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Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Conference at USF, 2002

September 27, 2002

University of San Francisco

Is Neo-Darwinism the only explanation for life's complexity?

IDEA Conference
The IDEA Conference is now complete! Below is the official IDEA Center report on the conference.

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    Conference Report:
    On September 27-28, 2002, the IDEA Center co-sponsored the "Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Conference 2002" at the University of San Francisco (USF). This is an official report by the IDEA Center about the conference.

    This two day conference gave those attending opportunities to learn from experts about scientific evidence for intelligent design, irreducible complexity, biochemical design, cosmic design, the origins of life, and the apologetic importance of intelligent design. Conference speakers included authors and scholars of the "intelligent design movement" such as Michael Behe, Edward Peltzer, Paul Chien, Cornelius George Hunter, Jay Wesley Richards, and Paul Nelson.

    The IDEA 2002 Conference seems to have been the first intelligent design conference in the San Francisco Bay Area. USF, a campus whose motto is "Educating Hearts and Minds to Change the World" provided an ideal venue for this conference. The conference opened with comments by USF President Fr. Stephen A. Privett, S.J., speaking in favor of the spirit of the conference and the legitimacy of discussing this topic in both scientific and spiritual terms. He seemed to endorsed a perspective of design in the world.

    The Attendance:

    The Center was grateful for the turnout at the conference. It was estimated between 150 and 180 people attended each day of the conference. Conference attendees included individuals who came from as far away as Idaho and Illinois. Students attended not only from USF, but also from other local campuses such as UCSF, UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC Davis, Sonoma State University, San Jose Christian College, and Sacramento State University. A breakdown of attendees showed that nearly half were general public, 40 percent students, 6 percent faculty, and 4 percent pastors or youth leaders.

    The conference also welcomed visitors from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Overall, all conference attendees were cordial and friendly, and everyone with viewpoints from all sides of the issue seemed to be engaged in respectful debate.

    Also, there are still copies of the Conference Proceedings available as well as other conference materials. If you are interested in purchasing these materials, please e-mail us at

    The Speakers:

    We could not have hoped for better quality speakers at this conference. On Friday, intelligent design was introduced in its historical/socio-religious-political setting. On Saturday, after people were able to understand design in context, there was nothing but science. This conveyed both the meaning and scientific support of intelligent design.

    The following descriptions of the various talks are brief summaries only. The arguments made by the speakers contained much more depth than is given here. If you would like more information about the talk given by any speaker, please e-mail us at You can also get a flavor for their talk based upon their quizes.

    The conference opened on Friday showing the "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" video. The video captivated the audience, and made it hard to walk out and still question design.

    Next, Paul Nelson spoke about the intelligent design movement, and what intelligent design is, and what it is not. This talk helped people to understand the difference between what is designed, and what is not designed.

    Jay Richards closed Friday evening by discussing the "apologetic value of intelligent design." This was admittedly a difficult topic to address, as intelligent design is not a religiously based theory (as many have wrongly asserted), but it could have metaphysical implications. Dr. Richards did a great job as he was frank about the proper metaphysical implications of intelligent design, but did not take the arguments any further than they should be. Intelligent design does not necessarily support Christianity, said Dr. Richards, for it does not name the identity of the designer and does not rule out options for the designer other than the God of the Bible. Richards actually noted that intelligent design on its own makes a pretty lousy apologetic argument for Christianity. His conclusion, however, was more modest--that intelligent design makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled theist. Perhaps of more importance was the fact that Dr. Richards' frankness about the implications of design made lucid the fact that his support of intelligent design is not religiously motivated, for design does not necessarily provide any strong particular support for his religious beliefs.

    On Saturday, we tried to give a well-rounded approach to intelligent design with four main science lectures:

    1. Cosmic Design (by Jay Richards)
    2. Intelligent Design and the Origin of Life (by Edward Peltzer)
    3. Intelligent Design and the Origin of the Animal Phyla (by Paul Chien)
    4. Irreducible Complexity and Biological Design (by Michael Behe)

    Dr. Jay Richards' talk on Cosmic Design was along the lines of his forthcoming book, The Privileged Planet, co-authored by astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez. It gave a fresh understanding into the design of the universe as he discussed how design can be seen in the fact that the universe specifies that the very conditions which support life also allow for scientific discovery. Future years of research on the part the authors may develop this argument even further.

    Next, Dr. Edward Peltzer spoke on design and the origin of life. Peltzer obtained his Ph.D. at Scripps Institution for Oceanography studying under well known origins-of-life researchers Stanley Miller and Jeff Bada. We were grateful to have such an authority speak on the topic.

