Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
German paleontologist Günter Bechly, former curator of the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History, is a world expert on fossilized dragonflies. He has discovered more than 170 new species, and 11 new genera have been named after him. To prepare for an exhibit celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, Bechly read intelligent design books—and became an ID proponent. He is now a fellow at the Discovery Institute and a senior research scientist at Biologic Institute. He now lives in Austria, but I interviewed him in Seattle, Wash. Here’s an edited Q&A.
Why dragonflies? When I was researching in the tropics, I simply discovered that I loved these animals and found them very interesting: aquatic larvae with helicopterlike flight, compound eyes, beautiful colors, and strange, intricate mating behavior.
In what ways do they add to the case for intelligent design? One way is their sudden appearance in the fossil record with fully formed wing articulation. Another evidence concerns the reproductive system in suborders of dragonflies. While the organs in each suborder are constructed from the same basic parts, in each one a different part of the system has the function of sperm transmission—a parallel development in which it appears the same kind of solution was derived independently in several instances. It indicates a kind of design template used several times, as an engineer would use to build different motor engines, using the same parts.
Their mouths are interesting? Larvae have prehensile mouths that can be thrust forward like a chameleon’s tongue. To do that, they must be partially detached from the head. How this happened at each intermediate state, as the Darwinian process would require—to be a viable state with an adaptive advantage—is very hard to imagine.
‘If humans originated from the animal realm by a purely unguided process, there is no real reason in nature to treat humans differently from stones.’
What challenges do intelligent design proponents face in Europe? The reaction I received was as hostile as it would have been in America, but most people reject ID arguments without knowing what they reject. The problem for neo-Darwinists is that if this idea should fail, there is no alternative. If the only naturalistic explanation for complex information is the Darwinian process and this process is shown to be unfeasible, then it’s game over for naturalism. That is why, especially in biology, the aggression is very high against intelligent design explanations.
Could the overwhelming percentage of biologists who reject ID be wrong? The problem is that, of the biologists who reject ID, 98 percent don’t work on the actual underpinnings of the neo-Darwinian theory. They simply learn the theory at university, accept it as true, and apply the theory to detailed problems: They study whether the East African locust is related more closely to the Asian or Australian locust, but they don’t think about the mathematical feasibility of the neo-Darwinian process. The few theoretical biologists who work on the underpinnings of the theory have mostly become critical of the neo-Darwinian process.
You cite a conference organized by the Royal Society in London in 2016. The opening talk by a famous evolutionary biologist was about the explanatory deficits of the neo-Darwinian theory. The failure of Darwinism as an explanation is not at all an exclusive, idiosyncratic idea of ID proponents or creationists.
What do you think of the link scholars have made between Darwinism, 19th-century social Darwinism, and the rise of 20th-century fascism? It is certainly not simple causation, but a certain mindset combined with a rejection of human dignity leads to atrocities. This is true in Nazism, in Soviet gulags, and now in North Korea. If humans originated from the animal realm by a purely unguided process, there is no real reason in nature to treat humans differently from stones. It’s just a different aggregate of atoms. But the connection is not simple: Darwin wouldn’t have been a supporter of Nazi Germany.
Wikipedia users deleted an article there about you? I was a scientist with a certain profile who changed my mind for rational reasons. That’s something that’s not supposed to happen. That made me dangerous, so I was ostracized. It shows that Wikipedia is not unbiased. The best alternative is to google to find the information and weigh its reliability yourself.
How would you encourage someone entering the field of biology today? Be open-minded, read both sides, and don’t be indoctrinated by propaganda. Weigh all the evidence and then look for the best explanation of the evidence. Those who see that the standard Darwinian picture might be wrong should attend a Discovery Institute summer seminar to meet the scientists and ask critical questions. But I would also advise staying undercover until their career is a bit settled, because the risk to ruin their career is real, as I and many others have encountered.
What areas of biology are particularly compelling for the future? One is the whole field of genetics, where you see the striking phenomena of overlapping genes where the same strands of DNA are used to code different genes. It’s like a book that you can read backwards and forwards and it still makes sense. This is nearly unbelievable to believe with a Darwinian process.
