Skip to main content


The evolution backlash: Debunking Darwin

Intelligent Design: This broad, new movement sets aside differences among creationists, makes important scientific inroads

News last week from the evolution front:

**red_square**In New Mexico, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill mandating adoption of the science curriculum standards of the National Academy of Sciences, which include a dogmatic treatment of evolution. Arguing against the bill, John Baumgardner, a Los Alamos National Laboratory geophysicist, told the committee that &quotbiologists have not a clue about how genesis occurred."

**red_square**In Virginia, a local American Family Association leader demanded that school officials disavow language used in a biology textbook comparing divine creation with astrology, fad diets, and other forms of &quotpseudoscience."

**red_square**Across the country, newspaper headlines reported that an asteroid 6-12 miles wide hit the earth 65 million years ago, killing two-thirds of the species then in existence. An Associated Press article concluded, &quotAmong the survivors, scientists believe, were small mammals that--over millions of years--evolved into many new species, including humans."

**red_square**Over the past year, the evolution controversy has intensified across the nation. Colorado high-school student Danny Phillips's battle is typical: When he watched a classroom video that attributed the origin of life to &quotrandom molecules in the atmosphere," he argued that the showing of the video, with its evolutionary assertion, violated local school policy requiring teachers to present evolution as theory, not fact. A school committee initially agreed. But, under ACLU pressure, the school board ruled for the video. That battle continues.

**red_square**And there's other news: Science magazine warned that creationists are coming back armed with a &quotshrewd new strategy." The new strategy centers on a concept labeled intelligent design. The design movement shows promise of winning a place at the table in secular academia, while uniting Christians concerned about the role science plays in the current culture wars.

Short, freckled, with round face and crinkly eyes, Phillip E. Johnson of the Berkeley law school is an unlikely looking revolutionary. Yet he is the acknowledged leader of an intelligent design movement that combines classic critiques of evolutionary theory with a fresh, innovative approach. The key, Mr. Johnson told WORLD, is not to defend a prepared position so much as to promote critical-thinking skills.

As a law professor, Mr. Johnson's focus is on the logic and rhetoric used in support of Darwinism. Scientists build a case exactly as lawyers do in the courtroom, using the same strategies of persuasion. For example, Mr. Johnson points out, &quotDarwinists benefit from equivocating between two meanings of the term evolution." Sometimes the word refers simply to minor changes in the living world--an observable fact that no one questions. But at other times it means that all life developed through completely natural causes--a philosophical speculation that is highly questionable. In Mr. Johnson's words, &quotDarwinists play a shell game by getting you to assent to the trivial definition of evolution, and then suggesting that it compels you to accept a comprehensive philosophy of naturalism."

Another common trick of persuasion is the selective use of evidence. The facts adduced in favor of Darwinism are decidedly meager: minor adaptations in the color of moths, the shape of finch beaks, or the wings of fruit flies. Such examples represent modifications of existing structures; they leave unanswered the burning question: How does nature create complex structures in the first place? For the Darwinian true believer, Mr. Johnson says, what bridges the gap is naturalistic philosophy. &quotIf naturalism is true--if nature is all that exists--then something very much like Darwinism has to be true, no matter what the state of the evidence." His devastating conclusion: &quotDarwinism is not so much an inference from the facts as a deduction from naturalistic philosophy."

Mr. Johnson argues his case in two books, Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance. The flair and sophistication of his presentation has won a hearing for the design paradigm in high-level academic circles. Of course, some establishment scientists dismiss Mr. Johnson as a lawyer who has overstepped his bounds--who just &quotdoesn't understand how science works." Yet he has been invited to speak at state and private universities across the country, and his engaging wit has earned him warm friendships among many of the scientists who are his intellectual foes.

For example, when young Danny Phillips protested the classroom video, he politely offered an alternative called &quotDarwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?" featuring Mr. Johnson in a Stanford University debate with Cornell biologist William Provine (available from the Access Research Network, What's more, Mr. Provine makes a point of letting the audience know that he and Mr. Johnson are friends--that after the debate they will go out for dinner and have a beer together.

The design movement offers more than new and improved critiques of evolutionary theory, however. Its goal is to show that intelligent design also functions as a positive research program. That task has been taken up by Michael Behe of Lehigh University. In Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Mr. Behe introduces the concept of &quotirreducible complexity." At the bedrock of life, in the microscopic world of the cell, we find molecular machines consisting of interrelated parts, all of which are necessary for the machines to work. Such structures cannot have emerged gradually by any conceivable Darwinian process.

