What is intelligent design? Should Hare Krishna devotees concern themselves with it?

Back to Godhead spoke about intelligent design (ID) with Lalitanatha Dasa, author of the recent book Was Darwin Wrong? A Vedic Study of Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust). The book argues for ID and includes chapters by three prominent ID scientists: biochemist Dr. Michael Behe, mathematician Dr. William Dembski, and biologist Dr. Jonathan Wells.


BTG: Is everything about ID compatible with Krishna consciousness?

Lalitanatha Dasa: I think so. Of course, ID isn’t complete or the last word to be said about the origin and nature of life. But still, the scientific arguments for ID are sound and are the same kind of arguments devotee scientists have been making since the time of Srila Prabhupada. There is nothing antithetical to Vedic philosophy in the contemporary arguments for ID. ID scientists are making the scientific arguments that Srila Prabhupada always had in mind for his followers to make. That’s how I see it.

BTG: What is intelligent design?

LD: The term intelligent design refers to a pattern, an event, or a structure that cannot have been caused by any physical process and apparently is due to an intelligent cause. Scientists dealing with intelligent design thus try to figure out how to assess what must have been intelligently caused and what unaided physical processes on their own are capable of. This is a common affair in many sciences. For instance, archeologists infer intelligent design when they study flints and conclude that certain features cannot be explained by geological processes but are due to intentional work. Similarly, forensic scientists, when investigating a possible crime, try to draw the same distinction—did he fall accidently, or did someone push him?

A movie called Contact also provides an example of inferring intelligent design, specifically in the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). SETI scientists scan radio signals from outer space—many stars and other heavenly bodies emit radio waves—to see if any of these signals originate from intelligent beings communicating their existence. So far, the real SETI program has been unsuccessful, but in the movie the scientists detected a radio signal they concluded came from an intelligent source. What convinced them was a string of signals spelling out the prime numbers from 2 to 101. Prime numbers are those that are only divisable by themselves and one. They concluded that no chance event but only intelligent beings with knowledge of mathematics could hit upon such a significant series of numbers.

We infer intelligent design all the time. For instance, we know that this room is an artificial structure and not a naturally formed mountain cave. We may also have inferred that the intricate arrangement in the room—the furniture, the electrical wiring, the pipes, the colors on the walls, etc.—were intelligent arranged by someone and not due to any blind, unintelligent chance event.

At all times, philosophers and scientists have similarly inferred design in nature due to its orderliness and complex structures, which appear not to be the result of physical law or chance. In the Chaitanya-charitamrita, Srila Prabhupada cited our eighteenth-century spiritual master Srila Baladeva Vidyabhushana, who argued that material nature shows evidence of design:

Material nature is inert, and as such it cannot be the cause of matter, neither as the material nor as the efficient cause. Seeing the wonderful arrangement and management of the cosmic manifestation generally suggests that a living brain is behind this arrangement, for without a living brain such an arrangement could not exist. One should not imagine that such an arrangement can exist without conscious direction. In our practical experience we never see that inert bricks can themselves construct a big building.1

Isaac Newton argued similarly: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”2 Newton argued that although the movements of the planets could be explained by physical laws, the very orderliness of these laws pointed to a designing intelligence behind them.

Another famous design argument was propounded by William Paley in his Natural Theology in 1802. According to Paley, if we find a watch in a field, the watch’s adaptation of means to ends—that is, the adaptation of its parts to telling time—ensures that it is the product of an intelligence and not simply the output of undirected natural processes. So too the marvelous adaptations of means to ends in organisms, whether at the level of whole organisms or at the level of various subsystems (Paley focused on the mammalian eye), ensure that organisms are the product of an intelligence.

