Touchstone Magazine Home
From the July/August, 2004 issue of Touchstone


Winning by Design by William A. Dembski

Winning by Design

How ID Advocates Can Effectively Respond to the Growing Backlash

by William A. Dembski

It is to our advantage to discuss intelligent design (ID) and naturalistic evolution on their merits, because the evidence and arguments are on our side. For the same reason (though they wouldn’t put it that way), the other side needs to delegitimate the debate by casting intelligent design as a pseudoscience and characterizing its significance as purely political and religious, not scientific.

As a consequence, critics of intelligent design engage in all forms of character assassination, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, and demonization. My favorite example is Marshal Berman’s article in the American Biology Teacher (December 2003) titled “Intelligent Design Creationism: A Threat to Society—Not Just Biology.” The epigraph to that article is the well-known quote from Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (His use of “intelligent design creationism” was by itself a way of trying to dismiss design theory as subjective faith pretending to be objective science.) Intelligent design is not just mistaken, but actually evil.

Sometimes the attacks are more subtle. Imagine if someone critical of Darwinian evolutionary theory decided to publish a book titled Dogmatic Darwinian Fundamentalists and Their Critics, got permission to republish articles by prominent Darwinists without their knowledge, and then put their articles in a collection of critical replies designed to make them look foolish. Evolutionists would howl.

A few years ago, Robert Pennock published a collection of essays titled Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics. When the book appeared, I was surprised to learn that I had two essays in it. Without my knowledge, Pennock had approached the publishers of those two essays and gotten their permission to reprint them. It seemed to the average reader that I had given my permission to have the essays appear in a book identifying (dismissing) my position as a form of creationism and subjecting my essays to criticism I had no chance to refute. There is no way I would have given my permission with that title—but no one asked me.

And sometimes the attacks are not so much attacks as ways of bending the debate in their favor by obscuring some of the basic issues. Michael Behe and I debated Pennock and Kenneth Miller at the American Museum of Natural History in the spring of 2002. The debate was initially titled “Blind Evolution or Intelligent Design?” Yet when the debate actually took place, the organizers had quietly dropped the word “blind” from the program bulletin and retitled the debate simply “Evolution or Intelligent Design?”.

The original title was more accurate. Intelligent design is opposed to blind evolution, not to evolution simpliciter, and by “evolution” our critics mean a blind form of it—that is, a form of evolution occurring entirely by undirected material mechanisms. But calling attention to the blindness, or absence of teleology, in the evolutionary process is clearly not in their interest.

For now, the evolutionists are sitting pretty. They hold the reigns of power in the academy, they control federal research funds, and they have unlimited access to the media. The reason intelligent design has become such a threat to them is that it is giving the majority of Americans, who do not buy the atheistic picture of evolution peddled in all the textbooks, the tools with which to effectively challenge the evolutionists’ power structures. As a result, the evolutionists have in effect adopted a zero-concession policy toward intelligent design. Absolutely nothing is to be conceded to intelligent design and its proponents. It is therefore futile to hope for concessions.

Engaging the Hard Core

Hard-core critics who have adopted this policy are still worth engaging, but we need to control the terms of engagement. Whenever I engage them, the farthest thing from my mind is to convert them, to win them over, to appeal to their good will, to make my cause seem reasonable in their eyes. We need to set wishful thinking firmly to one side.

The point is not to change our critics’ minds, but instead to clarify our arguments, to address weaknesses in our own position, to identify areas requiring further work and study, and, perhaps most significantly, to appeal to the undecided middle that is watching this debate and trying to sort through the issues. The proper answer to the critics’ zero-concession policy is therefore a there-might-be-something-to-it-after-all policy.

Further, we ought to think of the attacks of our critics as opportunities to advance our cause. We need to think of them as gifts. I have always been fascinated with the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land. The pattern that kept repeating itself was this: The Israelites would approach a fortified city. Instead of entrenching themselves in their city and allowing their countryside to be ravaged, the inhabitants of the city would come out for battle. Once they went outside their positions of safety, the Israelites made short work of them.

That is the pattern I see in this debate. The proponents of evolution would very much prefer to stay in their fortified positions. They do not want to dignify us by devoting time and energy to refute us. They would prefer to ignore us. They wish we would just go away. But the challenge to evolutionary dogma in the schools and public square is real and threatens their monopoly. The unwashed masses are not with them. The evolutionists cannot leave these crazy design theorists unanswered. So out they come from their positions of safety to challenge us. But in the very challenge, they open evolutionary theory to a scrutiny it cannot withstand.

To understand how to defend ourselves in this debate, we need first to understand the forms that the attacks take. The attacks take three forms, corresponding to the three traditional aspects of rhetoric: logos, ethos, and pathos.

