The anti-evolution crowd has gotten itself quite a bit of ink lately. From a cover story in Time magazine to an endorsement by President George W. Bush, creationism is back in vogue. Technically, it's not the creationism that you were taught in Sunday school. While many fundamentalists still hang on to a literal interpretation of Genesis, they've all but given up teaching that in public schools because it's religion and the Supreme Court put a stop to that a long time ago.
Never ones to go quietly, the fundies have a new catchphrase: intelligent design. Basically, ID holds that the universe is too complex to have happened by chance, so something or someone cough God cough must have guided creation. If that sounds like religion to you, well, most scientists would agree. The driving point behind ID, they say, is to discredit the accepted teachings of biology, geology and anthropology. Which is all fine and dandy, but is it science? Science is making a conclusion about the natural world based upon the available evidence. Science changes with new discoveries. It doesn't depend on the miraculous for what can't be explained.
While most scientists accept evolution as fact, the rest of the populace isn't quite ready to jump on board. According to a 2004 Gallup poll, 45 percent of us think God created the world 10,000 years ago, a la Genesis; 38 percent say God directed evolution, and only 13 percent believe evolution is a random process. Since popular opinion is more politically potent than the findings of eggheads in lab coats, the politicians are listening.
(And then there's a third school of thought, that the universe was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Adherents to this dogma, which you can learn plenty about on the web, call themselves "Pastafarians." Ramen.)
Intelligent design's proponents have crafted a neat strategy to capitalize on the popular support: They don't say that they want schools to stop teaching evolution; they say students should learn about the scientific "debate" on the origins of humanity, and the "holes" in Darwin's theory. When scientists point out that there really isn't a debate, the intelligent design backers accuse the scientific community of being anti-God elitists.
Proponents of intelligent design have been remarkably successful. Aside from restarting a public dialogue that most scientists have long considered settled, they got a big win by convincing the Kansas State Board of Education and school boards in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio to teach "alternate theories of evolution." Florida can't be far behind.
So we squared off Mat Staver, a creationist who heads the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel and a leading proponent of teaching intelligent design in public schools, and Michael Ruse, a Florida State University philosopher of biology and the author of The Evolution-Creation Struggle, who says Staver and his ilk are all wet.
Staver: "Intelligent design" is a name given to a broad spectrum of … different perspectives, but the essential core of it is that whether these individuals believe in an intelligent maker or some kind of designing force or in God, the central theme is that they believe that life is too complex to occur by random chance and therefore there must be some intelligent organizing principle behind the development of life. And the essential difference between intelligent design and Darwinism is that Darwinism believes in random happenstance leading to creation of life, whereas intelligent design believes that there has to be some intelligent organizing effort or agent behind the creation of life.
OW: Are you advocating teaching children that the earth is 6,000 years old and was created in six days?
Staver: I can't speak for other organizations, but as it relates to Liberty Counsel, what we're advocating is that a full and frank discussion of the origins of life and the universe be had, which would include Darwinian evolution, critiques to Darwinian evolution, those `who` are evolutionists but doubt various aspects of Darwinism, intelligent design and other aspects of intelligent design theories. What is not part of what we're advocating is that any particular religious doctrine be taught.
OW: Personally, what do you believe?
Staver: Personally, I believe … that God is the designer and the creator of the world and the creator of life and that he did it, according to the Scriptures, in the six days of creation. But not all intelligent design believers believe in God or believe in a literal six-day creation. There are many people who have varied beliefs within the intelligent design big umbrella tent, but the commonality is that they all believe that life is too complex to originate by random chance.
OW: A lot of secular scientists see intelligent design as an attempt by religious fundamentalists to get another crack at the apple; that is to say, it's illegal to teach creationism as science in classrooms, so this is an end run around that. Do you think that's a fair critique?
Staver: It may be a fair critique of certain individuals, but I don't think it's a fair critique of the intelligent design movement, and certainly there are a lot of people who hold to intelligent design such as `British philosophy professor` Andrew Flew. He has been a longtime atheist; he has now moved toward intelligent design. He is not necessarily holding to the Judeo-Christian God as the intelligent designer, but he believes there is a designing force behind the creation of life. There `are` also individuals who believe many aspects of Darwinian evolution that also hold to intelligent design.
OW: How is theistic evolution the idea that God directed evolution different than intelligent design theory?
