Category Archives: intelligent design

Ed Larson comes to town

Edward J. Larson was the guest for my department’s colloquium yesterday. It was neat to get a chance to talk with him during the graduate student coffee beforehand, where I was the host (even if it was hard to get a word in edgewise). Larson is an interesting character for a number of reasons. His research interests are admirably sprawling; he’s a legal scholar as well of as a historian of science, and religion, and politics, and law. He was Frank Herbert‘s lawyer; as he told it, it was his job to call up Frank and tell him when he’d been at his foreign residence too long and had to get back home to avoid extra taxes. He studied history at Wisconsin under Ron Numbers, and he shares an inordinate number of interests with my advisor Dan Kevles (including eugenics, law, the Galapagos, Antarctica).

Like Numbers (and unlike the vast majority of scientists and philosophers), Larson takes an extremely balanced approach to his work on creationism and its permutations (see his two books, Trial and Error and Summer for the Gods). And in lot of ways, he’s in a perfect position to do something powerful and significant for the public discourse over Intelligent Design. He has a track record with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Scopes Trial book, which is well regarded by creationists, anti-creationists, and historians of science (no mean feat). By odd coincidence, Larson was a fellow of the Discovery Institute, doing unpaid consulting on their Cascadia Project (which is funded mostly by the Gates Foundation, even now). He left when they got into ID, but obviously his connection there just adds to his credibility on the topic. Larson was at University of Georgia for a number of years, but recently moved to Pepperdine University, where he still does both law and history. Pepperdine is a Church of Christ school (coincidently, the non-denomination both Matt Gunterman and I grew up in); Larson was raised a Lutheran (I think of the ALC variety, now part of the ELCA ), though I’m not sure how religious he is now.

Anyhow, the point of all this is that a book on ID by Larson would demand respect from a lot of corners. When I asked him why he hadn’t done more with it (his latest projects are on the election of 1800 and Antarctic exploration), he got defensive. On the one hand, he insisted he had in fact written a lot on ID (articles in an assortment of popular venues; the updated version of Trial and Error; public lectures like the one he’s giving this afternoon; his appearance last year on The Daily Show). On the other hand, he explained, Intelligent Design is extremely hard to pin down. Each of the main figures at the Discovery Institute has a different take on what exactly ID entails, and each is defending a different set of metaphysical doctrines (obviously, even if not explicitly). To further complicate things, there’s the tricky relationship between “Intelligent Design” and “intelligent design”, the utterly blurred continuum from Phillip Johnson to William Dembski to Michael Behe to Mike Gene to Francis Collins to Ken Miller. So Larson said that Intelligent Design isn’t a discrete historical topic, and that this kind of thing (cultural/intellectual history?) is not what he does. (He has written a general history of evolution, a concept at least as historically amorphic and flexible as ID, but I digress.) His understanding of the complexity of the issue (as opposed to the polemics that currently pass as scholarly analysis, which tend to have a monolithic view of ID) is exactly why he should write the book on it. I guess the real issue is that he doesn’t think ID is a significant issue in the long term, which I think is (for better or worse) may not be the case.

On a related note, Horganism has a pair of posts (part 1, part 2) about an interview with Francis Collins that are worth looking at.

Terry Lectures: "The Science and Religion Debate: Why Does It Continue?"

Yale University’s annual Terry Lectures took place September 14 and 15. The topic was nominally “the science and religion debate”; actually it focused on American creationism and intelligent design. There were talks by sociologist Robert Wuthnow, physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga, biologist Kenneth R. Miller, and historian Ronald Numbers, followed by a panel discussion moderated by journalist Margaret Warner.

Robert Wuthnow – sociologist of religion – worldview: [unknown]

I missed his talk, but I gather that Wuthnow argued that many or most Americans do not engage with conflicting religious and scientific beliefs that they hold. Thus, there is actually much less conflict between science and religion than we should expect, given the diversity and prevalence of logically inconsistent views (held in some cases by the same person simultaneously).

Lawrence M. Krauss – cosmologist, popular author, and anti-ID activist – worldview: atheist

Krauss gave a talk that was apparently written for his normal anti-ID public lectures; there was nothing particularly new or interesting for followers of the ID debates and political goings-on, but he was an entertaining speaker. From the historian’s perspective, there were numerous nits to pick, the main one being his frequent invocation the Scientific Method and how it inherently precludes what ID is trying to do. To the historian of science, speaking of a single Scientific Method, and especially using such a defintion to make transhistorical proclamations about what science inherently is, is generally one of the first warning signals of scientism. He did make the boilerplate method-based anti-ID arguments, but he also added a warning of the dangers of the intellectual imperialism of science vis-a-vis other disciplines. Overall, though, it was more of a mobilize the base talk than an analyze the debate talk.

