Creationism Evolves: The Advent of the ID-zoic Era
By Lawrence S. Lerner
(This article is a slightly modified version of a talk given to Americans United of Silicon Valley in Campbell, California on October 1, 2005.)
Almost a century and a half after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, a substantial part of the American populace – perhaps a majority – remains doubtful. In particular, many Americans would like to see some form of divine creation taught in public-school science classes, either together with or in place of the evolutionary view. This in spite of the fact that evolution is accepted by all working scientists, is taught in all universities, and furnishes the basis for all progress in the life sciences.
How has this situation, unique to the United States, come to pass? How have the creationists attained such visibility?
The validity of evolution was a settled matter in the scientific community well before 1900. There had been a few distinguished holdouts, including the noted naturalist Louis Agassiz, but as has happened more than once in science, they died and left no followers. Scientists were convinced by the unique power of evolutionary theory to systematize and explain a vast range of observations and to make verifiable predictions. They found it to be an indispensable tool for further investigation.
High schools quickly followed suit. By 1900, a student who took high-school biology received a thorough grounding in the evolutionary knowledge of the time. Indeed, most high-school texts were essentially abridged and simplified versions of college texts. But what was taught in high school in 1900 was of little interest to most Americans for the simple reason that most of their children didn’t go past eighth grade.
Things changed after the First World War. For a variety of reasons, high-school enrollment exploded. By the mid-1920s most young Americans attended high school for at least two years. It was at this point that many parents – especially in the Bible Belt – were shocked at what their children were learning.
By 1925, a number of states had passed laws forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools – specifically, the teaching “that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.” The movement reached a climax in the notorious Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee in 1925.
The effect of these anti-evolution laws extended far beyond the states in which they were in force. Textbook publishers, never a group noted for either courage or integrity, deemed it best simply to eliminate all discussion of evolution from their books. Prior to 1925, Moon’s Biology, a leading text, not only treated evolution well but had a portrait of Charles Darwin for a frontispiece. In the 1927 edition, evolution was gone and Darwin was replaced by a diagram of the human gut.
The Monkey Trial may have exposed the rural South to world-wide ridicule. But the fact was that the laws remained in force until 1968, when Epperson v Arkansas came before the Supreme Court. The Court found, not surprisingly, that the laws had an essentially religious purpose: namely, to maintain the literal truth of the Genesis account of the creation of the world. This religious purpose was made even clearer by the legislative history of the laws. They thus conflicted with the separation clause of the First Amendment, and were struck down.
The creationists of the day saw Epperson v Arkansas as a defeat. But a train of events triggered by the successful orbiting of Sputnik by the USSR in 1957 made matters still worse for them. Suddenly aware of the apparent scientific superiority of the Russians, Americans turned attention to science education with unprecedented intensity. They insisted on reform in teaching all the sciences. Out of that movement came, among other things, the series of excellent biology texts written by experts under the aegis of the government-funded Biological Science Curriculum Study, or BSCS.
BSCS consisted of people who knew what they were writing about. Hence, these widely adopted and widely imitated texts organized the field of biology around its central principle, evolution. Again, lots of kids were exposed to evolution.
The creationists responded to this changed environment by evolving. The courts would not let them forbid the teaching of evolution. They could not even mandate the teaching of Genesis in public school classes. Instead, they became “creation scientists” or “scientific creationists.” They admitted to being biblical creationists – persons who accepted the Genesis account literally. But they claimed that one could also argue for creation on purely scientific grounds, independent of any reference to the Bible though in ultimate agreement with the Genesis account.
The most prominent member of this new creationist species, Henry Morris, held a genuine doctorate and had had a distinguished career, though it was in hydraulic engineering and not the life sciences. With a theologian associate, John Whitcomb, he published The Genesis Flood in 1961. Expounding what had been a minority view almost entirely confined to Seventh Day Adventists, the authors set forth the view that the universe is less than 10,000 years old. They asserted that almost all of the geological and paleontological features generally attributed to millions of years of geological and biological evolution were instead the product of Noah’s Flood, and had formed in about one year. This view is called young-earth creationism, and its devotees are usually called young-earthers.
