Intelligent design (ID) purports to be a scientific challenge to biological evolution as an explanation of how the diversity of life on earth arose. Proponents like Stephen Meyer, Director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, claim that "the theory of intelligent design holds that there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause." In other words, life is too complex to have developed through purely natural causes.
However, the vast majority of biologists, paleontologists, and biochemists argue that morphology, fossils, and genetics all provide evidence that today's species of plants, animals and microbes arose from a chain of predecessor species over hundreds of millions of years. The chief driver of this process of evolution is natural selection, in which new species appear over time as a result of the differential survival of offspring in response to environmental challenges.
Supporters of intelligent design insist that their theory has nothing necessarily to do with anyone's religious beliefs. However, U.S. District Court Judge John Jones III ruled otherwise earlier this week in Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District. This case arose in Dover, Penn. when the local school board voted that 9th grade biology teachers must read a statement at the beginning of class that asserted, among other things, that the theory of evolution "is not a fact… Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view."
Judge Jones cited overwhelming evidence showing that when the Dover school board adopted this policy, it was motivated by wholly religious concerns, not science. Jones found that at several school board meetings many members of the board "spoke in favor of purchasing a textbook that included a balance of creationism and evolution." The court also found that during one meeting William Buckingham, head of the board's curriculum committee, also said: "It is inexcusable to have a book that says man descended from apes with nothing to counterbalance it." Further, after the meeting, Buckingham stated: "This country wasn't founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such." Interestingly, Judge Jones found that board members later lied under oath about making these and other similar statements because they realized that their words revealed the religious, not scientific, motivations behind their actions.
Meanwhile, the Discovery Institute, the chief promoter of the ID movement, claims to have been dismayed by the Dover School Board's activities. They say they had advised the board not to mandate the teaching of ID.
Explains Discovery Institute Senior Fellow John West: "Rather than require students to learn about intelligent design, what we recommend is that teachers and students study more about Darwinian evolution, not only the evidence that supports the theory, but also scientific criticisms of the theory." And surely there is nothing wrong with discussing the relative impact on evolution of genetic drift, allopatric versus sympatric speciation, and punctuated equilibrium as legitimate scientific controversies. However, resolution of these controversies does not depend on accepting that intervention in natural processes by some kind of supernatural intelligence has occurred.
The Discovery Institute is not concerned about biological controversies that do not involve "intelligent causes." So the "scientific criticism" that the Institute must want taught therefore has to be ID. This is an intellectually dishonest sleight of hand: on the one hand, the Institute declares it doesn't want to require that students learn about ID, while on the other hand it recommends that "scientific criticisms," namely ID, be studied.
The Discovery Institute latched onto ID, not because of its scientific merits, but because it hopes that by ginning up a specious controversy over evolutionary biology it will reinvigorate religious faith in the United States. This was made plain in the Institute's now notorious "wedge strategy" in which the Institute explained that it planned to forge ID into a "wedge" to cut down the "giant tree" of scientific materialism. Why? Not for scientific reasons, but because "[d]esign theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."
ID has made no headway in the scientific community, but it is increasingly popular with evangelicals and Christian conservatives. Judge Jones made it clear that Dover school board wanted ID taught in high school biology classes not because it is scientifically accurate, but because it is "consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." In fact, Judge Jones pointed out in his decision that Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, one of the icons of the ID movement and author of one of its leading texts, Darwin's Black Box, conceded in his testimony during the trial that the "plausibility of the argument for ID depends upon the extent to which one believes in the existence of God."(Jones' emphasis).
That the court battle in Dover was essentially over an effort to smuggle religious views into biology classes is made plain by careless remarks by various supporters of ID. For example, when the voters in Dover tossed out all of the ID supporters on the school board last November, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson thundered, "I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected him from your city." Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, defended ID by arguing, "Belief in Intelligent Design stems from reason, not revelation. Christians can hold true to belief in God and Intelligent Design." Strangely, in the very next sentence Weyrich cites revelation in support of ID: "The King James Bible in Romans 1:20 says: 'For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.'"
After Judge Jones issued his decision, Discovery Institute senior fellow and professor of science and theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky., William Dembski declared, "This galvanizes the Christian community. People I'm talking to say we're going to be raising a whole lot more funds now." Why would a scientific controversy specifically galvanize Christians?
Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission put liberals and evolutionary biologists on notice, "This decision is a poster child for a half-century secularist reign of terror that's coming to a rapid end with Justice Roberts and soon-to-be Justice Alito." Mat Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, the conservative legal advocacy group associated with the Reverend Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, observed, "The [Dover] decision clearly ignores a large segment of society that questions evolution. That segment believes there had to be some intelligent ordering of the universe." Staver concurred with Land's analysis, declaring, "With Justice (Sandra Day) O'Connor stepping down, the court will be inclined to be more favorable to intelligent design. I predict within the next decade that alternatives to evolution will be taught in the nation's classrooms." This will happen, mind you, not because ID will be scientifically validated, but because the church/state barrier erected by prior Supreme Court decisions to teaching religion in public schools will be eroded.
David Klinghoffer, another senior fellow at the Discovery Institute who is less coy than some of his colleagues, explained plainly this week that ID proponents are engaged in what they believe to be religious warfare by other means: "There is no coherent reconciliation between God and Darwin." Consequently, Klinghoffer concluded, "One may choose Darwin or one may choose God."
Finally, if supporters of intelligent design really do believe that ID is science, then they must believe that one day their theories will be vindicated. When that day comes, school boards will not have to mandate that ID be taught because it will already be in high school biology textbooks. However, I suspect that ID proponents don't want to wait for their scientific triumph over evolutionary biology because they know in their hearts that day will never come.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.