Monday, October 30, 2006


The Demise of Intelligent Design

When was it, exactly, that proponents of intelligent design gave up their larger ambitions?

In the early, heady days of the movement, the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture boldly proclaimed that it sought nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.

Neo-Darwinism, by which they meant the theory of evolution, would be stripped from the public school science curriculum to be replaced by intelligent design, a theory built on the proposition that human beings are created in the image of God .

The ID activists would erect a tent big enough to house both young and old earth creationists. There would be room as well for practicing scientists, such as Michael Behe, who embraced some aspects of evolutionary theory but wanted to hold onto Christian-inspired teleological beliefs without totally abandoning "operational science."

Within 20 years, they said, ID would become the dominant perspective in science. And, for a time, it seemed they might just be right.

A number of books -- Darwin on Trial by Phillip Johnson, Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe, The Design Inference by William Dembski, among a number of others -- were published. Academic Debates with mainstream scientists were organized and attracted an audience. Newspapers and magazines provided coverage, much of it favorable, to intelligent design claims. School districts began to discuss adding ID to the science curriculum. Politicians, including President Bush, took notice and introduced legislation that would have forced a reluctant science and professional education establishment to introduce high school students to intelligent design theory.

Despite that initial burst of enthusiasm, however, it was clear from the beginning that there were problems coded into the DNA of intelligent design theory.

Young and old earth creationists were, in many cases, unwilling to enter ID's big tent. For those literal-minded believers who simply want the Judeo-Christian creation story taught as fact in their children's science classes, the ID activist's jargon -- irreducible complexity and all that talk about information theory, and the bacterial flagellum -- brought back painful memories of the tedious hours they'd spent in high school biology waiting for the bell to ring.

Then too, the biblical literalist foot soldiers in the war on godless Darwinism, were never quite able to shake the suspicion that a too enthusiastic embrace of ID might somehow require a soul-endangering compromise with the bedrock of biblical principles.

Some of these religious fundamentalists were willing to support intelligent design on a tactical basis as a way of attacking evolution, but many were unwilling to leave organizations such as Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, or Reasons to Believe, which were often as critical of ID theory as the dreaded Neo-Darwinists.

Then, there were a series of defeats. Courts in Cobb County, Georgia and Dover, Pennsylvania rejected moves to write ID into the science curriculum. With those defeats, school boards edged away from their initial enthusiasm for ID, and the credulous tenor of much news coverage shifted -- becoming, in some cases, highly critical.

Perhaps the best indicator of that change is indicated by a piece by Cornelia Dean published last week in the New York Times. In an article about the Ohio school board election Dean described intelligent design as "an ideological cousin of creationism." And she went on to say:
Although researchers may argue about its details, the theory of evolution is the foundation for modern biology, and there is no credible scientific challenge to it as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth.

It's impossible say with any accuracy when intelligent design activists retreated from the broad vision they outlined in the beginning. Certainly there has been no Wedge-like strategy announcement. Rather, it's been a process -- a gradual awakening to the limited world they now inhabit.

The movement that once set its sights on becoming the predominant view in science now looks exclusively inward. It no longer seeks to win a broader audience, but to hold on to what it has now.

You can see evidence of the change in the increasingly tendentious writing to be found at Discovery's Evolution News and Views which has turned to an endless stream of complaints, each less convincing than the last, that the media somehow "misrepresents" ID.

William Dembski's Uncommon Descent blog has, since the Dover decision, been turned over to a small group of bathrobed basement activists whose writing indicates they are increasingly disassociated from reality. Dembski himself has made a series of bizarre charges against a range of scientists which he has later had to retract, but the lesson, it seems, is never learned.

Like zombies, this small cadre of intelligent design activists will live on, but the opportunity to win others to their ranks has now passed, and nowhere is that fact clearer than in the inward-looking writing of the ID activists themselves.


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