It did not take long for the scientific community to demolish this assertion. Creation science, it turned out, required doing extensive violence to vast ranges of established physics, including the stability of radioactive decay rates and the speed of light, as well as equally grotesque distortions of geological and biological interpretation. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic believers drafted model legislation under the generic title “Balanced Treatment.” Oblivious to the internal contradictions and plain bad science, they argued that “creation science” was just as valid as “evolution science.” It was only fair, then, to give it equal treatment in public-school science curricula.
Legislation requiring “balanced treatment” was widely introduced and it actually passed in two states, Arkansas and Louisiana. Legal proceedings followed inevitably and immediately. They culminated in the 1987 Supreme Court decision, Edwards v Aguillard. The Court had little difficulty in penetrating the thin mask of science – or rather, pseudoscience – and discerning the essentially religious nature of the laws.
Evolutionary pressures again operated on the creationist world. In due time there emerged a new species, the intelligent-design creationists, or IDCs for short. The IDCs reached back in time for their central idea, which has its roots in antiquity. Its immediate source, however, is the 1802 book by the English divine William Paley, entitled Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. This book, which Darwin admired greatly in his youth, sets forth a simple and appealing idea. Suppose that, while walking on the heath, you find a stone. Clearly its shape, though unique, is contingent on the natural actions of water and wind. But if you look down and find a watch, you immediately recognize that it could not have been formed by the unpredictable actions of such natural forces. It had to be crafted by a skilled designer.
Paley then pointed to the human eye as a parallel. With its exquisitely formed and matched parts, it performs a task for which it could not have come into being by random steps.
Darwin’s contribution was to recognize that evolution is not a random process but a combination of chance and necessity. Myriad variations that do emerge at random are rigorously culled by the environment. This is the process we call natural selection. Only the variations that improve the likelihood of survival and reproduction survive in the long run. Over vast time spans, such improvements build, and lead to the vast complexity and diversity in the living world.
What bothers the IDCs most in this insight is that it does not require repeated, direct divine intervention. This raises no problem for the many religious persons who believe that evolution is God’s dynamic mechanism for participating continually, though at some remove, from his living world. But that view is not congenial to the religiously conservative mind, which requires that God act with a constant, personal, and anthropomorphic hand. People who, for instance, talk to Jesus every day (and perhaps claim to hear his detailed responses as well) cannot be satisfied with a God who intervenes in the natural world in a less paterfamilial manner.
Knowing that explicitly religious views would not pass judicial muster, the IDCs opted to stress the idea of intelligent design while soft-pedaling the nature of the designer. The living world, they asserted, is far too complex to be accounted for by evolutionary processes – at least unaided evolutionary processes. It requires the intervention from time to time of a designer who, though he operates very much like a design engineer, has intelligence and technical skills surpassing those of us humans. As the comedian Jon Stewart put it, he has the skills set required to create a universe. That designer, they argued, might perhaps be a supernatural God, but could possibly be a material space alien – a little green man from Antares. In talking to sympathetic groups, IDCs will generally admit that they think the designer is the Christian God. Indeed, they insist, in contradiction to their assumed ignorance as to whether the designer is material or supernatural, that supernatural intervention is a necessary and observable part of the real world.
In centering on this argument, the IDCs carefully avoid any discussion of the age of the earth and the universe as a whole. Some IDCs are young-earthers and some are not, but as a group they prefer not to talk about the subject. This is a source of friction between them and the young-earthers. But both sides seem to have agreed to skirt the issue, in favor of presenting a united front to the common enemy, the scientific community they see as godless Darwinists.
The first comprehensive airing of IDC was the work not of a person with scientific credentials but a law professor, Philip Johnson. His 1991 book, Darwin On Trial, presented in great detail the argument I have just sketched. But Johnson also made much of the social evils that IDCs and other creationists believe stem from adherence to evolution – or as they call it, Darwinism.  If, creationists argue, humans are “only animals,” they will “act like animals” (whatever that means.)  Teaching evolution thus leads to such broadly diverse social phenomena as atheism, communism, socialism, naziism, inflation, homosexuality, women’s liberation, sex education, teenage sex, abortion, pornography, family breakdown, school shootings, crime, alcoholism, and drug addiction, to name but a few.  (Figure 1.)