    Dr. Peltzer critiqued origins-of-life scenarios on a number of grounds, particularly in the fact that chemical reactions between pre-biotic chemicals would cause any portions of a "primordial soup" to quickly degrade. These reactions, Dr. Peltzer taught, are similar to the same reactions that take place when you cook food or watch and apple turn brown. The talk ended noting how many of the problems with origins-of-life scenarios point to the fact that life is irreducibly complex--a strong evidence of intelligent design.

    Next, Dr. Paul Chien spoke on the origin of the animal phyla--the Cambrian explosion. Again, here was an individual, also a member of the USF Biology Department, with years of personal experience on his topic. He talked about the problem of the "evolutionary lawn" which the Cambrian explosion makes of the fossil record--it does not fit well with Darwinian theory. With many personal slides and anecdotes, especially from his visits to the Chenjiang Cambrian locality in China, the talk was interesting, filled with details, and quite compelling as evidence for design from the "quantum biology" of the fossil record.

    The final main talk was with Dr. Michael Behe on biological design! Behe started by noting that he wished he had spoken first, and not last, because by the time he spoke, the audience had heard many of the terms and concepts of his talk a few times. Regardless, Dr. Behe gave much more depth into the concepts of irreducible complexity and biological design than had been given previously. Drawing upon examples such as the bacterial flagellum, Dr. Behe gave many lines of evidence supporting intelligent design. Behe also responded to some of the public dissent to his ideas.

    There were also 5 concurrent sessions:

    Cornelius Hunter gave two presentations on the inherent religion in Darwinism. The overall lack of dissent from his audience seemed to indicate that he had done his research and proved his points well! Dr. Hunter's thesis was that the theological roots of evolution come from something more like a Christian heresy than a program for atheism. This gave a new perspective on the socio-religious roots of Darwin's theory. It would be interesting to see how Dr. Hunter's arguments could affect criticisms of how evolution is taught in the schools--many Darwinists explicitly promote some of the very religious arguments that George showed evolution is historically founded upon.

    IDEA Center co-president Eddie Colanter gave a talk on the philosophical and theological implications of intelligent design. As Eddie is a philosophy doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University, he handled questions from participants well.

    Paul Nelson also gave concurrent talks on measuring design in the fossil record.

    Finally, IDEA Center co-president Casey Luskin talked on how to promote design on a college campus by starting an IDEA Club. This was a similar talk to that given at the Darwin, Design, and Democracy Conference this past summer.

    The Dissent:

    The conference ended on Saturday evening with a panel discussion among all the conference speakers fielding questions from the audience. NCSE Director Eugenie Scott came forward, and made a number of contentions against intelligent design which can be paraphrased as follows:

    1. Intelligent design does not have a coherent model, and therefore should not be taught in schools.
    2. The intelligent design community does not have a consensus on the age of the earth or common descent.
    3. Intelligent design theory attacks only natural selection, and treats natural selection as if it were the only mechanism for evolution, when there are other mechanisms.
    4. Intelligent design proponents have an "obsession with Darwinism" that has "not scientific roots" but "theological roots" and such objections represent "freedom of religion [or] freedom of speech" but are not scientific.

    In response to contention 1, Paul Nelson noted that intelligent design theory as a science is quite young and in many ways is in its formative years, and that disagreement within the community is understandable. However, there are many points that the vast majority of design proponents do indeed agree upon, such as William Dembski's general methods for inferring design and some of Michael Behe's examples of designed systems in biology. One could easily argue that there is enough agreement on these core issues to provide plenty of material justifying a science curriculum on design.

    As for point 2, one speaker noted that disagreement among scientists does not imply a theory is wrong, unpromising, or should not even be taught. Paul Nelson reminded the audience that even among evolutionary biologists, there is disagreement over whether or not common descent is true, which Scott conceded as a valid assertion. Nelson continued saying, "Intellectual freedom for evolutionary biologists is intellectual freedom for design theorists. Don't expect the degree of unanimity among us that you don't find in your own community."

    Furthermore, it should be noted that issues related to the age of the earth have nothing to do with intelligent design theory in the first place. One might as well demand that all proponents of design to have the same favorite breakfast cereal, and it is puzzling why Eugenie Scott would bring up such a criticism against intelligent design proponents.

    Jay Richards had some telling remarks regarding Scott's 4th point, saying, "[T]he point is, Eugenie, since you're talking here publicly, you ended with an ad-hominem comment about our motivations. And, this would be such a more enjoyable discussion to have publicly if we didn't talk about each other's motivations ... unless, the motivations have become a premise in an arguments. ... I think that's just fair on everyone's side."

