The Crusade Against Evolution
The Crusade Against Evolution
In the beginning there was Darwin. And then there was intelligent design. How the next generation of creation science is invading America's classrooms.

By Evan Ratliff - Wired Magazine - original
On a spring day two years ago, in a downtown Columbus auditorium, the Ohio State Board of Education took up the question of how to teach the theory of evolution in public schools. A panel of four experts - two who believe in evolution, two who question it - debated whether an antievolution theory known as intelligent design should be allowed into the classroom.

This is an issue, of course, that was supposed to have been settled long ago. But 140 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, 75 years after John Scopes taught natural selection to a biology class in Tennessee, and 15 years after the US Supreme Court ruled against a Louisiana law mandating equal time for creationism, the question of how to teach the theory of evolution was being reopened here in Ohio. The two-hour forum drew chanting protesters and a police escort for the school board members. Two scientists, biologist Ken Miller from Brown University and physicist Lawrence Krauss from Case Western Reserve University two hours north in Cleveland, defended evolution. On the other side of the dais were two representatives from the Discovery Institute in Seattle, the main sponsor and promoter of intelligent design: Stephen Meyer, a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University's School of Ministry and director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, and Jonathan Wells, a biologist, Discovery fellow, and author of Icons of Evolution, a 2000 book castigating textbook treatments of evolution. Krauss and Miller methodically presented their case against ID. "By no definition of any modern scientist is intelligent design science," Krauss concluded, "and it's a waste of our students' time to subject them to it."

Meyer and Wells took the typical intelligent design line: Biological life contains elements so complex - the mammalian blood-clotting mechanism, the bacterial flagellum - that they cannot be explained by natural selection. And so, the theory goes, we must be products of an intelligent designer. Creationists call that creator God, but proponents of intelligent design studiously avoid the G-word - and never point to the Bible for answers. Instead, ID believers speak the language of science to argue that Darwinian evolution is crumbling.

The debate's two-on-two format, with its appearance of equal sides, played right into the ID strategy - create the impression that this very complicated issue could be seen from two entirely rational yet opposing views. "This is a controversial subject," Meyer told the audience. "When two groups of experts disagree about a controversial subject that intersects with the public-school science curriculum, the students should be permitted to learn about both perspectives. We call this the 'teach the controversy' approach."

Since the debate, "teach the controversy" has become the rallying cry of the national intelligent-design movement, and Ohio has become the leading battleground. Several months after the debate, the Ohio school board voted to change state science standards, mandating that biology teachers "critically analyze" evolutionary theory. This fall, teachers will adjust their lesson plans and begin doing just that. In some cases, that means introducing the basic tenets of intelligent design. One of the state's sample lessons looks as though it were lifted from an ID textbook. It's the biggest victory so far for the Discovery Institute. "Our opponents would say that these are a bunch of know-nothing people on a state board," says Meyer. "We think it shows that our Darwinist colleagues have a real problem now."

But scientists aren't buying it. What Meyer calls "biology for the information age," they call creationism in a lab coat. ID's core scientific principles - laid out in the mid-1990s by a biochemist and a mathematician - have been thoroughly dismissed on the grounds that Darwin's theories can account for complexity, that ID relies on misunderstandings of evolution and flimsy probability calculations, and that it proposes no testable explanations.

As the Ohio debate revealed, however, the Discovery Institute doesn't need the favor of the scientific establishment to prevail in the public arena. Over the past decade, Discovery has gained ground in schools, op-ed pages, talk radio, and congressional resolutions as a "legitimate" alternative to evolution. ID is playing a central role in biology curricula and textbook controversies around the country. The institute and its supporters have taken the "teach the controversy" message to Alabama, Arizona, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, and Texas.

The ID movement's rhetorical strategy - better to appear scientific than holy - has turned the evolution debate upside down. ID proponents quote Darwin, cite the Scopes monkey trial, talk of "scientific objectivity, "then in the same breath declare that extraterrestrials might have designed life on Earth. It may seem counterintuitive, but the strategy is meticulously premeditated, and it's working as planned. The debate over Darwin is back, and coming to a 10th-grade biology class near you.