With his thick glasses and infectious smile, Mr. Behe has an aw-shucks air about him, reinforced by the casual tone of his trademark plaid shirt and dungarees. He is Irish Catholic, has several children, and illuminates his arguments with homey analogies. His favorite example of irreducible complexity is a mousetrap: You can't take part of a mousetrap--say, the wooden base--and catch a few mice, then add a spring and catch a few more, and so on. You need the complete contraption from the start to catch even one mouse.

The same is true of the molecular structures that carry on the business of life. They consist of co-adapted, mutually dependent parts that must co-exist from the start. Such irreducible complexity, Mr. Behe argues, is evidence of intelligence. The book's impeccably argued case has won respectful reviews in Nature, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and WORLD (Oct. 12, 1996). The Boston Review, published by MIT, recently ran several reviews of Mr. Behe's book, and an upcoming issue will feature a symposium with Mr. Behe and Mr. Johnson as participants. The design argument is proving that it can secure a beachhead in the hostile world of secular academia.

The design movement had its birth in the early 1970s, in a tiny French-speaking village perched on the snowy peaks of the Swiss Alps. At Francis Schaeffer's ministry &quotL'Abri," Charles Thaxton, fresh from a doctoral program in chemistry, wrestled with the implications of his faith. Did life begin in a chemical soup? &quotCriticisms of origin-of-life theories were showing up in the scientific literature," Mr. Thaxton recalls. &quotBut I kept thinking of the verse, 'Overcome evil with good.' I felt Christians should offer a positive alternative." That alternative was intelligent design.

Mr. Thaxton left L'Abri and formalized his ideas in The Mystery of Life's Origin, co-authored with Walter Bradley and Roger Olsen. The book's theme is that DNA is essentially intelligence encoded in a biological structure, which implies that it was created by an intelligent agent. This is a conclusion based not on religious faith but on ordinary experience: Whenever we see a message--whether written on paper, flashing on the computer screen, or scratched in the sand--we invariably assume that it was written by an intelligent agent.

&quotThe idea of intelligent causes is just as scientific as the idea of natural causes," argues Mr. Thaxton, who now teaches at Charles University in Prague. &quotIn both cases, we draw our evidence from experience." What kind of experience? &quotIn ordinary life we distinguish natural from intelligent causes all the time--when police officers determine whether a person died of natural causes or was murdered, when archaeologists decide whether a chipped rock is just a rock or a paleolithic tool. Why can't we use the same reasoning in natural science?"

With its devastating critique of origin-of-life theories, Mystery was reviewed in top professional journals such as the Yale Journal of Biology, and it is still used in graduate schools across the nation for its sheer scientific cogency. Another important impetus for the design movement was the crushing critique of neo- Darwinism offered in Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, written by then-agnostic Michael Denton. Today's resurgence of controversies in education was fueled partly by a high school biology supplement, Of Pandas and People, published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics in Richardson, Texas. About 15,000 books have been sold for use in public schools.

But a movement requires more than good ideas, and the glue holding the design movement together is largely the organizing energy of Phillip Johnson. He has worked tirelessly to institutionalize the design paradigm, crafting it as the &quotbig tent" for the evangelical world. He maintains lively e-mail conversations with a wide range of scientists, philosophers, and journalists. He worked behind the scenes to establish a fellowship program at the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in Seattle, to found a new professional journal (Origins and Design), and to organize a series of conferences, the first held last fall at Biola University (see WORLD, Nov. 30/Dec. 7, 1996).

Mr. Johnson's goal is to break the deadlock between creationists and theistic evolutionists. &quotIf you set out to promote a particular, detailed position, you end up becoming defensive, fragmented, and fighting each other," Mr. Johnson said. &quotDesign is not a position, it's a metaphysical platform that creates space for rational discussion." John Mark Reynolds, professor of philosophy at Biola, portrays design as the common ground uniting all Christians, and the counterpart in science to C.S. Lewis's notion of &quotmere Christianity." Trading on that phrase, the Biola conference was titled &quotMere Creation." The design paradigm shows potential for becoming the central organizing point for debate about origins among a wide range of Christians.

Design theory is also redefining the public-school debate. At issue is not the details of evolution versus the details of Genesis; it's the stark, fundamental claim that life is the product of impersonal forces over against the claim that it is the creation of an intelligent agent.

