Chapter I

1.7 Teach the Kulturkampf

Applied Intelligent Design I—The Danny Phillips case and slouching toward Robert Bork

Not that Creation Science was out of the picture—far from it. While the Discovery Institute was ramping up their game, the ICR remained as active as ever, and Australian creationist Ken Ham moved on from there in 1994 to form his own organization: Answers in Genesis, providing a parallel venue for YEC advocates to supply budding antievolutionists operating at the local church level with volumes of evidential factoids, first in print and later online. That milieu inevitably filtered through the subculture, from a New Mexico student wanting her creationist preacher’s video lecture against evolution shown in biology class, Bruce Miller (1997), to Academic Standards Commissioner LaTanya Wright not wanting creation left out of California’s schools, or the Iowa Republican Party supporting the inclusion of “CREATIONIST produced resources in ALL TAX funded public and school libraries,” Matsumura (1998a,d), while the Illinois Board of Education adopted the ostrich position of not mentioning evolution due to its “controversial” aspects, Matsumura (1997a).

It was that subculture that brought high school student Danny Phillips onto the creation/evolution scene in Colorado. In 1996 straight-A student Danny was fifteen and attending Wheat Ridge High School in Jefferson County, outside Denver. For many years their science instruction had included a 1983 PBS NOVA video, the Emmy Award-winning The Miracle of Life, which featured Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s stunning filming of the human reproductive process. Early in the show though, before getting to the human embryonic shots, the narrator (Liam Neeson) touched on what had happened in the vast stretch of Deep Time before humans came on the scene: the formation of the Earth four and a half billion years ago, the first appearance of cellular life, and that “From these one-celled organisms evolved all life on Earth.”

That did not set well with Phillips. Son of a local pastor, Phillips had learned the ICR “Back to Genesis” doctrine along with a Focus on the Family perspective (operating in nearby Colorado Springs) that did not entertain alternatives outside Creation Science, objecting to a mere “theory” like evolution being presented as factual along with the YEC-defying Big Bang origin of the universe. Although Phillips never advocated teaching his creationism in the school, readily affirming how he only wanted to see the full range of facts presented, Henry et al. (1996) and McInerney (1997), he did want the regular textbook (Biological Science: An Ecological Approach) dropped in favor of alternatives like Of Pandas and People that amounted to the same thing when it came to creationist biological arguments.

In public statements Phillips showed a marked reluctance to specify just what facts he had in mind for inclusion, apart from vague references to the supposed absence of intermediate forms in the fossil record, such as when interviewed by Canadian creationist David Buckna & Phillips (1997). Buckna quoted in full a letter Phillips wrote to the school officials, full of freedom of inquiry and giving the students all the facts, but never quite getting around to what those “facts” might be, or from where he might be obtaining them. The perennial methodological concern of what a creationist considers “evidence” and how much of it is simply retread YEC antievolution doctrine was right there just offstage in the Phillips case, rattling rather noisily in the wings, if only you stopped to listen. In his reportage of the Phillips affair for Education Week, David Hills (1996) took note:

I couldn’t help but feel that Danny’s calls for fair-mindedness were somewhat disingenuous. After all, in the complaint he filed with the district, he said he was insulted by the theory of evolution because it “contradicts God’s creation of the world.” Therefore, he was “prompted to stop it.” His religious beliefs, not his concern about “fairness” or “factual science,” seemed to be his primary motive for seeking the removal of the videotape and textbook.

Moreover, Danny seemed unable to see the debate in anything but either-or terms. For instance, when I asked him if he thought it possible to be a Christian and also believe in evolution, he was hardly charitable in his answer. “That’s a difficult question,” he replied. “There are many Christians who are ignorant about a great many things, ... I believe that Christians who look at the Bible and say, ‘We can’t interpret this literally,’ I wouldn’t call them Christians. According to God, the Bible is the inherent truth of God. ... I wouldn’t necessarily say that if they believe in evolution, they’re not Christians. But they’re definitely ignorant.”