Logos refers to the reasoned case that is being advanced. Think of it as the formal argument that can be written out on a sheet of paper. The identification of presuppositions, the marshalling of evidence, and the drawing of inferences all fall under logos. Ethos refers to the perceived character, integrity, and accomplishment of the speaker and his subject. It inspires confidence and establishes credibility in the eyes of the audience or destroys confidence and erodes credibility. And, finally, pathos refers to the emotion or passion that the speaker is able to elicit from the audience. He may be able to play on the audience’s heartstrings and elicit sympathy or he may inspire anger or fear. Pathos is especially important if he is trying to get the audience to take action.

Evolutionists use each of these to attack intelligent design. They attack ID with respect to logos by claiming that science utterly fails to support it, whether on evidential or theoretical grounds. They attack it with respect to ethos by charging its proponents with being morally and intellectually deficient. And finally, they attack it with respect to pathos by instilling the fear that intelligent design means not just the end of science but the end of rational discourse in a free and open society. Let us look at these attacks more closely, and especially at ways to counter them.

Blanket Dismissal

Usually, in keeping with the no-concession policy, an attack relating to logos starts with some blanket dismissal such as “Intelligent design offers no testable hypotheses,” or “Intelligent design is just an argument from ignorance,” or “Intelligent design is incoherent because of the poor design evident in biological systems.” To counter these attacks, we have to stay on topic. The first thing to do when confronted with such an attack is to ask for elaboration of the objection so that it is clear what exactly is under dispute.

Take one of the trio of objections that constitutes Kenneth Miller’s standard attack on intelligent design. His main interest is in unseating Michael Behe and his notion of irreducible complexity. Behe argues that systems exhibiting irreducible complexity cannot be explained by Darwinian processes. Miller argues that they can. Among the arguments Miller uses to make his case is that biological structures that serve the same basic function but exist at various levels of complexity (e.g., the eye in its many incarnations) prove that evolution is an instrument for bringing about biological complexity.

The problem with the argument is that he is presupposing precisely the point in question, namely, whether a materialistic form of evolution can bring about biological complexity. Sample enough organisms, and you will find structures in different states of complexity that perform the same basic function. But arranging the similar structures and then drawing arrows marking supposed evolutionary relationships does nothing to show whether these systems in fact evolved by material mechanisms. The similarities may suggest evolutionary relationships, but evolution is a process, and the evolutionary process connecting similar structures needs to be made explicit before the similarity can legitimately be ascribed to evolution. Miller’s analysis never gets that far. He gestures to the similarities but never demonstrates how evolution accounts for them.

When defending intelligent design with respect to logos, I cannot overstress the importance of staying on topic. This is a nasty debate. One of my colleagues, who previously was involved with the abortion controversy and now works on the public policy aspects of intelligent design, finds the level of hostility even greater than in the abortion debate. It is therefore tempting to respond in kind. Maintaining composure under pressure is especially effective for establishing one’s credibility.

What does it mean to stay on topic? The central question that must always be kept front and center in addressing ID’s critics is this: Why might material mechanisms (such as Darwinian natural selection and random variation) lack the creative capacity to bring about the full complexity and diversity of living forms? The materialist scientist resists this question (and I include here the scientist who is a religious believer but who thinks that science must understand the natural world entirely in terms of material processes that give no evidence of design). Indeed, from a materialist vantage point, what else could be responsible for life’s complexity and diversity except material mechanisms?

The materialist sees designing engineers as appearing only after evolution—a materialistic form of it—has run its course. That’s why Daniel Hillis remarks, “There are only two ways we know of to make extremely complicated things, one is by engineering, and the other is evolution. And of the two, evolution will make the more complex.” But whether a purely materialistic form of evolution is able to perform amazing feats of design that would otherwise require super-engineers to perform is precisely the point at issue.

What is more, unless we are able to press this point, the evolutionists will win by default, having defined science as the study of material processes that, by logical necessity, disqualify design and that, again by logical necessity, ensure that some materialistic account of evolution must be true.

Peripheral Issues

Let us turn to attacks against intelligent design with respect to ethos. This kind of attack tends to focus on peripheral issues, such as whether design theorists have published their ideas in the right places, whether the scientific community is accepting intelligent design in sufficient numbers to render it credible, whether intelligent design is being unduly politicized, whether design theorists are religiously motivated, and so on. Such questions are interesting, but they do not address the validity of intelligent design as an intellectual and scientific project, nor do they go to its truth or falsehood.

Nonetheless, such questions are important to people on the sidelines. We therefore need to make certain that we are not misrepresented here.