Evo-devo? “Evo-devo”—evolutionary development—strongly suggests that the whole paradigm about the organism being coded only in the DNA is wrong. Look at how sugar coating on the cell membrane is necessary to produce a viable fetus. If you want to change an organism from one type to another, it’s not sufficient to just fiddle with some mutations in the DNA.
What does paleontology tell us? The gaps we can observe in the fossil record are certainly real. More and more strong statistical support means we should look at gaps as data and not anomalies.
What are your current projects? I’m working on discontinuities in the fossil record and explosionlike events in the history of life. Not just the Cambrian explosion, but all over the history of life you see new body plans and complex new structures appearing out of nowhere without the kind of gradual transitions you should find according to Darwinian predictions.
You’re working on the “waiting time problem”? Darwinian evolutionists seek confirmation in the fossil record and population genetics. But if you combine these two fields, you find that the time necessary for certain transitions would be at least 10 times longer than the time available. Michael Behe used mathematical modeling to study mutations where we have empirical data: for example, mosquito resistance to malaria drugs. Applying that model to a vertebrate species with a smaller population size and longer generational turnover, we find the time needed to get a single coordinated mutation is much longer than the existence of the entire universe.
Just not enough time? A mathematician is doing the modeling, I’m establishing the fossil dating and windows of time. Molecular biologists and biochemists are working on the genetic underpinnings. We want to show that across nature and through all eras of Earth history, this time problem is everywhere and is the rule, not the exception. This refutes Darwinism. If Darwinism is still upheld as the ruling paradigm, it will be in spite of the contradictory, conflicting evidence.
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When Paul Ryan gave his farewell address as speaker of the House on Dec. 19, he called on future lawmakers to make poverty issues a greater priority. Ryan’s mentor on poverty-fighting, Bob Woodson, age 81, sat in the front row. While politicians have come and gone, Woodson has toiled on the front lines since the 1970s as the godfather of neighborhood-based organizations that help people help themselves. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation in Washington, D.C.
Think back 20 years, when compassion wasn’t such a dirty word. Do you think Republicans have less empathy for the poor now than they did? Yes. I do. They have been too narrowly focused on policy and politics. We’re in a cultural war. Conservatives are failing their own cause, and therefore the country, because they do not know how to properly defend the values of the Founders in the marketplace. Right now the strategy is to meet together in think tanks, celebrate some conservative pundit who has a best-selling book, and meet among themselves.
You think they’ve lost the common touch? They’ve lost the common touch. They don’t have a ground strategy. The left is in the universities, on school boards, at city council meetings. They’ve shut down free speech on campuses. That’s the ground strategy they have. Conservatives and Republicans have strictly an aerial strategy. They’re criticizing what the other side is doing without coming up with an alternative construct that speaks to the needs. The way you influence people’s belief on values is to demonstrate in their lives how these values improve their lives.
Do you think this aerial vs. ground strategy is costing Republicans the next generation and minorities? They’re not even attempting to speak to these demographics.
Have Democrats learned anything from the mistakes of the past? They’re happy if 70 cents of the dollar goes to those who serve poor people. Democrats ask not what problems are solvable but which are fundable. If your job depends on me being sick or dependent—that dictates more of your behavior than compassion.
‘Conservatives are failing their own cause, and therefore the country, because they do not know how to properly defend the values of the Founders in the marketplace.’
For helping the homeless, what do you think of “Housing First”? No strategy is going to work without an investment in human capital development. If you just deal with brick and mortar and you don’t deal with flesh and blood first, it’s doomed. Not everybody is poor for the same reason. You cannot have a single approach to it. Some poor people are just broke, but their character is intact. For them, programs, housing, training opportunities work. They use the welfare system the way it was intended, as an ambulatory service, not a transportation system.
What about the others? Category two: people who tried to be independent but ran into barriers. There are a lot of perverse incentives against people being independent. Category three: people who are physically and mentally handicapped or disabled. We’ve got to help them. Category four: people who are homeless and they’re poor because of character flaws. They need redemption and transformation for any program to work. I have witnessed community development projects all my life, and the only ones I’ve seen work are when you develop human capacity first.
