Rediscovering Life

Three Questions for Intelligent Design Theorists

Stephen L. Talbott

RSS Feed for Rediscovering Life: RSS Feed for this page   

This article is part of “”, a news portal for the Biology Worthy of Life Project. Copyright 2014 The Nature Institute. All rights reserved.
By placing your cursor on scientific terms such as “genome” (try it here), you may find them to be clickable links into a separate glossary window (or tab, if your browser is set that way). You can in any case open the glossary for browsing by clicking here.

Tags: evolution/intelligent design; machine-idea; inwardness

Posted: May 15, 2014   (Article 19)

A while back I published a criticism of intelligent design (ID) theory entitled “A Sectarian Quarrel? Intelligent Design and Neo-Darwinism”. This was followed more recently by a brief footnote on the same theme, which in turn led to a response on the “home page” of the ID movement — the Discovery Institute’s “Evolution News and Views” website.

Given the ongoing and seemingly intensifying “culture wars” involving (among others) conventional biologists, ID theorists, and a militant cadre of religiously anti-religious “new atheists”, it seems worthwhile to explore some of the issues while ignoring the usual sound and fury. I have addressed the following directly to the theorists of the ID movement, partly as a response to their response to my criticism, but more centrally as an effort of mutual understanding.

To keep the article at a reasonable length, I have had to assume the reader’s familiarity with the general contours of intelligent design theory. Unfortunately — as I have learned by immersing myself in a good deal of ID literature, both pro and con — the general public has been one-sidedly subjected to the most shamefully (and often intentionally) distorted talking points on the subject, courtesy of what appears to be a very threatened biological establishment.

As for my own severe questioning of intelligent design here, I don’t believe you will find much like it anywhere on the current intellectual landscape.


I am grateful to Evolution News and Views and to David Klinghoffer for responding thoughtfully to my criticism of intelligent design theory.

Klinghoffer takes particular exception to this remark of mine:

Rather than seeing an intelligence at work in the organism as a living capacity, [advocates of ID] would rather reserve such intelligence for God, with the organism reduced to a kind of machine that God may occasionally tinker with (miraculously, it would seem) from without.

The reference to God, Klinghoffer says, is unfair. Why? Because ID theory, as science, is “sincerely agnostic” about the source of design in nature. And then he deflects my complaint about reducing the organism to a machine:

To say that living things include what appear to be machines and computers is very different from making a blunt equation. Moreover, something could be machine-like in certain relevant ways without being a machine just like a human-manufactured machine. Whatever an organism is, it’s at least as teleologically derived, as laden with specified [functional] complexity, as any man-made machine. Talbott is concerned that we will shoehorn our idea of an organism into a simplistic and mechanistic understanding of the machine. But we don’t.

I take the point about God. But if one substitutes “designer or engineer working from without” for “God”, the entirety of my concern remains. And regarding the second point, I am very happy to see Klinghoffer putting some conceptual distance between ID and the machine model of organisms. But the extremely heavy appeal to machines and their designers in ID literature of the past and up to the present seems to me disastrous for the effort to move biological understanding forward.

Three questions may help clarify both my own views and those predominating in the ID movement. But first I should explain in a preliminary way what I am getting at when I object so strenuously to the idea of a designer who “works like an engineer from without”.

Biological understanding in strictly physical and chemical terms is impossible. The reason for this, as I have tried to explain in “The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings”, “From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning”, and elsewhere, is that the organism is not merely a product of physical and chemical causes. It manifests a power continually to modulate, coordinate, and contextualize the play of these causes for the satisfaction of its own needs and impulses.

When Leonardo da Vinci was painting “The Last Supper”, his arm, hand, and fingers, together with the rest of his body, traced out physically lawful movements that happened to be finely adjusted for producing the forms and qualities of the composition. That is, the material of his body, unexceptionably engaged with what we like to think of as “natural physical forces”, employed those forces in the service of an artistic achievement. And much earlier, in a very different sort of process — after he was conceived in the body of his mother — the cells of the embryonic da Vinci divided repeatedly, metamorphosing into hundreds of different cell types and migrating through the embryo to their proper places — all in a manner finely gauged almost beyond comprehension for the manifestation of his developing human form.