Figure 1. One of several versions of "The Evil Tree of Evolution" which can be found in the creationist literature.
With the aim of combating this complex of trends, Johnson and his allies introduced what they called the Wedge Strategy about 1998.  It was supposed to be confidential, but soon leaked and is widely available on the Internet. The aim of the Wedge is nothing less than to revolutionize all of the sciences by introducing the supernatural – the directly acting, directly observable hand of God – as a legitimate and frequently encountered component of scientific discovery. But this is not the end of their ambitions, as you will see.
What is the Wedge? Phase I is “Research, Writing, and Publication. … Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade.”
Reasonable enough. However, the voluminous output of the ID creationists contains not a single contribution to science. That has not dissuaded them from extensive “attempts to indoctrinate instead of persuade” in Phases II and III:
Phase II: Publicity and opinion-making. … The primary purpose of Phase II is to prepare the popular reception of our ideas. For this reason we seek to cultivate and convince influential individuals in print and broadcast media, as well as think-tank leaders, scientists and academics, congressional staff, talk show hosts, college and seminary presidents and faculty and potential academic allies. … We also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians. 
"Phase III: …We will move toward direct confrontation with the advocates of materialist science through challenge conferences in significant academic settings. We will also pursue possible legal assistance in response to resistance to the integration of design theory into public school science curricula. … With an added emphasis to the social sciences and humanities, we will begin to address the specific social consequences of materialism and the Darwinist theory that supports it in the sciences."
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Wedge strategy set three broad goals they hoped to achieve in twenty years:
- to see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science;
- to see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology within the natural sciences, and also in psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities;
- and to see its influence in the fine arts; and to see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.
To these ends, the IDC movement has set up a cluster of organizations, the chief of which is the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, and specifically its subsidiary the Center for Science and Culture (CSC). Funding currently totals between $1 million and $2 million a year. It is provided largely by organizations with strong ties to the Religious Right and particularly to the Christian Reconstruction movement, whose ultimate purpose is to supplant the U.S. Constitution with the legal code of the Old Testament. 
Aside from Philip Johnson, the most prominent intelligent-design creationists are Michael Behe and William Dembski. Both claim to be research scientists but neither has ever published an IDC-based paper in a standard peer-reviewed scientific journal. Both in fact spend most of their time in polemic.
Behe has genuine scientific credentials. With a doctorate in biochemistry and a tenured position at Lehigh University , he has published some workmanlike research in the area, mostly quite a while ago and all on subjects having nothing to do with IDC. But his public prominence depends mainly on his 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box.  In it, he essentially dolls up William Paley’s 1802 arguments in modern dress. Because the evolution of the eye is now quite thoroughly understood it no longer makes a good example of something that is too complex to have evolved. Behe acknowledges that evolution probably accounts for the macroscopic structures of living things. Rather, he looks for supernatural intervention in microscopic structures and systems, to some of which he attributes what he calls irreducible complexity. His two favorites are the mammalian blood-clotting mechanism and the tiny motor that drives bacterial flagella. Both are indeed complex, but the details of the evolutionary pathways to both are coming rapidly into view under the scrutiny of modern biological techniques – a scrutiny in which Behe has taken no part.
Behe’s position not only flies in the face of good scientific practice; it is bad theology as well. A scientist who declares that a system is irreducibly complex has said “God did it,” a statement that closes all further inquiry. The problem is that scientists continually come to understand things that no one understood before. This denigrates God, making him the God of the Gaps – the custodian of all we do not understand and thus a God whose domain continually shrinks. Not a very respectful way to treat God!
Dembski, too, holds respectable credentials. He has a doctorate in mathematics and another doctorate in the philosophy of science to boot. To fill out his résumé, he also has a master’s degree in theology. Dembski’s argument is more esoteric than Behe’s. He claims to have developed a mathematical algorithm, based on information theory, which he calls the Explanatory Filter. With this filter, he claims to be able to distinguish between complexity arising from a series of random events and complexity that can only be the result of intelligent design. And of course he claims that his filter singles out living beings as the latter.
