Darwin and the intelligent design

Author: Carlos A. Marmelada. carlosalbertomarmelada@yahoo.es
review of the work by Francisco J. Ayala Darwin y el design inteligente. Creacionismo, cristianismo y evolucionismo Alianza publishing house: Madrid, 2007. 231 pp.
Publication date: 2007

(The numbers in brackets indicate the numbering of the pages of the book).

Francisco Ayala is one of Spain's most internationally renowned scientists. He is currently a professor at department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Irvine, USA. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences of North America. Among the merits and distinctions awarded to Professor Ayala is the fact that he received the National Medal of Science of the United States. Thanks to his great professional prestige, he was chosen as one of the members of the committee of advisors to former President Bill Clinton. He was also president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He is the author of several books, including: Origen y evolución del hombre (Alianza publishing house, 1980); La teoría de la evolución. De Darwin a los últimos avances de la Genetics (Temas de Hoy, 1994); Senderos de la evolución humana (Senderos de la evolución humana) (Alianza publishing house, 2001); La piedra que se volvió palabra (La piedra que se volvió palabra) (Alianza publishing house, 2005); the latter two books in partnership with Camilo José Cela Conde. In 2000 he was invested honorary doctor by the Unviersitat de València; institution that published in 2006 a book, graduate: La evolución de un evolucionista, in which, among other things, several of his articles were published.

Apart from being the author of several specialised articles, he has given numerous lectures on Genetics, human evolution and other biology-related topics.

In Darwin and the intelligent design Ayala tackles with firmness and courage a good issue of borderline questions between science and religion. The book has as its backdrop the compatibility between the scientific theory of evolution and the fundamental contents of the Christian faith in particular and of religion in general, contents that affirm the existence of a God staff, creator and provident.

The first words of the book, those that began the prologue, are very eloquent, since they clearly express the thesis that Ayala will defend throughout the work. As the author states: "The central message of this book is that there is no necessary contradiction between science and religious beliefs" (15) * (1).

There are believers who view science with suspicion because they think that it is inherently materialistic and therefore becomes an instrument, and a very prestigious one at that, of atheism. But those who view science in this way are mistaken, since its methodological materialism does not mean, far from it, that science has proved that everything that exists is material and that, therefore, spiritual realities such as God or the human soul do not exist. A denial of this subject is not the fruit of any science, but a philosophical proposition.

On the other hand, there are those who take a dim view of religion as a hindrance to the development of science. But they, too, are wrong in their assessment of religion in this way. Christianity, as such, has not only not been opposed to science, but has encouraged it for centuries. George Mendel, father of the Genetics, was a Christian monk; Georges Lemaître, the first scientist to propose the currently prevailing cosmological model and later known as the big bang theory, was a Catholic priest. Throughout history there have been many religious people who have cultivated science, just as there have also been many renowned scientists who have professed a sincere faith without any problem of compatibility between their religious beliefs and their scientific research. Hence Ayala states that "properly understood, science and religious faith are not in contradiction, nor can they be, since they deal with different issues that do not overlap" (15) * (2).

Science and religion move on different planes and study different aspects of reality. Science studies some of the quantifiable aspects of material reality, hence it applies (and certainly in a lawful and very successful way) the reductionism of methodological materialism; but this does not mean that science affirms that only material reality exists; so that God and the human soul, for example, are, respectively, no more than an inevitable transcendental illusion and a paralogism of pure reason, as the more educated would say; or simply a mere invention of the mind, as the cruder materialism would say. These two distinct planes on which science and religion move are, on the one hand, the "discovery and explanation of the processes of nature" (15 and 164) and, on the other hand, the search for the "meaning and purpose of the universe and of life" (15), also the relationship between God and man, as well as the value and scope of the moral norms that arise from this relationship, as well as their influence on concrete human life. In this respect: "science has nothing to say on these matters, nor is it the business of religion to provide scientific explanations for natural phenomena" (15) * (3).

Given that "scientific knowledge seems to contradict the biblical narrative of the creation of the world and of the first humans" (15), there have been scientists (such as Richard Dawkins, for example) and philosophers (such as Daniel Dennett, although he is not cited by Ayala) who have insisted on the idea that man is a product of material evolution. This is what we might call "ultra-Darwinism". Speaking of Dawkins and the historian of science William Provine, Ayala says: "we can grant these authors their right to think as they wish, but they have no authority to base their materialist Philosophy on the achievements of science" (179). And, as Ayala rightly says, "science does not imply metaphysical materialism" (178).