Phillips’ attitude may be contrasted with the Christian convictions of fellow-Coloradoan Steven Smith (1998) recalling the public meeting where the video and book issues were aired. Coming from Phillips’ own denomination, Smith knew firsthand just what they were teaching, and how little it prepared believers to deal with the full body of science fact—which Smith had to come to grips with later in the process of becoming a working geologist, coming to abandon the strict YEC of his upbringing in favor of an OEC-Theistic Evolution framework. Because the fundamentalist Christian worldview Phillips believed in had more to object to than just evolution (including much of modern physics), Smith was concerned about the precedent that the school board would be opening up if they agreed to Phillips’ demands on the PBS video and BSCS textbook.

Smith also called attention to the coverage Phillip Johnson had given to the Phillips case in Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, which book would have been prominently placed in many Christian bookstores at the time (it certainly was in Spokane). Unlike Smith, who openly expressed the qualms he had about the YEC baggage Phillips’ church and what this might mean for undermining science education, Johnson highlighted a different set of issues, spring boarding off the same video narration line (“From these one-celled organisms evolved all life on earth”) that had inflamed Phillips:

Science education today encourages students to memorize that sort of naturalistic doctrine and repeat it on a test as fact. Because Danny has a special interest in truth, however, and because his father is pastor of a church that has an interest in questioning evolutionary naturalism. Danny knew that this claim of molecule-to-man evolution goes far beyond the scientific evidence. So he wrote a lengthy paper criticizing the Nova program as propaganda. School administrators at first agreed that Danny had a point, and they tentatively decided to withdraw the Nova program from the curriculum. That set off a media firestorm.

Of course Danny was making a reasonable point. The doctrine that some known process of evolution turned a protozoan into a human is a philosophical assumption, not something that can be confirmed by experiment or by historical studies of the fossil record. But the fact that administrators seriously considered any dissent from evolutionary naturalism infuriated the Darwinists, who flooded the city’s newspapers with their letters. Some of the letters were so venomous that the editorial page editor of the Denver Post admitted that her liberal faith had been shaken. She wrote that ‘these defenders of intellectual freedom behaved, in fact, just like a bunch of conservative Christians. Their’s was a different kind of fundamentalism, but no less dogmatic and no less intolerant.” Johnson (1997b, 34-35).

This paragraph may be taken as a seminal moment in the Intelligent Design movement. Up until then the attitude was that you could be a critic of natural evolution without having to embrace Young Earth Creationism, and so long as the issue didn’t come up, ID advocates could hold to that position. But Danny Phillips was a Young Earth Creationist, and so represented a decision gate: by making no mention of Danny’s creationist beliefs, Johnson was tacitly enabling it, winking at him not to worry, you don’t have to give up your YEC beliefs to get a warm embrace under the Big ID Tent.

That was the unspoken message accompanying the framing of Danny as someone exhibiting that laudable dedication to “truth“—by exclusion suggesting non-YEC Christians of the Steven Smith stripe were chasing after something else. In commenting on Johnson’s proliferation of “fascinating and instructive stories from scientific, legal and educational controversies” to further buttress his anti-materialism arguments in his subsequent books, Thomas Woodward (2006b, 77, 324n) perfunctorily listed the Danny Phillips case from Testing Darwinism (the less confrontational title of the UK edition of Defeating Darwinism) without investigating any of its content or context.

With the design movement promoters obdurately oblivious to what might actually be going on among the grass roots of American creationism, the grass roots plowed on with enthusiasm. Echoing the Johnson cue sheet, Creation Tips (2009d) declared Phillips was subjected to a “Hate Campaign” as “Evolutionists sent a barrage of vicious letters to the city’s newspapers,” examples of which they neglected to specify any more than Johnson had. When I endeavored in 2014 to check out the degree of vituperation Phillips may have elicited from angry evolutionists I discovered the Denver Post online archive did not preserve material from that period, though given Johnson’s characterization of the “vehemently hostile” letters to the editor regarding the David Raup mass extinction issue (section 1.2 above) there is room for reasonable doubt as to how “venomous” or “vicious” the submissions critical of Danny Phillips may have been. The trope of persecuted students challenging the disintegrating Darwinist education monopoly continued to circulate through the creationist subculture, Thwaites (2002) noting an example in the ICR’s Acts & Facts.

