IDing ID

Chris Mooney

The title of a recent book by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross says it all: Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design Theory. As these words suggest, those in the pro-evolution camp have often suggested that today’s anti-evolutionist proponents of intelligent design theory share a familial resemblance with their earlier young earth creationist compatriots. At the same time, ID proponents centered at Seattle’s Discovery Institute bristle at the “creationist” label. Meanwhile, the whole issue takes on an added urgency because ID proponents have increasingly adopted the political behavior once embraced by creationists of yore, meddling in educational battles at the local level and explicitly laying out a First Amendment legal strategy to achieve future successes. Court cases could lie in the near future, and those may hinge on defining “ID.” So what gives?

As it turns out, ID is more or less like young earth creationism—and especially like “creation science"—depending on whether you choose to focus on its actual assertions or its strategic behavior. In substantive terms, ID differs quite significantly from the “creation science” movement that preceded it, and in ways that generally make its arguments stronger, or at least less risible. ID doesn’t, for instance, deny the validity of radioisotope dating and assert the existence of a young Earth. Neither does it rely on the feverish nonsense of Flood Geology, claiming that a single Noachian deluge laid down the entire fossil record. More generally, whether out of strategic wariness or otherwise, ID proponents tend to shy away from espousing biblically literalist views in their literature and publications (though the religious motivations of many of ID’s All Stars are well documented).

So substantively, we have to admit that ID differs significantly from “creation science.” Since young earth creationists themselves frequently made arguments about the presence of design in living things, we might even say that ID represents “creation science” stripped of everything but design arguments (as well as various critiques of evolutionary theory). In fact, it has often been noted that ID verges on intellectual vacuity: At least young earth creationists had their own detailed account of how life on earth came into being.

Yet as far as its strategic behavior goes, ID actually appears to represent a kind of natural culmination of the “creation science” movement, which originated in the 1960s and 1970s for specific legal and educational reasons. When compared to “creation science” on a strategic level, it turns out that ID proceeds still further in the direction of PR-oriented pseudoscience and the denial of religious intentions in argument. In fact, we can detect many rudimentary elements of the current ID approach among earlier advocates of “creation science"—though ID has improved and perfected them.

Consider the history of American creationism. As the definitive book on the subject—Ronald Numbers’ The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism—makes clear, over the last century the creationist movement showed a marked trend towards the appropriation of scientific trappings and the masking of outwardly religious forms of argumentation (at least in the versions of their theories that they wanted presented in public schools). From first to last, American creationism has been primarily motivated by fundamentalist religiosity. But though even early creationists like William Jennings Bryan—who joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1924—sometimes claimed to act scientifically, in the 1960s and 1970s the movement transformed.

With the publication of John C. Whitcomb, Jr. and Henry Morris’s The Genesis Flood in 1961, the formation of the Creation Research Society in 1963, and finally Morris’s explicit adoption of the term “creation science” in the 1970s, creationism dramatically ramped up its scientific pretensions. Its proponents began to insist that you didn’t have to believe in the Bible to see the evidence for creationism, and that students could be taught “creation science” without being preached to.

The approach represented a new strategy from the creationist perspective, and one that arose in response to previous a U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring religious bans on the teaching of evolution in public schools unconstitutional (something the state of Arkansas had tried to do). In the wake of this setback, creationists began to demand “equal time” for their views in science classes, which in turn necessitated a new campaign to present those views as strictly scientific. “’Scientific creationism’ was just a sort of an add on to try to get in the public schools,” Numbers told me during a recent phone conversation.

But insofar as “creation science” represented a legal strategy, it proved a dramatic failure. Creation science didn’t mask its religious content enough, or prove its scientific bonafides in any meaningful way. It didn’t really fool anybody who wasn’t inclined to believe in it for religious reasons anyway. In the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard the U.S. Supreme Court essentially ruled that “creation science” amounted to religion masquerading as science, and therefore couldn’t be taught in public school science classes.

But though “creation science” failed, what’s intriguing for our current purposes are its tactics: recruit Ph.D.s to outfits like the Creation Research Society and Institution for Creation Research; claim repeatedly to be doing science; and—at least to some extent—keep religion offstage.

All of these attributes also manifest themselves in the intelligent design movement, where they’re taken to a much higher level. ID has made significant inroads at major universities, and recruited a wide range of Ph.D.s to serve as fellows at Seattle’s Discovery Institute. It claims—repeatedly—to represent a scientific innovation. Finally, when journalists attempt to probe the religious motivations of ID types, they’re accused of engaging in ad hominems. ID advocates don’t want to be judged on religious grounds, and they do a much better job than “creation scientists” of keeping religion out of their arguments, even if it may lie in their backgrounds and personal belief systems.

In all of these ways, ID represents a strategic upgrade of “creation science.” In fact, it turns out that ID’s “teach the controversy” program—which advocates instructing public school students in the alleged weaknesses in evolutionary theory, rather than in ID itself—appears to have originated with “creation scientists” as well. Following the Supreme Court’s Edwards v. Aguillard decision, the Institute for Creation Research prepared an intriguing evaluation of what should come next. Among other points, the group noted that “school boards and teachers should be strongly encouraged at least to stress the scientific evidences and arguments against evolution in their classes…even if they don’t wish to recognize these as evidences and arguments for creationism.” As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education has observed, this comment shows that “teach the controversy” was “pioneered in the wake of Edwards v. Aguillard."

So what can we conclude from this? First, it’s incorrect to call ID proponents “creationists” if by that term we mean to suggest that they’re members of the young earth creationist movement. That’s simply not true; their arguments differ substantially. Granted, if we define “creationism” minus its historical baggage, and simply claim that it means “opposing the theory of evolution for religious reasons,” then ID followers certainly fit the mold.

Either way, though, the bigger point is this: Because ID follows the basic strategy of “creation science,” it may also suffer from the same weaknesses. Just like “creation science,” ID has failed to convince working biologists of its scientific validity. If a case over ID ever reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, we can therefore expect that, just as in Edwards v. Aguillard, countless Nobel Laureates will sign an amicus brief in the case explaining that ID isn’t scientifically credible.

Moreover, although ID has done a much better job of masking the religious elements of its approach, those elements have nevertheless been unearthed by journalists and authors critical of the movement. (See Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design Theory for details.) So even as ID has failed to successfully claim the mantle of science, it’s also failed to successfully discard the mantle of religion. Once again, that’s a legal liability.

So, in short, even though ID may not be young earth creationism, and may not be “creation science,” it nevertheless seems doomed to recapitulate that prior movement’s errors and failures. That doesn’t necessarily prove that ID is like traditional creationism in any detailed way. Rather, it simply just goes to show that both are forms of religiously inspired anti-evolutionism, and will automatically have a near-impossible row to hoe thanks to the firm place of evolutionary theory in modern biology.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.