Intelligent design, anti-evolution
One Nation, Under the Designer
By Mark Terry, Phi Delta Kappan - December 2004 - original - Mr. Terry alerts readers to a new, more insidious anti-evolutionist strategy. And the redefinition of science is only the first step.
IF YOU'RE not a high school biology teacher, you may be missing some of the current excitement in American education. There has been a sea change in the tactics of the anti-evolution forces, whose efforts have waxed and waned ever since the Scopes Trial. Before you dismiss this topic as of no interest to you as a history, English, or social studies teacher or as an administrator, watch out for the Wedge. For the Wedge is looking for you, too. Evolution is simply the initial target of opportunity, and there is a special emotional attachment to rooting it out. But make no mistake: if the first dangerous weed, modern science, can be removed from the garden, your area will be ripe for replanting as well.
Back to the Future
The sea change is taking us back to mid-19th-century Europe, a period whose intellectual history I love but never expected to relive. Pre-Darwin, or one might better say pre-Huxley, English secondary and university education, with all of its advancements, was still in the hands of clerics. The Church of England provided the lion's share of instructors and professors, and the colleges were built physically and philosophically around religious centers, a logical extension of the origin of the universities in the Middle Ages.
But a rigid scholasticism had also been retained, and this became particularly obvious in the sciences. Geology and, in its very infancy, biology were busy discovering phenomena and hazarding theories that seemed to have no relationship to scripture. Yet most of the early researchers and thinkers were religious and would often base part of their teaching on religious texts. Tensions grew. And it began to appear that, for science and other educational enterprises to progress, to admit to unknowns and to explore those unknowns, references to Christian scriptures would have to take a back seat. It was not a question of abandoning Christianity itself, but rather any limiting hold it had over the study of the natural world.1
Enter T. H. Huxley. A commoner, Huxley was practical and down-to-earth, but he nonetheless remained somewhat idealistic and saw one arena in which change was essential: science teaching. A wonderfully complex fellow, he saw that the teaching of science was lagging far behind developments in science itself and even farther behind the promise and potential of science. Science had to be done. This meant schools had to have labs where students could gain direct experience. From direct experience, real learning would come; from real learning would spring new questions and, ultimately, greater progress. Scriptural limitations on the understanding of the natural world must be left behind. And for all of this to happen, new instructors, themselves practically trained scientists, not clerics, needed to be placed in charge of those new science classrooms.
Huxley is known as Darwin's bulldog because he was such a great popularizer of the idea of evolution. But perhaps his most important and lasting legacy was a revolution in science education. After publication of On the Origin of Species, while Darwin was at Down House quietly pursuing further evolutionary questions, Huxley was politicking on the London School Board. Great institutions, and great expectations, were initiated throughout British education in the pursuit of free and open inquiry into the processes of science and the study of history. The hold of the Church of England was loosened. Science was to be pursued for science's sake and for the sake of improving the lot of humankind, without constant reference to a deity or to scripture. And the same was to hold true for education in general.2
In the century and a half since Huxley, we have assumed that both science and education should be pursued in this way. Of course, it's fine if members of a religiously committed group wish to pursue science and education within the confines of their beliefs, doctrines, or scriptures in their own institutions. That's what religious schools are for. But, given the separation of church and state that Huxley promoted and that the U.S. is founded upon, public education and public science must be free of religious orientation.
Back to the Present
I've been teaching biology for over 30 years, and I always used to enjoy the creationist/evolutionist tension. Each decade's version of the controversy allowed me to say to my biology students, "See, this topic is not buried on some 19th-century shelf. It's here, and it's vital to those folks in Arkansas or Louisiana." And each time, as the courts ruled against creationism -- then against creation science -- it all seemed instructive and worth discussing in the classroom. It was not in the least threatening.3 I used to think my colleagues who taught physics or chemistry must be jealous. What wouldn't they give for a headline-generating controversy to put an edge on, say, the periodic table or the wave-particle nature of light? But there are no religio-political factions -- at least none that I'm aware of -- willing to lobby state legislatures or to stack school boards with arguments either for or against the role of electrons or photons. Only in biology and earth science can we count on one of our core concepts being labeled controversial, even dangerous.
