The Republican War on Science
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Chapter 11: “Creation Science” 2.0

(Continued)

A lengthy critique of Meyer’s paper in the Palaeontology Newsletter, a publication of the UK-based Palaeontological Association, provides yet another nail in the coffin. The author, Ronald Jenner, calls Meyer’s paper “slipshod science,” writes that it “reads like a student report,” and comments that “the only trophy that proponents of ID can really boast about at home is that ID is promoted in a paper that should never have passed the reviewing process.” Jenner also remarks on how differently scientists and ID proponents approach problems:

Rather than continuing to trust in the ability of science to make progress, as it always has, Meyer is willing to throw up his hands in bewilderment, and exclaim miraculous intervention of an intelligent designer. That’s not the spirit of science. Meyer’s paper was neither deep nor comprehensive enough to merit being called an adequate review by any standard, certainly not in view of his profound conclusions.

These words adequately sum up the ID approach, which has often been described as the search to uncover a so-called God of the gaps. Essentially, ID proponents mine the scientific literature, trying to find places where they think they can plausibly charge that evolutionary theory has failed (the Cambrian explosion, for example). Never mind the stunning successes of the theory of evolution (which explains, among myriad other curiosities, why islands feature organisms related to but distinct from nearby mainland populations, or why closely related species have more DNA in common with one another than they do with more distant relatives). And never mind that scientists themselves are currently at work on the outstanding problems and making progress on them. Wherever uncertainty remains in the current evolutionary account—and as we have seen, uncertainty can never be fully dispelled in science—ID theorists swoop in and claim, “God must have done it.“

This approach, however, has a devastating drawback. Every time evolutionary theory fills another “gap,” critics have to retreat further and admit that they were wrong to invoke supernatural intervention to explain that particular wrinkle of life’s history. Oops, God didn’t do it after all.

Nevertheless, the “God of the gaps” approach can seem rhetorically convincing to those who, lacking much grasp of the massive number of mysteries that evolutionary theory has already solved, or the proven track record that it therefore enjoys in the scientific community, are greatly impressed to learn of alleged “holes” in the theory.

 

Despite failed attempts to win scientific backing for ID, this new blossoming of antievolutionism has found dramatic support both on the religious Right and among its political allies. ID critic Barbara Forrest has noted that virtually all of the leading organizations on the Christian Right have embraced or at least shown sympathy for ID, including James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, the Concerned Women for America, D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries, the American Family Association, and the Alliance Defense Fund (a Christian legal group).

ID proponents have also teamed up with conservative Republican legislators to further advance their agenda. ID’s most significant supporter has been Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a strong pro-life Catholic who has hopped on the antievolutionist bandwagon even though the head of his church—the late Pope John Paul II—accepted evolution.

In 2001, Santorum teamed up with ID supporters to slip “teach the controversy” language into the so-called No Child Left Behind Act. Singling out evolution in particular, Santorum’s amendment to the Senate version of the bill stated that “good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science.” This may sound innocuous enough, but when you learn that the language comes in part from ID movement progenitor Phillip Johnson, who believes that “Darwinism is based on an a priori commitment to materialism, not on a philosophically neutral assessment of the evidence,” you see where Santorum is headed.

The Discovery Institute widely heralded the Santorum amendment, claiming that “the Darwinian monopoly on public science education … is ending.” Santorum himself defended ID in an op-ed article in the conservative Washington Times, calling it a “legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes,” and interpreted his amendment as stating “how students studying controversial issues in science, such as biological evolution, should be allowed to learn about competing interpretations.“

Ultimately, the Santorum amendment did not make its way into the actual No Child Left Behind Act, but similar language reappeared in a nonbinding conference report issued along with the bill (and with congressional endorsement). The conference report stated, in somewhat weaker language, that “where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist.” Discovery Institute representatives have used this language to claim that the U.S. Congress has endorsed the teaching of ID (which, of course, they insist is a scientific theory). More recently, perhaps seeing it as a political liability, Santorum has backed away from an outright embrace of teaching ID in public schools—even as president Bush, in August 2005, voiced his support for it. (Bush’s statement put his science adviser John Marburger, who has stated that ID is not science, in a truly awkward position.) But the president has little real role, other than a symbolic one, in the evolution fight: All of the antievolutionist action today is happening at the state and local level. According to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), between 2001 and 2004, forty-three U.S. states saw significant antievolution activity within their borders. Much of this activity has been inspired by young-earth creationists, who remain highly motivated and active, but the strategies advanced by the Discovery Institute have increasingly taken precedence. Meanwhile, Republican state political parties have also embraced antievolutionism: A survey by the NCSE found eight state parties with explicitly antievolution platforms or public statements.

 

Which brings us back to Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman, a former Republican liberal who veered right and went on to found a think tank that would almost single-handedly lead a war against one of the most robust theories in the history of science: the theory of evolution. On the one hand, Chapman’s career suggests a stunning intellectual contradiction. Yet when viewed in a broader historical context, his personal evolution seems quite consistent with trends in the development of the modern Right and its strained relationship with science.

To be sure, the intelligent design movement does not claim an animus against science. Science abusers never do. Rather, the movement seeks to redefine the very nature of science to serve its objectives.