    Even if some design theorists do have theological motivations, what of it? Newton and Kepler were both motivated by their Christian belief that the God of the Bible created the world to operate in a lawlike orderly fashion. Religious motivations aside, their conclusions about orderliness and regularity in the universe turned out to be true, and that has led to over 300 years of fruitful scientific inquiry. In the end, motivations really mean nothing. In science, what matters is if your arguments are based upon supporting observations and evidence, and lead to well-supported conclusions.

    While most of Scott's contentions were not over scientific issues, her third contention did have to do with a scientific question.

    Though Scott is correct to contend that there are other mechanisms for change in evolutionary biology besides natural selection, she misunderstands that the other mechanisms are not adaptive, and it is primarily in the origin of complex biological adaptations that intelligent design theory takes interest. Indeed, Douglas Futuyma in his textbook Evolutionary Biology recognizes two principles causes for evolution: Change [evolution] in genotype proportions within a population can occur by either of two principle processes: random fluctuations in proportions (random genetic drift) or nonrandom changes due to the superior survival and/or reproduction of some genotypes compared to others (natural selection). (Evolutionary Biology, pg. 26) Nonrandom adaptive evolution is therefore supposed to proceed ONLY by natural selection acting upon variation. There are other mechanisms for change, however natural selection acting upon variation is the ONLY explanation Darwinism can offer to adapt organisms in the complex ways that design theorist discuss in their arguments against evolution. Other mechanisms for change (evolution) exist--extinction events, neutral mutations, and genetic drift--but none of these are claimed as mechanisms to bring organisms atop the sharp inclines of the adaptive peaks in morphospace upon which they sit. Only natural selection is adaptive in this manner. Intelligent design concerns itself with how organisms come to exist on the top of adaptive peaks, not with how non-adaptive change can occur.

    Indeed, Scott's criticisms are actually misstated, for she argued that the primary argument presented at the conference against evolution was directed against natural selection. This is not the case, for it is not the differential survival of organisms against which intelligent design takes issue. Rather, intelligent design inquires into the origin of biological diversity and variation in the first place.

    Natural selection is simply non-random death: it is a mathematical certainty given variation in a species and some selection pressure from the environment. But evolution is more than just natural selection--there must be variation upon which selection can act. As Douglas Futuyma states: "Natural selection is not the same as evolution. Evolution is a two-step process: the origin of genetic variation by mutation or recombination, followed by a change in the pattern of variation ... Natural selection is one agent of change in the pattern of variation; genetic drift is another. Both can be responsible for the spread of traits throughout populations, but neither natural selection nor genetic drift accounts for the origin of variation." (Evolutionary Biology, pg. 365). But where did this variation come from in the first place, and are the mechanisms for originating variation sufficient to account for irreducibly complex structures? The problem lies in the mutation mechanism, where mutations--the ultimate originator of all genetic variation--must somehow account for the origin of the vast and often irreducible complexity of life on earth. The need for mutations to build the great complexity upon which natural selection supposedly would act remains the Achilles heel for evolution.

    This final episode brings to mind one of Jay Richards' main points from his talk on Friday evening. Richards noted that arguments for intelligent design are not necessarily going to convince everyone. He asked the question, "If intelligent design fails to convince some people, does that mean it is a bad argument?" No, not at all, Richards said, for two preconditions are necessary for a person to accept the conclusion of design:

    1. That a person is open to the possibility that things were designed.
    2. That a person is open to the possibility that we can empirically detect design.

    If one of these two criteria is not fulfilled, then of course a person will reject design. And these two criteria are almost like choices a person will make--will they choose to consider certain possibilities? There will always be plenty who will not entertain the possibility of design, but that should not be our primary concern. As long as arguments for design remain logical and subject to continual refining, intelligent design will make an impact upon those for whom it ultimately exists: those who are open to the possibility it is true.

    Acknowledgments and Thanks:

    Firstly, the IDEA Conference 2002 was made possible through a generous grant from the USF Jesuit foundation, without which the conference could not have taken place. Also, a great portion of the work for the conference was done by Dr. Stephen Huxley, USF statistics professor, and his son Ryan Huxley, IDEA Center Director of Programming. Both did a wonderful job making sure the nuts and bolts were put together properly for the conference. IDEA Center staff member Casey Luskin and USF InverVarsity Staff member Jon Paris also put in many hours of work. IDEA Center staff members Eddie Colanter and Tristan Abbey also helped significantly.

    Thanks should also be given to each of the speakers who traveled great distances, rearranged their teaching schedules, and took the time to come and participate in the conference, as well as the many volunteers who made this conference possible.