A new urban legend has sprung up and taken root. According to this legend, the concept of Intelligent Design was invented in 1987, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that teaching creation science was unconstitutional. Ken Miller told this tale in his recent presentation, likening it to a shrewd marketing technique. What gives the tale traction is the analysis of the textbook, Pandas and People. As bipod explained, "As evidence that intelligent design is nothing but creationism, they point to some early drafts of Pandas and People that contained creationist wording rather than intelligent design wording. Those are facts. What's the interpretation? Of course, it must mean that intelligent design is creationism in a cheap tuxedo. We all knew that already, now didn't we?" Bipod also lays out a potent critique of this interpretation and I shed some more light here. Nevertheless, since the tale is too juicy and useful, we should expect it to persist as long as ID is primarily expressed in socio-political terms.
Yet my experience with hundreds of critics over the years has taught me that stereotypes, clichÃ©s, and conspiracy theories are recurrent themes among their complaints about ID (which is understandable, given that it is purely the politics that attracts most critics to this issue). Since the "marketing technique" explanation has the same level of intellectual sophistication as these other themes, might it just be another example of such an approach?
I did a little (albeit, limited) digging and have come up with another hypothesis that accounts for the shift in terminology and also better accounts for the "true beginnings" of intelligent design and its continued development.
As I have argued before, design is a concept/explanation that has been around since the Greek philosophers. An astonishing example of such thinking comes from Marcus Cicero (106-43 BC). Cicero would write something that sounds oddly familiar:
Can I but wonder here that anyone can persuade himself that certain solid and individual bodies should be moved by their natural forces and gravitation in such a manner that a world so beautiful adorned should be made by fortuitous concourse. He who believes this possible may as well believe, that if a great quantity of the one and twenty letters, composed of gold or any other matter, were thrown upon the ground, they would fall into such order as legibly to form the "˜Annals of Ennius'. I doubt whether fortune could make a single verse of them.
What's striking here is the expression of teleological thinking to explain the origin of a sequence of symbols. This argument would remain latent in the realm of vague analogy, but when scientists began to establish and characterize DNA and proteins as a sequence of symbols, it should surprise no one that teleologists would return to it.
One such person was Hubert Yockey , who initiated methods that used sequence analysis to measure the information content of proteins in the 1970s. While Yockey was not a creationist, many of his arguments would resonate among creationists, as evidenced by Duane Gish citing such work in one of his debates from 1988.
The pivotal point for ID then came in 1984, when Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen published their book, The Mystery of Life's Origins: Reassessing Current Theories. Since the book was not poofed into existence, the ideas contained within must have been developed in the early 80s.
Thaxton et al.'s book was significant for many reasons. First, it was not a typical "˜creationist' book coming from the Institute of Creation Research. On the contrary, the book received praise from Robert Shapiro and Robert Jastrow. Second, the book did not deal with evolution or its mechanism, but instead focused entirely on abiogenesis. Third, the authors were clearly influenced by Yockey: "As was pointed out, Yockey has noted that negative thermodynamic entropy (thermal) has nothing to do with information, and no amount of energy flow through the system and negative thermal entropy generation can produce even a small amount of information." (p. 183)
The Epilogue of Mystery is the most significant, as Thaxton et al. are clearly moving in the direction of ID as a response to abiogenesis. In this chapter, we find the other influence on the birth of ID: "Hoyle and Wickramasinghe argue that the evidence is overwhelming that intelligence provided the information and produced life." (p. 197) Hoyle's stuff was published in the late 70s and early 80s. This is a theme Thaxton et al. would repeat several times in the Epilogue:
If an Intelligent Creator produced the first life, then it may well be true that this observed boundary in the laboratory is real, and will persist independent of experimental progress or new discoveries about natural processes. Also an intelligent Creator could conceivably accomplish the quite considerable configurational entropy work necessary to build informational macromolecules and construct true cells. (p. 210)
The failure to identify such a contemporary abiotic cause of specified complexity is yet another way to support our conclusions that chemical evolution is an implausible hypothesis. (p. 211)
True, our knowledge of intelligence has been restricted to biology-based advanced organisms, but it is currently argued by some that intelligence exists in complex non-biological computer circuitry. If our minds are capable of imagining intelligence freed from biology in this sense, then who not in the sense of an intelligence being before biological life existed?
