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Detecting Design in Biological Systems

How can we distinguish events due to intelligent causes from events due to undirected natural causes? William Dembski has been grappling with this problem since his graduate work in mathematics at the University of Chicago in the 1980s. In The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities, published by Cambridge University press in 1998, Dembski presented a formal, mathematical method for identifying intelligent design. In later works he applied his methodology to biology, focusing on the adequacy of theories of evolution to account for the complexity and information content of living systems.

Dembski's talk at the Athenaeum, second in a three-part series on intelligent design sponsored by the Salvatori Center, will critique the idea that natural selection, the key mechanism of theories of Darwinian evolution, acts as all information ratchet that gradually accumulates the information that organisms need to acquire novel adaptations. He maintains that this gives natural selection too much credit, and that it is unequipped to handle the innovative problems that biological systems have solved in the course of natural history. Dembski's work has placed him at the center of the growing debate on Darwinism and intelligent design and its broad implications for philosophy and theology, which he addressed in Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, published in 2002.

A mathematician and philosopher, William Dembski is associate research professor in the conceptual foundations of science at Baylor University and a senior fellow with Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture in Seattle. He is also the executive director of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design ( His graduate degrees include an M.S. in statistics and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago, a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago, and a master of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is currently coediting a book with Michael Ruse for Cambridge University Press titled Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA (2004).

The third and final lecture in this series, "Intelligent Design: Not Ready for Prime Time or Why Scientists Reject Intelligent Design," will be presented by Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, on Monday, March 8.