1.7 Teach the Kulturkampf
The Intelligent Design movement comes along to save the day (and hide the ball).
Just as evolutionists were gearing up to joust with Creation Science, along came the Intelligent Design movement to turn the tables. In a way, it was the revenge of the American Scientific Affiliation approach to creation, which had never clutched at the deadening anchor of Flood Geology to begin with. Distracted by the glare of Henry Morris’ fireworks, evolutionary writers were often too busy targeting the carrying capacity of Noah’s Ark to notice the subdued emergence of religiously devout scientists and philosophers from the halls of academe. These new antievolutionists were holding up the Big Bang as the ultimate act of creation, while endeavoring to undermine the viability of naturalistic theories on the origin of life by challenging its very chemistry.
The first player on this new field came in 1984: Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen’s The Mystery of Life’s Origin picking through the limited research on prebiotic chemistry to argue that life could not have originated naturally. While the origin of life was an inevitable target for antievolutionary apologetics, the aforementioned Of Pandas and People filled another important niche. Put out by a group of Texas creationists for John Buell’s Foundation for Thought and Ethics, it was written by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon and intended as a supplementary school textbook. After the court losses in the 1980s its text went through iterative revisions to replace references to “creationism” with an even more neutral phrase: “Intelligent Design” (which creative evolution would come back to haunt the ID movement at the Dover trial in 2005, discussed below).
Even though its argument hadn’t changed, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics thought Pandas could serve as a secular resource along with the Thaxton book because, after all, neither explicitly mentioned any Creator, Matzke (2009c). The absence of Bible references satisfied Phillip Johnson (1991, 188) too, declaring “its methodology is far more empirical that of the Framework” used by the California State Board of Education. That characterization may be kept in mind in subsequent chapters when the empirical claims of Pandas are explored regarding such fossil matters as the reptile-mammal transition and bird origins.
The idea that showing “design” in nature implicitly favored Creation was an unspoken presumption that would immediately fall on receptive creationist ears, such as the premiere issue of Think & Believe (1984a) at Dave Nutting’s Alpha Omega Institute, which would extol the virtues of Pandas in Shaver et al. (1996) without ever acknowledging that scientists could object to the content of that work as factually flawed. Instead, their Kulturkampf perspective positioned Pandas only as a chip in the game they were playing with “the Humanist Left and their markedly evolutionist texts complete with naked apes and ‘evolving’ humans.”
Of course, the invigorated antievolutionary movement still had to deal with that pesky fossil record, and resolve its many evolutionary implications. Arguably the most influential work here was Australian biochemist Michael Denton’s 1985 Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. While Morris and Gish were wallpapering over their Biblical convictions to appear innocuous enough for secular consumption, and The Mystery of Life’s Origin and Of Pandas and People were presenting a secularized argument from within the religious community, Denton was not defending a religious position to begin with, and so readily restricted his argument to scientific issues and evidence. Touching (albeit very inadequately, as we’ll see) on topics from paleontology to biology, Denton impressed a lot of people for whom “Creation Scientist” was just a synonym for crank.
Though it attracted the cranks too, with Think & Believe (1989c) certain that it “demolishes evolution as usually taught in schools.” The Alpha and Omega Institute could have been let off the hook since Denton’s book was only a few years on the table at that time, were it not for Think & Believe (1995b) still retreading its content, such as his superficial treatment of bird evolution, covered in Chapter 2 of Downard (2004). And decades after Evolution: A Theory in Crisis appeared, the Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower (2010c) magazine was still invoking Denton (describing him as a “molecular biologist”) to support the claim that Darwinian evolution was “one of the greatest myths of our time.”