You took Paul Ryan on a learning tour in 2014: Now he’s retired. Do other policymakers have the kind of understanding he got from that experience? I haven’t seen any of them. Policymakers come up with some gimmick, give it a name, roll it out, then parachute it into a community, with great fanfare. It doesn’t really take seed, because the people there who are supposed to benefit haven’t been involved in the development of it.
So it’s a tug of war between Republicans and Democrats, between decreasing and increasing the budget, but it’s lacking bottom-up solutions? African proverb: When bull elephants fight, the grass always loses. And it’s always the poor. In states controlled by Republicans, the face of poverty looks the same as those controlled by Democrats.
Why does it look the same? Because of fundamental elitism on both the left and the right. We are imbued with this notion that somehow character is related to education and celebrity—which means people without those are discounted.
What do you think of President Trump? He has implemented the right policies in terms of national defense and Supreme Court appointees. Another strength—he’s not another guilty white man.
What do you mean by that? Most politicians both left and right of center who are white approach the question of race from a position of guilt. I don’t find that helpful. Trump doesn’t. It’s unfortunate that the president is so morally challenged. Character stands above all else: Setting a tone that if you’re opponents, you have to be enemies—that’s not helpful. He’s extreme in what he says and does, but that makes his intentions more obvious.
What do you think about Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer? They’re not serious people. They’re so preoccupied with defeating Trump or challenging him that everything they do is just in opposition.
What about Newt Gingrich and his impact on politics? Gingrich is someone else who is morally challenged. He’s a very smart guy, but he has become so partisan. On occasions he will challenge the president—but Newt Gingrich is so inside Washington.
George W. Bush? He never shifted out of campaign mode when it came to issues of faith. He hired John Dilulio, a liberal Democrat, to run the faith-based office. There’s an example of guilty white men. When it comes to the issues of race and poverty, they always have to make concessions to their opponents and concede to them.
Barack Obama? Instead of bringing us together on race he left it more polarized. Obama was all windup and no pitch.
Looking back, what do you consider your top accomplishment? Taking Republicanism into the inner city and creating a good image of it. Republicans have been doing everything since then to discourage that. They never built on it.
Looking back, what’s your top disappointment? Conservatives have not sought allies among the poor and minorities to defend traditional virtues. We’re in a cultural war. The only way we who believe in traditional values will win is by finding allies among the people who suffer most from it.
What’s the biggest challenge we face overall? Finding an answer to emptiness among young people is the biggest challenge that we face. There has to be a moral reformation in America. Whites who voted for Trump and live in trailer parks have more in common with black inner-city people confronting the drugs epidemic. They are not being represented by people on the left or the right. The embrace of the traditional values of our Founders is a life-and-death issue to people in these communities, as opposed to a foil in some intellectual contest.
What does the new American dream look like? A makeover of the old American dream—applying old values to a new reality. We spend so much time trying to give to our children the things we didn’t have that we fail to give them what we did have. What I’m trying to do in my work in communities is resurrect these old values—I’m trying to take us back to the future.
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William Inboden is a Christian with sterling establishment credentials. Educated at Stanford and Oxford, he gained a history Ph.D. at Yale, worked as a congressional staff member, and gained George W. Bush administration appointments: Department of State policy planner, senior director on the National Security Council.
Inboden is now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he directs the Clements Center for National Security. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment.
He and his wife Rana have one child. I interviewed him in Austin.
Now that you’re 46, what’s the most important thing you know now that you did not know 20 years ago? I would start with the enduring value of family, since I didn’t get married until my 30s. Our first child is now 4. I’m very thankful for the time and experience I had in my 20s, but I don’t have any yearning to go back to so-called freedom.
How did your Christian faith influence your Washington work? I felt it very important to treat others with kindness and dignity and respect, to maintain my personal witness. That’s especially important when you’re involved in contentious legislation and some of the people you are working with are other Christians and many are non-Christians and very aware that you’re a Christian. I failed in all sorts of ways. At times I was too aggressive. Some of the political tactics we used to get the bill passed were not always honest with others. But there was also the level of thinking about Christianity and statecraft, and the Christian’s calling to use the power of the United States in ways that would produce benefits in the world.
