Intelligent Design as a Reactionary Movement

The intelligent design (ID) campaign is in full swing. With the help of local ID proponents the Kansas state school board is revising science standards and President Bush’s appeals to teach all sides of the evolution “debate” ID’s public relations campaign seems to be bearing fruit. ID is widely regarded as unworkable as a scientific theory and ID has made virtually no inroads into the peer-reviewed scientific literature. What’s more despite claims to the contrary evolution shows no sign of waning in importance among professional scientists. To the contrary, modern biology continues to reaffirm the importance of evolution and common descent as central unifying principles in the life sciences. The president’s own science advisor, Dr. John H. Marburger, said it best during a February 14, 2005 visit to the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado saying, “Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. Period. What else can you say?” (For a complete transcript of Dr. Marburger’s comments see here)

So, where is the controversy? Why do proponents of ID theory claim evolution is in such dire straits among scientists? Why do they pose ID as a competing hypothesis? The truth is this is a controversy over faith not science. Conflict between science and religious faith is nothing new and with the dramatic growth of science in the past century people of faith feel their views have become increasingly marginalized. It is easy to view the current debate in terms of ID as a threat to good science and good science education, an attempt to inject religious beliefs into the public schools. In this view ID poses the threat and evolutionary biologists are reacting in defense. However, I think to fully understand this issue we also have to look at the flip side. The threat, either real or perceived, of evolutionary biology to the religious faith upon which ID is ultimately based is at the heart of the problem.

Science is neutral on matters of faith as scientific methodology has no means of dealing with divine supernatural agents and ultimate spiritual and moral purpose. This is not to say that such agents do not exist only that such phenomena are not a topic science may address. But, listening to many of the most vocal evolutionary biologists science’s neutrality in regards to religious faith is easy to miss. Richard Dawkins is famously quoted for his comment that Darwin has made it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist” (Dawkins, R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. W.W. Norton & Company, New York) and science philosopher and historian William Provine has written that those scientists of faith need “check their brains at the church house door” (Provine, W. 1988. Evolution and the foundation of ethics. Marine Biological Laboratory Science 3: 25-29.). More recently in response to an editorial in the journal Nature (Dealing with design. Nature 434: 1053) prominent evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne described the science classroom as a place where religious worldviews “crumble” (Coyne, J. 2005. When science meets religion in the classroom. Nature 435: 275). So, it is hardly surprising that people of faith feel their beliefs are under attack by scientists.

What are intelligent people of faith to do? Well, my view is that both sides should take the time to listen to the other and understand the role that both science and faith play in society and understand the limits of each. However, most have not chosen this route. The reaction of the faithful to the notion that the only ideas that carry any worth are those based around science, a notion fueled by the writings of Dawkins, Provine and Coyne, is to force one’s religious beliefs to be scientific.Voila! There you have it. Creationism! ID is the modern version of creationism and it has taken this approach as far as possible, attempting to lend scientific legitimacy to Judeo-Christian beliefs. I think it is high time for us scientists to start thinking about the evolution/creation controversy for what it is, a reactionary movement, and recognize our own role in the success of ID in the public arena. All too often we give them just the enemy they expect. Refusing to recognize our own role in promoting an atmosphere within science that is not neutral but hostile towards religion will only mean we can hope to deal with ID more in the future not less.