One year later, an even more influential book was published "“ Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. It's easy to view Denton's book as the crucial half-way point between creationism and intelligent design. Like Thaxton et al, Denton was not a member of the ICR. Yet he presented a typological view of life that played extremely well among the creationists. But more significant, in my mind, is another chapter near the end of the book, one entitled, "The Puzzle of Perfection." In this chapter, Denton turns to the issue of design and includes a section that is almost poetic and inspiring. He writes, "Aside from any quantitative considerations, it seems intuitively impossible that such self-evident brilliance in the execution of design could have ever been the result of chance." (p. 327) Denton then takes his readers on a walk-through of the cell, writing, "We wonder at the level of control implicit in the movement of so many objects down so many seemingly endless conduits, all in perfect unison. We would see all around is, in every direction we looked, all sorts of robot-like machines"¦.We wonder even more as we watch the strangely purposeful activities of these weird molecular machines, particularly when we realized that, despite all our accumulated knowledge of physics and chemistry, the task of designing one such molecular machine "“ that is one single functional protein module "“ would be completely beyond our capacity at present and will probably not be achieved until at least the beginning of the next century." (p.328-9) [As an aside, I just noted that it was Denton who introduced the term "˜molecular machine' in 1985.]
Then comes 1986, where Robert Shapiro publishes, Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth. Although this book runs independently of the ID stream, it's a powerful book that appears to confirm much of Thaxton et al.'s book.
Anyway, from here we know that Denton's book influenced Behe, Thaxton's book influenced Kenyon, and that Thaxton, Kenyon, and Behe worked on Pandas.
So there seems to be a more accurate, although less sensational, explanation for the birth of ID. In the 1950s, researchers such as Sanger, Watson, and Crick brought sequence to the center stage of molecular biology. In the 1960s, the genetic code was worked out and Michael Polanyi began to explore the implications of such things. In the 1970s, Hubert Yockey would consider sequence and begin to make arguments that would resonate among the creationists. Such resonance was then amplified by Fred Hoyle in the late 70s and early 80s. Along came Thaxton et al's book in 1984, providing a powerful critique of abiogenesis and ends with tantalizing ideas about intelligence, specified complexity, and design. A year later, 1985, Michael Denton puts Darwin in the cross-hairs and ends his book with an inspiring section on design. In 1986, abiogenesis researcher Robert Shapiro gives abiogenesis a stinging criticism. The arguments from Hoyle, Thaxton et al., Denton, and Shapiro were all laid out from 1978-1986 and it's safe to say that the authors of Pandas, Thaxton and Kenyon, were well immersed in them.
Along comes 1987 and the Supreme Court ruling. Since creationism is deemed unconstitutional, two things probably occurred. The change in terminology from "˜creationism' to "˜intelligent design' was catalyzed by this decision, as the authors/publishers did not want all their work tossed into the trash bin. Second, there was a clear overlap between creationism and this new, emerging ID argument, although they were not the same. The overlap, in turn, is a function of two dynamics.
Since the death of vitalism, creationism remained the most popular expression of teleological thinking. Thus, when science made it clear that life was sequentially encoded, the return to Cicero's teleological argument would likely have been picked up by the creationists. Second, the mass influence of Michael Denton's book among creationists, which emphasized a critique of Darwinian evolution, yet offered provocative speculations about design, would work to couple design and creationism in those early days.
So there is no reason to invoke any form of marketing or political conspiracy. The authors of Pandas had begun to sincerely express a new argument, that while loosely fitting within the creationist context, was never dependent on such a context. Since 1987, intelligent design has continued to develop and I have already spelled this out . Both Behe and Dembski have contributed essential steps in developing intelligent design into a serious method to explore nature. And today, as you can see from this blog, there are ID evolutionists. Who knows what the future may hold?