Alvin Plantinga – philosopher of religion – worldview: Calvinist, supporter of the philosophical idea of intelligent design, though not the ID movement and its claims of the scientificity of ID

Plantinga argued that evolutionary biology does not necessarily conflict with theism. In doing so, he divided modern evolutionary theory (rather perceptively, I think) into six distinct claims/theories: the Ancient Earth thesis, the Progress thesis, the Descent With Modification thesis, the Common Ancestry thesis, the Darwinism thesis (i.e., mutation and natural selection), and the Naturalistic Origins thesis. One might add a few more items in terms of alternate mechanisms and such (and quibble with the label “Progress” for the trajectory of evolutionary history) , but that covers main elements pretty well; Plantinga noted that with the exception of Darwinism requiring Descent With Modification, these are all logically independent.
He went on to claim that the theistic doctrine of creation is compatible with all of these theses–the caveat being that claiming positively that evolution is an unguided process, in which God plays no part (even an undetectable one), is a “metaphysical add-on”, an assertion of ontological naturalism rather than simply methodological naturalism. I think the audience expected that he would defend intelligent design (as a viable scientific hypothesis), and interpreted some aspects of his talk uncharitably, but this was mostly cleared up during Q&A.

Kenneth R. Miller – biologist, textbook author, author of Finding Darwin’s God ( a response to Darwin’s Black Box) – worldview: Catholic, anti-ID

Miller, as rumored, is a superb speaker and (in the words of one of my colleagues) “a virulent Catholic.” His talk was basically a selective look at recent goings on with the Intelligent Design Movement, mainly focused on various ways in which he as been there to combat it. The Dover trial, public lectures in other problem regions, his appearance on The Colbert Report, the use and misuse of his textbook, etc. Like Krauss, Miller partly aimed to relay the details of the ID happenings, and partly to dispel any doubts about its intellectual vacuity. Miller also had a significant section at the end devoted to explicating the compatibility of (Catholic) theism and modern scientific theories.

Overall I liked what Miller had to say and how he said it (he did far less trampling over the history and philosophy of science than Krauss), but I felt his treatment of the defense witnesses at the trial and the Discovery Institute’s role to be somewhat disingenuous, or at least misleading. He pointed out the statements of all three expert witnesses (Michael Behe, Scott Minnich, and Steve Fuller) to the effect that the meaning/definition of science should be revised, getting rid of methodological naturalism as a strict requirement. But rather than attempt any philosophical attack on that position, he quoted Behe to the effect that, in his proposed definition, astrology would fall within the realm of science. The problem is that for hundreds of years, astrology was a science; it was not abandoned by natural philosophers because of concerns about the definition of science, but rather, because philosophers became convinced that its (testable) predictions were worthless. To greatly oversimplify, it was falsified; it would remain wrong (I think the ID witnesses would agree) even if it were re-admitted into the scope of “science.” Of course, whether or not ID could be tested (or has already been falsified) even after setting aside methodological naturalism is a separate question. But using the astrology example (from the mouth of Behe) was an underhanded way to avoid either of those questions.

Like most ID critics, Miller fails to take the cognitive aspects of intelligent design seriously (as opposed to the theological and poltical aspects). Typically, critics first identify ID with wholesale anti-evolutionism, then proceed to summarize several of the many lines of evidence that clearly suggest the reality of evolution (i.e., descent with modification and common ancestry). Yet what gives ID most of its intellectual traction is (in some forms) its compatibility with a great portion of evolutionary biology. Miller quoted Behe’s denunciation of “Darwinism” from the intro Darwin’s Black Box, but ignored his claims to accept common descent. Plantinga pointed out that a sympathetic reading would suggest that Behe meant what Plantinga called “unguided Darwinism,” but Miller preferred to read an internal contradiction in which Behe accepted common descent yet totally rejected evolution.

