The fledgling "intelligent-design" movement, which says Darwinian explanations of human origins are inadequate, is aiming to shift from the margins to the mainstream.

The first major gathering of intelligent-design proponents took place in November at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Many of these scientists, philosophers, and theologians believe that Darwinian evolutionary theory has failed to solve the puzzle of life's origin and development.

If the turnout at the conference is any indication, intelligent design is gaining a following. More than 160 academics, double what organizers had envisioned, attended from 98 universities, colleges, and organizations. The majority represented secular universities. A central tenet of intelligent-design theory is that it is extremely improbable that the high level of complexity found in most life forms could have resulted from chance occurrences, as Darwinists believe. The inference that life's complexity is a result of an intelligent design forms the backbone of the movement (website:

SCIENTIFIC HERESY? To evolutionists such as Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in El Cerrito, California, the concept of intelligent design is scientific heresy. Scott argues that bringing together science and religion—which she accuses intelligent-design proponents of attempting to do—flies in the face of the very nature of scientific inquiry.

"Doing so may be psychologically important, but it weakens this very good procedure we have for understanding the world," she says.

Biblical traditionalists also have disagreements with design theory. Larry Vardiman, an astrogeophysicist at the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School in El Cajon, California, disagrees with some of the preconceptions of design advocates.

"My main discomfort with the general position of the [conference] participants continues to be the lack of reliance on the literal statements of Scripture and the construction of alternative models of origin, which involve long periods of years," says Vardiman, one of a few young-Earth creationists attending. Such creationists hold that Earth is thousands, rather than billions, of years old, and that creation literally occurred as recorded in Genesis.

CHALLENGES TO DARWIN: In spite of the criticisms of design theory, it is gaining support among scholars who are dissatisfied with existing theories concerning the origin of life. Challenges to Darwinism have come from many quarters.

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Del Ratszch, a philosophy professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says scientists traditionally have dismissed popular creationist critics of Darwin because they often lacked the legitimate education necessary to do the "meticulous detail work that a genuinely scientific creationism requires."

However, over the past decade, scholars with academic credentials have formed the intelligent-design movement. One of those is Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box. He argues that Darwinian theory is unable to account for the origin of the highly complex building blocks of life. The high level of complexity in cell life, according to Behe, is strong evidence that they were designed.

Behe says his fundamental assumptions about evolution began to change when he read Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler & Adler, 1986), by Michael Denton, a New Zealand medical doctor and human genetics professor. Behe has since become a prominent critic of the Darwinian view that life as we know it is the result of an unsupervised, unpredictable, natural process.

Prior to the origins conference, the intelligent-design movement comprised a loose coalition of scholars from a wide variety of disciplines. The conference brought together like-minded scholars "to get them thinking in the same range of questions," says University of California-Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial.

SCIENCE OR PHILOSOPHY? The movement's defining view is that "we have to recognize the difference between materialist philosophy and scientific investigation," Johnson says.

"We need to have a separation of the philosophy from the real science, both in order to have an honest, unbiased scientific enterprise, and to protect the public from getting the false impression that scientific evidence has shown that [the] evolutionary process is our true creator," he says.

According to Behe, what distinguishes intelligent design from Darwinian evolutionary science is the assumption that scholars should be open to an "intelligent cause" to explain some features of nature that are otherwise "highly improbable."

Johnson has used his background in legal reasoning to challenge fundamental suppositions of the Darwinian establishment. He sees modern science consisting of two essentially contradictory definitions. On the one hand, science is empirical research, following the evidence wherever it leads. On the other hand, Johnson says, science is "applied materialist philosophy," which starts with the assumption that "in the beginning were the particles, and impersonal natural laws, and nothing else." This kind of science rules out of order any question of design or creation.

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"When a scientist such as Behe shows the existence of 'irreducible complexity' at the molecular level and infers design, the materialists do not challenge his facts," Johnson says.

"They just dismiss the logical inference from the facts as philosophically unacceptable." It is on the philosophical front that intelligent-design advocates are pressing their case.

SHIFT IN THINKING: Calvin's Ratzsch says that 20 years ago an appeal to design, especially supernatural design, as a scientific explanation would have been universally regarded as scientifically illegitimate.

There may be a shift in thinking among scientists. "One of the things the current design movement is arguing is that with recent developments in philosophy of science, there's room for those kinds of considerations," Ratzsch says.

Scott acknowledges that there may be supernatural explanations for "irreducible complexities."

"But you can't call it science if you allow in supernatural explanations," she declares. "In the twentieth century, supernatural forces are not allowed as explanations." Scott says another problem with acknowledging intelligent design is that scientists would be able to give up too easily on difficult problems.

"If there exists a class of problems in the universe that you're not going to bother trying to solve because they're too tough or have no solution, then you're really violating a great deal of the spirit of science," she says.

Behe argues that the philosophy of science espoused by the mainstream scientific community does not fit well with data about the universe uncovered in recent years.

"We're trying to change that," he says. Other challenges to intelligent design come from scientists, including Denton, who hold to more traditional theistic evolution, arguing that God simply created the evolutionary process and directs it through natural or supernatural means. Another is Michael Corey, author of a three-volume series on natural theology, who argues that intelligent design proponents mistakenly assume that a God who "delegates some of his creative work to natural processes won't be around to answer prayers and otherwise intervene in human affairs."

Many leading religious figures seem to be re-examining their positions. Pope John Paul II recently proclaimed that "more than one hypothesis [exists] within the theory of evolution," and that none of these theories should exclude the "spiritual dimension" (ct, Dec. 9, 1996, p. 72).

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What remains to be seen is what is in store for the intelligent design movement. Organizers of the La Mirada conference hope it will serve as a catalyst for joint research. But they also chose not to use the conference as a forum to develop a statement of belief for the movement.

Leaders are planning a spring conference at the University of Texas and have begun publishing a journal, Origins and Design, edited by Paul Nelson, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate in the philosophy of biology.

Ratzsch, who spoke at the La Mirada conference, says it is difficult to predict the movement's long-term significance. "The intelligent-design movement is still in its infancy," he says.

Johnson is optimistic that the movement's momentum will continue. "This is not some generational radicalism," he says. "These are people who want to learn what truth is, what the facts are.

"They have a devotion to finding the truth, whatever it is."

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