But just like “creation scientists” of yore, ID hawkers have clear and ever-present religious motivations for denying and attacking evolution. And like creationists of yore, they have failed the only test that matters: They simply are not doing credible science. Instead, they are appropriating scientific-sounding arguments to advance a moral and political agenda, one they hope to force into the public-school system.

That is where the true threat emerges. ID theorists and other creationists don’t like what the overwhelming body of science has to tell us about where human beings come from. Their recourse? Trying to interfere with the process by which children are supposed to learn about the best scientific (as opposed to religious) answer that we have to this most fundamental of questions. No matter how many conservative Christian scholars Bruce Chapman and the Discovery Institute manage to get on their side, such interference represents the epitome of anti-intellectualism.

Update

This book first appeared just as the Dover, Pennsylvania, evolution trial—technically Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District—built toward a dramatic courtroom confrontation. The case pitted a truly radical school board, which had gone further than any other in the nation in pushing “intelligent design” (ID) on its students, against the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Pennsylvania law firm Pepper Hamilton. Everyone called it a replay of the 1925 Scopes trial, but in fact it more closely paralleled 1982’s McLean v. Arkansas, a case that helped to determine whether ID’s predecessor, “creation science,” could be constitutionally taught in public school biology classes or whether it violated the First Amendment doctrine of separation of church and state.

The judge in McLean, William Overton, wrote a scathing opinion denouncing creation science as religion in disguise; and the judge in the Dover trial, John E. Jones III, more or less did the same with respect to ID. Perhaps the main difference was that Jones’s opinion was considerably longer. Released in December 2005 and 139 pages in length, it demonstrated just how rigorously the legal process can, at least sometimes, evaluate “scientific” disputes (a virtue unfortunately not possessed by some journalists who are called upon to cover science in its political context).

Jones’s opinion may well represent the death knell of “intelligent design,” both as a viable political strategy and as an idea with pretensions to intellectual seriousness. The judge proclaimed that ID does not and cannot constitute science because of its appeal to supernatural explanations and because its advocates do not (with rare exceptions) participate in the scientific process by publishing in peer-reviewed journals. He probed the religious motivations of the “intelligent design” movement and dredged up the “Wedge Document,” which he described as “a program of Christian apologetics to promote ID.” With all of this, Jones was only getting warmed up.

Drawing on new revelations dug up by the pro-evolution camp in preparation for the trial, Jones also explored the “history and historical pedigree” of the pro-ID textbook introduced into the Dover school district, Of Pandas and People. Published by a Christian organization called the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, it was originally authored by several creationists in the late 1980s, with drafts completed before and after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 ruling, in the landmark case Edwards v. Aguillard, that “creation science” could not be taught in science classes. What Jones found about the early drafts of Pandas absolutely devastates ID: In early versions, “creation” had the same definition used in later drafts for “intelligent design“; references to creationism in these earlier versions were then “systematically replaced” with references to ID; and most importantly, these telltale changes came right after the Edwards ruling that put an end to “creation science” as a political and legal strategy. From all of this, Judge Jones concluded that ID is simply “creationism re-labeled.“

In one of his most powerful passages, Jones underscored just how damaging the ID fight had been to the Dover community:

This case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

This from a judge who is a Republican and a Bush appointee. The passage underscores a point often missed: the evolution battle is not confined to the rarefied world of ideas. It has personal and human consequences. It causes intensive religious strife that can damage and tear apart communities—precisely what happened in Dover, Pennsylvania.

But leading Republicans in the United States, in positions of considerable power, do not apparently possess Judge Jones’s powers of discernment. Shortly before the Dover trial went to court, the teaching of “intelligent design” in public school science classes had won support from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist as well as from President Bush. More recently, Republicans in the House of Representatives elected Congressman John Boehner of Ohio as their new majority leader. In 2002, before winning this role, Boehner coauthored a letter to the Ohio State Board of Education instructing it that students should learn about “differing scientific views on issues such as biological evolution.” If Boehner isn’t himself an “intelligent design” creationist, he certainly sounds sympathetic to them.

Yet ID’s most prominent backer in Congress, Pennsylvania Republican senator Rick Santorum, seemed to respond differently in the wake of the Dover trial. Even as Bush and Frist rushed to support this latest project of the Christian right, Santorum reversed his earlier position in support of teaching ID in our public schools, and retreated to a stance embraced by the Discovery Institute: ID shouldn’t officially be taught; rather, schools should teach about the “holes” in evolutionary theory. The catchphrase most frequently used to describe this strategy is “teach the controversy.” Santorum also resigned from the advisory board of the Thomas More Law Center, the Michigan-based “public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID” (as Judge Jones described the group) that unsuccessfully defended the school board in the Dover case.

“Teach the controversy” now becomes the likely ground on which the seemingly never-ending evolution battle will be fought. In the state of Kansas in November 2005, the antievolutionist Board of Education voted to adopt a science curriculum that casts doubt on evolution but does not explicitly propose ID as an alternative. But the board also redefined science so that it would not be limited to “natural” explanations, a change that both horrifies scientists and opens the door for ID-type ideas. Meanwhile, other states continue to experiment with various other antievolutionist tactics that may or may not pass constitutional muster. The only thing that seems certain, following the Dover trial, is that more litigation lies ahead—and that creationists will continue, as they have always done, to evolve.

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