I think it takes at least an advanced undergraduate level biological training to understand why the extant intelligent design arguments break down (without simply accepting an argument from authority, which is actually probably a reasonable thing to do); the reigning assumption is that it should be obviously to anyone who’s taken a year of high school biology (assuming evolution was on the curriculum). Thus the self-appointed defenders of science consistently underestimate the level of genuine intellectual interest and open-mindedness on the part ID proponents, and correspondingly overestimate their ideological motivations. Maybe my own first-hand experience with the ID movement (at the University of Oklahoma) was an anomaly, but I think the ID movement wouldn’t exist without a fair number of people who are interested in the intellectual aspects of ID more than the political-theological aspects. I’m also convinced that there is a lot more diversity of opinion within the ID movement than what is represented, for example, in the Wikipedia article, which fully equates ID with the Discovery Institute.

With respect to Miller in particular, this is picking nits. Mostly, he presented things in ways that, though clearly polemical, were factually defensible and not very distorted. I was actually surprised at how large a role religion plays in Miller’s scientific worldview; I don’t know how much I agree with his philosophy/theology of science (which actually matched up almost totally with Plantinga), but I enjoyed presentation (especially the way it got Krauss riled up).

Ronald Numbers – historian of science and religion, former president of the History of Science Society – worldview: non-religious (apostate 7th Day Adventist; husband of an evolutionary biologist)

Numbers talk was fine as far as it went, but it was basically just a history of science and religion in the Anglophone world over the last 200 years; intelligent design played only a minor role, and there wasn’t really anthing original or surprising (from the perspective of a historian of science) in the talk. He’s a great historian, so I was disappointed that he didn’t actually have anything novel to present about ID. I did get the chance to have dinner with Ron (along with another grad student and a couple faculty) the night before, which was very enjoyable.

I was hoping the Terry Lectures, in the printed version that will be published by Yale, would finally provide a scholarly, insightful, and fairly neutral resource for improving ID-related Wikipedia articles, but sadly that won’t be the case. However, the panel discussion should make interesting material for a historian of science and religion 50 years down the road.

Randy Olson’s science communication suggestions

Recently, the film Flock of Dodos was screened at Yale, followed by a discussion with the director Randy Olson, science writer Carl Zimmer, and others. As you might infer from the title, a poke at March of the Penguins, the movie is a humorous take on the public controversy over intelligent design. Unfortunately, I didn’t even find out about this until after it had come and gone. But the discussion afterwards focused on how evolutionists should deal with ID, and from the report of one of the students in Lloyd’s class, Olson recommended an excellent approach (with Zimmer providing an opposing perspective more in line with the approach of Panda’s Thumb, NCSE, etc.). Fortunately, Zimmer has provided some of the material, Olson’s 10 suggestions for “improving communication,” and I think he pretty much nails it.

Especially notable is number 3: “The most effective means of communication is through storytelling. The shorter, more concise, and punchier the story you can tell, the greater the interest you will hold with an audience.”

Effective storytelling is something that the scientific community as a whole simply fails at. But, ironically, the humanist disciplines (e.g., history) are nearly as bad. Scholars of all persuasions can continue, as PZ Myers suggests and John Lynch seems to support as well, to emphasize their strengths of “depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence.” But that just serves to further insulate an already insular group; putting more priority on effective mass communication does not mean abandoning good explanations, it just means making them available to non-scholars.

While the more practical branches of science might be able to justify their work in terms of the tangible technical payoffs that society gets from it, evolutionary biologists, historians, and most types of scholars simply don’t have any other reason to exist except for the general enrichment of society. Technical monographs and detailed case histories are a proximate goal to enhance the collective knowledge of a specialist community and body of literature, but we ought always to keep an eye on the larger goal of distilling the broad and deep scope of that literature into stories for the rest of society.

This is, of course, the same broad issue that draws me to Wikipedia, one of the easiest and most effective means of actually applying specialist knowledge to reshape public understanding. The way things are now, the extent of historical outreach is the occasional late-career book that aims at a (very limited) popular audience along with the requisite scholarly one. The only historical work that really makes it into public consciousness is what the media industries ask for from historians; Wikipedia (perhaps among other venues) is a chance for disciplines to shape their own public destinies and forge their own places in mass culture.

