The evolution of creationism

After their notorious legal defeat, intelligent design proponents are resurfacing with insidious new assaults on science.

Published November 13, 2007 12:03PM (EST)

Two years ago, Pennsylvania federal Judge John Jones III handed down a stunning decision that many said would take down the intelligent design movement. But American creationism doesn't die. It just adapts.

Decades earlier, when the courts deemed creation science -- proto intelligent design -- a religious view and not constitutionally teachable as science in public schools, it adapted by cutting God off its letterhead and calling itself "intelligent design." The argument for I.D., and for "scientific creation theory" before it, is that evolution isn't up to the task of accounting for life. Given biology's complexity, and natural selection's inability to explain it, I.D. thinking goes, life must be designed by a, well, designer. I.D.ers skirted any mention of God, hoping to avoid getting snagged on the First Amendment's prohibition against promoting religion by arguing that I.D. was just a young and outlying science.

In the Pennsylvania case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, Judge Jones ruled that if you want to teach intelligent design in science class, first you have to show that it is a distinct species from its earlier, creationist form, not just a modified type. You've got to show us the science part, he said. Besides, Jones declared, your intelligent designer is obviously God.

The six-week trial -- the focus of a Nova documentary, "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," airing Nov. 13 -- addressed a host of heady questions. What is science and how does it work? Can evolution account for the diversity of life we see on earth? What is religion? Can science say anything about the existence of a creator and still be science? It also examined the motivations of a local school board that tried to smuggle creationism into its high school biology curriculum. The judge's decision -- that I.D. was not science and that the school board was trying to promote its members' own religious views -- was followed by a short period of shock from the I.D. community.

But like bacteria adapting to antibiotics, creationism has slimmed down once again, this time shedding even a mention of an intelligent designer. A new textbook put out by the Discovery Institute, the Seattle think tank that promotes I.D., doesn't even have the words "intelligent design" in its index. Instead of pushing I.D. explicitly, "Explore Evolution: The Arguments for and Against Darwinism," promoted as a high school- or college-level biology text, "teaches the controversy." Teach the controversy is the new mantra of the I.D. movement.

"We want to teach more about evolution," says Discovery Institute's Casey Luskin, "not less." The "more" they want to teach, of course, is what they see as evolution's shortcomings, leaving an ecological niche that will then be filled by intelligent design.

But not all creationists have embraced the strategy. Many responded to the Dover trial by coming out of I.D.'s big tent, which once gave shelter to young earth creationists, old earthers, academics interested in I.D.'s hypotheses, and anyone who wanted to promote a Christian-compatible view of science. Judge Jones' decision was like a lightning strike on the big top, sending many of the constituents running home through the rain. Creationist groups like Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, and Reasons to Believe are now attacking I.D. for not having the guts to call its designer God or to be explicit about such key questions as the age of the world. (Answers in Genesis' answer: about 6,000 years.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the I.D.ers have adopted a persecution complex. "After Dover," Luskin says, "there's been an increase in the boldness of Darwinists who persecute I.D. proponents: researchers, teachers and students. The debate in the academy has intensified radically," he says. "It's just a lot more political." He points to Guillermo Gonzalez, a physicist at Iowa State who failed to get tenure, allegedly because he is an advocate of I.D., and Richard Sternberg, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health who was "attacked" for publishing an article by Stephen Meyer, a proponent of intelligent design, in a peer-review journal Sternberg edited.

Evolutionary biologists respond that hiring a biologist who doesn't accept evolution is like hiring a mathematician who doesn't accept multiplication. That oversimplifies, but for better or worse, the battle has intensified and come out more into the open.

Recently, long retired chemist Homer Jacobson retracted a paper titled "Information, Reproduction and the Origin of Life," which he'd published in the journal American Scientist 52 years ago. Upon Googling himself, the 84-year-old Jacobson found that his old paper was often cited by creationists as evidence of the implausibility of life emerging from the prebiotic soup found on early Earth. Jacobson noticed some errors in his paper (it was a half-century old!) and, in order to keep neo-creationists from engaging in "malignant denunciations of Darwin," he wrote a letter of retraction to the journal. Retraction of a scientific paper is rare, and doing it for political reasons is rarer still. The act provoked accusations of "historical revisionism" from Discovery Institute senior fellow William Dembski.

Following the Dover decision, some I.D.ers became more timid, or at least more evasive. John Angus Campbell, a Discovery Institute fellow and coauthor of a book about teaching I.D. in the schools, ran for a school board seat in Mason County, Wash., last week. During his campaign, he intentionally left his middle name out of his election materials and failed to mention his affiliation with the Discovery Institute. The camouflage strategy worked and he was elected.

I.D. will also be striking back in "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," a pro-I.D. documentary, to be released in February. Featuring conservative writer and political commentator Ben Stein, it portrays I.D. proponents as a group of iconoclastic firebrand scientists with the guts to go after the dogmatic Darwinists who have, the I.D.ers say, grown lazy and corrupt sitting atop a monopolistic theory with zero tolerance for dissent, within or outside of their ranks.

Stein told the New York Times that Darwin may well have been onto something with his theory of evolution, but that it is isn't up to explaining the origins and diversity of life on its own. Plus, he thinks Darwinism leads to racism and genocide. If Stein had his way, he said, the documentary would have been called "From Darwin to Hitler."

No, the battle between creationism and evolution is hardly over. The true believers in intelligent design and other forms of creationism aren't about to lay down their worldview for a federal judge or anyone else. And polls show that about half of America is on their side. "Evolution remains under attack," says Eugenie Scott, an anthropologist and a director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching evolution in public schools. "If creationists have their way, teachers will eventually just stop teaching evolution. It'll just be too much trouble. And generations of students will continue to grow up ignorant of basic scientific realities."

By Gordy Slack

Gordy Slack is the author of "The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA." He is currently writing a book about epilepsy.

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