By Andrew Egger
How do you brew an evolutionary culture war? Take one long-standing religious tradition, then add one serious scientific challenge. Season with cultural suspicion, and add a dash each of class prejudice, anti-intellectualism, and intellectual arrogance. Take outside and let curdle in the sun for a century.
The age-old (for us) conflict of creation and evolution carries with it much of the same baggage as any of our other cultural battles. It’s reverence versus progress; religion versus science; fundamentalism versus modernism; the Middle Ages versus the Enlightenment. The overwhelming evidence indicates that all life evolved from a common ancestor, said the evolutionists. Not so, quoth the creationists: God created all in seven days, each according to their kind.
A twist: there is a third party to this particular war. The Intelligent Design movement, or ID, styles itself creationism’s more urbane and sophisticated cousin. Proponents of Intelligent Design divest themselves of the faith-based argumentation and Genesis cheerleading that branded creationists as fundamentalists, picking up instead the measured and evidence-based rhetoric on which the evolutionists so pride themselves. Let’s not get caught up in the authenticity of B.C. scrolls, the Design movement soothes; we’re not trying to push any religion here — but we do have a couple concerns we hope you evolutionists can answer. Aren’t your methods here a tad unreliable? Could all this diversity really have sprung out of nothing? And what do you have to say about irreducible complexity?
ID is a tempting prospect for creationists. After years of ridicule for their anti-intellectualism, it’s a constant delight to make evolutionists squirm (so they think) in the witness booth. But the sad truth is that Intelligent Design is a subterfuge, a deliberate misdirection — in short, a lie. It atrophies creationism; it does not strengthen it.
Whatever their drawbacks, both creationism and evolution are vitally coherent systems of thought. Genuine creationism can go one of two directions: it can accept an account of evolution driven forward by almighty God, or it can wash its hands of a scientific account of our origins, choosing instead to throw itself entirely on the higher authority of revelation, humbly choosing to value the foolishness of God above the wisdom of men. Creationism without evolution must be a kind of mysticism: it must be Abraham and Kierkegaard, steeped in humility, abjuring its own powers of discernment, casting itself entirely upon God’s words. Promising to supply the scientific rigor that creationism had lacked, Intelligent Design merely robs the Christian creation account of any vitality it already had by presuming to ground its origins in pseudoscience.
For nearly a century, we Americans have waged our evolutionary war primarily on the grounds of what is to be taught in our schools. The adults, we know, will turn out cranky and ornery and believe whatever they damn well choose — it’s a free country. But the kiddies strike a different nerve with us: they’re young and impressionable; they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them in a world that still rises, pregnant with hidden meaning, before their wondering eyes. Imagine if THEY were to get ahold of the minds of our kids — cramming them with pseudo-scientific fundamentalist gobbledygook until they can’t see straight. Or imagine if THEY got in charge: dogmatically peddling groupthunk evolutionary “theory” to conscript new shock troops for the Atheist Agenda.
It’s appropriate, then, that this war’s most important battles have all taken place around the classroom. In 1925’s infamous Scopes Trial, William Jennings Bryan went fifteen rounds against Modernist Evil to decide whether Darwinian evolution could legally be taught in public schools. At that time, the war had only two factions: creationists and evolutionists. And the creationists were losing ground at every step. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that the teaching of creationism in science classrooms violated the Establishment Clause. Scrambling creationists then tried to argue that classrooms should “teach the controversy,” but that was shut down in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987.
It was at this last hour that a creationist think tank called the Foundation for Thought and Ethics hatched the strategy of Intelligent Design. Creationism was too closely tied to the Christian faith; they had finally despaired of wedging it back into the science classroom. But what if creation could be taught without that theological baggage? It would be framed purely as an intellectual exercise, a stern evidential hurdle that Darwinism could not conquer. It would merely demonstrate that evolution was not a sufficient scientific mechanism to explain the development of life on earth — and with evolution dethroned, creation would be the only origin story left standing. (FTE’s own revamped “intelligent design” textbook, Of Pandas and People, contained an instance of the unfortunately incomplete revision “cdesign proponentsists.”)
There was one major problem with this “It’s science!” strategy: It isn’t science. To see this, one need only compare it to Darwin’s own theory.
Evolution, love it or hate it, has proven biology’s single most compelling unifying theory of the past five hundred years. Endless are the phenomena for which evolutionary theory provides the only compelling overarching explanation. Among these: the staggering number of species which live in only a single place on earth in symbiotic relationship with their individual surroundings., or the bizarre fact that all organisms of all kinds are composed of the same two building blocks of life, DNA and RNA, or the dizzying fact that most organisms share most of their DNA with one another. So all-important and all-encompassing has this theory been since its inception that Theodosius Dobzhansky was moved to say in 1973 that “nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
None of this is to say that Darwinian evolution provides an infallible method for understanding the natural world. But denying the importance of evolution as unifying theory to biology is tantamount to denying the importance of Newton’s Laws as a unifying theory to physics. It may not be spot-on, but it’s the best explanation we’ve got yet.
So ID advocates want to convince us to abandon this theory. What unifying conception do they offer us in its place? In short: Nothing. The ID movement offers no science at all, no way of making sense of our natural world. This is not, after all, their goal: They intend only to poke science-inflected holes in the dominant evolutionary framework, not to offer a scientific framework of their own to take its place.
And it is precisely this lack of a replacement framework that betrays ID for the fiction that it is. So long as no other option exists to replace evolution, the theory remains utterly impervious to ID’s endless refrains of “But isn’t that improbable?” Of course it’s improbable, the evolutionist replies; isn’t it lucky for us that it happened regardless?
In the end, there is only one compelling reason why people might believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old: because they believe that the Being who put it there in the past 10,000 years informed them Himself. Is this science? No — but it isn’t trying to be, and in fact it might be more than science. Intelligent Design, on the other hand, which aspires to be science and fails, is quite certainly less. “Have you heard the good news about the revelation of our great God?” asks the creationist. “No one has ever seen God — but the only God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made him known.” “Have you heard the good news about irreducible complexity?” asks the cdesign proponentsist. “Those evolutionists sure are stupid!”
Creationists lost the war to teach their origin story in science classrooms. This is hardly surprising; no creationist has ever made a scientific case for their beliefs. Where they erred was in assuming that scientific knowledge would always beat out “mere” revealed truth. They would have been better served spending their energy in educating their children about the proper balance between different modes of human knowing rather than pushing a pseudoscience.
The former might have produced thinkers cognizant of the complexity of truth in the world, capable of approaching nature with sensitivity and nuance. The latter has only produced a generation of anti-intellectuals and fundamentalists, of pseudoscientists who approach biology with folded arms and a sneer.
Andrew Egger is a senior studying history.