With rightists now dominant in all three branches of the federal government, the conservative movement is well poised to extend its ideology more deeply into the capillaries of local jurisdictions. Near the center of that ideology is a determination to see a greater role for Christianity in public life, and right at the top of the agenda -- next to anti-gay and anti-family-planning efforts -- is a campaign to get state and local educational boards to include the religious theory of "intelligent design" in public school classrooms.
From Pennsylvania to Kansas, and from Wisconsin to Missouri, organizations opposed to the teaching of evolution are pushing this repackaged version of creationism, which the Supreme Court has forbidden from being taught in the public schools. Lawsuits are now pending in several states, as are proposed revisions to the curricular guidelines to which science teachers are expected to adhere. In some respects, this is a familiar issue, and so far creationism has not made serious inroads into the schools, but the climate is shifting.
What distinguishes intelligent design (or ID) from traditional creationism is that its advocates sell it as a scientifically respectable alternative to evolutionary theory, one that addresses the shortcomings of the Darwinist paradigm while embracing the empirical ideal. Seeking to avoid the charge of backwardness that has plagued Biblical creationists, they represent themselves as the advocates of free inquiry and open-mindedness, while painting evolutionists as dogmatic zealots trying to stifle debate.
The basic idea behind intelligent design is that "neo-Darwinism," to use their phrase, cannot account for the emergence of highly complex organismal structures, given its theoretical reliance on the principle of chance in the system of natural selection. Therefore, the argument goes, we can only conclude that some power above and beyond nature must be responsible for the appearance of these structures. The theistic orientation of this philosophy aligns it with the various forms of pre-Darwinist evolutionary science, all of which maintained that the processes of speciation and biological transformation were actuated, sustained, and guided by the divine mind, and that they fulfilled some larger purpose. Darwin's decisive contribution was to remove this teleological assumption from his model of evolution, and despite refinements to his theory, its core insights remain unchallenged by the scientific establishment.
A number of ID advocates have doctoral degrees in relevant fields, and some of them are undoubtedly intelligent people. But we need to be very clear that this debate, or struggle, is not about scientists disagreeing with other scientists. It's about the promotion of an ideological agenda, and should be understood in the context of four major, ongoing, and related conservative efforts: 1) to advance the social goals of a particular version of Christianity; 2) to erode the division between church and state; 3) to undermine the public educational system by casting its science curriculum as anti-American; and 4) to "take back" the universities from professors and administrators who do not think that creationism should be taught in science classes.
Lest this all sound like a liberal rant, consider the "Wedge Strategy," a long-term plan developed by the Center for Science and Culture, an arm of the Discovery Institute, a leading creationist organization. In its own words, the CSC "seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies" and "explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature." It proposes a three-phase plan for advancing its philosophy in the public sphere -- a plan that is striking for how shamelessly it puts politics before science:
Phase I. Scientific Research, Writing & PublicationAs Edward Lankford has noted, "What is troublesome about the document (and CRSC in general) is that it focuses on overthrowing evolution, not from within scientific establishments, but through convincing the public that its theory is the morally acceptable one." (Read Lankford's full critique).
Paleontology Research program (Dr. Paul Chien et al.)
Molecular Biology Research Program (Dr. Douglas Axe et al.)
Phase II. Publicity & Opinion-making
Teacher Training Program
PBS (or other TV) Co-production
Publicity Materials /
Phase III. Cultural Confrontation & Renewal
Academic and Scientific Challenge Conferences
Potential Legal Action for
Research Fellowship Program: shift to social sciences and
Yet increasingly, ID proponents are trying to insinuate themselves and their ideas into both the scientific and educational establishments. Their efforts in the former case have, thankfully, met with little success. Indeed, the brouhaha that greeted the publication of a peer-reviewed ID article by Stephen Meyer titled "The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories" (in the Aug. 04, 2004, issue of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a relatively obscure journal) only points up the glaring lack of anti-evolutionary work in the professional literature.
