Science vs. science
The debate over the teaching of evolution isn?t just in Kansas
anymore, as other states take up the issue. While these battles make
headlines, they are the fruit of a scholarly movement that has shaken up
the scientific establishment. Four ?Intelligent Design?
revolutionaries who are fighting Darwinists on their own terms
by Lynn Vincent
The evolution debate reignited this month as Oklahoma Attorney General
Drew Edmondson ruled that Oklahoma?s State Textbook Committee doesn?t
have the authority to require that biology textbooks carry a disclaimer
that calls Darwinism a ?controlversial theory.? (Committee members
plan to challenge the ruling.) Meanwhile, in Louisiana, the Tangipahoa
School Board voted 5-4 against taking a defense of a similar disclaimer to
the U.S. Supreme Court after an appeals court declared that the disclaimer
While none of this is good news for those who question Darwinism, one
thing is clear: Darwinists are being forced to play defense. A major
reason why is the emergence over the last few years of the Intelligent
Design movement?a group of scholars and writers who argue that the world
and its creatures show evidence of design. Who are some of the authors
behind this movement?
Ignore That Man Behind the Curtain
In 1987, when UC Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson asked God what
he should do with the rest of his life, he didn?t know he?d wind up
playing Toto to the ersatz wizards of Darwinism. But a fateful trip by a
London bookstore hooked Mr. Johnson on a comparative study of evolutionary
theory. And by 1993, Mr. Johnson?s book Darwin on Trial had begun
peeling back the thin curtain of science that shielded evolution to reveal
what lay behind: Darwinian philosophers churning out a powerful scientific
Darwin on Trial was the result of Mr. Johnson?s years-long,
lawyerly dissection of arguments for evolution. The forensic strategies of
prominent evolutionists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould
reminded Mr. Johnson of courtroom sleight-of-hand: Their materialist
definition of terms decided the debate before opening arguments could
begin. ?I could see,? he said, ?that evolution was not so much
science as a philosophy that Darwinists had adopted in the teeth of the
Once evolutionists read his book, they were eager to sink their teeth
into Mr. Johnson, whom they saw as a middle-aged, Harvard-educated
dilettante sticking his unscientific nose where it didn?t belong.
Critics lined up to debate him. But once engaged, his adversaries found
him to be both ruthlessly intelligent and maddeningly congenial. With his
agreeable, favorite-uncle face, wire-rimmed specs, and a perpetual smile
in his voice, it was hard not to like Mr. Johnson as he shredded their
arguments. And, of all things, he even wanted to be friends when the
debates were through.
?I?ve been overplayed as a controversialist,? said Mr. Johnson,
who sees such bridge building as his greatest strength. ?I see myself as
a person who tries to build alliances and friendships. To win the debate,
you have to carry both the moral high ground and the intellectual high
ground rather than try to win by any sort of power tactics. That?s
really what we?re trying to teach people.?
The ?we? is the cadre of intelligent design (ID) proponents for
whom Mr. Johnson acted as an early fulcrum. In the early 1990s, as
formidable scientists and theoreticians like Michael Behe, William Dembski,
and others emerged in support of design theory, Mr. Johnson made contact,
exchanged flurries of email, and arranged personal meetings. He frames
these alliances as a ?wedge strategy,? with himself as lead blocker
and ID scientists carrying the ball in behind him.
?We?re unifying the divided people and dividing the unified people,?
he said, adding that the ?unified people? refers to Darwinists who at
present occupy increasingly dissonant camps. The debate, he argues, is
being successfully reformulated in a way that changes the balance of
influence and ?puts the right questions on the table.?
Evidence of an influence shift comes in varied forms: For example, Paul
Nelson, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, was
able to get approval for a Ph.D. dissertation arguing against the theory
of common ancestry?a mighty feat at a liberal, secular university. (Mr.
Nelson?s book on the same topic will be published this year.) and Baylor
mathematician William Dembski is spearheading a conference in April at
which heavy-hitting secular academics will present papers on both sides of
the evolutionary argument.
Such double-edged debates delight Mr. Johnson. ?The whole ?wedge?
philosophy isn?t that you present answers and people listen. It?s that
you get people debating the right questions, like ?How can you tell
reason from rationalization?? and ?Can natural processes create
genetic information??? This summer, Mr. Johnson will publish a new
book, The Wedge of Truth, a volume that frames fundamental questions he
feels people ought to be debating in the controversy over origins.
?Once you get the right questions on the table,? Mr. Johnson said,
?you can relax a bit, because if people are discussing the right
questions instead of the wrong ones, then the discussion will be moving in
the direction of truth instead of away from it.?
