What is Intelligent Design?

Anonymous | 8 May 2020 | 7 min read

“Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” – Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker.[1]

Is the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins correct? The ancient Greek, Epicurus, propagated a materialistic account of evolution.[2] Aristotle argued for an “Unmoved Mover,” and Aquinas, in his “Fifth Way,” for a Designer. William Paley posited a “watch maker,” and Darwin denied the need for a Designer in Origin of Species. The debate over the design of nature rages on. Many concluded that this age-old debate was finally settled with the acceptance of Neo-Darwinian evolution. However, some scientists and philosophers still contest the materialistic account of evolution and argue that nature is brimming with evidence of design. From among these design advocates originated the so-called Intelligent Design Movement.

What is Intelligent Design Theory?

Intelligent Design is a scientific theory which claims that certain parts of the natural world are explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected natural process. Intelligent Design differs from Creationism as it does not try to argue for any religious view. It deduces design from nature, and not from any sacred scripture.

One design advocate and Lehigh University biochemist, Michael Behe, coined the concept of “irreducible complexity.” Something is irreducibly complex when composed of “several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”[3] An everyday example of an irreducibly complex system used by Behe is a mousetrap. Removing any part of the mouse trap results in it losing its proper function of trapping mice. All the parts need to be in place from the start.

Irreducibly complex systems in nature challenge the current Neo-Darwinian paradigm. These systems cannot have been assembled gradually by means of natural selection and random mutations.

An Example of Intelligent Design

The bacterial flagellum is one example of irreducible complexity. This rotary filament, resembling a “tail,” is used by some bacteria to move around in fluid. Genetic knockout experiments were performed by microbiologist, Scott Minnich, and showed that if any of the approximately 35 different protein-components making up the flagellum is removed, it fails to assemble and function correctly.[4] Therefore it is irreducibly complex.

Neo-Darwinism claims, that a system which does not convey an advantage to an organism will not be spread (selected) through the progeny population. This raises a conundrum. The flagellum could not have been built by small incremental steps. If all the pieces were not in place, one would have a non-functioning protein assembly which would be deleterious to an organism and jeopardise its survival. This gradual approach would leave entire generations carrying evolutionary “dead weight.” However, it is even less reasonable, faced with the sheer improbability, to hold that one awe-inspiring mutational leap could bring about the flagellum.[5]

Such irreducibly complex structures require foresight, which only originates from an intelligence.

A Sketch of the Bacterial Flagellum

A Rebuttal to the Critics of Intelligent Design

Evolutionary biologists took up the challenge of irreducible complexity. Kenneth Miller and Matt Baker[6] tried to argue that the Type III Secretion System (T3SS) could be an intermediate form. The Type III Secretion System is a molecular pump used by some predatory bacteria as a needle to inject toxic proteins into eukaryotic cells. Since the flagellum utilizes some similar proteins[7] to those that makeup T3SS, Neo-Darwinianists argue that natural selection selected the T3SS and then went on to create the bacterial flagellum. This is an indirect evolutionary route. Instead of directly evolving the flagellum via random mutations, that is to say, instead of selecting precursors involved with the movement, the organism happened to stumble upon a secretory system. This system gave, or so we must imagine, the organism an evolutionary advantage and was thus selected. The T3SS was a “pit stop” to preserve some of the hard-earned random mutations needed to build a flagellum. Eventually, this advantageous system happened to mutate into a propulsion system, i.e. the flagellum.

Has yet another design argument been done away with? Should this argument for irreducible complexity join the empty corridors of “outdated pseudo-science”? Behe responded to this challenge:

“As the complexity of an interacting system increases, though, the likelihood of such an indirect route drops precipitously. And as the number of unexplained, irreducibly complex biological systems increases, our confidence that Darwin’s criterion of failure has been met skyrockets toward the maximum that science allows.”[8]

The problem with the T3SS being a precursor in the evolution of the flagellum is that the empirical evidence suggests the opposite. The injectisome (T3SS) is located in a small portion of bacteria that have a symbiotic or parasitic association with eukaryotes. Eukaryotes evolved billions of years after bacteria; suggesting that the flagellum evolved first. As Sophy Abby observes:

“Based on patchy taxonomic distribution of the T3SS compared to that of the flagellum, widespread in bacterial phyla, previous phylogenetic analyses proposed that T3SS derived from a flagellar ancestor and spread through lateral gene transfers.”[9]

Finally, the genes coding for the injectisome is always found with the genes encoding the flagellum, but not vice versa. This also strongly suggests that the injectisome is derived from the flagellum and not the other way around. As William A. Dembski states:

“[F]inding a subsystem of a functional system that performs some other function is hardly an argument for the original system evolving from that other system. One might just as well say that because the motor of a motorcycle can be used as a blender, therefore the [blender] motor evolved into the motorcycle. Perhaps, but not without intelligent design… At best the TTSS [Type III Secretory System] represents one possible step in the indirect Darwinian evolution of the bacterial flagellum. But that still wouldn’t constitute a solution to the evolution of the bacterial flagellum. What’s needed is a complete evolutionary path and not merely a possible oasis along the way. To claim otherwise is like saying we can travel by foot from Los Angeles to Tokyo because we’ve discovered the Hawaiian Islands. Evolutionary biology needs to do better than that.”[10]


The scientific challenge of Intelligent Design stands and remains to be answered. The implication of design is a Designer. Who is this designer? This is one, if not the most important question anyone can ask. However, Intelligent Design does not answer this question. Design advocates only try to show that some parts of life and the universe have been designed. This is where science meets the end of its insightful gaze. One must tread into the disciplines of philosophy and theology in search of the answer to the question: “If parts of life and the universe are designed, who or what is the origin of this design?”

Suggested Readings

Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. 2nd Ed. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith 3rd ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008. p. 93-204.

Gordon, Bruce L. & Dembski, William A eds. The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010.

Meyer, Stephen C. Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009.

Wells, Jonathan. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2006.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York, Norton), 1.

[2] “Epicurus” by David Konstan (Summer 2018 Edition), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Edward N. Zalta ed.), available at <>, accessed May 8, 2020.

[3] Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Darwinism (NY: Free Press, 1996), 39.

[4] Transcript of testimony of Scott Minnich, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board (M.D. Pa., PM Testimony, November 3, 2005), 103-112.

Also see Table 1 in R. M. Macnab, “Flagella,” (In Escherichia Coli and Salmonella Typhimurium: Cellular and Molecular Biology Vol. 1, eds. F. C. Neidhardt, J. L. Ingraham, K. B. Low, B. Magasanik, M. Schaechter, and H. E. Umbarger [Washington D.C.: American Society for Microbiology, 1987], 73-74).

[5] “A Tale of Two Mountains: Introducing Intelligent Design” by Casey Luskin, available at, accessed December 19, 2019.

[6] “The Bacterial Flagellar Motor: Brilliant Evolution or Intelligent Design?” by Matt Baker, available at, accessed December 17, 2019.

[7] Andreas Diepold & Judith P. Armitage, “Type III Secretion Systems: The Bacterial Flagellum and the Injectisome,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 370:1679(2015), available at, accessed May 8, 2020.

[8] Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, p. 40.

[9] Sophy S. Abby, “The Non-Flagellar Type III Secretion System Evolved from the Bacterial Flagellum and Diversified into Host-Cell Adapted Systems,” PLoS Genetics 8:e1002983(2012), available at, accessed May 8, 2020.

[10] Quoted in “Why the Type III Secretory System Can’t Be a Precursor to the Bacteria Flagellum,” by Casey Luskin, available at, accessed May 8, 2020.



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