Although rationally appealing, design arguments fell into disrepute after Charles Darwin convinced the world of science that nature’s complexity could be fully explained by a natural process: natural selection. This is now changing. Within the last decades, the design argument has had a renaissance, partly because scientists uncovered inside the cell a marvelous world of complexity that Darwin had no idea about. Darwin took the cell to be a simple glob of protoplasm, a microscopic piece of jelly. He turned out to be wrong. The past fifty years have revealed much about the molecular basis of life, including the double helical structure of DNA, the genetic code, and the complicated and irregular structure of proteins. Scientists now know that the cell is run by microscopic machines made of molecules. There are molecular machines that enable the cell to move, machines that empower it to transport nutrients, machines that allow it to defend itself, and so on. Cells are anything but simple.

Accordingly, some scientists are now taking recourse in design to explain the origin of all this. Their argument has been made even stronger by mathematical tools developed to assess whether or not patterns, events, or objects are the result of physical law and chance alone. When applied to biology, such mathematical calculations point to many features being beyond the reach of natural law alone.

BTG: What about the claim that intelligent design is mainly a ploy by Christian creationists to get their ideas across?

LD: There are good reasons why many think like that—the main one being that Darwinian-inspired organizations vigorously propagate that idea, and with great success. But intelligent design as a concept is not creationism. You can have intelligent design without creationism, what to speak of Biblical creationism. And the modern movement of intelligent design arose from within the scientific community, and not from the Christian creationists. Infact, most of today’s prominent ID proponents are not Christian creationists. Biochemist Michael Behe, for instance, who wrote Darwin’s Black Box, the most succesful ID book to date, is not a creationist. He accepts evolution and common ancestory; he just doesn’t think evolution happened through natural processes alone.The use of the term intelligent design for the design argument is old, going back at least to the eighteenth century. ISKCON’s devotee scientists were also using the term long before it supposedly was invented in the wake of a US high court case in 1987, as the Darwinian accusators would have it. For instance, in 1976, on July 3 in Washington D.C., Sadaputa Dasa explained during a science presentation to Srila Prabhupada: “We’d like to argue that the chance-and-molecular-forces theory won’t explain things like this [molecular machinery inside the cell], but to say that there is an intelligent designer would be a sensible explanation.”3

How can intelligent design be an invention from 1987 when Sadaputa talked about it in 1976? Similarly, in 1979, Jnana Dasa wrote in Back to Godhead: “This theory proposes that the various species are products of intelligent design.…”4

In another BTG article from 1985, Drutakarma Dasa wrote: “Similarity of structures can also be taken as evidence for an intelligent designer.” 5

The term intelligent design was also extensively used in Origins, a magazine published by the BBT in 1983. One example: “All available evidence is said to confirm that evolution did in fact occur as described above. This of course excludes intelligent design in any form.”6

So I disagree with the claim that intelligent design is of recent origin. Thus when adherents of the modern ID movement make the very arguments that we either have been or should have making, I think we should gladly join with them on the areas where we agree.

BTG: Is there no disagreement between us and what today is called ID?

LD: In some respects the proponents of ID don’t go far enough, especially when it comes to studies of consciousness. But as far as they go, I find them in agreement with Srila Prabhupada’s Vedic teachings. ID is science and nothing else.

BTG: But don’t we have a significant disagreement with the ID proponents’ idea that life comes from matter manipulated by an intelligent designer?

LD: ID as a concept is not a claim about life being material or having been created by an intelligent designer from matter. Of course, some ID people think like that, and in that respect we disagree with them, but that is a different issue.

It is important to understand that intelligent design is neither a claim about the nature of the designer nor a claim about the process of creation. Again, if you take the example of archeologists studying flints to ascertain whether certain traits are due to intentional work, their discussion at this level is not about who has cut the flints or how it was done. For now they are only concerned about how to tell what is natural and what has been intelligently caused. Of course, once they’ve concluded that some traits are indeed intentional, they may launch into discussing who did it and by what process. But that is a different and later discussion. If you keep that example in mind, I think you’ll understand what it is that all ID people, including us, agree on and what it is that we may disagree on while still agreeing on the intelligent design part.

BTG: Still, ID seems to suggest that everything that goes on in the cell can be explained in purely mechanical terms. Isn’t consciousness evident even at the cellular level?