For most of my career I've been teaching about evolution in an integrated curriculum that joins biology and the humanities. It has been a delight to be able to place evolution in a historical and cultural context, while at the same time studying its scientific content and its current application. My colleagues and I have made sure that students see their humanities teachers grappling with the science and their biology teachers working to interpret the cultural scene. The history of the public's perception of evolution and the controversies that continue to swirl around it have themselves arrested our attention. Students and teachers of all sorts of religious or nonreligious persuasions have enjoyed and benefited from this study, which has never been aimed at challenging anyone's religious beliefs, though we have examined the fact that some people feel that their beliefs are challenged by the very idea of evolution itself.
These days, I teach in an independent school, where the freedom to develop and carry out such a curriculum is a tremendous asset. But I know of plenty of public school biology teachers who have also done excellent work over the years. Evolution became a strong component of a terrific group of high school textbooks in the 1960s, and there have been many fine additions to that list in the decades since.4
But a couple of years ago I began to sense something new in the air. The school where I work is just a couple of blocks up the hill from downtown Seattle, and, in one of the nearby high-rises, a great searchlight seemed to be scanning the country. If only it had been a light designed to illumine and promote great science teaching! But no. I began to see that the search was for efforts to revise statewide science standards, so that the forces of the Discovery Institute might weigh in on the side of weakening or eliminating evolution and substituting something called "Intelligent Design." This was not restricted to Arkansas or Louisiana; this was a national campaign, directed from the home of Starbucks, Microsoft, and a highly sophisticated biomedical research complex.
Creation science always sounded a little foolish, trying to establish the scientific basis for religious writings that are thousands of years old. Intelligent Design (ID), however, is not about Biblical literalism. In fact, in their public battles ID proponents try to shift the entire discussion away from religion. Their claim is that science has discovered evidence of the work of a "designer" and that they have mathematical formulae and scientific-sounding "concepts" to back this up.5
Not only is ID not about Biblical literalism, but almost all talk of God has been carefully removed from the discussion. In an apparent nod to the failure of "scientific creationism," ID makes no reference to scripture and proudly proclaims that some of its advocates are nonbelievers. No proof of God's existence is offered -- just that of an "Intelligent Designer." Students are not to be taught who this Designer is, just that the evidence shows that the Designer exists. Presumably, they can take it from there.
This gives the newspaper op-ed pieces and public forums a new twist. All the would-be reformers can now claim to be calling for nothing more than "better science teaching." Biology and earth science teachers are portrayed as just not knowing enough about what's going on in their own fields. If this is true, of course, then state standards must be redrafted to bring everybody up to speed with the latest "science," which is Intelligent Design.6
Of course, it's not true. There is no such scientific revolution under way.7 But if the public can be convinced that such a revolution exists, science teachers who object can be portrayed as the reactionary, closed-minded ones. It's as though they must answer the question, "Have you stopped teaching stale, incorrect science?" The ID proponents challenge with, "We only want you to teach more about evolution, including this ultra-modern idea that is sweeping biology." The public is left to wonder what all the fuss is about. Why shouldn't our science teachers get on with teaching all this cutting-edge stuff?
The fuss, of course, is that it isn't science. The supposed "scientific revolution" is a creation of public relations. A science teacher cannot go to any major science journal or scientific organization and find out about all this new research -- because there is none. In the fall of 2004 an ID article by a Discovery Institute Fellow appeared in the Proceedings of the Biological Association of Washington, a venerable but formerly obscure journal dealing with subtle taxonomic issues. The flurry of responses to the article gives a good picture of the current state of ID as science: the governing council of the journal almost immediately disavowed the article's publication. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and the Discovery Institute websites provide contrasting views of the publication and its retraction.8 Of course, there are several religious journals, such as the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, and journals created specifically to carry the work of the Intelligent Design movement's own authors. There is also a spate of books and articles outlining the philosophical positions that underlie Intelligent Design, and there are some buzz phrases that are meant to sound quantifiable and solidly scientific, such as "irreducible complexity."9 Finally, and undeniably, there is the Wedge Strategy.
Watch Out for the Wedge
The Wedge Strategy, which derives from the writings of Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, proposes nothing less than "the salvation of Western Civilization" by, among other things, the removal of evolution from science education and the institution of a Christian belief system throughout American society.10
In their more aggressive postures, the advocates of Intelligent Design have proposed a reestablishment of "proper science," science that will always take into account the work of a Supreme Being, an Intelligent Designer, or even, if you catch them in an unguarded moment, God.11 The restoration of the science that was being pursued in England prior to the Darwin/Huxley revolution -- all to the greater glory of God and mindful of His great works -- is central to the Wedge Strategy. And, of course, this very aim gives the lie to proclamations of a purely scientific revolution. Proponents need to have science itself redefined to include the supernatural if they are to conduct their revolution.
