Twenty years ago, as a PhD scientist, I intensely studied the evolution versus intelligent design controversy for about two years. And finally, despite my previous acceptance of evolutionary theory as "fact," I came to the realization that intelligent design, as a theory of origins, is no more religious, and no less scientific, than evolutionism.
In the scientific community, I am not alone. There are many fine books out there on the subject. Curiously, most of the books are written by scientists who lost faith in evolution as adults, after they learned how to apply the analytical tools they were taught in college.
You might wonder how scientists who are taught to apply disciplined observation and experimentation and to search for natural explanations for what is observed in nature can come to such a conclusion? For those of you who consider themselves open-minded, I will try to explain.
True evolution, in the macro-sense, has never been observed, only inferred. A population of moths that changes from light to dark based upon environmental pressures is not evolution -- they are still moths. A population of bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics does not illustrate evolution -- they are still bacteria. In the biological realm, natural selection (which is operating in these examples) is supposedly the mechanism by which evolution advances, and intelligent design theory certainly does not deny its existence. While natural selection can indeed preserve the stronger and more resilient members of a gene pool, intelligent design maintains that it cannot explain entirely new kinds of life -- and that is what evolution is.
Possibly the most critical distinction between the two theories (or better, "models") of origins is this: While similarities between different but "related" species have been attributed by evolutionism to common ancestry, intelligent design explains the similarities based upon common design. An Audi and a Ford each have four wheels, a transmission, an engine, a gas tank, fuel injection systems ... but no one would claim that they both naturally evolved from a common ancestor.
Common ancestry requires transitional forms of life to have existed through the millions of years of supposed biological evolution. Yet the fossil record, our only source of the history of life on Earth, is almost (if not totally) devoid of transitional forms of life that would connect the supposed evolution of amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to birds, etc. This is why Stephen Jay Gould, possibly the leading evolutionist of our time, advanced his "punctuated equilibria" theory. In this theory, evolution leading to new kinds of organisms occurs over such brief periods of time that it was not captured in the fossil record. Upon reflection, one cannot help but notice that this is not arguing based upon the evidence -- but instead from the lack of evidence.
One finally comes to the conclusion that, despite vigorous protests, belief in evolution and intelligent design are matters of faith. Even some evolutionists have admitted as much in their writings. Modern biology does not "fall apart" without evolution, as some will claim. Maybe the theories of the origins of forms of life fall apart, or theories of the origin of capabilities that those life forms exhibit, or the supposed ancestral relationships between them fall apart. But these are merely intellectual curiosities, serving only to stimulate discussion and teach the next generation of students the same beliefs. From a practical point of view, the intelligent design paradigm is just as useful to biology, and I believe, more satisfying from an intellectual point of view.
Intelligent design can be studied and taught without resorting to human creation traditions and beliefs, which in the West are usually traceable to the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Just as someone can recognize and study some machine of unknown purpose built by another company, country (or alien intelligence?), one can also examine the natural world and ask the question: did this machine arise by semi-random natural physical processes, or could it have been designed by a higher power? Indeed, I was convinced of the intelligent design arguments based upon the science alone.
Of course, ultimately, one must confront the origin of that higher power, which will logically lead to the possibility of an original, uncaused, First Cause. But then we would be firmly in the religious realm. All naturalistic cosmological theories of origins must invent physics that have never been observed by science -- because the "Big Bang" can't be explained based upon current physics. A naturalistic origin of the universe violates either the First or Second Laws of thermodynamics -- or both. So, is this science? Or faith?
It is already legal to teach intelligent design in public schools. What is not currently legal is to mandate its teaching. The Supreme Court has ruled that this would violate the First Amendment's establishment of religion clause.
But I have some questions relating to this: Does not classical evolutionism, based almost entirely upon faith, violate the same clause? More importantly, what about the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion?
If the public school system insists on teaching evolution as a theory of origins, in the view of many a religious activity, why is it discriminating against the only other theory of origins, intelligent design? (There is, by the way, no third theory of origins that anyone has ever been able to determine.) At the very least, school textbooks should acknowledge that evolution is a theory of origins, it has not been proved, and that many scientists do not accept it.
There are a variety of ideas that try to blend evolution and intelligent design, the most unified one being "pantheism" that sees God and nature as One. This view, which has been held by many peoples throughout recorded history, has also been advanced here at TCS. But more commonly, people subscribe to the notion that a Creator "got things started," and then evolution "took over."
The problem I have with this is that it grants far too much significance to macroevolution, since it has virtually no observational evidence to support it. One wonders: Why do so many people defend it so fervently?
Whether intelligent design is ever taught in school is probably not as important as the freedom that we have in a free society to discuss, and study, such issues. And for that, I am thankful.