Review of The Evolution-Creation Struggle by Michael Ruse

I did a group book review for Beverly Gage’s class on American Conservatism last Spring, covering 4 books that deal in one way or another with the history of Intelligent Design. Best of the bunch was definitely Ruse’s book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle. (The others were Creationism’s Trojan Horse, Doubts About Darwin, and the 3rd edition of Ed Larson’s excellent Trial and Error.) In particular, I think Ruse’s book is relevant to all the pronouncements about the status of ID as science/pseudoscience/junk science and the frequent invocations of the mystical scientific method, in the wake of Kitzmiller v. Dover. And since I saw other sites mentioning the book recently, I thought I’d post that portion of the review. I also stumbled across this interesting interview with Ruse on the book.

My review:

Michael Ruse—who cultivates a great oval beard to emulate Darwin—has written about fifteen books, mostly on evolution, and edited about that many more. Ruse has a gift for melting down detailed historical scholarship and reforging it into something grander, capturing the broad themes in the history of evolution. His latest offering, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, demonstrates the historical continuity of thinking about creation, evolution, and the relationship between religion and science, putting Intelligent Design into context as a philosophical continuation of the same questions that partially-overlapping circles of evolutionists and Christians have been pondering and debating for hundreds of years.

Ruse begins by describing the cultural context in which evolution first arose, which is crucial for understanding the tensions and links between evolution and religion, then and now. Ruse argues that though “the eighteenth century did see much scientific activity, and some was certainly pertinent to the issue of evolution,” “metaphysical ideas played as big if not a bigger role in the origins of evolutionism.” Particularly, ideas of progress heavily informed the theories of virtually every prominent evolutionist before the 20th century, with the partial exception of Darwin himself. Ruse compares the spread of evolution after Darwin’s Origin of Species to the formulation of a religion from Jesus’ teachings, with T. H. HuxleyDarwin’s bulldog—playing the part of Saint Paul.

Ruse invokes a tripartite distinction of “pseudoscience,” “public science” and “professional science” to classify early work on evolution, demonstrating a remarkable parallel to Intelligent Design. He describes all the evolutionary theorizing before Darwin, from Lamarck to Robert Chambers, as pseudoscience, because it was derived as much from ideology as from empirical observations. With Darwin, evolution became public science; it was intellectually and empirically grounded, but it had little bearing on the actual practice of science. Even the celebrated evolutionary apologist Huxley, a great innovator in biological education, found room for only half a class on evolution in his two-year, 150-lecture course; while he championed the social and (anti-)religious dimensions of evolution in public speeches, he did not find it relevant for future scientists and doctors. Only with T. H. Morgan, and to a lesser extent Ernst Haeckel, did evolution become the pursuit of professional scientists, somewhat separate from ideology and metaphysics.

Ruse is thus more forgiving than most of the fact the Intelligent Design springs from religious ideas and has not been conducive to novel experimental work. Though ID is at best public science, if not pseudoscience, that does not preclude professional science in the future. Ruse is skeptical of its future potential as well, as he sees the retreat from methodological naturalism as a “science stopper,” but his commitment to a historical approach precludes the typical facile demarcation of science and religion as entirely separate entities, with ID consigned to the latter. In nearly a century and a half since Darwin, the relationships among religion, concepts of creation, and evolution have taken many forms, but religion and evolution have never been entirely distinct.

Ruse addresses the historical role of evolution as a secular religion, especially for the group of scientists who established the core modern evolutionary theory (neo-Darwinism or the synthetic theory of evolution) in the 1930s and 40s. A complicated set of connections grew up gradually among evolutionary theory, Christian theologies, secular and religious humanism, and theories of creationism. Of particular importance was, and is, the distinction between premillennialists and postmillennialists. Most creationism, particularly the tradition of creation science and flood geology, derives from premillennialist, fundamentalist Christian theology. Ruse also claims that for many evolutionists, such as Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, “evolutionism entail[s] its own brand of postmillennial theology.”

Intelligent Design represents a new mixture of scientific, philosophical and religious concepts, and Ruse does his best to separate each thread of ID for analysis. For each aspect, historical continuity is critical, and The Evolution-Creation Struggle makes sense of ID in terms of the very real and continuing tensions between science and religion without reducing history to the old trope of a war between science and superstition. While the conclusions will not sit well with ID proponents, Ruse separates his philosophical judgments from his historical analysis so that a wide audience will find this book useful.

Steve Fuller, Intelligent Design, great discussion

I know… I’m going to fail out of grad school because of too many unfinished papers because of too much time wasted on internet discussions.