The Third Atom Bomb
The reeducation of Michael Behe began in a green recliner. On a chill
fall night in the same year Mr. Johnson was seeking direction from God,
Mr. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Pennsylvania?s Lehigh
University, sat at home in that recliner, transfixed by a book that shook
the very foundations of his own understanding of science. It was three in
the morning before he finished Michael Denton?s book, Evolution: A
Theory in Crisis, and turned out the lights. Nine years later, Mr.
Behe himself published a book that began turning out the lights on the
theory of evolution.
?Although I had pretty much believed evolution, because that?s what
I was taught, I always had an uneasy feeling and questions in my mind,?
said Mr. Behe, a Roman Catholic who grew up in a family of eight children
in Harrisburg, Penn. ?After reading Denton?s book, and seeing his
rational, scientific approach to the problem, I decided I had signed on to
something that just was not well-supported. And, since evolution is such a
strong component of many people?s view of how the world works, I started
to wonder: What else have I been told that is unsupported, or not true? It
was a very intense, intellectual time.?
That intensity ultimately gelled into Darwin?s Black Box (Free
Press 1996), a book that hit secular scientists like an atom bomb. Charles
Darwin himself had already provided a pass-fail test for his theory: ?If
it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not
possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications,
my theory would absolutely break down.? Mr. Behe?s book (now in its 16th
printing) was the first to administer Mr. Darwin?s own test at the
molecular level. Using simple yet scientifically bulletproof analyses, Mr.
Behe showed that even at the cellular level many structures are ?irreducibly
complex,? meaning that all parts of a structure have to be present in
order for the structure to function at all. Thus, the slow, gradual
changes proposed by Darwin were as likely to have led to the spontaneous
formation of complex structures as are flour, sugar, eggs, and milk likely
to gradually coalesce into a wedding cake.
Mr. Behe wrote: ?Applying Darwin?s test to the ultra-complex world
of molecular machinery and systems that have been discovered over the past
40 years, we can say that Darwin?s theory has ?absolutely broken down.??
Most of Mr. Behe?s secular critics did not, of course agree. His work
has been the target of both scholarly rebuttal and brainless invective.
But on the whole, Darwin?s Black Box received surprisingly
respectful treatment. Not only did many Christian groups name it one of
the most important books of the 20th century, but reporters
from the mainstream press also flocked to Bethlehem, Penn., to see what
made Mr. Behe tick. Secular universities slated him for speaking
engagements. The venerable New York Times even shocked Mr. Behe by
inviting him to submit an article explaining the main thesis of his book.
Still, Mr. Behe, who seems somewhat embarrassed that his name appears
on ?important author? lists with the likes of Tolkien and Solzhenitsyn,
doesn?t see himself as a scientific crusader. He doesn?t look like one
either. At a recent conference on intelligent design, the bearded Mr. Behe
emerged as the Anti-Suit. Opting to take the podium in his usual uniform
of a plaid shirt, blue Jeans, and workboots, he looked, while lecturing,
like what he is: a dad.
?I do not see myself as called to overturn thinking on evolution in
the world,? Mr. Behe said. ?My primary focus is my marriage and my
family. I see myself as called to raise my eight children, and anything
else is gravy.?
But what about having written a book that decimated the fallacious
underpinnings of modern science? That, he allows with a smile, is pretty
good gravy indeed.
It?s easy to imagine what William Dembski?s wife finds in the dryer
lint trap after washing her husband?s pants: equations. Long, elegant
equations replete with tangents, vectors, and permutations tangled
unceremoniously with tissue shreds in the lint trap. When Mr. Dembriski
speaks, equations come out. When he writes, equations come out. Surely he
must keep a few spare equations in his pockets.
A mathematician with two Ph.D.s and director of Baylor University?s
Polyani Center, an information theory research group, Mr. Dembski is a
long string-bean of a man who would rather listen than speak. But swirling
behind his glasses and thin, angular face is an intellect that helped
vault intelligent design theory from the realm of the possible to the
province of the probable. His book, The Design Inference: Eliminating
Chance Through Small Probalilities (Cambridge University Press 1998),
set secular scientists? skirts afire by crafting for the first time a
scientifically rigorous ?explanatory filter? for detecting design.
?In the scientific community, there is always the worry that when we
make an attribution of design, that natural causes will end up explaining
it,? said Mr. Dembski, who is also a Discovery Institute senior fellow
and the man whom author George Gilder once called ?God?s
mathematician.? ?There?s the sense that we can?t do science?
with design because we can?t get a handle on it, or do it reliably. My
work is aimed at refuting that view and showing that we can have a
reliable criterion for detecting design and distinguishing it from other
modes of explanations? of orgins.
Mr. Dembski describes his own formative concept of origins as a ?vague,
theistic belief.? The son of a biologist (he now lives in Irving, Texas,
with wife Jana and 8-month old daughter Chloe), he said: ?There was a
time when I accepted some form of evolutionary theory.? But his
understanding of God as the designer solidified early in his 20-year
Christian walk. Still, he points out that his theories?and intelligent
design theory in general?spells designer with a small d.