Take the question of peer review. Intelligent design is a minority position only now beginning to gain a hearing in the mainstream, peer-reviewed literature, but our critics contend that it has no presence in that literature whatsoever. For instance, Eugenie Scott at the National Center for Science Education claimed that my book The Design Inference was not peer-reviewed. It had appeared as part of a Cambridge University Press monograph series (Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction, and Decision Theory) with an academic editorial board that included members of the National Academy of Sciences as well as one Nobel laureate, and the manuscript had to be passed by three anonymous expert referees before Cambridge University Press would publish it.

Similarly, at the Design and Its Critics conference (held at Concordia University in the summer of 2000), Kenneth Miller claimed that Michael Behe’s notion of “irreducible complexity” was nowhere to be found in the mainstream, peer-reviewed biological literature. Yet, in fact, two mainstream scientists had just a few months earlier published an article in the Journal of Theoretical Biology on that very topic.

We do not need to respond to every misrepresentation that the other side makes. It is enough to respond to those that trouble the undecided middle. And even here, let us be careful not to become defensive. In line with our there-might-be-something-to-it-after-all policy, it is usually enough to indicate that there is more to the story than the other side lets on. John Angus Campbell puts it this way: A draw is a win.

The other side wants to obliterate intelligent design. Yet to persuade the undecided middle, we just have to show that intelligent design has something going for it. As much as possible, therefore, let us always return to the main point at issue, which is that material mechanisms lack the creative capacity to bring about the complexity and diversity of living forms and that the ID movement is merely helping to elucidate this central issue in biology.

What Counts as Evidence

This raises an important point. We are accustomed to thinking that what it means for data to count as evidence supporting a hypothesis is uncontroversial. But, in fact, it can be highly controversial. What it means for something to count as evidence is not itself decided by evidence. Rather, it depends on certain cognitive predispositions, and these are heavily influenced by our views on the ultimate nature of reality (metaphysics) and the scope of human knowing (epistemology).

In particular, for the materialist, no facts of biology can count as evidence for intelligent design, because no designer exists—which is a metaphysical, not a scientific, assumption. Thus, when it is claimed that there are no articles supporting intelligent design in the peer-reviewed journals, it is appropriate to ask whether any data from biology could even in principle provide such evidence, and if so, what these data might look like. If the answer is that no data could even in principle provide support for intelligent design—as the evolutionist will have to say—the conversation has moved from science to epistemology and metaphysics.

In science, there are no raw data. Data are always collected in light of background knowledge and assumptions. These condition the aspects of nature to which we attend and from which we collect our data. Once collected, we interpret these data. At one level of interpretation, we see facts. At a higher level of interpretation, we see patterns connecting these facts. At still higher levels of interpretation, we formulate hypotheses and theories to make sense of these patterns. It follows that, as an inherently hermeneutical enterprise, science can never guarantee consensus, especially at the higher levels of interpretation.

More and more, critics of intelligent design are outraged by what they call “quote-mining.” They fault design theorists for going to the biological literature to pull out quotes and ideas that support intelligent design. The critics are outraged because they see the design theorists as shamelessly exploiting the hard scientific work of others and interpreting it in ways that the scientists who originally did the work would reject. We have nothing to be ashamed of here. As Nobel laureate William Lawrence Bragg remarked, “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” Intelligent design is doing just that—discovering new ways of thinking about and interpreting the well-established facts of science that pertain to biological complexity and diversity.

I have stressed that we need to clear up misrepresentations of our work by critics, and so we do. At the same time, we also need to clear up misrepresentations of evolutionary theory. It is, for instance, completely unacceptable that, not only do the famous Haeckel embryo drawings get recycled in edition after edition of high-school biology textbooks, but so does the misconception responsible for those drawings.

The mistaken idea they are used to prove is that similar structures in the adults of different species result from similar developmental pathways in their embryos, which is supposed to prove their common ancestry. It is a fact of embryology that similar adult structures can arise via vastly different developmental pathways. With such misrepresentations—especially when they appear in textbooks, mislead our young people, and are supported by our tax dollars—we need to hold the evolutionists’ feet to the fire.

Fear & Loathing

Finally, let us turn to attacks against intelligent design that appeal to pathos. The strategy of the other side here is clear: Induce in the undecided middle fear and loathing of intelligent design: fear that science and society will be subverted, and loathing that intelligent design is just a tool for advancing religious and political extremism. By contrast, to promote intelligent design with regard to pathos, the most effective approach is to appeal to the undecided middle’s sense of fairness and justice, especially its tendency to root for the underdog and its predilection for freedom of expression.

In practice, to induce fear and loathing of intelligent design, the other side invokes pejorative labels that are rich in negative associations. “Creationism” is by far the preferred pejorative, though “anti-evolution,” “anti-science,” “fundamentalism,” “right-wing extremism,” and “pseudoscience” are great favorites as well. My advice is that, as far as possible, we resist being labeled. To do this effectively, however, it is not enough simply to deny a label. In fact, being too vocal and adamant about denying a label can be a good way of attaching it more firmly.