But I start reading about ID, and I just can’t stop. This time, it’s Steve Fuller. I first encountered Fuller about a year and a half ago because I couldn’t resist the title of his Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History of Our Times. It was rather dense and mostly over my head, but I think he essentially argued that a) Kuhn’s philosophy as set forth in Structure, b) it’s acceptance by many scientists, and c) the considerable extent to which hegemonic scientific paradigms really do exist, have had a deleterious effect on science and science studies. Reinforcing dominant paradigms, making science less democratic, that sort of thing.

After the H-NET discussion I commented on earlier, I made my way to a parallel discussion on HOPOS-L, the History of the Philosophy of Science listserv. It all revolved around Fuller’s testimony at the Dover trial, where Fuller defended the status of ID as science (even though he thinks it’s bad science) and argued for the heuristic value of religious ideology as a motivational factor for scientic discovery… i.e., religious reasons can be and have been crucial for many scientific discoveries, even if the religious content is later removed. Naturally, this tack didn’t win Fuller many friends among the philosophers, but the discussion there was at least much more substantive and (astonishingly, considering the discipline involved) more historically grounded, since there was someone taking a pro-ID stance to prevent the boilerplate dismissal of ID like on H-NET.

Even more interestingly from my perspective, Fuller hinted at the division between organismal and molecular biology as being important with regards to the ID debate. This divide is exactly what I plan to do my dissertation on, and I became interested it in the first place because of ID. It turns out Fuller actually is working with this issue in his current project; a chapter of his in-press book is on the two biologies, and he sent it to me. (I haven’t read it yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it. That makes two STS heavy-weights who think my topic is important, interesting and on the right track, Betty Smocovitis being the other.)

Anyhow, I found more very interesting discussion with Fuller and critics on literature and cultural studies professor Michael Bérubé’s blog:

Bérubé mentions Fuller briefly.
Panda’s Thumb picks up the story via Antievolution.org.
Fuller responds, provoking much discussion. Fuller posts several comments, among the 167 of them.
Bérubé posts a response, with more Fuller posts (and now one by me, comment #48) in the ensuing discussion.

Interestingly,
Bérubé is currently writing about the Sokal Affair and seems to have a very reasonable take on it (especially for someone who publishes in Social Text seriously).

UPDATE: Now I have two more posts (##58, 65). Unfortunately, the thread has devolved somewhat; someone actually finds it “infuriating” that others assume the good faith of the people they’re having a discussion with (like me, and Fuller). Check out post #55 by “Lawrence Sober”:

“Sage is a classic example of what I’ve been railing against. He’s spouting off his conclusions without any evidentiary support. He’s repeating talking points torn right out of the Discovery Institute script.”

And it gets better from there. I especially like the call to repentance at the end.

State Science Standards vs. ACT Scores

A lot of the ID debate lately has revolved around science standards for high schools. (Despite my view of the relative vacuity of the science of ID, at least as it now exists) I’ve argued before that teaching ID in schools alongside evolution wouldn’t be terribly bad for the overall scientific competence of the nation, and that it might even be helpful for getting more people into scientific careers and keeping the US on top in science (assuming that is what we want). But what difference do the official standards really make anyway? Probably not much, compared to more tangible things like teacher quality, class size and other factors linked directly to money.

(Science booster) Paul Gross and The Fordham Foundation (a public education think tank that promotes charter schools) released a report on state science standards, grading each state, with evolution sub-scores. But, as it turns out, these grades of the state science standards don’t have much to do with actual effectiveness of science education. Mike Gene on the ID blog Telic Thoughts compared the report grades with the ACT Science sub-scores by state. Almost no correlation.

The most frustrating thing about the ID in high schools debates: what both sides presumably agree on (because both sets of people involved actually care about public school education) is that schools need more money, smaller classes, better science teachers, more equipment and textbooks, etc. But that’s not even on the agenda for discussion. Underfunded schools; that’s what should have people up in arms.

more Intelligent Design fun

To go along with the mess I posted last night, check out this bit of the blogosphere:

1. The Dilbert Blog: Intelligent Design, Part 1

Scott Adams writes with clarity about the problems of coming to sound conclusions about ID, and about problems of bridging between expert knowledge and public knowledge.

2. Pharyngula: Scott Adams is a Wally

PZ Myers attacks Adams.

3. The Dilbert Blog: Intelligent Design Part 2

Adams proves his point, echoing a lot of what I said in the post last night (before I posted it, as it turns out). I feel like I have a fairly good understanding scientifically of why ID fails, but it took a lot of effort to reach that point, because of precisely the problems Adams discusses.

