I see that intelligent design is making an appearance in the blogosphere. This idea that the order we see in a complex world must arise through the intervention of God—or, in the conspiracy theorist's mind, of man—must be among mankind's oldest philosophical beliefs.
In The Nature of the Gods, Cicero places arguments of intelligent design as evidence of the existence of an supreme intelligence controlling the universe into the mouth of Balbus, an adherent of Stoicism. Commenting on the atomic theory of the Epicureans, Balbus argues against nature producing the order we see, at least under the theory of the Epicureans.
At this point must I not marvel that there should be anyone who can persuade himself that there are certain solid and indivisible particles of matter borne along by the force of gravity, and that the fortuitous collision of those particles produces this elaborate and beautiful word? I cannot understand why he who considers it possible for this to have occurred should not think that, if a countless number of copies of the one-and-twenty letters of the alphabet, made of gold or what you will, were thrown together into some receptacle and then shaken out on to the ground, it would be possible that they should produce the Annals of Ennius, all ready for the reader. I doubt whether chance could possibly succeed in producing even a single verse! (p. 213)1
Balbus then expresses the intellegent design argument in its purest form.
When we see something moved by machiney, like an orrery or clock or many other such things, we do not doubt that these contrivances are the work of reason; when therefore we behold the whole compass of the heaven moving with revolutions of marvellous velocity and executing with perfect regularity the annual changes of the seasons with absolute safety and security for all things, how can we doubt that all this is effected not merely by reason, but by a reason that is transcendent and divine? (p. 217).1
The problem with such arguments is that they hinge in part on our ignorance: if we do not understand how a thing works, that thing must be guided by reason. In the example from Cicero, the regularity of planetary motion is proof to Balbus of the active guidance of God; today the motion of the planets are fully understood under a very simple theory of gravity. As with planetary motion, science has shown that simple processes in nature can create complex order, and our inability to understand these processes are a sign of our ignorance rather than a sign of intelligent design.
This tendency to see intelligence where none exists must be deep within our makeup. An recent extreme example of this, as well as of bigoted hatred, is the assertion by an Egyptian writer that the recent tsunami that killed so many in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other countries lining the Indian Ocean is a consequence of a nuclear bomb test of the Israelis, Indians, and Americans. Here intelligent design, attributed to man, in invoked to explain the magnitude of the disaster. This mode of thinking appears in many conspiracy theories: momentous events imply the guiding intelligence of a group of men.
A related type of argument is the assertion that a complex system requires intelligent intervention to function. This is a classic argument for for socialism. The belief behind this argument is that a free market cannot efficiently produce a high standard of living for all member of society. After two centuries of government experimentation, however, we have found that the free market is an example of a complex system that not only produces order, but produces an order that is superior to that produce in a centrally guided economy. Intelligent design in economics is marked, not by order and beauty, but by disaster.
The modern version of intelligent design is based on the anthropic principle: if the universe were slightly different, human life would not exist in it. Many researchers have invested large amounts of time detailing the varies features of physics and cosmology that are just right for human life. Does this imply that the universe was created so that life would arise? That step is a leap of faith.
Instead of marveling at the order of the universe, many scientists marvel at the simplicity of the universe's structure. After giving reasons of why the stars must be much farther away from the Sun than Saturn, Copernicus remarks
It is by this mark in particular that [the stars] are distinguished from the planets, as it is proper to have the greatest difference between the moved and the unmoved. How exceedingly fine is the godlike work of the Best and Greatest Artist! (p27)2
I don't know if many modern scientists are moved in this way by the gradual reduction of all complex phenomena to a handful of basic physical principles. Of all the features of the universe that we have discovered, this is truly the most breathtaking. But again we are presented with the question answered by Balbus: is this by design? I cannot say; I can only marvel at its beauty.
1 Cicero. “Nature of the Gods.” In Cicero XIX. Translated by by H. Rackham. Loeb Classical Library, No. 268. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000.
2 Copernicus, Nicolaus. On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres. Translated by Charles Glenn Wallis. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995.