Against those who force the scientific theory of evolution to go beyond its methodological limits and force it to make claims that are not scientific at all and are, strictly speaking, philosophical, rise with exaggerated radicalism the self-styled scientific creationists, an intellectual group that has emerged from the radical core of American Protestantism. After several judicial failures in their attempt to legally abolish the teaching of the scientific theory of evolution in public schools, the creationists have changed tactics. For the past few decades their litigation has been along the lines of trying to get states to enact laws requiring that the same amount of time be devoted to teaching as to the literal content of creation as found in the first two chapters of the biblical Genesis.

In line with the spirit of scientific creationism, in recent decades a new movement has arisen in the United States in favour of what they call: the intelligent design (DI). According to these authors, there would exist in nature complex Structures that would be irreducible; in other words, they could not have arisen by biological evolution from other previous Structures that have been gradually transformed to give rise to a current complex structure. If these irreducible Structures could not have arisen from a process of biological evolution, then what is the cause of their existence? According to the supporters of ID, these Structures would have been designed by an Intelligent Universal Designer. According to Ayala: "it will surprise many of my readers, both believers and scientists, that the central topic of this book leads to the conclusion that science, and in particular the theory of evolution, is compatible with the Christian faith, while the intelligent design is not" (16).

At the opposite extreme to the scientific creationists, whose most recent face is that of the intelligent design , are the aforementioned ultra-Darwinists who claim that science has "proved" that everything in the universe, including human beings, is material and the result of chance. Apparently, these are two antithetical and irreconcilable positions, in such a way that it would seem that the former would provide scientific support for theology and the latter would provide a scientific basis for atheism. In this book Ayala analyses these two positions, dismantling the fallacies on which these two equally ideological groups are based.

Throughout Darwin and the intelligent design Francisco Ayala demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to be a supporter of the scientific theory of the evolution of species and to believe in the existence of a creator God, staff and provident. In other words, the scientific concept of biological evolution does not negate the metaphysical and theological notion of creation from nothing, and vice versa.

Naturally, the ideology of ontological materialism of the ultra-Darwinists is indeed incompatible with the worldview of Christianity. But Ayala goes further and also demonstrates that the thesis of scientific creationism, including its pseudo-scientific version of the intelligent design , is incompatible with canonical Christian theology, as well as with a perfectly wise, powerful and good God.

To support his thesis Ayala analyses in the book scientific creationism, the theory of ID, the scientific foundations of the theory of evolution, some basic notions of natural and revealed theology, the inconsistencies of naturalistic scientism that moves in a totally uncritical and unjustified way from methodological naturalism, which is licit and consubstantial to science, to an ontological naturalism that is unscientific and, strictly speaking, typical of philosophical ideologies that have nothing to do with the results of science.

Naturally, in order to be able to affirm that neither the ultra-Darwinists nor the supporters of ID defend scientific thesis , the author has to explain what is science and what is not. In other words, the book must also deal with the nature of science and the criteria for demarcating a proposition in order to establish which are scientific and which are not. This leads to another topic which is also developed in this book, namely: the limits of science.

The first chapter deals with the argument put forward by William Paley to prove the existence of God on the basis of the order that can be seen in nature. This is what is known as the argument of design. Regarding it Ayala declares that: "I am filled with astonishment and respect for Paley's broad and profound biological knowledge " (37). Paley's evidence "in favour of design was convincing and indeed definitive on the basis of the scientific knowledge available in the first half of the 19th century. However his arguments collapsed after Charles Darwin's finding of natural selection" (24).