But saturated with complicated mathematical notation as it may be, his argument fails on several grounds. Most seriously, the random process he envisions has nothing to do with evolution. As I noted earlier, evolution is based on a combination of random processes and a very nonrandom selection mechanism. Moreover, it has been pointed out that Dembski’s position and Behe’s are mutually contradictory. Specifically, Behe grants that once an irreducibly complex microscopic system – say a cell – has been created, evolutionary processes can account for most everything else. Dembski, on the other hand, claims to have proven mathematically that evolutionary processes cannot lead to anything interesting at all.
As is true of all creationist efforts, a great deal of IDC effort goes into attempts to trash bits and pieces of evolution. The most notable IDC mudslinger is Jonathan Wells, who admits that he got his PhD in biology at the behest of Sun Myung Moon, just so that he could destroy Darwinism. His best-known book, Icons of Evolution, has been discredited at length and it is too dishonest to warrant further attention.
What are the practical consequences of all this nonsense? On the scientific front, nothing much. Two efforts to insinuate IDC into the sphere of the Smithsonian Institution have ended in farce.  Dembski’s efforts to achieve a faculty position at a respectable university crashed after an embarrassing war between the then-president and the faculty of Baylor University.  He consoles himself with a professorship at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, where he is the only faculty member with any scientific or mathematical background at all. Altogether, it’s fair to say that Phase I of the Wedge Strategy has been a complete bust.
Although Phases II and III were supposed to depend upon the scientific results of Phase I, and follow it, they have in fact been the forefront of the IDC movement. The National Center for Science Education reports that the number of attempts to insinuate creationism into public-school science curricula has doubled over the last year. We have seen the support of such notables as Senator Santorum of Pennsylvania, Senator Brownback of Kansas, President Bush, and Senator Frist of Tennessee. Of these four dignitaries, we can perhaps forgive the gross ignorance of the first three. But it’s a fair guess that Senator Frist, with his medical degree from Harvard, knows better.  Of course, his integrity has now been called into question on matters entirely unconnected with science.
Creationists have been active in at least fifteen states of late. The most visible creationist drives just now are those in Kansas, where the Board of Education has adopted science standards friendly to IDC, and in the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania. In Dover, the creationist-majority school board was the losing defendant in a lawsuit in the Federal Court in Harrisburg. The judge, conservative Republican and Bush appointee John Jones III, issued a long, scathing opinion that highlighted not only the religious motives of the board majority but the dishonesty of two of them who disclaimed such motivation. More important, the intelligently designed opinion clearly set forth the indissoluble links between IDC and the more explicit creationism that the Supreme Court had identified as sectarian religion, disguised as pseudoscience, in Edwards v Aguillard. 
And, to everyone’s surprise, all eight creationist board members who were up for reelection lost to a slate of candidates pledged to the teaching of real science, resulting in an 8-1 majority for the latter.
The Dover case actually turned into something of an embarrassment for the Discovery Institute. The IDC leaders realized even before the trial had begun that their original tack, involving direct insinuation of the supernatural into science curricula, was too transparently religious to pass muster in the courts. Consequently, they have softened their demands in the near term. Instead of pressing for the inclusion of IDC in school curricula right away, they press for “teaching the controversy” and expounding on the “evidence against evolution,” both of which sound quite secular and fair-minded, though they are little more than code words for teaching creationism. This will likely be the tack pursued in Kansas.
The controversy, of course, is political and religious, and not at all scientific. As for evidence against evolution, there isn’t any, other than the fraudulent stuff that Wells and others have fabricated. But like all creationists, the Discovery Institute hopes that by instilling doubts in the minds of K-12 students, they can get them to accept creationism and its religious accouterments as a unique alternative.
Unfortunately for their cause, the Dover school district is typical of many others in that the history of the creationist effort is full of clearly religious intent. But with the full-court press on the national level, it is hard to say what will happen.
On a broader front, biology teachers find evolution a hot issue in many communities. They are under pressure not to teach it at all. And, sad to say, about 30% of biology teachers have some level of belief in creationism. In addition, many of the fifty state science standards – the documents on which statewide achievement tests and textbooks are based – are often very skimpy on evolution, not by accident. But that is a subject for another article.
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE): PO Box 9477, Berkeley, CA 94709-0477 http://www.natcenscied.org. Among other things, NCSE serves as a clearinghouse for information on attempts to insinuate creationism into public-school science curricula.