But even stipulating that some of the Denver Post letter writers were as snarky or as intemperate as sometimes may be found in comment threads at Pharyngula or Panda’s Thumb, the fact remains that Phillip Johnson’s disinclination to investigate just what manner of evolution criticism Phillips had in mind allowed him to embark on a fast sprint up a very different mountain, as he made plain in his Research Notes for the Phillips affair:

The essay by National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts, “Evolution Versus Creationism: Don’t Pit Science Against Religion,” was published in The Denver Post, September 10, 1996, p. B9. The essay is a compendium of the usual spin-doctor arguments that official science organizations rely on to stop any serious questioning of evolution or materialism before it can get started. I recommend that teachers look for essays of this kind and use them for critical-thinking exercises after students have read chapters three, four and five of this book. One thing to notice right away is the title: the debate is set up as pitting creationism (that is, an ideology) against evolution (no ism, therefore a fact). No matter what the evidence may be, an ideology (especially a religious ideology) can never beat a “fact” in a debate conducted under scientific rules. Scientific materialists actually see the issue that way, and so they naturally frame the debate in those terms. I always insist that an ism be put on both words or neither. Let the debate be between the competing facts (creation and evolution) or the competing ideologies (creationism and evolutionism). Better still, let it be between theism and materialism. What was present and active in the beginning, God or matter? That frames the question correctly and levels the playing field. Johnson (1997b, 124-125).

As indeed it does, if the sole object of Intelligent Design apologetics is to circumvent every issue of substantive technical fact (such as the inadequacy of the Of Pandas and People creationist volume Danny Phillips recommended for school use—and whose factual content Johnson has studiously failed to evaluate) by wadding them up into manageable shuttlecocks so that they might be quickly lobbed out of a philosophical court where only the theism vs. materialism contest may be played. Most ironically, the actual views creationists hold are not allowed on Johnson’s “God or matter” court—reducing Danny Phillips in the end to just another tactical prop, something like the fictitious relatives Poo-Bah invented as part of a cover story in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, included as “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

Only we’re not doing Victorian comic opera here, but dealing with the all too serious subject of whether students in the 21st century deserve a scientifically accurate education, and what might be at stake for “a well-informed electorate” (to borrow some Thomas Jefferson rhetoric) once that procedure is compromised by ill-informed political or Kulturkampf interference.

Francis Beckwith (2006, 106-110) followed this track when commenting on Kelly Segraves’ 1981 lawsuit (discussed above in section 1.6). More even that the CreationWiki (2014b) coverage, Beckwith stepped completely away from what Segraves actually believed about evolution and geology to frame the suit in terms of Beckwith’s concern over Naturalism, especially whether belief in the soul was in conflict with “the claim of materialist philosophers.” That Segraves would also be complaining about references to carnivorous dinosaurs dying out 65 million years ago never crossed Beckwith’s rarified legalistic gloss, but at least Beckwith took note of Segraves. The even more generalized Phillip Johnson (1991, 140-141) characterized the California standards in much the same way anti-naturalism way as Beckwith, except he made no mention of the Segraves lawsuit (an interesting omission for the Berkeley lawyer that put him doubly removed from Segraves YEC world).

Just how far up the philosophical food chain such games were being played was illustrated early on in the ID debate when former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork (1927-2012) felt disposed to sideswipe evolution in his diagnosis of the ills of modern American society, Slouching Towards Gomorrah:

The major obstacle to a religious renewal is the intellectual classes, who are highly influential and tend to view religion as primitive superstition. They believe that science has left atheism as the only respectable intellectual stance. Freud, Marx, and Darwin, according to the conventional account, routed the believers. Freud and Marx are no longer taken as irrefutable by intellectuals, and now it appears to be Darwin’s turn to undergo a devaluation.

The fossil record is proving a major embarrassment to evolutionary theory. Though there is ample evidence of evolution and adaptation to environment within species, there is not evidence of the gradual change that is supposed to slowly change one species into another. A compelling argument for why such evidence is missing is provided by the microbiologist Michael Behe. He has shown that Darwinism cannot explain life as we know it. Scientists at the time of Darwin had no conception of the enormous complexity of bodies and their origins. Behe points out that for evolution to be the explanation of features such as the coagulation of blood and the human eye, too many unrelated mutations would have to occur simultaneously. This may be read as the modern, scientific version of the argument from design to the existence of a designer. Bork (1996, 294).

Evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr (1996d) noted Bork miscued even when it came to what manner of scientific discipline Behe represented: “Revealing his expertise on such things, Bork misidentifies Behe as a ‘microbiologist,’ not a biochemist.” The two fields are not the same (the former deals with the activities of microorganisms, while the latter focuses on the chemical details of living systems, but not necessarily engaging how they relate in a larger biological context). Behe’s published work related primarily to protein folding, not blood clotting or eye evolution, and certainly not paleontology.

What the Bork passage does exhibit is all the methodological delinquencies of the creationist worldview in dehydrated form. There is the conflation of evolution with atheism and radical politics, with the presumption that once these annoying obstacles are elbowed aside the business of spiritual regeneration will proceed unimpeded. Just what functional bearing all this could have on substantive questions like dinosaur phylogeny or variations in genetic sequencing never occurred to Bork, who was in far too much a hurry sprinting for the Light to offer any documentation other than Darwin’s Black Box.

But invoking Behe here was disingenuous on several levels. First, Behe did not discuss the fossil record or the speciation process at all in Darwin’s Black Box, so how exactly was Bork divining what the state of evolutionary evidence was? In fact, in one of the more remarkable declarations in the antievolutionist canon, Behe (1996a, 5) explicitly stated: “I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it.” That Bork could skip past this stupefying concession should not be unexpected, for Behe managed to sidestep all its implications rather gingerly as well, though Young Earth Creationists like Thane Ury (1997) certainly noticed over at Answers in Genesis.

It is also interesting to consider that Darwin’s Black Box appeared the same year as Bork’s own book, raising doubts about just how thoroughly the Supreme Court nominee could have digested its technicalities (and merits) any more thoroughly than hair-trigger creationists had, before deploying its “compelling argument” against evolution. Unless, that is, Darwin’s Black Box came along serendipitously to reinforce Bork’s own predilections, and so became fodder for precipitous citation, not measured assessment.

As the evidence in Downard (2004) illustrated (and section 1.3 on punctuated equilibrium has teased you with), far from being a “major embarrassment” to evolution, the fossil record has abundantly comported to its expectations. In this respect Bork sounded exactly as confident (and glib) as Hank Hanegraaff (2005b) when likewise affirming how “the fossil record continues to be an embarrassment to the Darwinian theory of evolution” while drawing on the creationist undertakings of Morris & Parker (1987).

Furthermore, despite Bork’s authoritative tone about evolution only occurring “within species,” the fact remains virtually all creationists (let alone evolutionists) tactically admit quite the opposite in just the cavalier way Behe had. Antievolutionists endeavor to cordon off its nasty effects, of course, by dismissing the process as merely “microevolution” within amorphous “types” (the current buzzword replacement for the more obviously scriptural term, “kinds“). Behe’s shallow acquiescence to common descent notwithstanding, rank-and-file creationists “accept” speciation with one hand and push it away with the other, for they never apply this insight to seriously evaluate life in the past. For quite sound reasons, as it happens, as once you start playing the speciation “connect-the-dots” game you end up with theologically unacceptable chains of “macroevolutionary” transformation. Better then to just not play.

Bork evidently thought it perfectly acceptable to submit these sweeping generalities about what the state of modern evolutionary thinking was without even a ripple of familiarity with any actual evolutionary technical literature. He may well have thought his comprehension of the problem was so apparent and reasonable no corroborative citation was necessary, just as I saw no need to drop piles of background for my claims about the scientific vacuity of astrology back in section 1.2 (though one is perfectly capable of doing so). But since the evolutionary character of the fossil record and the objective status of speciation are actually at such complete odds with Bork’s account, something more than thin air should have been tendered in defense. This is doubly ironic, given how finicky Bork was during his confirmation hearing about several Supreme Court rulings, criticizing their supposed reliance on “penumbral” constitutional rights inadequately specified to his satisfaction. Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah had conjured up his own penumbral fossil record, and hung on it the sins of the modern secular world.

What effect Bork’s cavalier conceit might have had on matters of creationist litigation had Bork been confirmed to the court is anybody’s guess. We already had the examples of Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist dissenting from the 1987 Louisiana “balanced treatment" law. But by the late 1990s the antievolutionary center stage had moved from Creation Science legislative overreaching to Intelligent Design public relations.