Although evolutionary theory wasn’t actually in crisis, as Spieth (1987) noted in his review of Denton’s book, people orbiting the cultural demographic who would very much like to see it that way were inspired by Denton’s example and got the full Intelligent Design ball rolling, starting particularly when Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson put Darwin on Trial in 1991. Johnson’s joining the antievolution campaign was a seminal event, galvanizing a host of activists who ultimately ended up associated with the Discovery Institute approach to antievolutionism. One of the Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwinism” signatories, chemist Leon Combs (2009), went so far as to think that Intelligent Design “is a creation theory developed initially by” Johnson, but views almost as effusive were offered by the various contributors in the laudatory Dembski (2006b) anthology, Darwin’s Nemesis. The Foreword by Senator Rick Santorum (2006) succinctly summarized what Johnson’s “extraordinary leadership” meant:
namely, to rid science of false philosophy. The importance of the cause is clear: what could be more important than showing that only a shallow, partisan understanding of science supports the false philosophy of materialist reductionism, with its thoroughly unscientific denial of formal and final causes in nature and its repudiation of the first cause of all being? As the decline of true science has been a major factor in the decline of Western culture, so too the renewal of science will play a big part in cultural renewal.
Readers at this point may pick up their jaw. The blithe certainty with which Senator Santorum (whose familiarity with the nuts-and-bolts of current scientific understanding has proven so far undetectable) professes that “true science” has been in decline (all downhill since 1859, Rick, or only since particle physics and plate tectonics?) is no more over top than the Olympian ambitions of the Discovery Institute (2002a) itself, which has declared that “Design theory promises to revitalize many long-stagnant disciplines by recognizing mind, as well as matter, as a causal influence in the world.” But looming over the laughable impression of current “materialist” science as mired in lethargic confusion is the transformation of this pseudo reality into “a major factor” in our cultural slide down into the abyss—and would that be national health care and gay marriage, or the decline in lynchings or pogroms or polio outbreaks, that signals our present iniquity?
Make no mistake about it: Rick Santorum and the sundry folk orbiting the Discovery Institute black hole believe exactly what they say. They genuinely are fighting a deeply felt culture war, striving to preserve the very stuff of civilization—or at least the culturally conservative stumps of it that poke through a forest of contemporary diversity many of them find increasingly discordant. However much the Intelligent Design debate plays out on the seemingly technical turf of which gene or fossils exist and what they may signify, behind the techno-babble is an army of culture warriors marching to the barricades in order to save Civilization as Only They Think They Know It.
That Johnson’s assault on evolution was going to play out on this fairly narrow Kulturkampf field was illustrated from the get-go by who paid attention to Darwin on Trial and who didn’t. The scientific literature didn’t bother with it after it appeared, presumably under the assumption that it wasn’t actually a work of science and so merited none. It did garner a flock of notice in Christianity Today, though, beginning with the favorable review by Woodward (1991) that August. When the nominees for best Christian books of the year were listed in November (p. 40), Darwin on Trial (a book that never explicitly mentioned Christianity or religious claims, remember) was among those 45 listed on “Contemporary Issues.” The April 6, 1992 issue (p. 41) announced that Johnson’s work had tied for runner-up as Book of the Year (losing to a work critical of evangelical feminism).
Doug Bandow (a Fellow of the laissez-faire conservative Cato Institute, and author or works like The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington) likewise enthused about Johnson’s pivotal work. “Johnson lacks a technical background,” observed Bandow (1991), “but he makes up for that deficiency with his ability to deconstruct poor reasoning.” A skill Bandow failed to apply to the many flawed arguments offered in Darwin on Trial (as we shall see in the chapters to come). Ray Bohlin (1992) also accepted Johnson’s arguments without critical reservation, as did Think & Believe (1992a) for the Alpha Omega Institute—though noting “Johnson does not ‘understand the concept of creation as narrowly as Duane Gish does’ (p. 113).”
Things came to a popular head for Johnson’s bomb after conservative author William F. Buckley (1925-2008) and his National Review magazine got into the act, suggesting Darwin on Trial was information too hot for nervous evolutionists to handle. When Buckley welcomed Johnson on his PBS Firing Line series, they demonstrated an inability to deconstruct the poor reasoning of their own as they engaged in a leisurely round of softball questions-and-answers. At that time a dedicated Firing Line viewer, it was through that interview that I first heard of Johnson and his book. Knowing a lot then about fossil data (for example the details of Archaeopteryx and the dinosaurs, along with the reptile-mammal transition) I was appalled at what I was hearing. In those pre-email days I wrote to Firing Line in umbrage, getting a reply where I learned that Buckley hadn’t actually read the work for himself, but had relied instead on a precise prepared by his sister. At that point I realized that the legal notepad he invariably had on his lap very likely represented just another instance of what may have been a standard practice for him: relying on his crib sheet for the secondary gleanings of possibly unreliable sources. With that methodological epiphany I could never take Buckley’s views so sincerely since.
