Survival of the Slickest
Survival of the Slickest
How anti-evolutionists are mutating their message
By Chris Mooney - The American Prospect, Volume 13, Issue 22. December 16, 2002.
It must take guts to be a "young-Earth" creationist. After all, imagine rejecting virtually all of modern science based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Imagine opening yourself up to ridicule by insisting that Adam and Eve lived alongside the dinosaurs, Dinotopia-style, and that Noah crammed brontosauruses onto the Ark -- necessary inferences if you think the Bible is true and that God created the earth less than 10,000 years ago. Sure, these views are way outside the scientific mainstream (though polls suggest nearly half of Americans may hold them). But young-Earth creationism is so rigid in its adherence to religious doctrine that there's almost a kind of perverse integrity to it.

Unfortunately, it's hard to say the same for the much more polished -- and less openly religious -- group of anti- evolutionists who have recently upstaged young-Earthers in the public eye. These "Intelligent Design" (ID) theorists, as they call themselves, are epitomized by Stephen C. Meyer, an anti-Darwinian philosopher who made the following appeal to The American Prospect: "People with liberal credentials ought to understand what we're up against. This is an entrenched establishment."

ID theorists posit that living things, due to their organizational complexity and magnificent design, simply must be the creations of some form of intelligence. Where evolutionary biologists see species evolving through a blind process of natural selection acting over millions of years, ID theorists assert that life as we know it simply could not have arisen in such a manner. Furthermore, they claim that this is a scientific observation. ID advocates don't always articulate precisely what sort of intelligence they think should stand in lieu of evolution on textbook pages, but God -- defined in a very nebulous way -- generally outpolls extraterrestrials as the leading candidate.

ID's home base is the Center for Science and Culture at Seattle's conservative Discovery Institute. Meyer directs the center; former Reagan adviser Bruce Chapman heads the larger institute, with input from the Christian supply-sider and former American Spectator owner George Gilder (also a Discovery senior fellow). From this perch, the ID crowd has pushed a "teach the controversy" approach to evolution that closely influenced the Ohio State Board of Education's recently proposed science standards, which would require students to learn how scientists "continue to investigate and critically analyze" aspects of Darwin's theory.

This language may seem innocuous enough, but it clearly allows teachers room to bring up ID if they choose. Moreover, the proposal is insidious because the standards don't ask for the critical analysis of any other bedrock scientific theories, such as plate tectonics or quantum mechanics. Unless there's a shift in the political winds, however, Ohio will finalize the troubling new standards in December.

If that happens, it won't be a surprise to Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, a leading Darwin defender. The Discovery Institute, Miller says, has been "the most effective group in the last five years in advancing the anti-evolution agenda." It awards fellowships, publishes books, holds conferences and gets into specific local school-board fights, as in Ohio. Yet, to borrow language from the Book of Proverbs (via Inherit the Wind), the Center for Science and Culture may be troubling its own house. By rejecting a crucial tenet of modern science, ID would seem inimical to other Discovery Institute initiatives with a large scientific and technological component, such as a regional transportation project for the Pacific Northwest called "Cascadia."

"Gilder and the Discovery Institute more generally embody the intellectual crisis of a certain strain of contemporary conservatism," explains Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of the libertarian magazine Reason. Though they have "one foot in the Enlightenment," Gillespie says, they're unwilling to cop to the conclusion that "God is dead, or, same thing, no longer the center of the universe."

Granted, Meyer would say that it's unfair to discredit ID theorists by citing their religious motives rather than by refuting their arguments. "Darwinian theory has grave evidential problems, and in response to that we're getting a lot of this line of questioning," he complains. But the motives of one of Discovery's other key fellows -- Jonathan Wells, a Unification Church member who says that he decided to "devote my life to destroying Darwinism" at the behest of the Rev. Sun-Myung Moon -- suggest a clear link between at least one religious sect and ID.

The history of ID at the Discovery Institute also shows the strong influence of some more mainstream religions. Darwin on Trial author Philip Johnson, a retired University of California, Berkeley law professor and born-again Christian, helped prompt the founding of the Center for Science and Culture with a 1995 conference titled "The Death of Materialism and the Renewal of Culture." Until this August, the center was called the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, with obvious culture-war connotations. The bulk of its roughly $1-million-a-year funding comes from evangelical Christian foundations including Fieldstead & Co., whose owner, Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., has long-standing ties to the theocratic Christian Reconstructionist movement.

The starkest evidence yet of the center's religious bent, however, is its audience. Consider Johnson's speaking schedule for the fall of 2002: Every event was set to take place at a church or was otherwise religiously related. Even an apparent exception -- Johnson's appearance at Texas' Foundation for Thought and Ethics in late November -- proves the rule. The foundation produces pro-ID school textbooks such as Of Pandas and People. Its academic editor is William Dembski, a Discovery fellow and author of The Design Inference, who has written, "Christ transforms the world and pervades the scientist's domain of inquiry."

In fact, the textbook project, like Ohio, represents a turnaround for Discovery. In the early- and mid-1990s, Dembski and Johnson disdained the creationist strategy of trying to slip their ideas into the public schools. As Dembski wrote in 1996, intelligent-design theorists should "aim to convince the intellectual elite and let the school curricula take care of themselves." But now that Discovery has gone after young minds, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has fought back with a resolution stating, "The ID movement has failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their claim that ID undermines the currently scientifically accepted theory of evolution."

Indeed, according to Lawrence Krauss, a Case Western Reserve University physicist who has contested Meyer and others during the Ohio debates, a recent survey of more than 10 million science articles published in the past 12 years shows just 88 references to "intelligent design," the vast bulk of which appear in engineering journals. None reported favorably on ID theory, according to Krauss.

Meyer's response to this is predictable: crying persecution. "We are producing scientific articles. The question is whether or not peer-reviewed journals that are Darwinian in perspective would accept them under any circumstances," he says, adding that Discovery will soon start publishing its own journals.

This wasn't how the institute originally planned to work, notes Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University who has co-authored a forthcoming book on the ID movement. Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, to be published next year, cites a widely circulated 1998 internal memo laying out Discovery's ambitious plan to "drive a wedge" into the heart of "scientific materialism," thereby divorcing science from its purely observational and naturalistic methodology and reversing the deleterious effects of evolution on Western culture. (Meyer complains that the document "was stolen from our offices and placed on the Web without permission.") Forrest notes that a central item on this agenda -- proving intelligent design by conducting actual scientific research -- has clearly not been achieved.

If ID theorists are now behaving more like old-school creationists -- giving up on the mainstream, targeting schools and students -- creationists may benefit by the comparison. After all, if you gave young-Earthers a classroom, they would teach something: dinosaurs on the Ark, how the biblical flood laid down the entire fossil record and so on. ID theorists, on the other hand, critique evolution but have few ideas with which to replace it. They have no official stance on the age of the earth, much less on whom the "designer" is. "A historical narrative will start to flow out of this as we start to apply design detection to the history of life," asserts Meyer. No doubt studious Ohio high schoolers will help speed the process along.