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Intelligent design: The new ’big tent’ for evolution’s critics


Since the advent of Darwinism in the mid-19th century, a variety of movements have jousted for the intellectual high ground in the epic evolution versus creationism debate.

At one end of the spectrum reside the "naturalistic evolutionists" who argue that life neither requires nor benefits from a divine creator. At the other pole, "scientific creationists" compress the entire history of the cosmos into 6,000 years and insist that the heavens and Earth and all life arose in one six-day creation event. Somewhere in the middle, are "theistic evolutionists" who argue for a creator, but see no reason why God could not have made the world by means of evolution.

And in the last decade or so, yet another movement has forged a claim in the high-stakes contest for intellectual primacy in the apparently ceaseless battle over the origins of life. The newest combatants, known as "intelligent-design theorists," reject both theistic and naturalistic evolution and, instead, claim evidence of the hand of an unknown "intelligent designer" in the genesis of life.

But for Ron Numbers, the leading historian of the struggle between Darwinism and the anti-evolution movements of the past 140 years, intelligent design is simply the latest effort to create a "big tent for all people critical of evolution."

As he views it, there are significant differences between scientific creationism and intelligent design. First, adherents of intelligent design scrupulously avoid biblical arguments to undermine evolutionary theory and argue instead that the subcellular complexity of life demands a knowing designer. What’s more, many who subscribe to intelligent design theory have no problem accepting the great antiquity of life on Earth.

"They do create some problems for people (strict creationists) who take the Bible seriously," says Numbers, a professor of history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "They argue that the emphasis of young Earth creationists has been divisive."

But those big differences notwithstanding, the intelligent design movement, like the more biblically oriented creationist movements, has the same ambitious agenda: to influence how science is taught in the nation’s schools. In particular, they seek to weaken or eliminate the teaching of evolution - the dominant, unifying theory of modern biology - in public schools.

Despite friction between the two camps, strict creationists and intelligent design adherents have at times joined forces to advance their educational agenda, the most recent example in Georgia, where a proposal for middle and high school science classrooms calls for deemphasizing evolution.

Addressing scientists here today (Feb. 14) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Numbers gave historical context to the intelligent design movement, a movement that comes from no particular religious point of view, but nonetheless argues for a supernatural hand in the creation of life.

"They couldn’t care less about Genesis, and it is big enough that it can even appeal to some Jews and Muslims," says Numbers. "Its appeal is the complex nature of the world."

At the root of intelligent design theory is that life, at its most basic biochemical level, is too complex to understand. That science has not unraveled many of the biochemical secrets of life is evidence that an "intelligent designer" has intervened, its theorists assert.

This argument, says Numbers, ups the antievolution ante by arguing that science itself must change to accommodate the things it cannot explain.

"They are claiming this is a scientific discovery, so it should be taught with other scientific claims in the schools," Numbers explains. "They are saying science should change its most fundamental rule, that science admits only naturalistic explanations.

"The intelligent design people are saying that if the goal of science is to discover the truth, why should scientists, a priori, reject the theory of intelligent design? There must be intelligent design in the face of irreducible complexity.

"They have made a tremendous splash," says Numbers. "They want to change the way science is done, but so far as I know, there has yet to appear an article in a scientific journal that makes this broader claim."

The odds that the intelligent design movement - even with some scientist subscribers - will change the way science is done are slim, Number asserts: "To change science, they’ll need to convince the scientific community, and they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of doing that."

But the likelihood that intelligent design theory will make inroads into the public science classroom and into textbooks is good, Numbers believes.

"It is very likely to influence science teaching. Intelligent design doesn’t talk about God explicitly, so in some cases it might pass legal muster. They’re trying to get into the schools that way, and they may be successful, I think."

Scientists and other proponents of evolution, tend to conflate creationism and intelligent design. "They see intelligent design as little more than gussied up creationism, despite the significant differences," Numbers says.

Either way, the stakes in the classroom are too high, he argues, to ignore the intellectual arguments of intelligent design as an answer to evolution.

Terry Devitt 608-262-8282,

Ronald Numbers | EurekAlert!
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