In both cases, different as they were, we see an organism’s mastery of its own physical resources. This mastery is evident all the way down to the molecular level, where virtually everything biologists investigate today reveals a dynamic and context-dependent adjustment of causal means to ends — all as part of an adaptive and qualitative response to current circumstances in accordance with the organism’s distinctive way of being.

The organism, in other words, is as much a coordinator of its “own” physical and chemical causes as it is their result. We see none of the fixity of causal relations among parts that is characteristic of machines, including computer hardware. In fact, there is no fixity of the parts themselves, which interpenetrate one another and go through a lifetime of mutually adjusted growth and transformation. Not even the genome is functionally (or even chemically) the same genome at different times.

Here’s a way to think about this orchestration of physical causes by the organism. Our habits of perception notwithstanding, the physical world consists not of static things, but of activity. Without the activity, nothing would be there, so we might as well think of the activity as an expression of the fundamental, creative power through which the world exists — even if we know almost nothing about that power “from the inside”, as opposed to observing a certain (conceptual) lawfulness of its results.

So what I’ve just been saying about the malleability of causal relations in the presence of organic intention amounts to this: we see in the organism a capacity that works out of — from within — the creative power expressing the physical-chemical world. It certainly does so in a way that our external tinkering with machines does not. Yes, with our tinkering we, too, coordinate certain physical causes in order to achieve our own purposes — but we do so “from the outside”. The products of our work have a fixity — a non-growing, non-self-transforming, non-self-sustaining, non-living character — that radically distinguishes them from the organism.

(For a general critique of the machine view of the organism, see Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism [Talbott 2014*].)

The Questions

These, then, are my questions for ID theorists:

Question 1. Do you see the organism as a thoroughgoing expression of present, active, and living intelligence? Or do you instead see only the products or artifacts of an intelligent designer’s previous efforts — artifacts functioning for the most part “on automatic” without any “live” intelligent activity?

(The question is not “Does the organism think?” or “Is it conscious?” I will have more to say about this below.)

In one of the articles Klinghoffer cited, “RNA: Dancing with a Thousand Partners”, I tried, as I do in much of my writing, to highlight the directed, highly coordinated, exquisitely competent life of the organism at the molecular level, just as at all other levels. There is, as biologists routinely describe living processes, a boundless interweaving of well-informed activities: signaling and responding, sensing and communicating, growing and healing. And when I say “well-informed” I mean in-the-moment informed — manifesting an ongoing activity that we can think of only as a creative, improvising biological wisdom. We witness in the organism a present response to circumstances — a never-ceasing, intricate, and adaptive adjustment of means to ends.

The billions of molecules in a cell may all be respecting physical law, but nothing in that law — and certainly no set of machine-like linkages — coerces those molecules into taking their billions of coordinated places within the various life-sustaining cellular narratives. I mean such extended narratives as those of DNA replication, cell division, cell differentiation, metabolism, wound healing, and so on. Or the activity whereby a structure such as the bacterial flagellum (Behe 1996*; 2007*) is formed, not just once and originally in an evolutionary sense, but now — time and again — in untold numbers of bacteria.

These molecular narratives are never propelled by physical necessity — there are only constraints and as-yet-unfulfilled potentials from that side. Rather, they are caught up in a governing wisdom that biologists — unlike, say, geologists or astronomers — are forever citing. (“This chaperone molecule acts in order to help that protein fold correctly according to the cell’s present need”.)

It would scarcely misrepresent the case to say that, in the cell and organism, molecules “flow like well-reasoned, harmonious patterns of thinking”.