(Meyer, incidentally, is the Republican director of CSC, and the author of such articles as "Why Clinton Crime Bill Doesn't Pay" (World, April 17, 1995) and "What's the Difference? If George W. Bush Would Spell It Out He Has a Fighting Chance" (Insight, Oct. 21, 2000). The then managing editor of the Proceedings, Richard Sternberg, who in his own words "took direct editorial responsibility for the paper" (www.rsternberg.net), has of course denied any bias. Sternberg is now listed, however, as a Fellow for the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design (ISCID), along with a number of regulars on the closed ID circuit, including Michael J. Behe, John Angus Campbell, William Lane Craig, William A. Dembski, Paul Nelson, and Alvin Plantinga. The ISCID has now launched what appears to be a vanity journal (or soapbox) dedicated to pet ID topics: "(1) computer simulations of Darwinian evolution, (2) irreducible complexity and (3) the application of intelligent design.")
Again, however, the issue is only superficially about science, and the scientific establishment can surely take care of itself. The deeper issue is religious, and the institutions that are more vulnerable to ID are the public schools and, to a lesser extent, the universities.
Seeking to duplicate their success at mobilizing law and business students, conservative groups are supporting student organizations advancing intelligent design. The Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center (IDEA), for example, distributes start-up packets for "IDEA Clubs" on high school and college campuses, where -- in typically a priori fashion -- "students can promote scientific evidence that supports intelligent design."
Aww, it's just a student club, right? Big deal. Well…it's not just a student club. One of IDEA's "administration team" is a fellow by the name of Tristan Abbey, who in July 2004 started something called the Intelligent Design Undergraduate Research Center, whose parent organization is the creationist Access Research Network, whose Board of Directors -- lo and behold -- is composed of four of the usual ID suspects: Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson, Mark Hartwig, and Dennis Wagner. The point is that, just as the theory of intelligent design did not emerge from honest scientific investigation, these student organizations did not emerge spontaneously from the wholesome desire of young people for better scientific knowledge.
Meanwhile, government entities face increasing pressure to endorse intelligent design. At this writing, the Kansas Department of Education is considering proposed revisions to its Science Standards Draft 2004, which if approved will set the curricular guidelines for the state's public schools. In 1999, you may remember, Kansas excised evolution from its science curriculum, a move that was reversed in 2001 -- but the creationists are now back in their ID guise. Among the agitators is a group called the Intelligent Design Network, whose proposed revisions to the state guidelines are a study in conceptual infiltration. For instance, it recommends adding language stating that 12th graders should understand, and presumably shudder at the thought, that "biological evolution postulates an unpredictable and unguided natural process that has no discernable direction or goal." To take a more insidious example, the IDN proposes changing the phrase "biologists use evolution theory to explain the earth's present day biodiversity" to "evolution theory is used to explain the earth's present day biodiversity" -- in order, evidently, to make that "use" seem less professional. (Read their full proposals).
The challenge in fighting back against the intelligent design movement is that, when the argument is waged over the actual science, it quickly becomes a swamp that most people have trouble wading through. ID proponents seem to have mastered the art of the slippery and misleading claim that takes hours to refute. They also seize upon the incompleteness of evolutionary theory (an inevitable incompleteness characteristic of every scientific paradigm, and which the scientists themselves will be the first to acknowledge) as somehow evidence of the theory's profound erroneousness. What all this leads to is a terrible blurring of the scientific issues, and a tendency for people to see both sides as equally meritorious disputants in a very complicated scientific debate. Even though it's a no-brainer for serious scientists, the ID people want the debate to be fought over science, because that helps to validate them in the public mind.
The response, therefore, must be political rather than scientific. Americans committed to the separation of church and state (who should include both religious and secular people, and those of all faiths and denominations) need to talk about intelligent design in these terms. The conflict here is not between faith and atheism, and it's not a conflict between different kinds of science. It's a conflict between modernity and fundamentalism, between those who believe the schools should be protected from the incursions of the Religious Right, and those who would pervert science for religious ends.
We would do well to remember the words of Clarence Darrow, the defense attorney at the Scopes trial, arguing in favor of the teaching of evolution:
Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.