It's a strange scientific revolution that seeks to establish its position in secondary school curricula before the research itself has been accomplished. But this obvious impediment is removed if the revolution is based on a redefinition of science rather than on new research.
Additional evidence of the true purpose of this so-called scientific revolution may be found in the history of Seattle's Discovery Institute and the backgrounds of its major figures. The Discovery Institute used to feature the Wedge Strategy on its website, and Phillip Johnson was a founding advisor of its Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. This center, the anti-evolution arm of the Discovery lnstitute, originally had a very apt logo: Michelangelo's magnificent representation of God passing the spark of life to Adam. When the Wedge Strategy document was removed from the website, so too were the logo and name of the center. Now, it is simply the Center for Science and Culture, and the logo is a beautiful Hubble image that is also somewhat suggestive of an eye.12
The Fellows of the Center for Science and Culture have an impressive array of degrees, but you won't find a leading biologist among them. Many have degrees in philosophy, divinity, mathematics, or the law. Most have some active connection to evangelical Christian institutions. One who does have a Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of California, Berkeley, has proclaimed his intention to follow the commission he received from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon to root out the evil of evolution. In fact, that's why he worked to earn a Ph.D. in biology.13 But the publications and press releases of the Center for Science and Culture are "designed" to look as if they are reporting on nothing but a dispute among scientists that any up-to-date science teacher had better include in his or her teaching -- or a great scientific revolution will leave the poor students behind.
Hammering the Wedge
Though the Wedge Strategy is no longer posted on the website of the Discovery Institute, its recommendations are clearly being followed. For example, the strategy details a simultaneous assault on state boards of education and on the print and broadcast media, which the Discovery Institute is carrying out. In some state battles, these Intelligent Design folks have been found out, and their efforts have been temporarily thwarted. But their tactics are sophisticated, and they understand that all publicity is good and that no defeat is real. They are more than willing to back off -- even to cease advocating for the inclusion of ID -- and just make sure that all science teachers are required to portray evolution as a "theory in crisis." The strategy is to move, relentlessly, from standards battles, to curriculum writing, to textbook adoption, and back again -- doing whatever it takes to undermine the central position of evolution in biology.14
These people have money, political sophistication, experience, patience, and a wonderful user-friendly website.15 Their carefully orchestrated campaign is designed to leave the science establishment looking close-minded, as if it is attempting to hide some dirty linen. How likely is it, after all, that the public will consult the current scientific literature or contact major scientific organizations, which would inform them that evolution is alive and well -- indeed, central to virtually all biology and medicine -- and not in any crisis?
In 2002, during the flap that ID advocates created surrounding the revision of the Ohio state science standards, redefining science to include God was proposed to the Ohio legislature, so that the legislature would then be able to get behind a new set of standards that would, naturally, include Intelligent Design. Imagine a state legislature defining science! Imagine a state legislature mandating the inclusion of religious content in science classes!16 Behind the elaborate ID fašade, this effort was simply an attempt to bring a religious orientation into the public schools via, of all places, the science classroom. And that was just a step in the overall plan to put the U.S. on a course toward the theocracy envisioned in the Wedge Strategy.
Back to the Classroom
Intelligent Design was very much alive and well in Darwin's day, though it was then known as "natural theology." But science -- through Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and others -- discovered a naturalistic theory by which to work, evolution by natural selection (and other mechanisms discovered over time), and, ever since the Enlightenment, has pursued scientific research without reference to religion. Scientists, of course, may be religious people, but science itself is not a religious endeavor. Science says nothing against adopting the ID outlook as a personal philosophy, but that doesn't make ID science.17
Meanwhile, good science is hard to teach. A teacher needs a solid background in science, sufficient time, a measure of creativity, a supportive administration, decent equipment, and sound texts. Those were the very things that T. H. Huxley was arguing for in the late 19th century, as he tried to free British science education from control by the Church of England. And those are still the things that science teachers need to succeed in their work, not a stealth religious agenda resurrected from Huxley's time.
But the ID folks -- especially those from the Discovery Institute -- make headway almost everywhere they go, because not only students and parents but teachers themselves are so poorly educated about science in general and about religion, philosophy, the history of ideas, and evolution that they have no ready defenses against the attack. It sounds so good. The major proponents of ID have doctorates, possess great media savvy, and exhibit supreme confidence. What's an educator or concerned citizen to do? Here are a few possibilities.