Thus the Buckley episode marked a turning point for me both in my political perceptions but more significantly for my methodological ones. And as I commenced to analyze just how Johnson had put together his argument, diving ever more deeply into the technical evidence for evolution that Darwin on Trial so glibly traipsed past (or failed to make it onto Buckley’s notepad), I endeavored to hone my scholarly methods approach to an ever more precision instrument.
The design movement ratcheted forward one more notch when Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe entered the fray. Behe (2006b, 39-45) was deeply impressed by Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (though describing Denton as a “geneticist”) and when Science (1991) likened Darwin on Trial to Creation Science thinking, the protest letter Behe (1991) dispatched caught the attention of Johnson and he was “in the loop” from that time on. Though Behe has never investigated whether Johnson’s reasoning in Darwin on Trial really was all that distinct from what Creation Science had been churning out for twenty years (this is especially true for Johnson’s approach to the fossil record, but then Behe has shown no interest in that either), he pressed on along the Dentonian path to plant a design flag of his own.
Phillip Johnson organized a conference in California in 1993, gathering together a gallery of soon to be oh-so-familiar figures in the Intelligent Design movement: Michael Behe, William Dembski, Jonathan Wells, as well as two young YEC believers, Paul Nelson and Kurt Wise, Lebo (2008, 43-44). There was a deliberate effort at this point to “disagree amicably” (Nelson’s phrase) over those issues like the age of the Earth that were, when they stopped to think about it in the “big tent” way Phillip Johnson did, the only thing distinguishing Intelligent Design advocates from their YEC brethren. Indeed, as we’ll see, never would there ever be heard a discouraging word over any creationist geochronology claim (no matter how outrageous or strained) from anyone in this new Intelligent Design network.
Whether by natural temperament or intentional design, geochronology and temporal sequence played no role in the next big move made in ID’s Great Game. Prying open Darwin’s Black Box in 1996, Michael Behe declared all the “irreducible complexity” inside defied evolutionary explanation. This was the idea that some biochemical systems are too interlocked to have evolved by stepwise modification from functioning precursors—things like the immune system, blood clotting, or that Intelligent Design poster child, the rotating bacterial flagellum—which claims are investigated further in Chapter 4 of Downard (2004). The concept wasn’t all that novel in creationist circles, though, as Barbara Forrest (2008c, 192) noted of creationist Ariel Roth’s testimony at McLean v. Arkansas in 1982, but Behe’s Irreducible Complexity (IC) tag promptly gained antievolutionary traction.
Although the biological department at Lehigh did not share Behe’s ID enthusiasm, Darwin’s Black Box was promptly embraced by antievolutionists across the spectrum, from David Buckna (1996) and Ray Bohlin (1997) to Daniel Lapin (1999, 53), lauding those “courageous men” Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe for driving “six-inch, titanium steel nails” into “the coffin of Darwinian evolution.” At the Alpha Omega Institute, Mary Jo Nutting (1997) and Think & Believe (1997b; 1998a) enthusiastically recycled Behe’s arguments, as did one of their “avid 16 year old readers” Kristy Dean (1998)—though how deeply any of this took is hard to determine, as Dean’s post-essay antievolution footprint was as of June 2014 otherwise nonexistent.
Behe (2001b; 2013a) reflected the narrow Kulturkampf character of ID support on the occasions he has enthused how Darwin’s Black Box had been “named by National Review and World magazine as one of the one hundred most important books of the 20th century.” Note that it was not leading technical venues like Science or Nature or even general science magazines like Scientific American or New Scientist rendering these judgments, but a conservative political magazine and an even more conservative religious magazine (World was described as “our partners” by the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2001, and whose editor, Marvin Olasky, was actively circulating in Jerry Falwell’s fundamentalist creationism during the 1980s, section 1.6 above) while Behe’s work may have got a partisan leg up on the National Review list because George Gilder of the Discovery Institute happened to be on its selection board, National Review (1999).