4. Telic Thoughts: You might be a bullshitter if

Steve Petermann discusses Adams’s post in the context of the philosophy of bullshit, implying that the anti-ID side is the worse offender in this regard. You may get that impression if all the pro-ID stuff you read is Telic Thoughts (which is the least ideological source of pro-ID arguments), but there is definitely enough misrepresentation on the ID side as well. Particularly, the ID leaders claim to be trying to establish a scientific, non-religious ID theory, yet they take advantage of and encourage the religiously motivated school board actions.

H-NET Intelligent Design discussion

With all the Intelligent Design news lately, ID has been making the rounds on the H-NET H-SCI-MED-TECH listserv. Instead of writing papers, I got side-tracked by composing some responses to some of the discussion there.

I should start by saying that:

1) I don’t think there is any positive evidence of non-natural causes for science to find in nature (though I don’t completely rule it out), so don’t expect the ID program to be successful in the future.

2) ID is not a significant enough factor in the scientific community to validate including it in public school curriculum, assuming the point of science education is to teach the best science. The efforts to put it in schools are almost purely religiously motivated.

Having said that, I have to respectfully disagree with much of the discussion on H-SCI-MED-TECH, and I don’t think ID is as bad as most of the discussants seem to think.

Michael Roberts writes intelligently on putting ID in historical context, particularly vis-à-vis Paley. His points, with my comments:

1.  “Intelligent Design does not seek to explain
but to appeal to some intelligent designer to
certain things which seem to be beyond explanation
at present. This is what Behe does in Darwin's
Black Box. In fact it is a form of a god of the gaps
argument and he has received much criticism for that.”

The argument of Darwin’s Black Box is closely related to generic God-of-the-gaps arguments, but it does try to go beyond such negative to arguments to make a positive argument for design, particularly by analogy to other observable instances of design. Still, it is largely a negative, gaps-based argument.

2.  ID is not a rewrite of Paley as Paley
sought to explain Design not to appeal to it.”

[and following up on this point in a later email]

“In their understanding of Creation IDCs open themselves
to having a
split-level understanding of Creation, as part
designed and part
not… This is in contrast to the Design
of Paley and Buckland where all is designed.”

This is a serious philosophical and theological tension in ID, and does set it apart from Paley. While this criticism does not necessarily invalidate ID (on its own), it does detract from the potential potency of ID design arguments, which cede modest ground to evolutionary explanations—“a two-tier Creation” is somewhat unsatisfying.

3.  “ID must be put in historical context and
its connections with Young Earth Creationism
and an Old earth Creationism which is sceptical
of evolution. Barbara Forrest is helpful here.
ID may not be YEC but it is always going to bed
with YECs!! As a result they ignore any evidence
of the vast age of the universe and the earth.”

This is valid point, and the connections are indeed important, although ID advocates vary on their age of the earth opinions; many in fact reject YEC explicitly and do not ignore the accepted cosmic and geological timelines. As for Barbara Forrest, I find her (non­-)use of historical context appalling, at least in Creationism’s Trojan Horse. The fact that she co-writes with Paul Gross (of Higher Superstition fame) should be a tip-off that she doesn’t take the history of science too seriously (except as a history of the triumph of pure reason over ignorance and superstition).

4.  [B]e aware of the shoddy scholarship of both
ID and YEC, especially on its history.”

Indeed, although the same complaint can be made about the invocation of history on the part of the anti-ID side as well, while some ID advocates actually do use history fairly responsibly (David Swift in Evolution Under the Microscope, for example). Roberts himself has drawn attention to the misuse of history in anti-ID literature in this excellent review of Tower of Babel (and the review gives a better picture of Roberts’s general take than the snippets above).

Christopher Crenner of University of Kansas complains (rightly) that putting ID into the Kansas education system is simply naked politics, which sort of bypasses the whole issue of realism/social constructivism. With cultural politics dictating science education, we aren’t dealing with the same kind of subtle influence by which the social constructs the scientific; this is the political creating the scientific by fiat. But the core of his objection, it seems, is this:

“The intelligent-design faction lifts out
one central piece from an integrated and
coherent study of the life sciences,
holding it up for special critique.”