Staver: Intelligent design would actually include both people who believe in God creating the world in six literal days, as well as those who believe God created the world through random evolution, as well as those who believe that God created the world, but don't hold to a six-literal-day creation. All of those would be included in intelligent design. The real commonality between them is that life could not have evolved through random, Darwinian evolution, that it is too complex for that to happen. For example, many people have focused on the cells. `U`ntil the 1950s, we didn't have as much information about the development or the complexity of cells, and from the 1950s onward we've had an explosion in molecular biology. Individuals from those perspectives have concluded that the cell is an incredibly complex entity that could not have randomly happened by natural selection.
OW: Throughout history, religion has been an enemy of science. The church taught that the sun revolved around the earth and that the earth was flat. Some scientists see intelligent design as the 21st-century incarnation of this anti- science movement.
Staver: I think you can't make a blanket statement that religion is opposed to science. … Certainly you can take certain people who have religious views that were contrary to science, and you can also take people who have religious views that were very much in favor of science. … Many of our greatest thinkers and inventors had religious or Judeo-Christian beliefs or believed in God, and many of them were creationists. … From Einstein on back, you have many of our scientists who believed in God or believed in creation. And clearly they didn't consider their religious views to be contrary to the advances and discoveries they made in the area of science.
OW: By and large, the scientific community speaks dismissively about intelligent design. They say that, at best, it's a philosophical argument that there's a designer behind the origins of humanity, and that it's simply not science because it can't be tested. How do you respond?
Staver: Evolution can't be tested either. You can't test either intelligent design or evolution. You can't go back and replicate either one of them. And with that in mind, in the final analysis, whether it's evolution or intelligent design or any other theory of the origin of the universe that you conclude, I think you have to ultimately approach the final step by faith. Certainly people may be able to mount various evidences and critiques of the evidence, but in the final analysis, since you can't replicate it, since you can't produce it in a test tube, you can't recreate it in a science lab, you have to conclude in the final analysis by faith. As it relates to the evolutionists criticizing intelligent design, I think it's circular. On the one hand, they will criticize intelligent design; on the other hand, often times Darwinian evolutionists refuse to debate anybody who is an intelligent design advocate. This happened in the state of Kansas when there was a discussion going on regarding the science standards. The evolutionists just simply boycotted and refused to debate. If in fact they are so convinced in their theories, then why not hold them up for critique and debate?
OW: In some sense, it's because they say evolution is a theory in the same way that gravity is a theory. It's backed up by a predominance of evidence.
Staver: Certainly evolution does not fall into the same category as the law of gravity and if it did, that would be a different story. But it doesn't. … There are a lot of different questions by evolutionists themselves regarding missing links or the inability to explain a brand-new animal phylum in a strata that has no precursor. That doesn't sound like the law of gravity, where it is universal, undisputed and operates the same under any circumstances.
OW: There are a lot of things that some group or another considers "controversial." How many people should disagree with an idea before it is considered controversial, even if the majority of people in the scientific community say there is no controversy?
Staver: Your question is how many people would it require to create a controversy to be taught.
OW: Yeah. For instance, there's the International Flat Earth Research Society, which maintains that the earth is flat and the space program is a conspiracy to cover that up. This is universally dismissed by all reputable scientists, but where is the line drawn between something that is an actual controversy, and something that the scientific community says isn't a controversy?
Staver: I think to equate intelligent design
OW: I'm not necessarily trying to equate it
Staver: Right (long pause). I think in answer to your question there is no criteria for a number. The issue is not how many people believe in a particular view, either pro or con. Otherwise, if that were the case, we would simply take a popularity poll to determine whether or not we want to do one thing or another as a matter of science. Many of our scientific breakthroughs have come from individuals who created extensive controversy and they were often times the lone dissenting voice. But on the other hand, science has always been and should always be open to critique. And I think if Darwinian evolutionists are so clear about their view, then the question I would have to ask is, "What is the harm of presenting these other theories?" And if they want to critique them, let`ting` them critique them? If you want to present a flat-earth idea, you could indicate there are people who believe in a flat earth, but critique it. Obviously you can dismiss that out of hand. You can't dismiss intelligent design theories out of hand, however.
OW: Intelligent design has, at the least, thrust a discussion of evolution back into the limelight. Why do you think that is?
Staver: I think more and more scientists themselves are beginning to question Darwinian evolution, and in fact you have 52 Ohio scientists, 49 of which hold doctoral degrees, that recently in 2002 signed an affirmation that says where there are alternative scientific theories in the area of intelligent design … that students should be permitted to learn the evidence for and against them, and that science curriculums should encourage critical thinking of all these different ideas. That's just 52 scientists in the state of Ohio. You have also almost 200 scientists, and these individuals range from the `Lawrence Livermore Laboratories` to the University of California-Berkeley to the University of Chicago … that have also signed a statement that says they believe that theories that are alternatives to evolution ought to be taught and intelligent design is clearly one of them.
