Chance, Evolution, or Intelligent Design?

Chance, Evolution, or Intelligent Design?

How did humans come to be? Are we just a product of chance and evolution?

But if (and Oh! What a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, lights, heat, electricity, etc., present that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes.Charles Darwin1

In the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Q, an immortal, all-powerful being, takes Captain Jean-Luc Picard on a journey back and forth through time. In the most memorable (and perhaps most troubling), scene, Q transports Picard to the very “warm little pond” where life, as Darwin theorized, first appeared on earth.

To give Picard a lesson in the precariousness and meaninglessness of human life, Q reaches his hand into the pond and stirs the water. Oops, he informs Picard with a boyish grin, it looks like the amino acids won’t form into the first protein. And because that didn’t happen, the entire human species will never evolve.

Well, Picard and the human race win out in the end, but the victory doesn’t take away from the frightening implications of the episode. Do our lives, our hopes, our dreams have origins no more meaningful than random movements of amino acids in a primordial pond?    

Seeming-Random Forms

The dominant voices in academia and the sciences insist that Darwinian evolution can explain everything that currently exists on the earth—from microbes to men, matter to mind. Given enough time, the dual mechanism of natural selection and genetic mutation can account for the vast array of species and the vastly more complex human psyche.

But what propels this evolution? And what keeps it on track? There are some, often referred to as theistic evolutionists, who accept natural selection but argue that it is driven by a higher, supernatural purpose.

Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson discerned just such a purpose in the forward movement of evolution. He wrote of the beginnings of earth and mankind in his epic poem “In Memoriam”:

In tracks of fluent heat began,
And grew to seeming-random forms,
The seeming prey of cyclic storms,
Till at the last arose the man.2

For Tennyson and those who share his perspective, natural selection only appears to be random. In reality, it is guided by a higher hand that moves it in the direction of progress. Yes, the process itself lurches forward by chance, but behind that chance, there is greater purpose and meaning.

The Appearance of Design

In sharp contrast, the majority of modern evolutionists insist that evolution is utterly blind: it has no idea where it is going and did not have us (the human race) in mind. It appears to be random because it is. Indeed, as atheist Richard Dawkins often informs his readers, evolution is a mechanism that offers the appearance of design but which operates free of any design or higher purpose.

Natural selection works by a series of small, cumulative changes that are selected because they have survival value. This alone is sufficient to account for the stunning variety we see in nature, as well as the development of human consciousness. Though the overall results of natural selection may seem vastly improbable, each of the small steps made to get those results is only slightly improbable.

Because of the cumulative nature of Darwinism, Dawkins argues, science does not need to resort to chance as an explanation. Natural selection offers explanation enough. This distinction is vital for Dawkins, for he fears that those who reject chance will feel forced to turn to the other “extreme”: intelligent design.3

Intelligent Design

But what if design is simply the best explanation for the phenomena we see in nature?

Many refuse to entertain this solution, for they see it as “religious” and believe that science, by its very nature, excludes religious explanations. Though some scientists, whether secular or religious, are willing to speak of chance (as long as questions of higher meaning and purpose are left unasked), most grow troubled at the very mention of intelligent design (ID).

But should they? Far from advocating that religion should “control” science, proponents of ID make a simple claim that should not be controversial.4  Just as trained anthropologists can distinguish between a random grouping of stones and a man-made structure like Stonehenge, so scientists who are not guided by a previous commitment to Darwinism or Creationism should be able to discern when a natural phenomenon is random or designed.

The argument is not a new one. In the eighteenth century, William Paley argued that if we found a watch on the ground, its complexity would convince us that the watch did not occur naturally but was designed. Since both we and our universe are infinitely more complex than the watch, logic demands an eternal “Watchmaker” who could have designed both us and our world.5

The ID theorists of today have carried this argument to the cellular level, demonstrating that our DNA—microscopic strands that each contain more information than a super computer—could not have been assembled either by chance or by a blind accumulation of small changes.

Chance could not have done it, for our DNA is frontloaded with carefully coded information. That information is not random; it’s specified. It adheres to a pattern that is separate from the physical components of the DNA and could not have arisen from them.

Blind selection also could not have formed the DNA, for the process by which DNA replicates itself is irreducibly complex. That is to say, it could not have come about by a series of small steps, because it has no survival value until all the components are in place.

The Real Question

Chance, blind evolution, or design? The real question is not which option best fits a preconceived view of the universe or confirms a certain belief system, but which best accounts for the world around (and within) us.

Looking at the world around you and the people in your life, what do you think?   

  1. Charles Darwin to Joseph Hooker, February 1, 1871, accessed at “Darwin Correspondence Project,” University of Cambridge,
  2. Tennyson, “In Memoriam,” 118:9–12. Tennyson’s Poetry, ed. Robert W. Hill (New York: Norton, 1971), 185. 
  3. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 144–151.
  4. Some of the major works of the ID movement include Darwin on Trial by Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe, The Signature of the Cell by Stephen Meyer, Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells, and The Design Inference by William Dembski.
  5. William Paley, Natural Theology, ed. Frederick Ferré (New York: Bobbs-Merrill), 3–6.
  6. Photo Credit: Hintau Aliaksei /