How Does Intelligent Design Differ from Creationism?

In a private note, another poster here asked me for references I offered to provide (in the recently closed discussion about Bayesian methods) regarding the differences between ID and creationism. I think it’s a good idea to discuss this as a topic of its own. It’s probably not to be hoped for that people with axes to grind will ever stop conflating the two, but it would be good if those readers with open minds had some resources that would help them understand the differences.

So here are some links:

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What’s your opinion, Eddie? Is it similar to a “square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t a square?” How do you define your own position? I’ve seen you defending ID, but I’m not sure how you identify.

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Do you mean by this: “All creationists accept design arguments, but not all who accept design arguments are creationists?” Then yes, that’s how I’ve always understood the distinction made by Discovery.

I was never a creationist in the common sense of the term (literal reading of Genesis, earth only 6,000 years old, etc.). In fact, in my youth I was a virulent anti-Creationist and textbook Darwinian. I used to go around looking for Creationists to fight with! I could have vied with Nick Matzke and some of the people here for the ability to project withering scorn. When I was still in high school, I already wrote as if I were the authority on what “science” says about origins. My Bible back then wasn’t the Bible, but the writings of people like Asimov and Sagan and Bertrand Russell. Evolution was my secular substitute for the Genesis story. (I’m actually quite embarrassed by some of the polemics I wrote against Christianity back then, not because I’m worried about my soul – I’m sure God forgives the immature excesses of youth – but because I used intellectually discreditable means to belittle my opponents, means which I still see being used widely in online debates.)

I’m a “creationist” now only in the broad sense that all Christians, Jews, and Muslims are creationists. But that sense would include Ken Miller and Francis Collins – two people whom Eugenie Scott and the NCSE never include in their relentless attacks on creationism.

As for intelligent design in nature, I had long before hearing about ID or TE/EC decided that nature showed evidence of design, but my arguments were either philosophical, or based on macroscopic scientific knowledge (Paleyan sorts of argument about the amazing mechanics of the bones, etc.). I did not know that anyone was working on more rigorous arguments at the biochemical level.

When I read Behe’s arguments for design, I didn’t agree with all of them, but I thought some of them were pretty strong. I’m still unconvinced by any of the “co-option” arguments for the accidental evolution of the flagellum, for example. Later I read Denton’s Nature’s Destiny, and at the time thought it was actually the best argument for ID in print, because it rested less on single isolated examples (flagellum, etc.) and more on the general conspiracy of features of nature to render the universe fit for intelligent life. Denton’s three more recent small books (all published by Discovery) continue in that vein.

Note that neither Behe nor Denton are “creationists” in the popular sense of the term. Behe is a Catholic who accepts common descent all the way up to the human body (which certainly is not accepted by Protestant creationists), and Denton is at best a Deist of some sort for whom the Bible has no bearing on the scientific discussion of origins. If the DI were a strictly “creationist” organization, it would not have published all those books by Denton, and would not promote Behe as heavily as it does. (In fact, ID has come under criticism from some creationists for not taking a firmer stance against common descent, but the DI has stuck to its guns, and maintains Denton and Behe on its Board of Fellows, and promotes their ideas.)

Thus, there are examples within the ID movement of people who do not oppose design to evolution, but embrace both. And that’s roughly where I place myself. I think of evolution, in the sense of “descent with modification,” as an account of earth history that is very plausible, and I take it as my working conception. (Though not as sacrosanct truth that only an ignoramus could contest – I resist all dogmatism on the matter.)

Actually, my “defense” of ID has not been “ID is true”, but more like “ID has been mischaracterized,” “ID has been unfairly treated,” and the like. I’m not trying to get anyone here to say, “Behe and Dembski’s arguments are valid, and ID is correct.” I’m merely trying to counter the sort of generic hostility that arises from certain members of the scientific community (and their groupies among the public) against any suggestion of design, teleology, etc. in nature. There’s no doubt in my mind, after years of reading and debating with anti-ID folks, that there is more than a scientific hostility to ID; often there is a visceral rejection of the idea of design, and that rejection comes from metaphysical and religious commitments.

I’d be happy if those who don’t accept design would at least admit that there are some features of nature which strongly suggest design and that ID folks aren’t betrayers of the spirit of science for wanting to talk about and investigate those features using the tools of science. Even Dawkins admits that living things appear designed. He understands that the appearance of design needs an explanation. In that sense, though he comes to conclusions diametrically opposed to those of Behe etc., he understands the issue of design better than some of his atheist colleagues. I still recommend Dawkins’s book The Blind Watchmaker as an excellent introduction to the classical neo-Darwinian view of evolution. Behe liked it for that purpose as well.

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I note that you need to use the qualifier “strictly” there, which is necessary if the statement is going to be correct. The DI is only a predominantly creationist organization, as its ranks include a slight sprinkling of those who accept common descent. Thus, ID is only mostly creationism in a cheap suit, and cdesign proponentists are only almost all creationists.

Incidentally, your lengthy post fairly reeks of smug and sanctimonious intellectual and moral superiority. Was that intentional?


Tone is often hard to detect in internet conversations. No, I intended no superiority. I was asked where I stood personally on the questions, and I answered. If I put in too much autobiographical material, perhaps you took that to imply some sort of high self-estimation on my part, but it was there merely to explain how I have stood in relation to creationism, Darwin, and design over the years.

Certainly many of the statements of scientists, especially biologists, here and on other sites could be taken as “reeking of sanctimonious intellectual superiority.” It’s best to focus on arguments rather than perceived attitudes, unless the attitude gets to the point where it actually interferes with constructive discussion of the issues.