Naturally, the second chapter deals with the topic of Darwin's finding of natural selection, with due recognition to Wallace, who in a totally independent way arrived at the same idea as Darwin about the role of natural selection in biological evolution. According to Ayala Darwin would have completed the Copernican revolution by realising his most important finding : that nature exhibits a design without a designer. "As a consequence of natural selection, organisms exhibit design -Ayala affirms-. But the design of organisms as they exist in nature is not "design intelligent", imposed by God as Supreme Engineer or by humans; rather, it is the result of a natural process of selection, which fosters the adaptation of organisms to their environments" (51). The author argues that "organisms exhibit a complex design , but it is not an "irreducible complexity", arising all at once in its actual elaboration" (52). According to Darwin the appearance of design would have arisen gradually and cumulatively. "Darwin accepted that organisms are "designed" for certain tasks, i.e., they are organised from a functional point of view.... But Darwin stopped short of providing a natural explanation at design. The apparently designed aspects of living things could now be explained, like the phenomena of the inanimate world, by the methods of science, as the result of natural laws manifested in natural processes" (56-57). It is true that nature, as such, cannot pursue any design , since it is not a rational agent, so that, from a purely naturalistic point of view, and this is the one that science must adopt for methodological reasons, it is logical to affirm that nature does not design a purpose in living beings and that the appearance of design is the fruit of the action of natural laws which, in themselves, are blind, but the fundamental question is: who has designed these natural laws?

The chapter closes with some reflections on natural selection, in which the importance of Wallace is acknowledged. There is also a reference letter on the repercussions of Darwin's theory and its application to sociobiology by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, giving rise to what has been called social Darwinism, or what is the same: the application of Darwin's theories to human societies, something that displeased Darwin himself, and after him so many other biologists. Not surprisingly, the notion of survival of the fittest Pass applied to relations between peoples, together with the Nietzschean idea of the Superman, formed part of the ideological substratum of Nazism.

Chapter three deals with natural selection. First the concept is explained, and then the difficulties that Darwin had to face in his time, especially the lack of an adequate theory of inheritance Genetics to explain the conservation of the variations on which natural selection is supposed to act through the generations. The author therefore devotes a section to the study of mutations and DNA.

Chapter four deals with the evidence for evolution. It is commonplace to hear that evolution is a fact and that the discussion arises around establishing the mechanisms that make it work. The fossil record is analysed, both available in Darwin's time and the present. Some anatomical similarities are reviewed. The same with the embryonic development . And it also takes a look at biogeography.

The next chapter deals with the human fossil record. It looks very briefly at the hominids that preceded the appearance of the human genus as well as the various species that make up this genus. Naturally, the origin of anatomically modern humans, i.e. us, is discussed. At this point, the author wonders whether it makes sense to speak of races from a scientific point of view. But the really interesting epigraph is the one that follows, degree scroll : The transformation from ape to human. In it Ayala warns that human biology in the 21st century faces two great challenges. On the one hand, to explain how we went from ape to human and, on the other, how the brain gives rise to the mind. Naturally, he discusses the similarities and differences between the human and chimpanzee genomes. In this respect, he makes a very important observation: "in the regions of the genome that humans and chimpanzees share, the two species are 99 per cent identical. The differences may seem very small or quite large, depending on how one chooses to look at them" (116). As for our brains, the point is not that they are "much larger than those of chimpanzees or gorillas, but [that] they are also [much] more complex" (116). Ayala concludes that "what we know so far does little to advance our understanding of what genetic changes make us distinctively human" (117). Ayala points out that arguing that the difference lies in the fact that we possess a human soul is irrelevant from a scientific point of view, since with or without a soul "there are biological correlates that explain the difference between ape and human" (212). Be that as it may, what we do know is that "the distinctive features that make us human begin early in gestation, long before birth" (117-118). Naturally, this fact raises the dilemma of the moral justification of voluntary human abortion. There is no doubt, then, that "as biological understanding advances, there will undoubtedly be much food for philosophical reflection, as well as a large issue of questions of great theological significance" (118). As for the enigma of the passage from the brain to the mind, Ayala acknowledges that: "the things that count most are still shrouded in mystery" (121). A statement that can be considered disheartening, but that, possibly, "over the next half century or so, many of these enigmas will be solved" (121).

