Creationism vs. Intelligent Design.

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May 10 2005 6:51 PM

Creationism vs. Intelligent Design

Is there a difference?

Critics who argue that evolution should not be taught as scientific fact presented their case to the State Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, last week. Testimony is scheduled to resume on Thursday, and the board expects to make a decision on whether to change its science standards this summer. The public hearings have pitched proponents of evolution against those who subscribe to "Intelligent Design." Is Intelligent Design the same thing as Creationism?

No. Intelligent Design adherents believe only that the complexity of the natural world could not have occurred by chance. Some intelligent entity must have created the complexity, they reason, but that "designer" could in theory be anything or anyone. In 1802, William Paley  used the "divine watchmaker" analogy to popularize the design argument *: If we assume that a watch must have been fashioned by a watchmaker, then we should assume that an ordered universe must have been fashioned by a divine Creator. Many traditional Creationists have embraced this argument over the years, and most, if not all, modern advocates for Intelligent Design are Christians who believe that God is the designer.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber (@danengber) is a columnist for Slate. Send him an email at danengber@yahoo.com.

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Creationism comes in many varieties, from the strictest biblical literalism (according to which the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and flat) to the theistic evolutionism of the Catholic Church (which accepts evidence that the Earth is millions of years old, and that evolution can explain much of its history—but not the creation of the human soul). Between those extremes, there are "Young-Earth" and "Old-Earth" creationists, who differ over the age of the planet and the details of how God created life.

The limited scope of Intelligent Design theory makes it compatible with a wide range of views. Some prominent ID theorists believe in evolution—or at least that species can change over time—and many believe that the Earth was created more than 10,000 years ago. But there are also ID theorists who believe in a literal reading of Genesis.

Young-Earth creationists have criticized the Intelligent Design movement for encouraging a loose reading of the Bible. The design theorists respond that ID represents at least the "partial truth" and that it is, at the very least, the best available tool for dislodging what they see as evolutionist dogma.

Explainer thanks Tom Willis of The Creation Science Association for Mid-America, William Dembski of the Discovery Institute, and Nick Matzke of the National Center for Science Education.

* Correction, May 11, 2005: The original version of this column credited William Paley as originator of the design argument and the "divine watchmaker" analogy. He merely put them in a famous formulation. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.