Judaism & Intelligent Design

Jewish scientists and leaders weigh in on the debate about intelligent design in the American public sphere.

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According to evolutionary theory, all life descends from common ancestry and continues to unfold in rich variation. Over billions of years, life evolves through random mutation, genetic recombination, and natural selection. As organisms change, the genetic changes that allow those organisms to survive in their environments are preserved and passed to subsequent generations in greater proportions.

Since its inception with Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species in 1859, evolutionary theory has developed as scientists test, disprove, and rearticulate aspects of the theory. As scientists observe the evolution of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, for instance, they have arrived at new understandings of how genetic material can be transmitted across a population of the same generation.

Intelligent Design

In an August 2005 "On Language" column in the New York Times, William Safire traced the origins of the term "intelligent design" to an 1847 Scientific American journal article and a 1903 book by Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, in which he wrote, ''It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.'' Ignored for nearly a century, the term resurfaced in the late 1980s as the catch phrase for an emerging movement to demonstrate divine involvement in human evolution.

intelligent designToday the intelligent design movement is funded and promoted by the Center for Science and Culture (founded 1996) of a Seattle-based think tank called The Discovery Institute. The institute seeks to shift U.S. public culture away from what it calls the "scientific materialism" of evolutionary theory and towards a theistic understanding of existence by funding scientists who look for evidence of design in nature, assisting in the publication of books, textbooks, and articles that advance the idea, and urging public schools to "teach the controversy" over evolution in biology classrooms.

Although allied with more traditional creationists in their concern that evolutionary theory challenges narratives of divine involvement in human existence, the intelligent design movement does not contest common ancestry of living organisms or the age of the universe; it takes issue with the mechanism of evolution.

Promoters of intelligent design argue that random mutation and natural selection cannot account for the full diversity of life as we see it today. They seek to demonstrate instead that scientific evidence about the complexity of life points to the intervention of an intentional designer rather than to an undirected process.

While the movement purports to be religiously neutral, one of its most vocal proponents, William Dembski, has written, "Not only does intelligent design rid us of [scientific materialism], which suffocates the human spirit, but, in my personal experience, I've found that it opens the path for people to come to Christ." The New York Times reported that most Discovery Institute fellows are conservative Christians.

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Emma Kippley-Ogman

Emma Kippley-Ogman is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College Rabbinical School, having received a B.A. in history of science from Harvard University in 2003.