The debate among conservative Christians, Muslims, and Jews (the "creationists") and natural scientists and the science-minded public (the "evolutionists") centers on biological evolution. But on a deeper level, it concerns the universe in which life has evolved -- or in which it was created. And, as I will argue, on this level there is no contradiction between design and evolution: both are equally needed to explain the facts.
At first glance, the scientific community -- and anyone who believes that science can tell us something about the nature of reality -- is compelled to reject the hypothesis that all organisms are the way they are because they were designed to be that way. But the creationists question that the stupendously varied panoply of life arose from mutations in the genome occurring by chance with the resulting organisms fitting by chance into environments where they can reproduce better than their predecessors. Such a chance-mutation and lucky-environmental-fit process is surely too "hit or miss" to have created the complex web of life in the biosphere. The theory that affirms it is bound to be false.
However, at the cutting edge of science, the theory of evolution doesn't rely on random serendipity. That view marks the classical Darwinist position, still championed by a few (though always fewer) mainline biologists. Richard Dawkins, for example, insists that the living world is the result of processes of piecemeal trial and error, without deeper meaning and significance. Evolution happens, but there is no purpose and meaning to it.
Take cheetahs, said Dawkins. They give every indication of being superbly designed to kill antelopes. The teeth, claws, eyes, nose, leg muscles, backbone, and brain of a cheetah are all precisely what we should expect if God's purpose in creating cheetahs was to maximize deaths among antelopes. At the same time, antelopes are fast, agile, and watchful, apparently designed so they can escape cheetahs. Yet neither the one feature nor the other implies creation by design: this is just the way nature is. Cheetahs have a "utility function" to kill antelopes, and antelopes have a utility function to escape cheetahs. Nature itself is indifferent to this game. This is a world of blind physical forces and genetic replication where some get hurt and others flourish. It has precisely the properties we would expect it to have if there were no design, no purpose, and no evil and no good in the world, only blind indifference.
If a Designer is responsible for the way the living world works, He/She would have to be at best indifferent to what comes about in that world, or at worst a sadist who enjoys blood sports. It's more reasonable, according to Dawkins, to hold that the world just is, without reason and purpose. The way it is results from random processes played out within limits set by fundamental physical laws. The idea of design is superfluous. Classical Darwinists echo French mathematician Pierre Laplace, who is reputed to have said to Napoleon that God is a hypothesis for which there is no longer any need.
Confronted with the classical theory, creationists are justified in pointing out that it's extremely improbable that all we see in the world of life, ourselves included, should be the result of chance processes governed by impersonal laws. The idea that everything evolved by blind chance out of common and simple origins is just theory, they say. The world is more than a random assembly of disjointed elements; it exhibits meaning and purpose. This implies design.
The creationist position would be the logical choice if -- but only if -- scientists would persist in claiming that the evolution of living species is a product of two-fold serendipity. But at the cutting edge, scientists no longer claim this. Post-Darwinian biologists recognize that the evolution of species is far more than the chance processes classical Darwinists say it is. It must be more, because the time that was available for evolution would not have been sufficient to generate the complex web of life on this planet merely by trial and error. Mathematical physicist Sir Fred Hoyle calculated the probabilities and came to the conclusion that they are about the same as the probability that a hurricane blowing through a scrap-yard assembles a working airplane.
Leading-edge scientists realize that the evolution of organic species is an orderly, highly coordinated process, even if it's not mechanistic and deterministic. The evolution of the living world is part of the great wave that created particles from the underlying virtual-energy and information field misleadingly called "vacuum" (and is better called unified field, nuether, or Akashic field). The wave unfolded in the cosmos by structuring particles into atoms, atoms into molecules, molecules into macromolecules and cells, cells into organisms, and organisms and populations of organisms into local, regional, and continental ecologies.
The wave of evolution could only have unfolded in a universe where the fundamental laws and constants are finely tuned to permit the emergence of complexity. Ours is such a universe. Physicists know that even a minute difference in these laws and constants would have foreclosed the possibility of life forever.
Our universe is staggeringly fine-tuned to the creation of systems of higher and higher orders of complexity, differentiation, and integration. That such a universe would have come about by chance is astronomically improbable. According to quantum cosmology, some 1 x 10 (1 followed by five hundred zeros) universes could exist physically, but only a handful could give rise to life. That our life-supporting universe would have come about by a random selection from this enormous set of possible universes is a zillion times more improbable than that living species would have come about by random mutations. The great wave of evolution requires highly harmonized and coordinated processes in all its domains.
In the final count the evolution of life presupposes intelligent design. But the design it presupposes is not the design of the products of evolution; it's the design of its preconditions. Given the right preconditions, nature comes up with the products on her own.
The debate between creationists and evolutionists would be better focused on the origins of the universe than on the origins of life. Could it be that our universe has been purposefully designed so it could give rise to the evolution of life? For creationists, this would be the logical assumption. Evolutionists could not object: evolution, being an irreversible process, must have had a beginning, and that beginning must be accounted for. And our fine-tuned universe is entirely unlikely to have come about by chance.
So the creationist/evolutionist controversy really is pointless. Design is a necessary assumption, because chance doesn't explain the facts. But evolution is likewise a necessary assumption, for given the way this universe works, the evolution of complexity is a logical and by now well-documented consequence. Therefore the rational conclusion is not design or evolution. It's design for evolution.
Then why the controversy?