LD: ID only asserts that some features—not even all, necessarily—are intelligently caused. It is not a claim about everything within the cell being mechanical. This is a different claim. And although many scientists, ID people included, may think like that, nobody can tell. Most of what is going on inside the cell is still a mystery to science. But I would expect that if scientists started looking for it, they’d also find evidence for the Supersoul, for instance, in the workings of the cell.

BTG: So ID doesn’t imply that no soul is needed, just that an intelligent designer is needed?

LD: No, and again, soul or no soul, that is a different issue. But while we are at it, although undoubtedly some ID people are materialists at a certain level—such as thinking that life is created out matter by an intelligent designer—my feeling is that most of them are not and do accept the existence of the soul at some level. In 2007, two Canadian neuroscientists connected with the ID movement even published a book called The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul.7

BTG: What is a good example of intelligent design?

LD: There are so many, but the genetic code is interesting. It even made IT-guru Bill Gates state, “Human DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.” That the cell processes information much like a computer is astounding.

More specifically, the “genetic code” is a coded text written all over our DNA in the form of sequences of four particular molecules: A, C, G, and T for short. Just as the order in which regular letters are written on a piece of paper spells certain messages, the order of these molecular letters spells out genetic messages that are translated into innumerable functions in the cell. Most obvious is how they code for the synthesizing of proteins.

Nothing about the chemical properties of DNA determines the genetic code. In fact, the codes and the medium upon which they are written have to work independently of each other in order for the code to be functional (just imagine if paper would ruin all the text written on it). Since nothing chemical is known to give rise to codes working independent of chemistry, and since all the codes whose origin we know have an intelligent origin, an obvious inference is that the genetic code also has an intelligent origin.

BTG: To wind up, what do you think the future holds for evolution, intelligent design, and Krishna consciousness?

LD: One devotee friend opined that we shouldn’t involve ourselves in the discussion over intelligent design. The time is not right, and it can damage our reputation in the intellectual world.

But I think that we won’t get a better time. As things stand, evolution, or Darwinism, is passe. The only thing keeping it afloat is that many, including most scientists, either haven’t noticed this or can’t bring themselves to admit it. Plus, many scientists dare not speak their minds openly out fear of being ostracized. But the evidence against evolution is so overwhelming that it can only be a matter of time before the real change sets in. I think it will happen within our lifetime.

The worst we can do is to think that the theory of evolution is so scientifically solid that we have to compromise our philosophy. Ever since Darwin, many religious people have felt compelled to water down their teachings to a kind of theistic evolution in the belief that the evidence for evolution is indisputable. But it is not. It is, at best, weak and circumstantial. At worst it is a scam.

There have always been scientists opposed to evolution, but until about two decades ago few people knew about this. Today the scientific opposition is out in the open, partly due to strong evidence for intelligent design, especially in biochemistry, partly due to modern communication, such as the Internet. The scientific establishment can no longer control the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

I think that we Hare Krishna people should place ourselves at the frontline—on the cutting edge—of this “evolution war.” It will strengthen our own convictions and enhance our reputation among many intellectuals who are themselves critical of Darwinism. Of course, it will also gain us opposition, but that’s life—you can’t please everyone. Our brahminical principle, set by Srila Prabhupada’s own example, is not to cater to public sentiments but to speak and place ourselves on the side of truth. Truth will eventually triumph. Intelligent design is a winning position.


1. Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 6.14–15, Purport.
2. Principia, Sir Isaac Newton, University of California Press, 1966, p. 544.
3. Life Comes From Life Slideshow, July 3, 1976.
4. “Evolution Or Production?” Jnana Dasa, BTG, 1979, Vol. 14, No. 9.
5. “From Four Legs to Four Arms,” Drutakarma Dasa, BTG, 1985, Vol. 20, No. 12.
6. “A New Look at Evolution,” Origins, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983.
7. The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, Harper One, 2007.