, etc.
But for a Christian biologist, this poses (or ought to pose) a problem: surely God is the designer of nature, of life, and so on. So if “science” (i.e., Darwinian evolutionary biology) has shown that the most exquisite and complex living systems needed no design, then God is the designer of a world that needed no designer. What then, exactly, does God do? This question has been posed time and again to TE/EC leaders, and 99% of the time they duck the question.
I wonder who it is that has supplied all the unwanted “baggage” here. The BioLogos folks claim that it is the ID people. But it seems to me that the “baggage” here is supplied by Darwin and neo-Darwinism. For a Christian, it was always (before Christianity started modifying itself in order to respond to the Enlightenment and modern science) taken for granted that God designed the natural world. It is only since some Christians have come to regard Darwinian theory as having a level of certainty to it as great as the Bible itself that they have found speaking about God as “designing” living things to be professionally and socially embarrassing.
Sometime the TE/EC folks will say that they have nothing against the idea that God designs (small “d”) the world, but only against capital “D” design, as in “ID”. But what is the great sin of the “capital D” design? Surely, its sin is defiance of the Darwinian conception of how evolution works. Surely, its sin is not to accept that Darwin (even more than Hume) destroyed the possibility of design arguments forever. Surely, its sin is not to realize that henceforth divine design can be posited only on purely fideistic grounds — that if Christians affirm design in nature they do so purely on the basis of revelation, God having left no evidence of design at all in his Creation.
But this fideism, the rejection of natural theology, this rejection of all design arguments, is necessary only on the assumption that neo-Darwinism is undeniably true. Yet we know that neo-Darwinism is increasingly under attack, even by some secular biologists who are not ID proponents. Indeed, by-the-book neo-Darwinism seems to be much more common these days among American and Canadian evangelical evolutionary creationists (Collins, Giberson, Falk, Venema) than it is among professors of evolutionary biology at Yale and Chicago. These ECs are carrying around with them the “baggage” of mid-20th-century neo-Darwinism, with its atomistic conception of genes, its deterministic conception of DNA, its built-in antiteleology, its willingness to make up an infinite number of “just so stories” to account for opposite evolutionary outcomes, etc. And on the basis of that baggage, they are willing to oppose the clear sense of a number of Biblical statements about design in nature, and the weight of nearly 2,000 years of Christian theological tradition which regarded design inferences as perfectly reasonable and legitimate for a Christian to make.
How many modern evangelical Christians, exactly, are bothered by the alleged “baggage” in the notion of “design” as found in ID writers? As far as I can tell, no more than two or three score of active bloggers on websites like BioLogos, a few hundred of their fans and groupies who comment on such sites, and maybe a few hundred Christian biologists and other academics (e.g., Open Theist philosophers at “Wesleyan” colleges). From what I know of everyday evangelical churchgoers in the pews, i.e., folks who aren’t professional biologists (and aren’t science-and-theology-website addicts, consuming all their leisure time blogging and arguing about origins issues), they have no problem with the idea that God leaves signs of his wisdom in nature, and that among those signs are the brilliant arrangements of organic nature. It’s only those TE/EC folks who think that Darwinian theory is undeniable dogma, and that it should have veto power over what Christian theologians can say about God and how Christians can interpret the Bible, who are reticent to use the word “design” freely. And on this point, the simple folks in the pews are in line with Christian thinkers much greater than the BioLogos leaders: they are in line with Calvin, and Augustine, and Newton, and Boyle, and others.
Beyond the professional commitment of most of the biologist TE/EC leaders to some form of Darwinian thinking, I see further “baggage” in BioLogos and ASA TE/EC. Many of the most active TE/EC leaders (Kramer, Swamidass, Isaac, Venema, Falk, Giberson, etc.) used to be creationists themselves and are preoccupied (arguably inordinately so) with the refutation of their former position. For these ex-creationists, the idea of “design” is bound up with anti-evolution, a young earth, anti-science attitudes, etc. So their revolt against their own former creationist roots brings along with it a revolt against “design” language applied to God. But that conflation of questions, that confusion of the question “evolution vs. direct creation” with the question of “detectable design vs. no detectable design,” is itself an example of the “baggage” that some TE/ECs bring to origins discussions. Why does “evolutionary creation” have to deny that the results of evolution reveal design? There is nothing in the concept “evolutionary creation” that rules out either teleology in the process or human design inferences. Yet the words “God is a designer” or “there is evidence of God’s wisdom in nature” are rarely uttered by them without stammering, qualifications, apologies, etc. Again, the cause of this is “baggage” — baggage which Newton, Boyle etc. never had when they declared that nature revealed an admirable design.
What counts as “baggage” is often in the eye of the beholder. To this beholder, the leaders of TE/EC, especially at BioLogos, carry around more than their share of it.