1. As usual, there's no substitute for being informed. Regularly visit the Discovery Institute's website and follow the news updates posted on the website of the NCSE, an organization that has been dedicated for over 20 years to helping teachers, administrators, school districts, and communities deal intelligently, humanely, and effectively with assaults on the teaching of evolution.18 View the videos supported and inspired by the Discovery Institute, Icons of Evolution and Unlocking the Mystery of Life, preferably before they are shown in your area. Chances are that they are already in heavy demand at your local library, and several public broadcast stations have shown them around the country. They are excellent propaganda pieces, made up to look like NOVA-style science videos. Read the detailed critiques of these videos available through the NCSE journal and website.19 Read an account of the history of Intelligent Design and of the Discovery Institute. Barbara Forrest's summary article is the quickest way to learn important details, and if you want more background, you can find a gold mine in Creationism's Trojan Horse, which she co-authored with Paul Gross.20
2. Consider some ideas to improve the teaching of evolution in your school(s). Make no mistake about it, the ID movement and the Discovery Institute, in particular, will seize the initiative wherever possible. To prevent being always in a posture of reaction and defense, you'll need to do the best job possible of teaching real evolutionary science.21
3. Learn more about religions, history, and the humanities in general, and make use of that knowledge. One of the most significant opportunities to increase understanding of this issue is to be found in the humanities. Most students are woefully ignorant of the histories of the world's great religions, let alone the smaller ones. This makes meaningful discussions of the differences between scientific and religious thought next to impossible. Consider the example of the Scopes Trial. The fundamentalist movement is highly significant in American history and politics, and understanding its historical context helps to show how evolutionary biology, an activity of science, came to be such a target of fundamentalist ire. The "Trial of the Century" in little Dayton, Tennessee, makes all kinds of sense when the economics, politics, and Chamber of Commerce mentality of rural Tennessee are known. And William Jennings Bryan's role also makes sense in light of the struggles of the fundamentalist movement to gain the initiative in the pulpits of America. Public school science classrooms and evolution were seized upon as an attention-getting target for this denominational skirmish.22 The proper separation of church and state makes sense only if one is aware of the great variety of religions that exist today in our communities and have existed throughout the history of this country.
Oddly, if religion could be accorded a position of greater respect and importance in our humanities curricula, it could well be less threatening -- even to fundamentalists -- for students to learn in their science courses what scientists are up to. While scientists are undertaking all this evolution-based research, fundamentalists are clearly entitled to believe in a literal Biblical account. People should be strong in their faith. Meanwhile, they ought to learn what those modern biologists are doing, because it's exciting in its own right.
4. Examine the teaching of evolution at the introductory level in colleges, especially as manifested in teacher preparation programs. There needs to be better preparation at this level for all teachers, since this is likely to be the only background in the subject that they'll ever get. The genuine revolution in molecular biology that has taken place over the last four decades has squeezed aside such "whole organism" topics as evolution in many introductory college programs -- to the delight of the anti-evolutionists.
5. Check out the so-called Santorum Amendment. This is believed to be a very big gun in the ID movement's arsenal, and it is easily portrayed as a federal mandate to "teach the controversy" and include Intelligent Design as a legitimate scientific theory. In reality, the "Santorum Amendment" is only some language tucked away in an obscure text that was part of the discussions during debate on the No Child Left Behind Act. Besides being emphatically ambiguous, it never became law.23
6. Prepare to be challenged if any standards writing or statewide curriculum development is about to go on. The Discovery Institute is on the lookout for all such activity, and some of their "Fellows" are likely to show up. Consult the NCSE for local resources to help in the battle as soon as you know that any aspect of science teaching will be on the table.
An American Education
In the end, shouldn't it to be possible for fundamentalists, mainstream believers, agnostics, and atheists to have a rich understanding of, let us say, Islam, Buddhism, or any religion? It is possible to understand a great deal about these religions without adopting their belief systems. Likewise, both believers and nonbelievers could have a rich understanding of what evolutionary researchers are up to. They can understand the processes and findings of the sciences, and they need not abandon their religious or philosophical positions. They could learn that many religions promote the notion that God is an active Designer, but that many others don't. They could learn that science is silent on the subject of God.