Denial works best if we are explicitly asked to comment on a label and then can explain why the label is wrong or misleading. Most reporters who interview me ask me how intelligent design differs from creationism. That gives me a perfect opening, and I can explain how intelligent design is not a religious doctrine about where everything came from but rather a scientific investigation into how patterns exhibited by finite arrangements of matter can signify intelligence. If they assume that the two are the same, I take the chance to explain the difference.

However, the best way to resist being labeled is not by denying the labels but by developing our own vocabulary and ideas that set the agenda for the debate over biological origins. In this way, the other side is increasingly forced to engage our ideas and cannot rely on dismissive labels to avoid the intellectual work. Consider the following terms: (1) irreducible complexity; (2) specified complexity; (3) design inference; (4) explanatory filter; and (5) empirical detectability of design. The other side now spends an enormous amount of time discussing these terms and the ideas underlying them. Insofar as the other side engages us on our terms, it is in no position to label us.

Of course, the other side sees this, and therefore self-consciously makes a point of labeling us and our program. Still, we do ourselves good by steering the discussion as much as possible to matters of substance and not using labels ourselves. Clarity and consistency in how we express our ideas are the best antidote to labeling by the other side. Increasingly, the media are grasping our ideas and expressing them not with tendentious labels but in our own words. For instance, the media now consistently refer to “intelligent design” and not to “creationism” or “intelligent design creationism.”

Not all labels, however, have the intended negative effect. There is no way to give the labels “anti-science” or “pseudoscience” a positive spin, but what about “anti-evolution”? The evolutionists who are our main critics think evolution is the greatest concept ever conceived. Daniel Dennett wrote: “If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.”

For most of the population, however, the term “evolution” holds no such positive associations. For most people, evolution is an implausible and controversy-riven theory of biological origins, one that gives comfort to atheists and undermines religious faith. When our opponents describe intelligent design as a form of anti-evolutionism, they give it a positive advertisement in some circles.

Even so, there is an important clarification to keep in mind here. Intelligent design is anti-evolution not in the sense of rejecting all evolutionary change. Indeed, some design theorists, like Michael Behe, accept the universal common ancestry of all organisms. Rather, intelligent design is anti-evolution only in the limited sense that it regards blind material forces as inadequate for explaining all evolutionary change.

Radiated Confidence

In closing, therefore, I want to reflect on how we can avoid being intimidated and maintain our composure in the face of evolutionist opposition. Two extremes need to be avoided. On the one hand, we must refuse to allow evolutionists to send us cowering into a corner. This depends on doing our homework so that we know what we are talking about, and on going out and mixing it up with enough evolutionists so that we know what we are up against.

On the other hand, we must refuse to allow evolutionists to make us angry and lose our self-control, which usually leads us to denounce our opponents in harsh and bitter words, and these never help our cause. Aggressiveness and argumentativeness are almost always interpreted as defensiveness, and rightly so. Victor Hugo put it this way: “Strong and bitter words indicate a weak cause.”

I do a fair amount of public speaking and know from experience how it feels to have a questioner get under my skin and the consequent urge to let him have it. The simplest way I’ve found to resist that urge is simply to stay on topic, answering the questioner’s actual questions, being courteous throughout, and, as much as possible, attributing to the questioner sincere motives. This has several advantages: (1) it prevents you from seeming defensive; (2) it wins the respect of the audience (and they’re the ones we’re trying to reach); and (3) it is usually the best way to slap some sense into a recalcitrant questioner, whose aim is to distract you from your message; by refusing to be distracted, you reinforce your message.

We, on the design side, are in an even better position than the evolutionists to radiate confidence. Here’s why. The evolutionists are essentially in a defensive posture. If they could demonstrate the power of material mechanisms to generate biological complexity and diversity, we would not be having this discussion, Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial would never have been written, and the intelligent design movement would not exist. But they have nothing, and that despite possessing, as far as they are concerned, the greatest scientific theory ever put forward.

“Winning by Design” is taken from his “Dealing with the Backlash Against Intelligent Design,” which will appear in a festschrift in honor of Phillip E. Johnson. See for his writings.

William A. Dembski is Associate Research Professor in the Conceptual Foundations of Science at Baylor University and a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute?s Center for Science and Culture. He is the author of many books, including Intelligent Design (InterVarsity Press), No Free Lunch (Rowman & Littlefield), and The Design Revolution (InterVarsity Press); and the editor, with James Kushiner, of Signs of Intelligence (Brazos), a collection taken from the first Touchstone special issue on intelligent design.

“Winning by Design” first appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary.

This page and all site content © 2015 by The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved. Please send comments, suggestions, and bad link reports to