At its heart, intelligent design is a revival of an argument made by British philosopher William Paley in 1802. In Natural Theology, the Anglican archdeacon suggested that the complexity of biological structures defied any explanation but a designer: God. Paley imagined finding a stone and a watch in a field. The watch, unlike the stone, appears to have been purposely assembled and wouldn't function without its precise combination of parts. "The inference," he wrote, "is inevitable, that the watch must have a maker." The same logic, he concluded, applied to biological structures like the vertebrate eye. Its complexity implied design.

Fifty years later, Darwin directly answered Paley's "argument to complexity." Evolution by natural selection, he argued in Origin of Species, could create the appearance of design. Darwin - and 100-plus years of evolutionary science after him - seemed to knock Paley into the dustbin of history.

In the American public arena, Paley's design argument has long been supplanted by biblical creationism. In the 1970s and 1980s, that movement recast the Bible version in the language of scientific inquiry - as "creation science" - and won legislative victories requiring "equal time" in some states. That is, until 1987, when the Supreme Court struck down Louisiana's law. Because creation science relies on biblical texts, the court reasoned, it "lacked a clear secular purpose" and violated the First Amendment clause prohibiting the establishment of religion. Since then, evolution has been the law of the land in US schools - if not always the local choice.

Paley re-emerged in the mid-1990s, however, when a pair of scientists reconstituted his ideas in an area beyond Darwin's ken: molecular biology. In his 1996 book Darwin's Black Box, Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe contended that natural selection can't explain the "irreducible complexity" of molecular mechanisms like the bacterial flagellum, because its integrated parts offer no selective advantages on their own. Two years later, in The Design Inference, William Dembski, a philosopher and mathematician at Baylor University, proposed that any biological system exhibiting "information" that is both "complex" (highly improbable) and "specified" (serving a particular function) cannot be a product of chance or natural law. The only remaining option is an intelligent designer - whether God or an alien life force. These ideas became the cornerstones of ID, and Behe proclaimed the evidence for design to be "one of the greatest achievements in the history of science."

The scientific rationale behind intelligent design was being developed just as antievolution sentiment seemed to be bubbling up. In 1991, UC Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson published Darwin On Trial, an influential antievolution book that dispensed with biblical creation accounts while uniting antievolutionists under a single, secular-sounding banner: intelligent design. In subsequent books, Johnson presents not just antievolution arguments but a broader opposition to the "philosophy of scientific materialism" - the assumption (known to scientists as "methodological materialism") that all events have material, rather than supernatural, explanations. To defeat it, he offers a strategy that would be familiar in the divisive world of politics, called "the wedge." Like a wedge inserted into a tree trunk, cracks in Darwinian theory can be used to "split the trunk," eventually overturning scientific materialism itself.

That's where Discovery comes in. The institute was founded as a conservative think tank in 1990 by longtime friends and former Harvard roommates Bruce Chapman - director of the census bureau during the Reagan administration - and technofuturist author George Gilder. "The institute is futurist and rebellious, and it's prophetic," says Gilder. "It has a science and technology orientation in a contrarian spirit" (see "Biocosm," below). In 1994, Discovery added ID to its list of contrarian causes, which included everything from transportation to bioethics. Chapman hired Meyer, who studied origin-of-life issues at Cambridge University, and the institute signed Johnson - whom Chapman calls "the real godfather of the intelligent design movement - as an adviser and adopted the wedge.

For Discovery, the "thin end" of the wedge - according to a fundraising document leaked on the Web in 1999 - is the scientific work of Johnson, Behe, Dembski, and others. The next step involves "publicity and opinion-making." The final goals: "a direct confrontation with the advocates of material science" and "possible legal assistance in response to integration of design theory into public school science curricula."

Step one has made almost no headway with evolutionists - the near-universal majority of scientists with an opinion on the matter. But that, say Discovery's critics, is not the goal. "Ultimately, they have an evangelical Christian message that they want to push," says Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State. "Intelligent design is the hook."

It's a lot easier to skip straight to steps two and three, and sound scientific in a public forum, than to deal with the rigor of the scientific community. "It starts with education," Johnson told me, referring to high school curricula. "That's where the public can have a voice. The universities and the scientific world do not recognize freedom of expression on this issue." Meanwhile, like any champion of a heretical scientific idea, ID's supporters see themselves as renegades, storming the gates of orthodoxy. "We all have a deep sense of indignation," says Meyer, "that the wool is being pulled over the public's eyes."

