Intelligent Design’s Founding Father | Evolution News
Photo: Small Magellanic Cloud, by NASA, ESA and A. Nota (STScI/ESA).
Well, that headline is a bit misleading since, as I pointed out last week, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Holly Compton endorsed intelligent design – by that name – as early as 1940. Other Nobel laureates would join him in decades to come. But the chemist Charles Thaxton, co-author (with engineer Walter Bradley and geologist Roger Olsen) of The Mystery of Life’s Origin, was probably the founding father of the modern ID theory, or one of the three. Writing at The Federalist, Emily Nordhagen Sandico describes the origins of Thaxton’s book, published in 1984, which had such a profound influence on Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson and others.
An interdisciplinary nature
I wrote the historical introduction to the recent expanded edition of Mystery, but much of this I did not know. Much is drawn from Thaxton’s new memoir A Leg to Stand On. As Sandico writes, the interdisciplinary nature of the book was key to its importance.
From, “How a Chemist, an Engineer and a Geologist Destroyed Darwin’s Warm Pond Theory”:
Thaxton recounts a session with about 25 professors and graduate students during which scientists in different disciplines objected to his criticism, each appealing to a different scientist in a different field. As each man in turn unexpectedly confirmed the correctness of Thaxton’s points, it became clear that the scientists relied on what they believed to be true outside their own areas of expertise to support their own theories, where their weaknesses admitted. These scientists needed an interdisciplinary view of evolutionary theory to see its true state.
Thaxton was the man for that job. In 1976 he was asked to revise a manuscript on the origin of life by Walter Bradley, an engineer, and Roger Olsen, a geologist. Thaxton saw the value in what he read, and he knew what was missing: more chemistry! “You are the chemist,” said the other.
So, after years of research and collaboration, in 1984, Bradley, Olsen, and Thaxton published a rigorous interdisciplinary critique of origin-of-life research: “The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories.” (The book was republished in 2020 with several new chapters by leading experts.) In it they delved deeply into, among other things, the geochemistry of the early Earth, the role of thermodynamics in ordered systems, and the need for information, not just energy, to to achieve the order we see in life.
Their work was convincing. The book received unexpectedly positive responses from fellow scientists, many of whom accepted their criticism on its merits, even welcoming it as an accurate and much-needed assessment of the state of the field. Thaxton, et al. withheld their alternative hypothesis—that an intelligent cause was behind the origin of life—until the end of the book, allowing materialist readers to consider the evidence against chemical evolution on their own terms before inviting them to making the paradigm-shifting concession that the evidence justifies a non-substantial conclusion.
Sandico notes that, after earning a PhD in chemistry at Iowa State, Thaxton himself was influenced by the chemist Michael Polanyi:
Thaxton’s interest turned specifically to chemical evolution and the origin of life after reading Michael Polanyi’s 1967 article “Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry” in Chemical and Engineering News. Polanyi, a physical chemist, argued that life is not reducible to mere chemistry and physics. Thaxton might have forgotten the paper if he had not, shortly after reading it, happened to hear an analysis of it by Francis Schaeffer, who called Polanyi’s claim “one of the most outstanding propositions of the twentieth century.” Thaxton was intrigued. He began investigating the state of the origin-of-life field, and found it… well, let’s say unproductive.
It is a useful and very interesting intellectual lineage. Read the rest at The Federalist.