Intelligent Design: An Ambiguous Assault on Evolution
Science can sometimes be a devil's bargain: a discovery is made, some new aspect of nature is revealed, but the knowledge gained can cause mental anguish if it contradicts a deeply cherished belief or value.
Copernicus' declaration in 1543 that the Sun and the heavens were not, in fact, revolving around the Earth and its human inhabitants was one such painful enlightenment. The publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's book, "The Origin of Species," set the stage for another.
Darwin's truth can be a hard one to accept. His theory of evolution tells us that humans evolved from non-human life as the result of a natural process, one that was both gradual, happening over billions of years, and random. It tells us that new life forms arise from the splitting of a single species into two or more species, and that all life on Earth can trace its origins back to a single common ancestor.
Perhaps most troubling of all, Darwin's theory of evolution tells us that life existed for billions of years before us, that humans are not the products of special creation and that life has no inherent meaning or purpose.
For Americans who view evolution as inconsistent with their intuitions or beliefs about life and how it began, Creationism has always been a seductive alternative.
Creationism's latest embodiment is intelligent design (ID), a conjecture that certain features of the natural world are so intricate and so perfectly tuned for life that they could only have been designed by a Supreme Being.
Real or apparent design?
"The question that we're facing in biology is that when we look at nature, we see design," said Scott Minnich, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho and an ID proponent. "But is it real design or apparent design? There are two answers to the question and both are profound in terms of their metaphysical implications."
In an August interview with National Public Radio, Republican Senator and ID supporter Rick Santorum stated exactly what he believed those implications were for evolution. Asked why he, a politician, felt compelled to weigh in on what was essentially a scientific debate, Santorum replied:
"It has huge consequences for society. It's where we come from. Does man have a purpose? Is there a purpose for our lives? Or are we just simply the result of chance? If we are the result of chance, if we're simply a mistake of nature, then that puts a different moral demand on us. In fact, it doesn't put a moral demand on us."
By adding morality to the equation, Santorum is giving the scientific theory of evolution a religious message, one that does not come on its own, said Kenneth Miller, a biologist at the University of Colorado.
Like Santorum, Miller is a devout Roman Catholic, but he believes evolution can only explain how life arose and how it diversified. Why there is life at all is another question entirely, one that Miller believes is outside the realm of science.
Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, expressed a similar sentiment. "The questions of purpose are not part of science," Krauss said. "How you interpret the results of science is up to you, and it's based on your theological and philosophical inclinations."
The ID nerve center
The ID movement is orchestrated by the Center for Science and Culture (CSC), a subdivision of the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank based in Seattle.
The CSC strategy for countering evolution is twofold: challenge its soundness as a scientific theory, then replace it with ID.
The CSC is using a campaign called "Teach the Controversy" to carry out the first part of the strategy. The campaign is aimed at public schools and teachers are urged to expose students to the "scientific arguments for and against Darwinian theory." It exploits disagreements among biologists, pointing out gaps in their understanding of evolution in order to portray evolution as a "theory in crisis."
Selling ID as a viable alternative to evolution, however, is proving more difficult. In modern science, a theory must first undergo the gauntlet of peer-review in a reputable scientific journal before it is widely accepted.
Measured by this standard, ID fails miserably. According to the National Center for Science Education, only one ID article by Stephen Meyers (Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 2004) has passed this test and even then, the journal that published the article promptly retracted it. The journal also put out a statement that said "there is no credible scientific evidence supporting ID as a testable hypothesis to explain the origin of organic diversity."
Straddling the fence
The ID movement's greatest strength lies in its ambiguity. It makes no claims about who the designer is or the steps taken to create life. ID does not say whether the designer intervened in the history of life only once or multiple times or even whether the designer is still actively guiding the destiny of life on Earth.
The ambiguity is intentional and part of what Phillip Johnson, a retired law professor from the University of California, Berkeley and one of the ID movement's lead strategists, calls his "big tent" strategy.
By paring the origins debate down to its most essential question—"Do you need a Creator to do the creating, or can nature do it on its own?"—Johnson has managed to create a tenuous alliance between various groups of skeptics and conservative Christians, including Young Earth Creationists—those who believe that the Earth is only a few thousand years old—and Old Earth Creationists.