Are you speaking only of the scientists at the DI? Don’t forget that many other people in the DI – Bruce Chapman, Logan Gage, Denyse O’Leary, Jay Richards, and others – either themselves accept common descent or have made no opposition to it. Don’t underestimate the support of Catholics (who are mostly not creationists in the popular sense) for ID, both inside and outside of Discovery.

And even among the Protestants, there are many “undeclareds” at Discovery who have made no attacks on common descent: John West for example, and, as far as I know, Michael Flannery. Another undeclared regarding common descent (as distinct from the Darwinian mechanism) is David Berlinski, also a DI Fellow.

There are also many ID supporters out there in the general public who are not creationists. And Dave Scot, who ran Uncommon Descent for several years, was no creationist.

If all you want me to admit is that most of the ID leaders at Discovery are creationists of one sort or another, I gladly admit it. But as Joshua and I already agreed, there is a distinction between ID as a movement and ID as a theory of design detection. I concede that the majority of people in the ID movement are creationists, but ID theory is independent of any reading of the Bible, and is neutral regarding creationism.

My links were meant only to clarify the position of ID as a theory of design detection, not to say anything at all about religious sociology of the ID movement. I believe they are a useful resource for the purpose for which they were intended.


Denton is the best. But I wouldn’t classify him as traditional ID

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No consciously, perhaps. The biographical stuff clearly implies “when I was young and stupid, I thought the way you do”.

It does.

No. It applies with increasing frequency as you go down the ladder. Your notion that Denyse O’Leary, for example, is not a creationist is charmingly naive.

Is there such a thing as ID theory? I have my doubts.

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She said in at least one UD column (but it was years ago, so I would need some time to dig it up), that she could be regarded as an “evolutionist” insofar as she accepted common descent, though she was not a “Darwinist” regarding the mechanism of change. (I’m of course paraphrasing.) Maybe she has changed her mind about common descent lately. But she’s a devout Catholic, and the Catholic church has taken no official position on common descent (i.e., a Catholic can believe that reptiles and mammals and birds all ultimately come from some one-celled creature, without Church censure), so her religion gives her no motive to doubt common descent. The case is different with Protestant creationists. How familiar are you with such theological differences within the Christian world?

I was addressing Michael Callen, whom I don’t regard as young and stupid, and I would be distressed if he took my remarks that way. Hopefully he would write to me privately and suggest to me where I might re-word things so as not to offend him. I have found him reasonable to deal with in one-on-one conversation. Further, he calls himself “Old Earth” which would seem to indicate that he is an Old Earth Creationist, and since OECs and ID folks tend to get along fairly well, there is no reason he should think that I was putting him or his position down. But again, if I misjudged, he can write to me and I will try to do better in the future.

He’s in his own branch, I agree. But just as a cheetah is in its own branch of the cat family, but still has enough in common with the others to be called a cat, Denton is still a “design theorist,” even if his line of argument emphasizes different things. Also, sometimes Behe and Sternberg say things that sound much like Denton. Dave Scot on UD sounded a lot like Denton at times. There’s no rigid line separating Denton from the rest of ID; it’s more like a continuum, with him near one of the ends of the continuum.

John, you must have a super-human sensitivity to such things. I didn’t get that at all from Eddie’s post. And, honestly, I don’t know any mature person who hasn’t so dramatically changed over time that it wouldn’t be appropriate to say, “I was young and stupid then, but I’ve learned…” I actually thought @Eddie’s story of how he arrived at his current position was interesting and not at all off-putting.


How Does Intelligent Design Differ from Creationism?

Easy. “Intelligent Design” is simply a rebranding of Creationism with references to the Christian God removed. This was done for the tactical reason of circumventing the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment Establishment Clause so religious origin stories could be pushed into public school science classes. This end run around actual science was made clear over a decade ago in the landmark case Kitzmiller v. Dover and recently reaffirmed by ID spokesman Stephen Meyer who announced a new book with his “scientific” ID evidence for the Christian God.

Just as there are a hundred different flavors of Creationism there are a hundred different flavors of ID. Neither ID nor Creationism offer any details (save specific YEC claims which have already been disproven), or any testable hypotheses, or any way to be falsified.

Neither ID nor Creationism qualify as science… Both are a religiously motivated political movements.



Thanks, Michael. I would be interested in any comments on my remarks that you might have, as you find time. (You can make them private if you prefer.)

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Tim: I agree with the first part, mostly, but I’m curious why you believe that they are “political movements?” Do you mean political as in pertaining to governmental leadership (i.e. politicians)?

As to the first part, would you say that ID, for instance, could qualify if they were performing the lab work needed to prove their results? Or is there no way that they could?

I’m sure you’re familiar with the DI’s “Wedge Policy” which outline their political strategy used to push their religious agenda. Things like the bogus “academic freedom” bills the DI is pushing to allow teachers to bring religious Creationism into public schools.

The only way ID could be science is if ID comes up with some testable and potentially falsifiable hypotheses, actually tests them, and publishes the results in legitimate scientific journals. No one on Team ID has yet to step up to the plate.


Certainly. So do you think of creationists and IDists as the same? Do you think that all creationists are IDists, and vice versa?

So, ID, for instance, does not qualify “as science” for now, but they could if they do those things? So, it is a failure to execute that keeps them from qualifying, in your mind, and not the subject matter itself?

Best what?

his arguments are the best

They may be ID’s best arguments but are far short of being true.

Umm… err… Patrick, I hope this question isn’t out of line, but how much of Denton have you actually read, and which of his claims are far from being true?

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That’s true. Being the best doesn’t mean it’s true. People in mainstream biology share Denton’s views. They just dont draw the same metaphysical conclusions from them as Denton does