Reports on state science standards:
- Finn, Chester E. & Michael J. Petrilli, eds., The State of State Standards 2000, The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Washington, D.C., and available on the net at http://www.edexcellence.net; free hard copies at 888-823-7474
- Lerner, Lawrence S., Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution In the States, ibid.
- Gross, Paul R., Ursula Goodenough, Susan Haack, Lawrence S. Lerner, Martha Schwartz, and Richard Schwartz, The State of State Standards 2005, ibid.
- Lerner, Lawrence S., Good and bad science in US schools, Nature 407, 287 (2000)
General introduction to creationism:
Scott, Eugenie C., Evolution vs. Creationism, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT & London, 2004
Thorough history of creationism:
Numbers, Ronald L., The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1992
Detailed analysis of various types of creationism by a distinguished biologist:
Miller, Kenneth, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, Cliff Street Books, New York, 1999.
Detailed analysis of intelligent design creationism:
Pennock, Robert T., Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999.
Analysis of the history and aims of the intelligent design creationism movement:
Forrest, Barbara and Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse, Oxford U. Press, Oxford & New York, 2004
Brief treatments of creationism vis-à-vis science by the National Academy of Sciences:
General: Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1999
For teachers: Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, ibid., 1998
1) The use of the term “Darwinism” is a propaganda ploy. Firstly, it implies that modern evolutionary theory consists of nothing beyond the pioneering work of Darwin; it is as though someone dissatisfied with present-day physics dubbed it “Newtonism.” Secondly, it implies a demotion of evolution from its position as the unique central organizing principle of the life sciences to the status of one of a number of conflicting social theories such as Marxism, Maoism, or Objectivism.
2) Curiously, most holders of this interpretation are also strongly committed to the doctrine of original sin, according to which humans have a propensity for evil-doing that is unique in the animal kingdom, and believe that the ills that beset all living things – including death itself – are a direct consequence of that human transgression.
3) See, for instance, Johnson, Philip, Reason In the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law, and Education, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1995, passim. Referenced in Pennock, Robert T., Tower of Babel, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999, p. 315, where Johnson is cited as associating evolution with abortion, homosexuality, pornography, divorce, genocide, and bestiality.
4)See, e.g., http://www.public.asu.edu/~jmlynch/idt/wedge.html, accessed on 10/16/05.
5) It is common practice among evangelicals and fundamentalists to use the term Christian in a narrow sense, excluding the much broader spectrum of Christians who do not subscribe to their belief system.
6) Forrest, Barbara and Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse, Oxford U. Press, Oxford and New York, 2004, pp. 148-150.
7) The Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University has found it necessary to post a disclaimer of Behe’s views on the university’s official website, http://www.lehigh.edu/~inbios/news/evolution.htm: “The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others. The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.” While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.”
8) Behe, Michael, Darwin’s Black Box, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996.
9) See Intelligent Design At NMHN?
More on Meyer
10) See http://www.texscience.org/files/dembski-baylor.htm
11) “Now that Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader and a graduate of Harvard Medical School, has come out in favor of the teaching of intelligent design, medical students may soon be learning that only a hidden hand could be responsible for the complexities of oxidative metabolism in mitochondria. What would it mean to take intelligent design seriously at the medical school level? Its proponents tell us that gaps in our knowledge of how living organisms evolved vitiate the theory of evolution. Might we conclude, then, that the cancer cell and its evolution are so complex that a creative designer must be the cause of cancer? But if the designer created cancer, is it against the hidden hand’s will to find a cure for cancer? Is it in accord with the plan of the intelligent designer to receive a treatment for cancer?” Schwartz, Robert S., “Faith Healers and Physicians — Teaching Pseudoscience by Mandate,” New England Journal of Medicine 353 (14), 1437-1439, October 6, 2005.
12) Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover, Case 4:04-cv-02688-JEJ Document 342 Filed 12/20/2005, available inter alia at http://www.sciohost.org/ncse/kvd/kitzmiller_decision_20051220.pdf.
About the Author
Lawrence S. Lerner is Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. He has contributed extensively to writing and evaluation of state K-12 science standards and to the evolution / creationism issue.