Question 2. If you do acknowledge a present intelligence at work in the organism, and if you were to watch this organism at a moment in evolutionary history when a special designing intelligence was also active in it, how might you distinguish the two intelligent activities? What would the designing intelligence be doing that was separable in principle from the kind of native intelligence we see in the organism? What would prevent us from saying, “Oh, that’s the organism acting as we might expect, given its nature and present context”.

I’m not talking about origins (regarding which I don’t think we have so much as a solid scientific clue at this point), and I’m not asking the familiar and legitimate question, “Were there somewhat different evolutionary processes at work in the past than in the present?” Rather, I am wondering how one might conceive a designing intelligence somehow distinguishable from the wisdom we can already see in the organism’s growth, self-maintenance, adaptive response to circumstances, and insistent assertion of its own character.

While biologists in general tend to be flippantly dismissive of this wisdom (“It is an illusion”), I wouldn’t expect you to share their attitude. And if indeed you don’t, then distinguishing between the wisdom we can observe as native to the organism, on the one hand, and any wisdom that plays in from the outside, on the other, becomes important. If there is no way to distinguish between them, the question arises, “What becomes of your case for a designer-engineer who must work on the organism from without, like a machine-contriver?”

Question 3. Do you believe there are “strictly material” (Meyer 2013, p. 337-40*) or “purely physical” or “purely natural” processes (Dembski 2004, passim*) or “mindless material mechanisms” (Dembski 2004, p. 275) at work in the organism?

Stephen Meyer argues that “strictly material processes ... have failed to identify a cause capable of generating the information necessary to produce new forms of life”, and therefore “certain features” of living systems are best explained by “prior” intelligent activity. The assumption seems to be that strictly material processes (“blind” and “mindless”, as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett like to characterize them) do exist — they are not merely a fantasy of contemporary biologists — and their limitations are what necessitate special prior acts of intelligent design.

But what if, as is observably the case, nothing truly biological is explicable in terms of a materialism that sees only physical-chemical cause and effect1? What if William Dembski’s reference (p. 189*) to “undirected natural causes” (which he contrasts with “intelligent causes”) corresponds to nothing at all in the organism? What if we see proteins and DNA and even water molecules caught up in living performances, so that their activities are continuously and meaningfully coordinated in relation to the current needs of the organism? Then your message to mainstream biologists should not be, “Look! Here is a sign of intelligence”, but rather, “Everything you see in the organism is already intelligence expressing itself here and now”. And surely this intelligence is the first place to look for the sources of evolutionary change.

Intelligence Without Machinery

My aim with these questions is to seek clarity on what seem to me the decisive issues: your emphatic preoccupation with machine design, and your insistence on contrasting “naturalistic” or “materialistic” forms of explanation with explanation acknowledging input from a designer.

Regarding your preoccupation with machine design, emphatic is just the right word. It’s hard to find anything about organisms on the Evolution News and Views website that doesn’t focus on “designed” or “engineered” aspects of their makeup. The anonymous blog posting immediately preceding Klinghoffer’s reply to my criticisms celebrated the claim that “Suddenly, It’s OK to Say that Owls Are Engineered”.

But why should that be okay, as if organisms really were merely artifacts of the sort humans are capable of fashioning? Is the machine anything but the palest, most remotely distant caricature of what we can observe directly and without the caricature — namely, the creative, fluid, living activity that transforms a one-celled zygote into a bumblebee or giraffe?

If, as Klinghoffer put it above, the organism is “at least as teleologically derived” as any man-made machine, wouldn’t your arguments be “at least as effective” if you focused attention on the truth of the organism in its own terms, without the distraction of an analogy to something radically different from and inferior to it?

