[Paleopsych] Wired 12.10: The Crusade Against Evolution
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Wed Oct 6 14:35:01 UTC 2004
The Crusade Against Evolution
[The Discovery Institute is where Phil Gold works or used to work. There's
a reply by George Gilder, another Conservative, at the end.]
In the beginning there was Darwin. And then there was intelligent
design. How the next generation of "creation science" is invading
By Evan Ratliff
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,
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," facing page). 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
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
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 "convinced 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
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
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
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
George Gilder publishes the Gilder Technology Report and is a senior
fellow at the Discovery Institute.
Contributing editor Evan Ratliff (eratliff at atavistic.org) 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
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