The buzz phrase most often heard in the institute's offices is academic freedom. "My hackles go up on the academic freedom issue," Chapman says. "You should be allowed in the sciences to ask questions and posit alternative theories."

None of this impresses the majority of the science world. "They have not been able to convince even a tiny amount of the scientific community," says Ken Miller. "They have not been able to win the marketplace of ideas."

And yet, the Discovery Institute's appeals to academic freedom create a kind of catch-22. If scientists ignore the ID movement, their silence is offered as further evidence of a conspiracy. If they join in, they risk reinforcing the perception of a battle between equal sides. Most scientists choose to remain silent. "Where the scientific community has been at fault," says Krauss, "is in assuming that these people are harmless, like flat-earthers. They don't realize that they are well organized, and that they have a political agenda."

Taped to the wall of Eugenie Scott's windowless office at the National Center for Science Education on the outskirts of Oakland, California, is a chart titled "Current Flare-Ups." It's a list of places where the teaching of evolution is under attack, from California to Georgia to Rio de Janeiro. As director of the center, which defends evolution in teaching controversies around the country, Scott has watched creationism up close for 30 years. ID, in her view, is the most highly evolved form of creationism to date. "They've been enormously effective compared to the more traditional creationists, who have greater numbers and much larger budgets," she says.

Scott credits the blueprint laid out by Johnson, who realized that to win in the court of public opinion, ID needed only to cast reasonable doubt on evolution. "He said, 'Don't get involved in details, don't get involved in fact claims,'" says Scott. "'Forget about the age of Earth, forget about the flood, don't mention the Bible.'" The goal, she says, is "to focus on the big idea that evolution is inadequate. Intelligent design doesn't really explain anything. It says that evolution can't explain things. Everything else is hand-waving."

The movement's first test of Johnson's strategies began in 1999, when the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove evolution from the state's science standards. The decision, backed by traditional creationists, touched off a fiery debate, and the board eventually reversed itself after several antievolution members lost reelection bids. ID proponents used the melee as cover to launch their own initiative. A Kansas group called IDNet nearly pushed through its own textbook in a local school district.

Two years later, the Discovery Institute earned its first major political victory when US senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) inserted language written by Johnson into the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The clause, eventually cut from the bill and placed in a nonbinding report, called for school curricula to "help students understand the full range of scientific views" on topics "that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution)."

As the institute was demonstrating its Beltway clout, a pro-ID group called Science Excellence for All Ohioans fueled a brewing local controversy. SEAO - consisting of a few part-time activists, a Web site, and a mailing list - began agitating to have ID inserted into Ohio's 10th-grade-biology standards. In the process, they attracted the attention of a few receptive school board members.

When the board proposed the two-on-two debate and invited Discovery, Meyer and company jumped at the opportunity. Meyer, whom Gilder calls the institute's resident "polymath," came armed with the Santorum amendment, which he read aloud for the school board. He was bringing a message from Washington: Teach the controversy. "We framed the issue quite differently than our supporters," says Meyer. The approach put pro-ID Ohioans on firmer rhetorical ground: Evolution should of course be taught, but "objectively." Hearing Meyer's suggestion, says Doug Rudy, a software engineer and SEAO's director, "we all sat back and said, Yeah, that's the way to go."

Back in Seattle, around the corner from the Discovery Institute, Meyer offers some peer-reviewed evidence that there truly is a controversy that must be taught. "The Darwinists are bluffing," he says over a plate of oysters at a downtown seafood restaurant. "They have the science of the steam engine era, and it's not keeping up with the biology of the information age."

Meyer hands me a recent issue of Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews with an article by Carl Woese, an eminent microbiologist at the University of Illinois. In it, Woese decries the failure of reductionist biology - the tendency to look at systems as merely the sum of their parts - to keep up with the developments of molecular biology. Meyer says the conclusion of Woese's argument is that the Darwinian emperor has no clothes.

It's a page out of the antievolution playbook: using evolutionary biology's own literature against it, selectively quoting from the likes of Stephen Jay Gould to illustrate natural selection's downfalls. The institute marshals journal articles discussing evolution to provide policymakers with evidence of the raging controversy surrounding the issue.