?Although I would personally identify God as the designer on theological
grounds, the Bible is not entering into these discussions. Intelligent
design theorists are trying to make it a fully rigorous, scientific
As a result, Mr. Dembski sees not only a growing acceptance of ID
theory among scientific faculty at Christian colleges, but also an
emerging community of theistic academics at secular universities. But
Massimo Pigliucci isn?t one of them. A biologist, Mr. Pigliucci?s
sputtering, angry review of The Design Inference published in the
journal BioScience called Mr. Dembski?s work ?trivial,? ?non-sensical,?
and ?part of a large, well-planned movement whose object . . . is
nothing less than the destruction of modern science.?
Mr. Demski loved it. ?If the worst humiliation is not to be taken
seriously, at least we?re being taken seriously,? adding that even
fellow Darwinists panned Mr. Pigliucci?s intemperate reaction to Mr.
Dembski?s book. ?If we?re generating such strong, visceral
responses, we must be doing something right.?
Making It Clear
When it comes to baby toys, Steve Meyer doesn?t play favorites.
Whether he?s lecturing 19-year-old college freshman or arguing for
intelligent design before science elites, Mr. Meyer has no qualms about
pressing together chains of brightly colored snap-lock beads or launching
a superball across the room.
All, of course, in the name of science.
?I?ve found that most people, even scientists, don?t mind having
ideas made clear,? said Mr. Meyer, a philosopher of science and a
professor at Whitworth College in Spokane. ?In intelligent design,
making ideas clear is all to our advantage because the case for Darwinism
really depends a lot on obfuscation. So, if (Darwinists) can conceal that
with lots of difficult jargon and technical terminology, they can keep
everybody but the experts out.?
It?s Mr. Meyer?s aim to let the non-experts in. Tall, intense, and
personable, he calls himself a ?shameless popularizer? and is the
acknowledged PR-guy for the design movement. Speaking to a mixed group of
scientists, philosophers, and journalists at a recent intelligent design
conference in L.A., he blew up balloons and slapped magnetic letters on a
child-sized whiteboard to simplify explanations of evidence for design in
DNA. When he was through, the philosophers and journalists actually
understood what he was talking about.
Mr. Meyer arrived at his own understanding of life?s origins between
shifts at Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) oilfields in Dallas. After graduating
from Whitworth in 1980, Mr. Meyer went to work for ARCO as a geophysicist.
In 1985, a conference convened in Dallas that brought together top
philosophers, cosmologists, and biologists to discuss the
interrelationship of recent scientific findings and religion. Mr. Meyer,
who basically wandered in off the street to listen in, found his own
vaguely held notions of theistic evolution dismantled by former big-gun
Darwinists who had themselves concluded that scientific evidence pointed
to an intelligent designer of the universe.
?For me, it was seminal event, a turning point,? Mr. Meyers said.
?I saw that there was an exciting, intellectual program here worth
pursuing. ?It was a turning point that would lead him to Cambridge
University where, in 1991, he earned his doctorate in the history and
philosophy of science for a dissertation on origin-of-life biology.
Now, Mr. Meyer divides his time between Whitworth and his position as
director of the Seattle-based Center for the Renewal of Science and
Culture. The center, says its mission statement, ?seeks to challenge
materialism on specifically scientific grounds. ?Mr. Meyer said the
center was founded as an academic end-run around secular university
research departments held hostage by Darwinists. With its corps of 40
research fellows in disciplines ranging from genetics to biology to
artificial intelligence, he contends the center has the academic firepower
to engineer a profound shift in the naturalistic paradigm that now
dominates the culture.
For his part, Mr. Meyer stays busy with fundraising, budget management,
and his own research on the evidence for design in DNA. (His book, DNA
by Design, will be published this year). He also keeps design theory
alive in public forums. For example, when last year?s controversy
regarding the teaching of evolution in Kansas erupted, Mr. Meyer debated
evolutionary biologists on National Public Radio. And his science and
op-ed pieces appear in major papers, including The Wall Street Journal
and the Los Angeles Times.
Of course, his critics publish op-eds of their own. He, like his ID
colleagues, is regularly slammed as ?anti-scientific? and ?anti-intellectual.?
?The Gatekeepers of evolutionary theory are very worried about the
design movement,? Mr. Meyer said. ?It?s got a huge appeal with
students, it?s framed in a way that makes their position very
unattractive, and the evidence supports it. When it was religion versus
science, evolutionists won that debate everytime.?
Now, it?s science versus science, he said. And the debate
evolutionists had thought was settled has only just begun.
?Reprinted by permission from WORLD Magazine, Asheville, NC