Consider these quotations: &quotYou are an animal, and share a common heritage with earthworms... ," proclaims the Holt, Rinehart, and Winston textbook Biology: Visualizing Life. &quotEvolution is random and undirected ... without either plan or purpose," declares Prentice Hall's Biology. American public schools are supposed to be neutral with regard to religion, but these statements are clearly antagonistic to all theistic religions. They go far beyond any empirical evidence and are more philosophical than scientific. In the words of John Wiester, chairman of the Science Education Commission of the American Scientific Affiliation, &quotDarwinism is naturalistic philosophy masquerading as science."

If Mr. Johnson is the organizing mind of the design movement, Mr. Wiester is its heart. With his broad face and intense smile, Mr. Wiester radiates warmth. He teaches in the biology department of Westmont College while operating a cattle ranch. He's likely to sign e-mail notes saying, &quotI'm off to de-horn steers today."

Mr. Wiester sinks his teeth like a bulldog into a recent statement by the National Association of Biology Teachers, which asserts that all life arose by an &quotunsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process." This is nothing less than &quotDarwinian fundamentalism," Mr. Wiester declares. Does that mean schools should teach creation? &quotOur goal is not to teach creation," Mr. Wiester explains, &quotit's to teach science honestly: to teach not only the confirming examples but the disconfirming examples, the anomalies and unsolved questions of evolution."

Take, for example, the Cambrian &quotexplosion," when all the major blueprints for life burst into existence. Darwinism assumes that major divides in the living world emerged over time through minor differentiation. But the Cambrian fossils show precisely the opposite pattern: The major patterns of life appear in a shotgun blast of radically different forms, and only then begin to diversify. Such negative evidence rarely appears in public-school textbooks.

In Alabama, Norris Anderson spearheaded a successful campaign to paste an insert on the inside front cover of biology textbooks listing some of the anomalies and ambiguities in evolutionary theory. In Education or Indoctrination?, Mr. Anderson has collected examples of dogmatic presentations of Darwinism: &quotDarwin gave biology a sound scientific basis by attributing the diversity of life to natural causes rather than supernatural creation" (Addison-Wesley's Biology). &quotToday, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.... Evolution is no longer merely a theory" (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston's Biology). The same textbook takes a preemptive strike against troublesome critics: &quotThere have always been those who resisted the appeal of evolution and every now and then declare 'Darwin was wrong,' in the hope of some profitable publicity, usually revealing that they do not understand Darwinism."

Ironically, Mr. Anderson understands Darwinism better than most. Formerly a textbook writer, he helped to prepare the infamous BSCS series (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study), which inaugurated the current dogmatic approach to teaching evolution. &quotI was practically an evangelist for evolution," Mr. Anderson says wryly. His turnabout was sparked when a colleague told him baldly, &quotDon't get me wrong, I believe human evolution happened, but there's absolutely no evidence for it." Mr. Anderson suggested that the textbooks be rewritten to reflect the real state of the evidence, but his proposal was vehemently rejected. &quotThat's when my idealism began to crumble," Mr. Anderson says. &quotI saw that scientists close ranks to present a false image of scientific certainty."

What gives the Darwin debate such gravity, of course, is that much more than science is involved. In the Stanford debate, Mr. Provine outlines unflinchingly what Darwinism means for human values. To make sure no one misses it, he flashes a list on an overhead projector: Consistent Darwinism implies: &quotNo life after death; No ultimate foundation for ethics; No ultimate meaning for life; No free will." The only reason for insisting on free will, Mr. Provine adds, is a cruel desire to blame people for their actions and lock them up.

In a dramatic rebuttal, captured on the video, a young man from the audience challenged Mr. Provine, saying, &quotMy background is murder and rape. I once thought that was okay, because who cared about life?" But now, he went on, he had come to realize that &quotlife does matter" and &quotthere are absolutes." The man's words were a stunning reminder that the origins debate is not merely academic; it involves the most fundamental principles by which people live and die.

The Darwinist establishment benefits enormously from portraying the origins debate as a tempest in a teapot, driven by a small, marginalized group of Bible-thumpers. But the public knows intuitively that at stake are the great questions of human existence. The influential Jewish journal Commentary recently published a masterful critique of Darwinism by mathematician and novelist David Berlinski. Reader response was so overwhelming that a later issue devoted nearly 50 pages to letters. The origins debate is clearly entering the mainstream.

&quotThe fundamental and most far-reaching assumption of Darwinism is that life is the product of forces that are impersonal and purposeless--that life is a cosmic accident," Mr. Johnson explains. &quotThis is a philosophy that strikes most Americans as false, not just fundamentalists. If Christians frame the debate that way, we can't be marginalized."

Mrs. Pearcey is co-author of The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy.

Nancy R. Pearcey

Nancy R. Pearcey