Woese scoffs at Meyer's claim when I call to ask him about the paper. "To say that my criticism of Darwinists says that evolutionists have no clothes," Woese says, "is like saying that Einstein is criticizing Newton, therefore Newtonian physics is wrong." Debates about evolution's mechanisms, he continues, don't amount to challenges to the theory. And intelligent design "is not science. It makes no predictions and doesn't offer any explanation whatsoever, except for 'God did it.'"

Of course Meyer happily acknowledges that Woese is an ardent evolutionist. The institute doesn't need to impress Woese or his peers; it can simply co-opt the vocabulary of science - "academic freedom," "scientific objectivity," "teach the controversy" - and redirect it to a public trying to reconcile what appear to be two contradictory scientific views. By appealing to a sense of fairness, ID finds a place at the political table, and by merely entering the debate it can claim victory. "We don't need to win every argument to be a success," Meyer says. "We're trying to validate a discussion that's been long suppressed."

This is precisely what happened in Ohio. "I'm not a PhD in biology," says board member Michael Cochran. "But when I have X number of PhD experts telling me this, and X number telling me the opposite, the answer is probably somewhere between the two."

An exasperated Krauss claims that a truly representative debate would have had 10,000 pro-evolution scientists against two Discovery executives. "What these people want is for there to be a debate," says Krauss. "People in the audience say, Hey, these people sound reasonable. They argue, 'People have different opinions, we should present those opinions in school.' That is nonsense. Some people have opinions that the Holocaust never happened, but we don't teach that in history."

Eventually, the Ohio board approved a standard mandating that students learn to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." Proclaiming victory, Johnson barnstormed Ohio churches soon after notifying congregations of a new, ID-friendly standard. In response, anxious board members added a clause stating that the standard "does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design." Both sides claimed victory. A press release from IDNet trumpeted the mere inclusion of the phrase intelligent design, saying that "the implication of the statement is that the 'teaching or testing of intelligent design' is permitted." Some pro-evolution scientists, meanwhile, say there's nothing wrong with teaching students how to scrutinize theory. "I don't have a problem with that," says Patricia Princehouse, a professor at Case Western Reserve and an outspoken opponent of ID. "Critical analysis is exactly what scientists do."

The good feelings didn't last long. Early this year, a board-appointed committee unveiled sample lessons that laid out the kind of evolution questions students should debate. The models appeared to lift their examples from Wells' book Icons of Evolution. "When I first saw it, I was speechless," says Princehouse.

With a PhD in molecular and cell biology from UC Berkeley, Wells has the kind of cred that intelligent design proponents love to cite. But, as ID opponents enjoy pointing out, he's also a follower of Sun Myung Moon and once declared that Moon's prayers" onvinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism." Icons attempts to discredit commonly used examples of evolution, like Darwin's finches and peppered moths. Writing in Nature, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne called Icons stealth creationism that "strives to debunk Darwinism using the familiar rhetoric of biblical creationists, including scientific quotations out of context, incomplete summaries of research, and muddled arguments."

After months of uproar, the most obvious Icons-inspired lessons were removed. But scientists remain furious. "The ones they left in are still arguments for special creation - but you'd have to know the literature to understand what they are saying. They've used so much technical jargon that anybody who doesn't know a whole lot of evolutionary biology looks at it and says 'It sounds scientific to me, what's the matter with it?'" says Princehouse. "As a friend of mine said, it takes a half a second for a baby to throw up all over your sweater. It takes hours to get it clean."

As Ohio teachers prepare their lessons for the coming year, the question must be asked: Why the fuss over an optional lesson plan or two? After all, both sides agree that the new biology standards - in which 10 evolution lessons replace standards that failed to mention evolution at all - are a vast improvement. The answer: In an era when the government is pouring billions into biology, and when stem cells and genetically modified food are front-page news, spending even a small part of the curriculum on bogus criticisms of evolution is arguably more detrimental now than any time in history. Ironically, says Ohio State University biology professor Steve Rissing, the education debate coincides with Ohio's efforts to lure biotech companies. "How can we do that when our high school biology is failing us?" he says. "Our cornfields are gleaming with GMO corn. There's a fundamental disconnect there."

