Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Man’

Did the designer do it?

Some people find the idea that natural processes alone created complex life too far-fetched – they prefer a model in which an unspecified ‘designer’ has had a hand

Wherever one looks in biology, there is complexity. Often, the relationships between molecules or organisms – such as plants and the animals that fertilise them – look so well made that it’s tempting to believe they were created that way.

This is the thinking that inspired William Paley in the 18th century. He used the analogy of a watch found lying on the ground. The coordinated function of all its parts, suggested Paley, implied that it must have been designed. Where there was a watch, there had to be a watchmaker.

Religious perspectives on the concept of evolution

Creationism A faith-based position that holds that life and people were created by God. At its most extreme is the belief that the world was created literally as described in a holy book such as the Bible or the Qur’an.
Creation science A move to position creationism as legitimate science. It attempted to portray evolutionary thinking as incomplete and flawed, and creation-based versions as a viable alternative explanation.
Intelligent design Attempts to raise the same issues but without including a religious dimension, by not specifically saying that God is the intelligent designer.

Almost the same line of thinking underpins the ‘intelligent design’ (ID) idea. It holds that some biological structures (the bacterial flagellum is one example used) are so complex and integrated – functioning in a way that depends on the whole structure – that they could not possibly have evolved bit by bit. This property is known as irreducible complexity.

This act of creation was the work of an ‘intelligent designer’. The nature of this designer is not specified, but there are not many candidates other than God.

The history of ID

ID is the latest version of a strand of thinking that began with creationism before moving on to creation science and then ID. It has particularly vocal supporters in the USA. 

The battleground for these arguments has mostly been the US education system. Two landmark events stand out: the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 and the Dover Area School Board case of 2005.

John Scopes was a high-school teacher who was accused of illegally teaching evolution in Tennessee. Scopes was found guilty and fined, although the decision was overturned on a legal technicality. The case received huge press coverage and was, in effect, a battle between those who adhered to a religious viewpoint and those promoting a scientific approach.

Despite losing the case, the ‘modernisers’ are generally viewed as having emerged victorious, although conflict between the viewpoints has never really gone away – as the 2005 Dover case illustrated.

The 2005 case was based on the Dover Area School Board’s attempt to introduce ID into local schools, by insisting that teachers read a statement that evolution was not established fact and that ID was an alternative theory.

Supporters of evolution challenged this policy on the grounds that ID was simply creationism in disguise and, under the US Constitution, religion cannot be taught in science classes. Pro-ID campaigners attempted to show that evolution was a flawed theory and that some scientists supported ID.

The case was notable for featuring an independent ‘referee’ – Judge John Jones – commenting on ID’s scientific credentials, having heard from both sides. Judge Jones demolished the arguments of ID campaigners, arguing that “ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents”.

His judgment made it clear that ID could not be considered a valid scientific theory.


Since the Dover case, attempts have been made in several US states to encourage debate in school about evolution. Although couched in terms of ‘academic freedom’ or ‘critical analysis of the evidence’, the moves are widely seen as an attempt to introduce non-scientific content into teaching about evolution.

In the UK, all schools, including Free Schools, must teach evolution but not creationism or ID in science classes. Evolution has also been added to the primary school curriculum.

Lead image:

Pierre Metivier/Flickr CC BY NC


Questions for discussion

  • Do you think schools should be free to teach whatever they want?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development