Most people mistakenly think that Intelligent Design is anti-evolution. That is not correct. To understand Intelligent Design’s criticism of evolution, it is important to pinpoint specifically where we believe evolutionary biology made a wrong turn and why it matters.
Purpose Governs Biology
Every level and aspect of biology is driven by intentionality of some kind. We can debate what that intentionality is and where it comes from. We can debate whether it is physically instantiated in the organism’s physics or if it is governed by a soul (or both), or what those terms even mean. However, for anyone to understand biology, they have to understand it in terms of two things: purpose and logic.
Think about how we study biology in school. We break the organism up into systems (i.e., logical units), and describe what these units are for (i.e., their purpose). When describing and organism’s behavior, we do the same thing. We think about the organism’s functions as logically coherent units (eating, sleeping, hunting, mating, etc.), and then we think about the purpose of those functions.
Now, that doesn’t mean that everything that organisms do has a purpose. It doesn’t mean that everything is logical. However, the default stance of a biological investigator, no matter what level of biology they are looking at, examines organisms in terms of purposes and logic functions first. Illogical and unpurposeful acts are, by far, the exception.
Teleonomy as the Materialist’s Teleology
This is true even of the mechanists. The term that they use for this is teleonomy. Teleonomy indicates that an organism exhibits purposeful behavior because it is programmed to do so. That is, when we see behavior, even with mechanistic presuppositions, we can infer purpose, because we can simply say that it is an organism’s program that created the purpose.
Early in the 20th century, materialistic biologists were loathe to think of organisms in terms of purposes. They thought that it hooked too deeply into theistic notions of teleology. Therefore, they often simply didn’t ascribe purpose to anything an organism did. However, it is obvious to everyone that biological organisms operate according to purposes. So this made some of their explanations and descriptions look rather silly.
In response to this, several biologists, including the imminent Ernst Mayr, coined the term teleonomy to refer to the mechanistic idea of organisms behaving according to purposes because of a program, and not because of a soul, or because of God, or because of any theological-sounding idea.
I am not a materialist, but, for the sake of argument, let’s go with that. I certainly believe it is true in many cases (i.e., there do exist many programmed purposes in biology), so, for arguments sake, we will just assume it as a general truth.
Evolutionary Biology’s Wrong Turn
All of this is well and good. The problem, however, is that evolutionary biology, despite now having in hand all of the tools it needed, made a drastic wrong turn. Ernst Mayr declared that even though teleonomy is present in all levels of biology, it is not present in evolution.
Think about this – no matter where you turn in biology, you run smack into purposiveness. You find this in DNA, in organneles, in cells, in organs, in organ systems, in individual behavior, in group behavior, and in ecological behavior. Even if you had not yet found purposiveness in evolution, why would you for a moment think it isn’t there?
This one wrong turn has caused numerous biologists to turn themselves in knots describing systems which are obviously teleonomic as being random. A simple case-in-point is Talk.Origins’ Ed Max talking nonsense about antibody genes. It isn’t that his facts are incorrect. It’s that he uses the words “random mutation” but then points to a process that isolates mutations to the correct half of the correct gene, skipping well over 99.999% of the genome (where successful mutations won’t be found) and only mutating the < 0.001% of the genome where successful mutations are likely to occur. And he calls this “random”.
This confusion of terms has led entire generations of biologists astray. Biologists don’t even think to look at the teleonomy of evolution because they don’t expect to find it. If you read scientific papers, it takes exactly zero experiments to make a claim that a mutation is random, but it takes dozens to make a claim that a mutation is teleonomic. However, dealing with biology, this is exactly the wrong way around. Because it is within biology, if anything, it should be the claim of non-purposiveness that requires multiple experiments to make a proof.
Sexual Selection and Teleonomy
However, we can already clearly see that evolution is teleonomic. This has been true ever since sexual selection.
Sexual selection is one of the things that guide evolution, right? People choose mates because it will affect the viability of their offspring, right? And that offspring is evolution, right? And this choice to look for future viability and evolution is part of how we are programmed to behave, right?
Therefore, even just in sexual selection, we see that the modern synthesis’ insistence that there is no teleonomy in evolution is clearly false. Yet the insistence of no teleonomy has been the bedrock of biological inference since the 1920s!
It Makes a Difference in the Data
I’ve written about this before, but this actually makes direct impacts in data, specifically on how people combine data sets from different sources. Are the mutations we see equivalent to the possible mutations? Are they even a good proxy for them? Are the possible mutations a good proxy for the mutations we see?
These can be proxies for each other only if evolution is not teleonomic. In other words, if evolution is teleonomic, then there is no way at all in which these data sets can be proxies for each other! But, over and over again the biological community uses them in this way. This leads directly to false conclusions!
Evolutionary Biology, Corrected
I count myself as a fan of evolutionary biology. However, that is because I have often taken the time to dissect claims and ideas and see which ones depend on the data, and which ones are improperly based on the assumption of no teleonomy in evolution. It is a drastic change in perspective, but definitely worthwhile.
There have been three groups which have been attempting some sort of a fix like this in evolutionary biology – Intelligent Design, the “Third Way” people, and the “Extended Synthesis” people. The problem, however, is that the “third way” and “Extended Synthesis” groups have been very coy at naming what the problem is and what the solution is. Intelligent Design has not been coy at this, which is why we draw more derision than the others.
As it says in one of the taglines for Robert Marks Evolutionary Informatics lab (an Intelligent Design venture), they are “Investigating How Information Makes Evolution Possible“. In other words, evolutionary teleonomy. The Third Way people won’t say it, but their criticisms of current evolutionary biology focus on this. The Extended Synthesis have trouble saying anything concrete. However, if you look at their papers, all of the “new” stuff is about teleonomic properties of evolution.
Intelligent Design is simply the group that most forthrightly states both the wrong turn that evolutionary biology took (that evolution happens outside of any regulatory system) and its solution (that information – i.e., teleonomy – is what is required to make evolution work.
By the way, for those interested, this is a summary and a lay-oriented version of a paper I wrote that was recently published with BIO-Complexity: