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Modern Synthesis versus Intellectual Design: science versus philosophy

vcruz's picture

     Throughout time, there have been many beliefs or theories that have tried to understand the meaning of life. The more we advance in time, the more concepts are created. However, there are two main models that I would like to analyze as they both try to explain life through very different means. For this, I would like to use Kenneth Chang’s article In Explaining Life’s Complexity, Darwinists and Doubters Clash, as a framework to the questions that I have on these two components. In his article, Chang teeters between the doubts of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the question of whether science can “include the actions of an unseen higher being” in explaining the history of life (1).  Both of these understandings are based on different grounds with different purposes. Those of the modern synthesis rely solely on science and physical evidence for their understandings of evolution (2) while proponents of intelligent design address social implications related to an “intelligent cause” (3) to understand the history of life. In turn, the basis of understanding evolution is coming from two vastly different perspectives: a scientific one versus a social and political one.

     The differences on the approach to life’s complexity from both sides start in the way they refer to life. Some evolutionary biologists explain that, “Modern Synthesis is a theory about how evolution works at the level of genes, phenotypes, and populations” (2).  Using the word “evolution” already implies the belief of independent changes in organisms. Also, the term “modern synthesis” indicates their use of science and methodology, while the term “intellectual design” involves academia, logic, and rationale.

     Modern scientists believe that “there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations” (1). They base all of their theories and findings in physical evidence, like the use of DNA. Their genetic researches give them the basis for reliance on the theory of evolution. Science alone is their answer (2). They do not need to find explanation to any existing belief; they basically start on a blank canvas to build up explanations based on observations, which become scientific findings. Unlike modern scientists, proponents of intellectual design do not form their own theories; they do their experiments, researches and calculations to “put their ideas on firm scientific ground” (1). Design proponents do this to clarify the ideas that they already have. They feel that “the complexity and diversity of life go beyond what evolution can explain” (1).  Chang explains that proponents of intelligent design agree with many basic foundations of evolution but feel that those bases are not enough to explain the density of life. Thus, they believe that there must be something creating these changes that result in the evolution of things (3). They base this believe in their observance of all the intricate parts of life, “Biological marvels like the optical precision of an eye…point to the hand of a higher being at work in the world” (1). These precisions in the way “biological marvels” are formed and work are not explained in the theory of evolution according to design proponents.

     Although design proponents are not creationists their argument, “appeals to many Americans of faith” (1).  William Paley, an Anglican priest supports the arguments of the design proponents by explaining how obvious it is that many things have been designed just by realizing what the entity is; he adds, “The marks of design are too strong to be got over”(1). These marks of design refer to their unique, complex, and inexplicable existence. Does this mean that they are trying to answer who or what created life?

     Modern scientists quoted in Chang’s article inquire about this answer in order to accept the intellectual design. “It is the presumption of a designer that mainstream scientists dispute, because there are no artifacts of biological signs – no scientific evidence, in other words – to suggest a designer’s presence” (1). However, the idea of things being designed by a higher being already implies that there might not be an answer to this question, that humanity alone will not solve the puzzle. This is one of the major oppositions that the modern scientists have, “invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific” (1). As Douglas H. Erwin augments, “One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed” (1), as other scientists explain, “There is nothing in this concept that allows for scientific investigation of the ‘designer.’ It is simply an argument by default…” (3). Miracles are based on faith rather than on evidences, for this reason, modern scientists cannot accept the concept of intelligent design as they need proof in order to acknowledge any concept.

     These contradictions show that the two groups are not addressing the same issues and questions. Modern scientists address science and methodology to define life. In the contrary, Intellectual design proponents address “mathematical work and biological experiments” to put into science what they already have defined by using social implications. In other words, Modern scientists try to make sense of life through science, while intelligent design proponents try to use science to prove what they have already constructed.  