The ID movement began to intersect with these political elements more directly when Behe and Johnson joined other advocates at the Discovery Institute, at that time a conservative Seattle think-tank devoted to regional business development and broader economic issues such as privatizing Social Security. The Discovery Institute hasn’t abandoned its political concerns by any means, reflected by their email traffic: Discovery Institute (2011h) announced their new “Center on Wealth, Poverty and Morality” (led by their Senior Fellow Jay Richards), while Discovery Institute (2013b) helped sponsor a conference on “Conservative Governance in Washington State: Prospects for the 2014 legislative session and beyond” paneled by three conservative Republican state legislators.
The revised 1992 edition of Of Pandas and People reflected this concatenation, as its publisher the Foundation for Thought and Ethics drew in more players. Behe and Stephen Meyer contributed material as the book was retooled along the new Intelligent Design lines in order to render it ostensibly creationism-free. Meyer’s “own skepticism about Darwinism had been well cemented” by the time he met Phillip Johnson in 1987, Meyer (2006, 33). An instance of what philosophical gravel was mixed into that cement would be the moralizing warning on “Human Rights: Blessed by God or Begrudged by Government?” he coauthored with Charles Thaxton for the Los Angeles Times, Thaxton & Meyer (1987).
Meyer helped found the Discovery Institute (more on that in due course) and eventually moved from his philosophy professor slot at Whitworth University in Spokane to take up a full time post at the Discovery Institute—pulling down a hundred and fifty grand in Seattle according to the 2010 records obtained by Sensuous Curmudgeon (2012c), which I suspect is a far better deal for Meyer than an associate professor’s pay was at his old college in the smaller pond of Spokane.
Mathematician William Dembski also came on board to promote his “specified complexity” approach to slaying evolution, inspired by the logic of the Thaxton Mystery of Life’s Origin book, though again retooling concepts that had been knocking around in creationist apologetics at least since Norman Geisler in the 1980s, Forrest (2008c, 192). In No Free Lunch in 2002, Dembski got about as detailed as he was ever going to get to suggest that genetic information and processes represent coded information that in principle could not have originated or developed by natural means. And because Dembski’s arguments are long on formulas and confidence, the imprimatur of mathematical certainty seemingly about them, “specified complexity” has been a very attractive ID argument. Discovery Institute (2014d) pegged Dembski as “one of the handful of true rock stars of the intelligent design movement”—perhaps showing as much facility here in redefining the meaning of “rock star” as they’ve lavished on retooling “the scientific method” and entombing the “evidence for evolution.”
One other figure at the Discovery Institute warrants primary notice: Jonathan Wells, the combative Unification Church minister whose 2000 book Icons of Evolution quickly took off as the ubiquitous resource for modern creationists, such as Gailon Totheroh (2001a-b) for the Christian Broadcasting Network, or Sonmor (2001) recommending it to the Alpha Omega Institute following. And it’s not hard to understand why: Wells insists that evolutionists are manipulative frauds who regularly distort the evidence, from the dino-bird Archaeopteryx to the peppered moth (where bird predation of moths against darker smoke polluted trees led to a color change from light to dark, and back again once air pollution was curtailed).
If you’re a creationist who needs somehow to dispose of all the contradicting evidence of regular science, it’s a lot easier to do that if you have someone like Jonathan Wells telling you that non-ID scientists are a bunch of fakers and frauds. Especially so if you never check up on Wells, which is not something the average creationist is disposed to do. As we’ll be seeing through the course of this book, though, Wells leaves out relevant information on a truly majestic scale, and would have netted him the title of “the Duane Gish of Intelligent Design” had Casey Luskin not come along in the meantime to outstrip Wells by sheer volume of output.
All of the core approaches of Intelligent Design (a flawed fossil record abetted by evolutionary fraudsters unable to accept the dire truths of Irreducible Complexity and Specified Complexity) fell into place during this early period among the Discovery Institute Fellows, and the following years have simply spooled their arguments out in various venues.