My concern, however, goes beyond machine design to the idea of design itself as a special activity contrasted with “naturalistic” processes. Marking this contrast as vividly as possible appears to be the foundational impulse of the intelligent design movement. For example, Dembski writes (where he means by “material mechanisms” not “machine-like devices”, but rather “physical-chemical processes”):

Naturalistic forms of evolution depend exclusively on ... nonpurposive material mechanisms. Thus for a naturalistic evolutionary process, the origin of any species gives no evidence of actual design because mindless material mechanisms do all the work. Within a teleological form of evolution, by contrast, the origin of some species and biological structures could give evidence of actual design and demonstrate the inadequacy of material mechanisms to do such design work. ... To summarize, the crucial question for intelligent design is not how organisms emerged (e.g., by gradual evolution or sudden special creation) but whether a designing intelligence made a discernible difference ... (p. 181)

This search for a discernible difference made by a designing intelligence raises the question: discernibly different from what? Apparently Dembski means: different from the mindless material processes also at work in evolutionary history. But what if the biologist finds no such processes? If they exist, I would like to have them pointed out to me.

The word “process” is apt. Suppose we take it with full seriousness, realizing that the organism is not in the first instance a collection of structures, but an integral streaming of distinct yet interpenetrating activities, or flows. Then we don’t need to look for exceptional structures, frozen lifelessly in our thought, that are irreducibly complex and therefore point to an intelligent origin. Just about every molecular process we look at — if only we follow it through time, noting its adaptive responsiveness to conditions, its insistent directedness, its involvement in processes of growth, breakdown, and renewal, its pursuit of pathways for reasons rather than causes — every such process testifies to a wisdom that, whatever you take to be its ultimate source, is active as the life of the organism itself.

As I remarked above, no law or combination of laws coerces countless diverse molecules to enter into the almost unbelievably intricate series of fine-tuned interactions required for achieving particular tasks. This commonplace, narrative reality of the organism, whether or not you call it “irreducibly complex”, most definitely transcends any notion of the “strictly material” or “mindlessly natural”.

And if a play of intelligence is in this way continuously present throughout the organism — if it is inseparable from what we see and describe as the behavior of the organism at all levels of observation — what grounds do we have for distinguishing it from a second intelligence impinging from outside?

In other words, what if your search for signs of intelligence in the organism becomes too successful, so that you find this intelligence, not just as a mechanically frozen trace of the past, but now and everywhere active? What if everything in the organism speaks its own inner nature, testifying to the idea and character of this particular organism2?

If the organism’s entire life is, among other things, an intelligent drama, a well-informed performance — well, then, you certainly have the intelligent part of intelligent design. Suppose you consider this intelligence in its full and mysterious depths — you, in whom, as human beings, it is raised to consciousness. You know it very well as an intelligence capable of participating in the vibrant, word-like intelligibility that, through scientific inquiry and artistic experience, we discover informing and speaking through the entire cosmos — through all the heavens and the earth.

Against the background of such intelligence, doesn’t your particular emphasis on design over against “naturalistic” process end up belittling the truth? Does it add anything at all to our understanding, apart from a gratuitous suggestion (inevitable in our technological culture, and heavily stressed in your own literature) of an engineer, mostly disconnected from the current life of the universe, who sporadically retools certain more or less machine-like artifacts?

The Organism Displays Agency

Klinghoffer writes:

Talbott’s view seems to require that we attribute agency to the developing organism itself. But clearly a sponge isn’t directing its own development as a conscious agent. While it exhibits internal self-direction, it calls out for an ultimate agent as an explanation outside itself.

Surely everything we now think we know requires a more ultimate explanation than we have yet achieved. And surely also sponges are not the conscious agents that we are. (I have tried to make this point forcefully in the first of a series of articles entitled “From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self”.)

But while the sponge is not “directing its own development as a conscious agent”, we do witness agency at work in the sponge. And I mean we witness it — here, now, working in and through the sponge, expressing itself, not in special ways or on special occasions, but in all the sponge’s well-directed development and activity.

However, if the agency evident in the relatively simple sponge is not centered in the sponge’s own self-awareness and capacity to think consciously — just as our own bodily wisdom is not (very much) at our conscious beck and call — then the question arises, “Where is that wisdom centered?” Who, after all, ruminates the “wings of thought” upon which the monarch butterfly navigates so insistently, and over multiple generations, from Canada to a Mexican grove of trees it has never visited before? Or, for that matter, who composes the intensely meaningful life narrative so evident in our own cells?