This brings us to the sixth chapter, which deals with molecular evolution. For the author: "the unity of life reveals the continuity Genetics and common ancestry of all organisms. There is no other rational way of explaining their molecular uniformity" (125). In this chapter Ayala explains the importance of genetic differences in order to establish the moments of divergence between species or between genera. These differences constitute data of the first order to be able to study the evolution of lineages and the diversification of species. This chapter is, of course, the place to talk about Mendel and, why not, Dolly. The chapter ends with a fundamental reflection: "Many thousands of tests have been carried out," says Ayala (and thousands more are published every year), "and none of them has given any counter-evolutionary test . There is probably no other concept in any field. There is probably no other concept in any field of science that has been so extensively and thoroughly examined and corroborated as the evolutionary origin of living organisms" (137). The chapter closes by explaining the concept of the molecular clock.

The next chapter deals with the problems of creationism. According to Ayala, when creationists and proponents of intelligent design insist that the theory of evolution is only a theory and not a conceptual reflection of fact, because no one has been able to observe evolution directly, they do so from "a misconception about the nature of science and how scientific theories are tested and validated" (144). How to reconcile the fact that science is a form of knowledge based on observation and experimentation with the fact that no one has observed, let alone experienced, evolution? In short, the author's position is that some conclusions of this theory are well established, many issues are less certain, others are little more than conjecture, and still others remain largely unknown, "but uncertainty about these issues does not cast doubt on the fact of evolution" (146), just as not knowing all the details about the universe does not make us doubt the existence of galaxies.

But even supposing that the theory of evolution does not describe a fact more or less accurately, this would not mean that the proposal of creationism or of intelligent design is correct. One has to take into account here what Ayala calls the fallacy of alternative explanations. Indeed, if one hypothesis is not correct, that does not automatically make its antagonist true. It is up to each hypothesis to seek, independently of the others, evidence in its favour.

The discussion now focuses on the notion of irreducible complexity. Naturally, the paradigmatic and recurrent example is that of the eye. For the supporters of ID this would be an irreducible structure, for Darwinists it is not. The concept and why is explained in an epigraph. The same for the case of the bacterial flagellum. There follows a critique of the claims of Michael Behe, perhaps the most famous proponent of ID. Behe stated in 1996 that: "there is no publication in the scientific literature that describes how the molecular evolution of any real system occurred (...) the scientific literature has no answers to the origin of the immune system" (155). In the court decision of 20 December 2005, Judge John E. Jones ruled that Behe's words were wrong, since 58 academic publications, nine books and several chapters of immunology textbooks explaining the evolution of the immune system had been presented at the trial. The judge's conclusion was that: "we find that Professor Behe's statement in favour of irreducible complexity has been refuted in academic research articles and has been rejected by the academic community in general" (155-156).

The end of the chapter focuses on the analysis of the compatibility between the existence of God and the existence of evil in the world. To this end, it highlights the imperfections detected in the supposedly intelligent design of nature, closing with the affirmation that ID is not compatible with the notion of an omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly benevolent God, given that he could have designed certain aspects of living beings much better, as in the case of the birth canal of women, thus avoiding thousands of deaths of newborn children and, therefore, totally innocent; in final, that: "for a modern biologist the design of organisms is not compatible with the special action of the omniscient and omnipotent God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam" (161). Darwin, on the other hand, would have made a great gift to theology by showing that the explanation of the imperfections was due to the blind action of natural selection, and not to that of a divine agent, i.e.: "the irony that evolution, which at first had seemed to eliminate the need for God in the world, has now convincingly eliminated the need to explain the imperfections of the world as results of God's design (....) this is how a biologist concerned that God not be slandered with the imputation of an incompetent design sees things" (161-162).

Ayala makes it clear that: "religion and science are not at civil service examination, because they deal with different spheres of reality. Rather, they could be seen as complementary. Questions about the meaning and the purpose of the world and of human life go beyond science. Religion answers them" (162).

Chapter eight deals with creationist fundamentalism in the United States. To begin with, Ayala highlights the idea that, curiously enough, proponents of ID agree with scientists and materialist philosophers more than they realise, since they all share the erroneous idea that there is an incompatibility between the affirmation of the scientific theory of evolution and the existence of a divine creator. In this respect Ayala makes it clear that: "the conclusion I would like to draw is that scientific knowledge and religious belief need not be in contradiction (...) It is only in making claims that are beyond their legitimate boundaries that evolutionary theory and religious belief appear to be antithetical" (164).