I agree with the “special critique” sentiment, but where did he go to high school? In my high school in Yukon, Oklahoma, the biology curriculum was utterly incoherent, and not just because evolution was either off the menu or so limited that I don’t remember it. High school science in general (and university science nearly without exception) is not integrated or coherent, and at that level it doesn’t necessarily need to be. High school science education isn’t about teaching kids the truth; science changes, and the simplified high school curriculum bears little resemblance to the actual state of the biological knowledge of scientists. Learning a smattering of Newtonian physics or Darwinian evolution doesn’t create responsible members of society, nor have much inherent value, but it may spark an interest in science. And Intelligent Design may do the same thing. ID isn’t any more disconnected from high science than the version of evolution that makes it into classrooms, and whether or not kids are taught a “right” or “wrong” theory (or both) is largely irrelevant. Each theory can enlist much more of the facts (or factoids, if you prefer) of biology than could be covered in a school year, and each could potentially demonstrate the empirical nature of science.

Hypothetical Situation:
Cosmo, a 10th-grader at Podunk High School, goes to biology class. His school board decided to “teach the controversy,” which is a step up from leaving evolution out of the curriculum altogether. Mrs. Benes (who also teaches home economics and coaches girl’s soccer) is ecstatic; now she can show the kids how ID is right and evolution is bunk. So Cosmo gets a head full of Intelligent Design Theory and decides he wants to become a biologist–not to be a culture warrior, but because he finds something he can connect with in (his school board’s version of) science. Most of his classmates also come out of high school “knowing” that ID is right, but they also know that the world isn’t just science versus religion; they know what the theory of evolution is, even if they don’t believe it. Better yet, they understand why it’s a cultural issue, though they are also under the impression that it is a genuine scientific controversy.

Cosmo goes off to college at Crazy-Go-Nuts State, and he majors in biology. He’s surprised that the other biology students don’t know anything about ID, and quickly comes to realize that there aren’t any scientists on campus who agree with it either (except for Professor Vandelay, a physicists who likes the anthropic principle arguments but doesn’t know any biology). He debates his classmates, and at least for his first two years, he wins easily. Like Aristotle’s physics vis-à-vis Newtonian forces, Intelligent Design is in many ways a lot more intuitive than abstract models of genetic changes and ad-hoc theories of co-optation. But the further he gets into science, and the more he reads about the ID debates, the more he realizes how powerful evolutionary explanations are, and the more he realizes the limits and fuzziness of Intelligent Design. He ignores the issue for a while, but he’s always looking for ways to weigh ID and evolution with evidence that isn’t already in the ID/evolution literature.

By the time he graduates, Cosmo is well ahead of the other biology majors at CGNSU (they were mostly pre-med anyway). All that time learning more and more biology (and physics, and math) to decide the whole ID thing for himself paid off, even if he still doesn’t feel like he knows enough to decide for sure between ID (a very weak version, probably encompassing universal common descent) and orthodox evolution. Fortunately he didn’t include his sympathy for ID (it certainly isn’t outright support anymore) in his graduate school application essays; Cosmo is soon on his way to study evolutionary biochemistry at a top-tier graduate school. In graduate school, any remaining sympathy he had for ID quickly evaporates. By the time he is publishing papers, he’s one of vast majority of scientists who simply don’t see ID as any legitimate scientific competition for modern evolutionary biology.

My own intellectual development took some similar turns to the fictional Cosmo; I didn’t become interested in biology until I took biochemistry my sophomore year at OU, but I probably would have had ID been taught in my high school. As a junior (and with a fair amount of biochemistry under my belt, in the class and the lab) I became interested in ID, but with plenty of skepticism and the expectation that a) the holes I saw in evolutionary explanations were probably my own ignorance, and b) ID could only work from a religious standpoint… it was God-of-the-gaps, but if the gaps were real, why not put God in them.

The more I read and learned (at first), the more I was convinced that in fact, there are a lot of recalcitrant holes and that, maybe, ID could be put on a mathematical, probabilistic footing that would make it more than God-of-the-gaps. I didn’t know much biology beyond biochemistry, but the biochemistry/molecular biology side of evolution seemed particularly weak (it still does in many ways, relative to the other realms of evolutionary explanation), and others argued that, in the same way, the more one knew about geology or organismal biology, the more shaky evolution seemed (the Dilbert Blog explains this argument well).