Where I teach, the Intelligent Design movement, as a 21st-century echo of the natural theology of the mid-19th century, adds one more interesting facet to our discussions of the cultural context in which the science of evolution continues to develop.24 But across the country, in the battles on the revision of state standards, in curriculum writing, and in textbook adoptions, Intelligent Design, especially as promoted by the Discovery Institute of Seattle, is causing great confusion. Those who care must not stand idly by. It is time for science educators and their colleagues in the humanities and in religious education to join with administrators and get into the discussions and on the appropriate committees.
And if readers who do not teach biology have gotten this far, sit back and think about the implications if the Wedge Strategy should succeed. What if science is redefined to make consistent reference to the supernatural? What if the "Intelligent Designer" becomes central to the biology curriculum in the lab down the hall? If this Designer could fabricate the basal complex of a bacterial flagellum, one of the ID supporters' favorite images, it would seem a trivial exercise for the Designer to influence the outcome of a war or a political campaign. If we apply ID to human history, will we not find that some societies are obviously chosen by the Designer over others because of their "correct" beliefs? And to ensure continuing favor with the Designer, will we not have to institute public displays of understanding so that the Designer will know that we're ready to work with Him? Her? It? A morning rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance will seem quaint and trivial compared to the dedication of public schools to the work of following the Designer's design.
1. John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
2. Adrian Desmond, Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest (Reading, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1997); Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (New York: Norton, 1991); and William Irvine, Apes, Angels, and Victorians (New York: Time, Inc., 1963).
3. Edward J. Larson, Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Dorothy Nelkin, The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982).
4. BSCS Biology: A Molecular Approach, 8th ed. (Columbus, Ohio: Glencoe/McGrawHill, 2001); BSCS Biology: An Ecological Approach, 9th ed. (Dubuque, Ia.: Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, Kendall/Hunt, 2002); Ken Miller and Joe Levine, Biology (Old Tappan, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2004); and George B. Johnson, The Living World (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003).
5. Robert T. Pennock, ed., Intelligent Design: Creationism and Its Critics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001).
6. Icons of Evolution: Dismantling the Myths (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Focus on the Family Films, 2002).
7. Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (London: Oxford University Press, 2003).
8. Stephen C. Meyer, "The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, vol. 117, 2004, pp. 213-39. To read more about the controversy, visit NCSE's website, go to the News Room, and look for the ID articles under NCSE News for 2004. For the Discovery Institute's coverage, visit its website and look under News.
9. Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1996); William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); and John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, eds., Darwinism, Design, and Public Education (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003).
10. Barbara Forrest, "The Wedge at Work: How Intelligent Design Creationism Is Wedging Its Way into the Cultural and Academic Mainstream," in Pennock, pp. 5-53.
11. Phillip E. Johnson, The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
12. Glenn Branch, "Evolving Banners at the Discovery Institute," Reports of the National Center for Science Education, 12 September 2002; see www.discovery.org. Since this article was written, the layout and logo of the institute have changed again, and the Wedge Strategy is once more available on the website. The introductory article "The Wedge Document: So What?" asserts that the Wedge Strategy does not represent some behind-the-scenes conspiracy. But whether or not the effort is conspiratorial has little to do with whether Intelligent Design qualifies as science.
13. Jonathan Wells, "Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D.,"
14. Mark Terry and Scott Linneman, "Watching the Wedge: How the Discovery Institute Seeks to Change the Teaching of Science," Washington State Science Teachers' Journal, March 2003, pp. 12-15.
15. Discovery Institute.
16. Forrest and Gross, pp. 231-39.
17. Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1999); and Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).
19. Illustra Media, Unlocking the Mystery of Life: The Case for Intelligent Design (Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family Films, 2002); critiques and other resources are available at www.ncseweb.org/article.asp?category=19. See also Icons of Evolution; and Mark Terry, "Icons of Deception," Reports of the National Center for Science Education (in press, 2004).
20. Forrest, op. cit.; and Forrest and Gross, op. cit.
21. See, for example, Paul Farber, "Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science," American Biology Teacher, May 2003, pp. 347-54; Brian J. Alters and Sandra M. Alters, Defending Evolution in the Classroom (Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett, 2001); Mark Terry, "Art and Evolution," Science Teacher, 2005, in press; and visit http://evolution.berkeley.edu.
22. Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
23. Glenn Branch, "Farewell to the Santorum Amendment," Reports of the National Center for Science Education, vol. 22, nos. 1-2, 2002, pp. 12-14.
24. Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999); and Ruse, op. cit.
MARK TERRY, a teacher in public and independent schools for more than three decades, is chair of the Science Department at the Northwest School, Seattle, Wash.