You joined the Bush administration in 2002. My first few weeks at State I drafted a speech on North Korea human rights violations and had to have it cleared and edited throughout the departments. One State Department staff member I had not met in person sent it back with some vigorous and critical edits. I thought, “How dare she savage my beautiful prose?” I met her a few weeks later. A couple of years after that we got married. A word to all guys with big egos, which was certainly me at the time: Be humble in accepting edits. There might be a charming young woman at the other end.
Your book on religion and foreign policy showed how American leaders, in documents not designed for public consumption, thought about the Cold War. Scholars knew American political leaders sometimes used religious rhetoric in their speeches, but most thought the use was a cynical attempt to stir up public support. Thanks to personal letters, diaries, and newly declassified documents, I realized that most American political leaders genuinely believed the Cold War was a religious war, that the United States had a certain calling by God to resist Soviet communism and promote freedom.
‘[Cold War–era American leaders] believed in religious liberty and religious disestablishment, but that did not preclude religious values in forming American foreign policy.’
A lot of them had read Whittaker Chambers? That’s right. Witness was helpful and was a very influential book for me when I first read it in high school. Policymakers really did see a conflict between the militant atheism of the Soviet Union and the Christian values of the United States and the Western world.
They didn’t see the separation of church and state as a mandate to try to banish God? Not at all. They certainly believed in religious liberty and religious disestablishment, but that did not preclude religious values in forming American foreign policy: They fought to defend that.
Let’s turn to the biggest current antagonist to religious liberty: Are we moving to a bipolar world with China? The U.S.-China relationship is the geopolitical story of the 21st century. China’s future ascendency is not necessarily inevitable. It has a strong and growing economy, a strong and modernizing military, but a very fragile and in some ways weak government. What Xi Jinping fears most is not necessarily the United States, but his own people. That’s why he has been trying to accrue more and more dictatorial powers to himself. That’s a sign of internal weakness, not strength.
What’s your assessment of the Chinese economy? It has tremendous imbalances and corruption. China’s economic dynamism in the last 20 years may not necessarily continue. We are seeing a backlash against China. With China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea, more and more countries want to partner with the U.S. against China.
Pope Francis made a deal with China that Cardinal Zen called a betrayal. What would you call it? Horrible. As a Reformed Protestant I can’t speak for Catholicism, but yes, it was a betrayal. Pope Francis could have negotiated a better deal, but in international diplomacy as in buying a used car you don’t want to be the one who’s desperate to make the sale: You give up all your leverage.
So, it’s not inevitable that giving in to China is the only way to survive? We’ve seen this story before. The 1970s were a time of American decline but it was not inevitable, and American renewal came in the 1980s. I’m not saying that I believe in a cyclical pattern either. I’m wary of overall patterns in history.
How important was Ronald Reagan to renewal in the 1980s? I’m writing a book on President Reagan’s foreign policy. He advocated free trade, invented NAFTA, and was deeply committed to our allies. He thought America had an important role to play in the world, and that’s one reason he was so successful in helping bring down the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War peacefully. He was the complete antithesis of Donald Trump in every meaningful way in foreign policy.
Looking back now after 15 years, what do you think about the war in Iraq? I strongly supported the war in Iraq at the time. I believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was a genuine security threat to the United States. I now think I was wrong to do so. Knowing what I know now, I certainly would not have encouraged or supported the war. That said, I have no regrets that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. If he had stayed in power, he certainly was a very bad actor with very bad intentions, and we don’t know what other bad things might have come out.
Do you think we are better off now because of that war than we otherwise would be? Iraq is now a fragile yet functioning democracy, and generally more aligned with the United States than other countries in the region. Iraq is not a threat to its neighbors, is not pursuing WMDs, is not supporting terrorism. The Iraqi economy has had its share of challenges but certainly with oil reserves is on a positive trajectory. We are worried about Iranian influence.
What should the U.S. do regarding Iran? I supported the withdrawal from the bad Iran nuclear deal that Barack Obama got us into—but it seems we withdrew from it without a viable backup plan in place. There would have been an opening to get the Europeans to support us in a new round of sanctions, but I think we blew that. I supported moving our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and that had been effectively called for the last 20 years anyway—but the means was clumsy.
So on balance? The larger question is: Were all the costs in blood and treasure worth it? That’s the one I have a harder time squaring. But we should applaud some very positive outcomes and not dismiss the war as a complete failure or disaster.