OW: Allow me a hypothetical. If evolution were to one day be proven beyond reasonable doubt, do you think it would be compatible with Christianity?
Staver: I don't think evolution undermines Christianity. I think the essence of Christianity is that God through his son sent his son to save a lost world and his son paid the penalty for sin and that forgiveness is given to everyone, and that doesn't depend upon evolution or intelligent design. Certainly, it doesn't affect Christianity or the core of Christianity. However, I do think often times evolution is used as a very hostile weapon toward Christianity, kind of as a notion that if evolution occurred, there can't be a God to begin with. I don't think, however, that evolution itself, were it to win the day of popular opinion or not, is undermining Christianity. I think the core of Christianity is Jesus Christ.
Ruse: Well, let's go back to intelligent design first. I think it's religion, period. I mean, if you would judge it as science it wouldn't be very good, but `that's` like saying Marilyn Monroe is not a very good man. As far as I'm concerned, Marilyn Monroe isn't a man, period. And I would want to say the same of intelligent design. … I don't think intelligent design is the best form of Christianity. And I think that, say, somebody like St. Augustine would feel very much the same way, because St. Augustine was simply arguing that the early chapters of Genesis need to be interpreted metaphorically or allegorically rather than literally.
OW: The theory is that holes in evolutionary theory prove there's a designer. To me, that's like saying because we don't know something, it's unknowable, and therefore it's God.
Ruse: That would be the way I would characterize it. I'm not sure that it's necessarily the way that they would characterize it. They would say, "Look, it's up for grabs. You can't determine that there are no miracles, which is what you scientists are doing, and then prove at the end that there are no miracles. I mean, you've got to be prepared to allow the possibility of miracles if you're going to be open-minded." And of course, the point is a Christian would want to say, "Well, obviously I do, but not necessarily when I'm working as a scientist, because there's a very good reason why you take a methodological approach, which says no miracles." Namely, if you keep going on it and if you keep pushing it over the years, people have found that that's a very successful way of doing science. And as soon as you start saying, "Oh well, it could be a miracle," then it's a science-stopper.
OW: They have a theory called irreducible complexity, which says that things are too complex to have evolved by chance. Why doesn't that argument hold weight?
Ruse: Of course the creationists like it; they want to go along further. But it doesn't hold any weight, obviously, with your regular scientists. I mean I think the interesting thing is, why have people like George W. Bush and Sen. `Bill` Frist and others started to argue not necessarily that it's right, but that it ought to be presented in classrooms, apart from the entirely cynical reason is that this pleases the evangelical right? I mean, what these people are pushing is that it's right in schools, pedagogically right, to present the issues. And what somebody like myself would say is, first of all, it's not the case that education means sort of an indifferent parading of the different positions that people hold. Otherwise, I mean, let's face up to it: In Florida, every time you talked about black history, you'd have to also say, "And by the way, a fair number of people in this day and age think that blacks are niggers and that they should keep their place." That's not what education is about. …
… Sometimes you ought to allow discussion; I mean, for instance, if you're talking about the fossil record, you should talk about Stephen `Jay` Gould's position about punctuated equilibrium `the theory that species evolve in spurts, rather than more gradually`. Obviously, I think that these sort of issues are going to be discussed, particularly at higher-level courses. The point is … if a scientific group says this is just not `right`, then you're not going to present it. It's rather like going to medical school. Some people believe very strongly in faith healing, but it doesn't follow that Harvard Medical School should present `faith healing` as an option that students could tick off when they're doing their final exams.
OW: The one thing I can't really figure out is how they consider it more of a science, rather than a philosophy.
Ruse: I think there are two questions here. One is … to say it couldn't be science, because it appeals to miracles, and miracles in this day and age are not part of science. But I think you need to dig a little bit more deeply. Why is a miracle excluded from science in this day and age? And the answer is because science has been very successful by assuming what's often called methodological atheism; namely, don't allow any miracles whatsoever and see how far you go. … So the point is, both linguistically and methodologically, I don't think that intelligent design qualifies as science.
Now, having said that, the response they could come back with is, "Well, of course, it's not science as we understand it, but maybe we should extend the notion of science because it could possibly be true." `B`ut why should we extend the notion of science? If we're going to extend it because of your religious convictions, then I'm not sure that we have to.
OW: Intelligent design advocates have been saying that a lot of evolutionary scientists are choosing to ignore the debate.