Divine creation and biological evolution are compatible. Indeed, "the idea that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing (...) in itself neither denies nor affirms the evolution of life. Conversely, science has nothing to say about the claim that God created the universe ex nihilo' (164).

The chapter continues with a brief explanation of the various creationist movements up to the present-day proponents of ID. The basis of the creationist movements is biblical fundamentalism, i.e. the literal interpretation of the contents of the first chapters of Genesis. The current proponents of ID do not go that way so much as a more deistic way in which "God intervenes from time to time in the evolutionary process to create these complex features" (167).

The chapter goes on to explain the most important court cases involving one form of creationism or another, from the famous Scopes trial to the Dover judgement.

One heading is devoted to the relationship between evolution and religion. When The Origin of Species was published, it seemed that the notion of evolution was opposed to the traditional Christian idea of creation by God. But soon theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, "saw a solution to the apparent contradiction between evolution and creation in the argument that God acts through intermediate causes (...), evolution could be seen as the natural process through which God brought living things into existence and developed them from agreement according to his plan (...) Well into the 20th century, evolution by natural selection came to be accepted by a majority of Christian authors in the United States and around the world" (172). References to Pius XII and his encyclical Humani generis follow, as well as to John Paul II and his famous speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 22 October 1996, in which he said that the theory of evolution was more than a hypothesis.

The chapter closes by insisting on one of the central ideas of the book: "that there should be no civil service examination between science and religion, because they deal with different realms of reality (...) Despite the success of science, there are many issues of great interest that go beyond science. These are the issues that concern the meaning, sense, and purpose of life and the universe, as well as questions of value, not only religious value, but also aesthetic, moral, and other values" (176).

The penultimate chapter is about the success of science, but also about its limits. Does Darwinism exclude religious beliefs? Ayala's answer is: no. Is science fundamentally materialistic? It depends. From a methodological point of view, yes, that is, it is only concerned with studying realities of the world of the subject, but this does not mean that science affirms that only realities exist Materials (177). In other words: "science does not imply metaphysical materialism" (178).

This chapter criticises the position of those who make ideological use of science. "It is ironic that such authors are actually endorsing the beliefs of ID proponents who argue that science is inherently materialistic and share the creationists' idea that science makes claims about values, meanings and purposes" (179). Among these authors is the biologist Richard Dawkins, famous for using Darwinism to justify his aversion to religion. Of them Ayala says: "we can grant these authors their right to think as they wish, but they have no authority to base their materialist Philosophy on the achievements of science" (179).

It is true that science has a social importance of the first order; it is undoubtedly responsible for most of the economic growth of countries. But, as Ayala rightly says: "science is a wonderfully successful form of knowledge , but not the only one" (181). The last sections of the chapter are devoted to: analysing the nature of science and the scientific method, looking at induction and empiricism in science, reviewing how hypothesis testing is done and, finally, taking a look at what lies beyond science, for, intellectually speaking, there is indeed something beyond science, since, as stated, science is not the only form of knowledge goal we humans have. Ayala reminds us here that "a scientific vision of the world is hopelessly incomplete" (193).

The last chapter deals with Darwin in the history of ideas. It examines Darwin's scientific internship , i.e. how he proceeded in his research. According to Ayala: "there is a glaring contradiction between Darwin's methodology and the way he described it for public consumption" (198). "Why this disparity between what Darwin was doing and what he stated?" (200)

The book closes with the author's conclusions, among which stand out the affirmation that "Darwin's fundamental finding [is] that there is a process that is creative even if it is not conscious" (207) and "that evolution and religious faith are not incompatible. Believers can see the presence of God in the creative power of the natural selection process discovered by Darwin" (206).

Ayala presents us with a courageous book in which he tackles without complexes or fear some of the most important issues in the relationship between science, Philosophy and religion, as far as biological evolution is concerned. His prose, always elegant, takes the reader through complex issues but in language that is highly comprehensible and within the reach of the average reader. It is therefore essential reading for anyone who wants to know the broad outlines of the current ideological debates surrounding the scientific theory of biological evolution.


  1. This topic is also discussed on pages 16, 17, 158, 162, 164 and 206.

  2. topic which it also addresses on pages 21, 162, 164, 176 and 206.

  3. topic which is also developed on pages 29, 162, 164, 176, 193 and 194.