[Contest now closed for judging.]
Astronomer Fred Hoyle and biologist J.B.S. Haldane have both been credited with it — both midcentury and both atheists.
It may be impossible to tell. As a friend offers, it may well have popped up in the early 19th century, but “buried in obscure, low circulation professional journals of the time or perhaps in private letters.”
The term was definitely in use in the 19th century. Charles Darwin uses it in an 1861 letter, in response to something John Herschel wrote. See this also from The Modern Review (1882). See also this article from Nature (1881).
Then there is Oxford’s F. Schiller who wrote in 1897, “it will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.” (Contemporary Review, June 1897)
The term seems to have meant something to authors and readers back then.
Modern design theory is an outgrowth of information theory applied to the explosion of biochemistry so, as expressed and explored today, it dates from the post-Word War II era. Jonathan Witt, in “The Origin of Intelligent Design: A brief history of the scientific theory of intelligent design” (Evolution News, undated), notes,
In By Design, a history of the current design controversy, journalist Larry Witham traces the roots of the contemporary intelligent design movement in biology to the 1950s and ’60s, and the movement itself to the 1970s.5
Biochemists were unraveling the secret of DNA and discovering that it was part of an elaborate information processing system that included nanotechnology of unparalleled sophistication. One of the first intellectuals to describe the significance of these discoveries was chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, who in 1967 argued that “machines are irreducible to physics and chemistry” and that “mechanistic structures of living beings appear to be likewise irreducible.”
Critics of the theory of intelligent design often assert that it is simply a re-packaged version of creationism, and that it began after the Supreme Court struck down the teaching of creationism in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987. In reality, the idea of intelligent design reaches back to Socrates and Plato, and the term “intelligent design” as an alternative to blind evolution was used as early as 1897.
Okay, contest: We will send a free copy of Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science to the first reader who can located a use of the term prior to 1861. And any subsequent reader who can locate an even earlier use.
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