Ruse: They're not. I mean, these things were hammered out. The point is, a scientist doesn't go into the lab on a Monday and say, "Is Copernicus right?" Science is a cumulative thing. So scientists go in there and they get straight to the cutting edge of what they're doing. In the 19th century, so many of these issues were hammered out year after year over evolution, so scientists simply don't have to spend their time doing those sorts of things every time that the thing comes up. It's all been done, so scientists want to get on with what's what. To say that these things have been ignored is simply false.
OW: When a theory is accepted, you don't go back and re-debate it.
Ruse: Right … it doesn't mean that you never do, because obviously if something starts to break down, then of course these are the types of things that scientists will do, just like they did at the beginning of the 20th century when physics just didn't seem to be working. It's not to say that scientists never backtrack. It's just to say scientists are not going to spend every moment of their waking day backtracking.
OW: A lot of the intelligent design advocates have developed a victim complex; everybody's out to get them.
Ruse: Yeah, but I think that's a ploy. I mean, of course, they are out to get them. Sometimes, you know, people do hate paranoids. And of course people are out to get them inasmuch as they look upon these people as dangerous and pushing a position that would be antithetical to science and the things that they stand for. There's no question about that. I think also that there's a great sort of propaganda value to saying, "Oh, we're pushing ideas and we're just being cut off by the scientific community."
OW: They say evolution is just a theory and can't be replicated and shouldn't be viewed as authoritative. Do these guys exaggerate alleged holes in the theory?
Ruse: First of all, you're mixing up the meaning of the word "theory." If you mean evolutionary theory is a theory in the `scientific` sense that it's a body of laws, then clearly, evolutionary theory is a theory. On the other hand, if you mean something which is reasonable to take as fact, well then, I would want to say that the evidence for evolutionary theory is pretty bloody solid. It doesn't mean to say there are no `problems`. Thank God there are, otherwise there would be nothing for anybody to do. The point is, the scientific community, the biological community takes evolution as a given, and gets on with discussing how it works and all of these sorts of things.
OW: You mentioned Bill Frist and the president earlier. Is this sort of a stalking horse to get creationism back in the classroom?
Ruse: I don't think it is in the case, necessarily, of Frist. I mean, God only knows where George W. Bush stands on these things. My suspicion is Frist is obviously making a ploy because he's planning on running for president in 2008 and he's just alienated a lot of his supporters by saying he's in favor of stem cell research. I mean, this is politics, pure and simple. I think myself that a fair number of the intelligent design people really are not hard-line creationists. What they want is to allow the possibility or the probability or the truth that occasionally God or the designer intervenes. Having said that, there's really no question that the creationists, far harder-line creationists, are standing in the background saying, "Way to go, way to go." And what they've seen is that trying to push a hard-line creationism simply doesn't work in this day and age. I think that what they're doing is a very open-wedged strategy. Let's start with small things, let's start to get it in and once we get going there, we can start to push more and more. Whether that means some point down the line, supposing these folks are successful, we'll then start to find these people falling out, I think it's possible. Or I think it's at least possible that the ID people who are pushing things at the moment will find themselves pushed aside, rather like Trotsky found himself pushed aside after the Russian Revolution.
OW: Is there really a debate?
Ruse: The debate is in the minds of these people who are pushing it. I mean, there's just not a debate in science. There have been other debates in the past that have been resolved. When I was growing up, there was a debate over the origin of the universe. Was it constant creation or was it a big bang? I don't think that's a debate anymore. I think big bang `theory` won. But science is debate. If science isn't debate, then all you're doing is sitting on your bum sort of polishing the work that's been done before. I mean, this is the kind of ludicrous thing, the way these ID people take debates as being a sign of weakness. Whereas I try to say, the best kind of science is the science that leaves you with twice as many problems at the end of the day than you started with at the beginning.
OW: The American public a large plurality believes in the Genesis story. Why isn't evolution more popular?
Ruse: Well, you tell me. The American public also believed that Saddam Hussein was linked with al-Qaida, didn't they? So I think you've got to be very careful when you make appeals like that to the American public. More seriously, I mean, the answer is America is a very religious country and certainly, Protestant religion has been very, very influential in America. Particularly after the Civil War, in the South this fundamentalist religion provided a security blanket for people who would read the Bible and read all about how God would afflict his most beloved more than anybody else and things like that.
I think that what we're living with is very much is a function of American history, rather than something which is new today. Certainly the 20th century with the wars and the Cold War and the bomb … led a great many Americans into apocalyptic sort of thinking. We're now living in a time where people are really tense, really tense indeed, about the threat from outside and issues like this.