In front of mainstream audiences, ID proponents refuse to speculate about the precise nature of the designer. Regarding this crucial point, ID proponents are agnostic. It could be God, they say, but it could also be a superior alien race.
Even if an ID version of science were to prevail, the designer's true identity may still never be revealed, Minnich said.
"I think it's outside of the realm of science," Minnich said in a telephone interview. "You can infer design but the science isn't going to tell you who the designer is. It has theistic implications, and then its up to the individual to pursue that out of interest if they want."
When speaking or writing for Christian audiences, however, ID proponents are more candid. Some have openly speculated about who they think the wizard behind the curtain really is.
"The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the nonexistence of God," Johnson wrote in a 1999 article for Church and State magazine. "From there, people are introduced to 'the truth' of the Bible and then 'the question of sin' and finally 'introduced to Jesus.'"
Also in 1999, a fund raising document used by the Discovery Institute to promote the CSC was leaked to the public. Informally known as the "Wedge Document," it stated that the center's long-term goals were nothing less than the "overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies," and the replacement of "materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."
The means for achieving these goals was explained using a simple metaphor: "If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a 'wedge' that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points."
In a 1999 interview with Insight Magazine, Johnson explained why he singled out evolution when his real target was all of modern science: "Evolution is a creation story and as a creation story, it's the main prop of the materialist explanation for our existence."
After watching and analyzing the CSC's strategy for years, Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University, was reminded of another metaphor, one she used for the title of her book, "Creationism's Trojan Horse."
Like the hollow wooden horse the Greeks used to enter the city of Troy, ID is being used as a vehicle to sneak Creationism into public schools.
"They know that if you can get [ID] into a school, you're going to have some teacher who's going to present it as religious creationism," Forrest told LiveScience. "They know that, but they can't admit that until they get their foot in the door of the classroom."
The writers of the Wedge Document laid out a comprehensive roadmap for the CSC that included 5- and 20-year goals and strategies to achieve them. To date, nearly all of those goals—including the publication of books, engaging evolutionary scientists in public debates and getting media coverage—have been achieved. All except for one.
"It was supposed to be their first goal and the foundation of the whole strategy and that's doing science," Forrest said. "They haven't done any because you can't do science in such a way as to test for the supernatural."
Although their arguments have been flatly rejected by the majority of mainstream scientists, ID proponents have managed to successfully pitch their idea to the public.
"They're really exploiting their own audience," Forrest said. "They're taking advantage of the fact that Americans like to be fair, but its really grossly unfair. They haven't done any science, and you don't have the right to argue that anything you've done should find its way into a classroom unless you've done the hard work that other scientists are required to do."
The Darwinist religion
While denying that ID is religiously motivated, ID proponents often portray evolution as its own kind of religion, one that is atheistic and materialistic, whose converts no longer cast their eyes towards heaven but who rather seek to build heaven here on Earth using their scientific knowledge.
The implication is that by destroying the idea that Man is the paragon of God's creation, evolution robs life of meaning and worth. And by limiting God's role in creation, evolution opens up the terrifying possibility for some that there is no God and no universal moral standard that humans must follow.
Forrest thinks this is just silly. "Where did immorality come from before Darwin figured out natural selection?" she asked.
Far from robbing life of meaning, Forrest believes that it is because of evolution that we are capable of living meaningful lives.
"It's evolution that gives us the advanced nervous system we have so that we can interact with our environments at a highly conscious level," Forrest said.
Miller thinks such claims are also self-fulfilling. "You have essentially told people that if that Darwin guy is right, there is no God, there is no morality, there is no law you are obliged to obey," Miller told LiveScience. "I don't know of any evolutionary biologists who would say that, but I do hear a lot of people on the other side saying it."
What's at stake
On its website, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) stated that allowing ID into public schools will "undermine scientific credibility and the ability of young people to distinguish science from non-science."
Miller thinks the stakes are much higher than that.
In addition to sowing confusion about what constitutes proper science, ID has the potential to drive people away from science. If classrooms are allowed to become theological battlegrounds, then schoolchildren will basically be told that science is hostile to new ideas and that scientists believe in a ludicrous theory that negates the very existence of God.
"Evolution is not opposed to religion unless people make it so," Miller said. "The message of evolution is that we are just as Genesis told us, we are made out of the dust of the Earth and that we are united in this web of life with every other living creature on the planet, and I think that's a fairly grand notion."
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