     In making sense of these two views, I find that traditional scientific evident and methodology do not have to be the only ways which life can be understood.  It seems like both concepts address life in the way that best suits the needs of the analysts.  For this reason, it is perfectly fine to disagree in both views. Science is always related to social and political matters; in fact, it modifies or defines them in many instances. This understanding should be the basis to associate both approaches in understanding life. 


1.    Kenneth Chang, “In Explaining Life’s Complexity, Darwinists and Doubters Clash”, The New York Times,, accessed on February 17th, 2009.

2.    “Defending science education against intelligent design: a call to action,” The Journal of Clinical Investigation,, on February 17th, 2009.

3.    Intelligent Design,, accessed on February 18th, 2009.  

4.    Laurence Moran, “The Modern Synthesis of Genetics and Evolution,” The Talk Origins Archive; Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy,, accessed on February 18th, 2009.

5.    Elizabeth Pennisi, “Modernizing the Modern Synthesis,” Science Magazine,, accessed on February 18th, 2009.

6.    Michael R. Rose and Todd H. Oakley, “The New Biology: Beyond the Modern Synthesis,” Biology Direct,, accessed on February 18th, 2009.


THEMAYAN's picture

The modern synthesis

"Modern scientists believe that “there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations"

I wonder if the writer of this article has ever heard of the SETI project in which the search for extraterrestrial specified information, relies on the entire notion that this hypothetical information would be in fact be "otherworldly"

"Those of the modern synthesis rely solely on science and physical evidence for their understandings of evolution"

Fair enough, lets look at the current data. Below are papers from scientist who still believe in prokaryote to man evolution, but are honest enough to admit that this so called empirical evidence which is supposed to embody what we refer to as the "modern evolutionary synthesis" has not only failed us, but has in fact crumbles beyond repair as a theoretical framework for evolutionary biology.

Now it is true, some of these same scientist believe that a new synthesis may be just around the corner, while others are less optimist. But the fact remains, that as of now, I repeat, we still do not have a valid and or cohesive theoretical framework for evolutionary biology, regardless of its wide acceptance as an axiom. And J. Gould said something very similar over thirty years ago. When speaking of the modern synthesis he said it ...."is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy" (Gould, 1980).

The new biology: beyond the Modern Synthesis
Michael R Rose1* and Todd H Oakley2
The last third of the 20th Century featured an accumulation of research findings that severely challenged the assumptions of the "Modern Synthesis" which provided the foundations for most biological research during that century. The foundations of that "Modernist" biology had thus largely crumbled by the start of the 21st Century. This in turn raises the question of foundations for biology in the 21st Century.

Beyond neo-Darwinism—an epigenetic approach to evolution
M.W. Ho
"We argue that the basic neo-Darwinian framework—the natural selection of random mutations—is insufficient to account for evolution. The role of natural selection is itself limited: it cannot adequately explain the diversity of populations or of species; nor can it account for the origin of new species or for major evolutionary change....."

The Origin at 150: is a new evolutionary synthesis in sight?
Eugene V. Koonin
The 200th anniversary of Darwin and the 150th jubilee of the Origin of Species prompt a new look at evolutionary biology. The 1959 Origin centennial was marked by the consolidation of the Modern Synthesis. The edifice of the Modern Synthesis has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair"....

Soft inheritance: challenging the modern synthesis
Eva JablonkaI; Marion J. LambII
….In view of the data that support soft inheritance, as well as other challenges to the Modern Synthesis, it is concluded that that synthesis no longer offers a satisfactory theoretical framework for evolutionary biology.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolution, intelligent design, and the brain?

"Modern scientists try to make sense of life through science, while intelligent design proponents try to use science to prove what they have already constructed."

Might this be because each is emphasizing the use of a different part of the brain?

Stoyan Stoyanov's picture

My thoughts

I like both views, they are interesting, but lacking. I'm not convinced :P

Can't accept only one intellect that self-awakened, or the need to explode the nothingness in order to create memory for it's self. If self-awakened intellect came to be, there should have existed the potential, the intend, the possibility - what was it initiated by?

Still these both ways to explain are the best i've found so far, so thanks all for sharing : )