So, yes (putting it in terms of the introductory section of this article): we, and all biologists, must certainly wonder how it is that the organism possesses (or is possessed by) its creative powers — the powers through which the physico-chemical processes in its own body are coordinated and caught up in a highly intelligent living activity. I will not quarrel with any profession of faith the ID advocate may wish to advance; that is not my business. But the first place to look for a wider intelligence, it seems to me, is in the wider world. Unfortunately, Klinghoffer’s phrasing — “the developing organism itself” — tends to obscure the fact that the organism does not and could not exist “by itself”.

Organisms, especially simpler forms, show us that they are one with their environment in a way that is hard for us to conceive. And if even our own powers of conscious rumination originated historically through an in-gathering of the logos from the larger surround (see my brief note, Thought and World: Owen Barfield and the Origin of Language), so, perhaps, may the instinctive, unconscious wisdom on display in every organism be in part an intelligent “speaking” of its environment. Is there anything prohibiting us from imagining that the migrating butterfly is moved by the world as much as it moves in the world? Yes, that’s a long way from materialist thinking, but I assume this is not in itself a problem for the ID theorist!

In any case, the only pathway toward scientific understanding is through observation. The things we can see are the basis for comprehending the things we do not yet see. And because we can indeed observe the agency and the wisdom at work in the organism (and in the larger organism-environment context that ecologists study), the way is open for an ever deeper understanding of that agency and its wider sources. This may mean, as Goethe emphasized, that further progress depends on our developing the necessary “organs” of perception and understanding. But that’s always been the requirement for genuinely new insight, and history shows that humankind has the capacity for such development.

If I have little to say beyond this, it is because there is little I now understand. One sees as far as one can see — and in my case, when I look at the organism the limit of my sight falls far short of what Klinghoffer presumably means by “ultimate agent”. But I hope it is clear by now that, however one may wish to infer an ultimate agent, it can’t be by conceiving the organism as a product of natural processes so blind and mindless that they must therefore be supplemented by the special attentions of an engineer-designer.

It will hardly do to accept a materialistic understanding of the world merely in order to claim some exceptions.


1. The further question, which I do not go into here, is whether the usual notion of strictly material processes makes any more sense when applied to the inanimate world.

2. In studying the sloth, my Nature Institute colleague, Craig Holdrege, was impressed by the unified voice of this creature, remarking, “Every detail speaks ‘sloth’”. See his various whole-organism studies — and in particular his studies of the sloth (1999*), elephant (2003*), and giraffe (2005*), and his comparison study of the horse and lion (1998*).

Tags: evolution/intelligent design; machine-idea; inwardness


Barfield, Owen (1965). Saving the Appearances. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World. Originally published in 1957.

Barfield, Owen (1973). Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press. Originally published in 1928.

Behe, Michael J. (1996). Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: The Free Press.

Behe, Michael J. (2007). The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. New York: Free Press.

Dembski, William A. (2004). The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press.

Holdrege, Craig (1998). “Seeing the Animal Whole: The Example of the Horse and Lion.” In Goethe’s Way of Science, edited by David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc. Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 213-232.

Holdrege, Craig (1999). “What Does It Mean To Be a Sloth?” NetFuture #97 (Nov. 3). Latest version is available at

Holdrege, Craig (2003). The Flexible Giant: Seeing the Elephant Whole, Nature Institute Perspectives no. 2. Available at

Holdrege, Craig (2005). The Giraffe’s Long Neck: From Evolutionary Fable to Whole Organism, Nature Institute Perspectives no. 4. Available at

Meyer, Stephen C. (2009). Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. New York: HarperCollins.

Meyer, Stephen C. (2013). Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. New York: HarperOne.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2014a). “Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism”. Available at

Further information:

Regarding the active presence of thought, idea, meaning, or intelligence in the organism, see in particular How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life and From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning.

This document:

Steve Talbott :: Three Questions for Intelligent Design Theorists