Intelligent design advocates say that teaching students to "critically analyze" evolution will help give them the skills to "see both sides" of all scientific issues. And if the Discovery Institute execs have their way, those skills will be used to reconsider the philosophy of modern science itself - which they blame for everything from divorce to abortion to the insanity defense. "Our culture has been deeply influenced by materialist thought," says Meyer. "We think it's deeply destructive, and we think it's false. And we mean to overturn it."

It's mid-July, and the Ohio school board is about to hold its final meeting before classes start this year. There's nothing about intelligent design on the agenda. The debate was settled months ago. And yet, Princehouse, Rissing, and two other scientists rise to speak during the "non-agenda" public testimony portion.

One by one, the scientists recite their litany of objections: The model lesson plan is still based on concepts from ID literature; the ACLU is considering to sue to stop it; the National Academy of Sciences opposes it as unscientific. "This is my last time," says Rissing, "as someone who has studied science and the process of evolution for 25 years, to say I perceive that my children and I are suffering injuries based on a flawed lesson plan that this board has passed."

During a heated question-and-answer session, one board member accuses the scientists of posturing for me, the only reporter in the audience. Michael Cochran challenges the scientists to cite any testimony that the board hadn't already heard "ad infinitum." Another board member, Deborah Owens-Fink, declares the issue already closed. "We've listened to experts on both sides of this for three years," she says. "Ultimately, the question of what students should learn "is decided in a democracy, not by any one group of experts."

The notion is noble enough: In a democracy, every idea gets heard. But in science, not all theories are equal. Those that survive decades - centuries - of scientific scrutiny end up in classrooms, and those that don't are discarded. The intelligent design movement is using scientific rhetoric to bypass scientific scrutiny. And when science education is decided by charm and stage presence, the Discovery Institute wins.


The technogeek guru of bandwidth utopia defends intelligent design and explains why he is a believer.

By George Gilder

Our high schools are among the worst performers per dollar in the world - especially in math and science. Our biology classes, in particular, espouse anti-industrial propaganda about global warming and the impact of DDT on the eggshells of eagles while telling just-so stories about the random progression from primordial soup to Britney Spears. In a self-refuting materialist superstition, teachers deny the role of ideas and purposes in evolution and hence implicitly in their own thought.

The Darwinist materialist paradigm, however, is about to face the same revolution that Newtonian physics faced 100 years ago. Just as physicists discovered that the atom was not a massy particle, as Newton believed, but a baffling quantum arena accessible only through mathematics, so too are biologists coming to understand that the cell is not a simple lump of protoplasm, as Charles Darwin believed. It's a complex information-processing machine comprising tens of thousands of proteins arranged in fabulously intricate algorithms of communication and synthesis. The human body contains some 60 trillion cells. Each one stores information in DNA codes, processes and replicates it in three forms of RNA and thousands of supporting enzymes, exquisitely supplies the system with energy, and seals it in semipermeable phospholipid membranes. It is a process subject to the mathematical theory of information, which shows that even mutations occurring in cells at the gigahertz pace of a Pentium 4 and selected at the rate of a Google search couldn't beget the intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being in such a short amount of time. Natural selection should be taught for its important role in the adaption of species, but Darwinian materialism is an embarrassing cartoon of modern science.

What is the alternative? Intelligent design at least asks the right questions. In a world of science that still falls short of a rigorous theory of human consciousness or of the big bang, intelligent design theory begins by recognizing that everywhere in nature, information is hierarchical and precedes its embodiment. The concept precedes the concrete. The contrary notion that the world of mind, including science itself, bubbled up randomly from a prebiotic brew has inspired all the reductionist futilities of the 20th century, from Marx's obtuse materialism to environmental weather panic to zero-sum Malthusian fears over population. In biology classes, our students are not learning the largely mathematical facts of 21st-century science; they're imbibing the consolations of a faith-driven 19th-century materialist myth.

George Gilder publishes the Gilder Technology Report and is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.

Contributing editor Evan Ratliff ( wrote about sugar substitutes in Wired 11.11. He is the coauthor of Safe, a book on the science and technology of antiterrorism, to be published next year.