Are Common Descent and Intelligent Design Compatible?

In the fall of 2009, seven years ago this month, I attended my first scholarly conference on evolution and intelligent design (ID). As a brand new graduate student working towards my MA in Science and Religion, I was thrilled by the opportunity to meet some of the scientists and philosophers whose work I was studying, including Dr. Michael Behe. In preparation for his lectures, I had read his recently published book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. The book, which makes an argument for design from biochemistry, wasn’t the lightest of reading, even with an undergrad degree in biology and five years of experience as a biotech bench scientist under my belt, but I think many would find it manageable.

If you haven’t read it, something that may surprise you (as it did me) is that the arguments put forth in the book aren’t concerned with ruling out the common descent of animal species (one of the tenets of Darwinian evolution). In fact, in the very first chapter of the book, Behe says, “Evolution from a common ancestor, via changes in DNA, is very well supported” (p. 12). 

“Hold the phone! One of the leading figures in the intelligent design movement–really the Godfather of ID–doesn’t deny evolution?!”  

common-descentHere’s the thing. There are about a dozen different ways to define the term “evolution,” and intelligent design, properly speaking, only requires one of those ideas—ONE—to be false. Specifically, it is the claim that all of the [alleged] evolutionary change necessary to account for the observed complexity and diversity of living things has been driven entirely by a blind, trial-and-error mechanism. ID claims that, even if natural selection (a non-random mechanism) is the engine of biological change, the genetic mutations it is fueled by are not all random in the sense of being unintended occurrences. The ID theorist argues that even if all living things descended from a common ancestor, intelligent design is somehow built into the process, and marks of intelligence can be discerned scientifically. Dr. Behe argues that, from a biochemical perspective, we can roughly make out the “edge of evolution,” beyond which intelligent orchestration is required to drive evolution onward and upward.

So, to merely say that the mechanisms involved with evolutionary change are the result of pre-planning for an intended, purposeful outcome is to affirm a minimalist account of ID. This is not to say that all advocates of ID theory are as convinced as Dr. Behe about common descent being the truth about biological history. There is a spectrum of views within the ID community about this. My point is, common descent need not be rejected for ID to be accepted. (Whether or not the theory of common descent is scientifically viable is an entirely separate question. )

In discussions with science-oriented skeptics, I have discovered that this fact catches them off guard. When they make a claim such as, “The fossil evidence is strongly conclusive in favor of evolution,” my response is, “Even if that is so, intelligent design isn’t ruled out. Ultimately, common descent is beside the point.” It’s interesting to see how this completely changes the trajectory of the conversation for the better. By granting them their convictions on biological history for the sake of the argument, I help them lower their defenses and become more willing to investigate the philosophical underpinnings of both sides of the debate. This, in itself, is a major win for both of us.

In terms of Christian apologetics, what is the utility of ID theory? Essentially, ID theory has theistic implications. In other words, evidence for a designing intelligence behind nature, whether at the cosmic or biological level, is supportive of the claim that a Creator exists. ID doesn’t try to defend any interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative; it completely transcends those kinds of questions. It’s very much a stepping stone in the overall project of Christian apologetics.

Some well-known intellectuals, such as the late Dr. Antony Flew (a notorious atheist who turned theist before his death) and Dr. David Berlinski (who describes himself as a secular Jew) stopped on this stepping stone, granting ID but not embracing Christianity or any other faith. (I got to meet Dr. Berlinski at that 2009 conference, and he is delightful!) But others have been convinced of a Designer’s existence and then moved further on to become Christians. A very recent example of this is Dr. Gunter Bechly, a paleoentomologist who is also the Curator at the Stuttgart Museum of Natural History in Germany. I strongly encourage you to read about him.

Of course, there are many secondary discussions about the intersection of science and faith, such as whether or not common descent is compatible with an orthodox Christian view of creation. By no means do I intend to suggest that this, and others, are not important questions; they indeed involve deep theological considerations. Neither am I saying anything at all about where I happen to stand on common descent. But when it comes to opening minds to the most fundamental thing–that a Creator is responsible for the existence and intricacies of living creatures–ID is a most valuable tool. 


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