But ID only had the edge to a point. After about 2 ½ years of involvement with the ID issue, including quite a bit of enthusiasm for a while, I was largely back where I started (though knowing a lot more evolutionary biology and biochemistry), as a skeptic of ID. At this point, I don’t think ID is going anywhere scientifically. But it’s also not so intellectually indefensible as critics maintain; its failure is hardly self-evident without deferring to the opinions of the scientific community, particularly for non-specialists.

It isn’t a significant scientific controversy, but “teaching the controversy” in public schools is also not the end of the world. The fact is, a whole lot of biology makes sense without evolution… that’s why I could go through an undergraduate program in biochemistry without hearing a word about evolution (and even in core biochemistry graduate courses at Yale, it is mentioned on occasionally). Neither teaching ID nor neglecting evolution is going to make the United States fall further behind as a leader in science… if anything, I think ID might get more kids into science. And even if, as practicing scientists, they still disbelieve evolution (as a moderate number of molecular biologists, biochemists, and physical scientists do), it doesn’t make them bad scientists (although it would make them bad evolutionary biologists). After all, most biologists think in terms of classical physics (when they think in terms of physics at all), but it doesn’t make much difference to biology.

Moving on, Hall Triplett writes:

“"Intelligent Design" has been around for
centuries, only not in the form of a
scientific theory. It is a redesign of
the old ontological argument for the
existence of a supreme being. It was
presented by various philosophers as an
essential element in the philosophy of
religion until Kierkegaard refused to
accept it as essential and took his
famous leap of faith instead. It was
thoroughly debated in this century
between Father Copleston and Bertrand
Russell. The issue needs to be exposed
as ancient theology with only a new
scientistic name. It has a history,
just not in science.”

The problems with Triplett’s dismissal of ID here are manifold… critically, the history of “ancient theology” coincides significantly with the history of science. Design arguments of basically the same form as ID have been prominent from Plato to Descartes to Newton to Maupertuis to Kelvin to the modern exponents of the anthropic principle (including, apparently, Owen Gingerich), and from Linnaeus to Aggasiz to Osborne, through the Creationists and Creation Scientists of the 20th century, to the irreducible complexity folks. Trying to apply information theory (with very limited success thus far) to traditional arguments from improbability and analogical arguments is what perhaps sets ID apart from the traditional design argument. But the real weight of ID is that we simply know much more about the natural world than natural philosophers and natural historians did in Paley’s time, and if anything, Paley’s premise only got stronger the more we learned about the structure of living organisms. Of course, the theory of evolution also provided an alternate avenue of explanation which has been highly successful at explaining much of the seeming design in nature. It is a near consensus among biology experts that in fact, the evolutionary explanations are much better than the design arguments. The design argument stronger than it has ever been; it is only relatively weaker. That is why it takes an expert to decide between them.

For historians to suggest that ID is invalid a priori because it isn’t science is basically to abandon historicism in favor of political expediency; the modern definition of science (which assumes natural causes are the only causes that can exist) is a very modern invention, and the boundaries between science and not-science have never been particularly stable. It’s one thing to say, as either a scientist or a secularist or just a citizen concerned with church/state separation, “you’re a Creationist, and I’ve got to stop you.” It’s quite another for a historian to say, “you’re a Creationist, and because modern science says Creationism isn’t science, it must never have been science.” I don’t mean by that to completely conflate ID and Creationism; politically they amount to about the same thing today, intellectually there are significant differences both now and historically. Maupertuis, for example, argued extensively against mainstream 18th century natural theology; his position was—similar to ID—that, while looking to nature could demonstrate the existence of a designer, it could not help illuminate the characteristics of the designer… it couldn’t make the leap Paley and many before and after him would try to make, to equate the apparent designer with the God of the Bible. Every point on the spectrum between natural theology and philosophical naturalism has been part of what was considered legitimate science at some time.

As historians weighing in on the modern debate, I don’t think we can simply equate ID to earlier design arguments and judge it therefore as bad science (or bad theology masquerading as science). What we can do is, to the extent that we trust/endorse/believe in/accept modern science, defer to the judgment of scientists. If (as humanists still struggling with the limits of social construction and relativism) we can’t feel comfortable going along with the scientists for the sake of their expertise, we should withhold the verdict on ID, at least as far as its scientific value. Of course, that does not preclude fighting ID as a political movement and keeping it out of schools (though as I argued above, bad science in education doesn’t necessarily mean bad science education, from a pragmatic viewpoint).

I know many of my fellow historians of science will disagree strongly with a lot of what I’ve written here… please leave comments and criticisms.