You are here

The More Things Change

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
The More Things Change
Author(s): 
John R Cole, Contributing Editor
Volume: 
17
Issue: 
5
Year: 
1997
Date: 
September–October
Page(s): 
28
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Anti-evolutionists have evolved over the decades from demanding that biblical creation be taught in schools to demanding equal time for "scientific" creationism to arguing that evolution classes give a sort of equal time to the weaknesses of evolution. Like peppered moths, they change as pressures and resistance change, and they often revert back to earlier guises when circumstances are ripe. Tactics and tangents apparently long-dead or defeated can reappear and flourish when time or other distance leaves an opening. Some examples include out-of-place fossil claims, Piltdown Man, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, the "lost Peking Man fossils", misunderstandings of probability statistics — and the granddaddy of them all, "Design Theory".

Paley postulated in 1699 that the appearance of order in the universe was similar to the appearance of order in a clock — a watch suggests there is a watchmaker, and an orderly Universe also suggests there is a Creator or Designer. A brilliant maneuver in biblical apologetics at the time (at the dawn of the scientific age), the "argument from design" fell into disfavor over the years for a number of reasons. One reason was that alternate explanations of why natural things had specific forms shrank the number and scope of situations in which a designer seemed necessary. Chemistry, physics and mathematics demonstrated that there were sound natural reasons for physical forms and easily understood naturalistic explanations of changes in form. Ice "organizes" water without divine intervention, crystals self-organize, chemicals react in predictable ways to form compounds. It became reasonable to assume that there were natural and naturalistic explanations of some or most phenomena which remained as yet unexplained.

The situation was similar to the theological bent often termed "gap theory" in which what we understand is considered the realm of science, leaving God in charge of the gaps in knowledge or the unexplained phenomena. But the gaps kept shrinking, and theologians by and large realized that their efforts to propose a God who acted only when the lights were out, figuratively, was a limited God and one being further limited daily as scientific knowledge grew. Many theologians decided they should not limit their Deity by such narrow human rules, and the "God of the Gaps" faded from debate. God the Watchmaker was similarly downplayed, in due course.

The advent of Darwin’s theory of natural selection set in motion what seemed to be the end of this narrow theology, even more decisively than of "gap theory". Natural selection seemed to provide plausible explanations and naturalistic ways to derive complex organisms. In addition, it became increasingly obvious that nature was awe-inspiring but, alas, incredibly jerry-rigged in design. Much of the design is just "good enough" to get the job done, not the perfection one would expect of a perfect Creator who would not seem to have to cobble things together with quite as many sub-optimum birth canals, fragile foot bones, backaches, and pandas’ thumbs.

Today we see the single biggest comeback story in the revived "Intelligent Design Theory". The theory is rather rickety and impoverished, compared with the robust, active God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, performing clear miracles rather than working behind a curtain at a drafting table developing subtle ways to fool human observers with ever-so-slight miracles, at most. This seems like a conscious "design" by some creationists attempting to come up with a sort of "Creator Lite" who cannot easily be challenged because so little is in fact being claimed for this Creator. At least one of these nouveau anti-Darwinists, law professor Philip Johnson, seems content just to cast doubt on what he considers to be naturalistic explanations of life and behavior, since he offers no alternative scenario or suggestions, let alone any testable theory. Biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, has a similar approach. Although he, unlike Johnson, understands the scientific issues involved, he too seems simply uncomfortable with where they lead and proposes a rather tepid theory of "irreducible complexity" as a sort of "opening" for God to exist.

Most of the same "scientific" creationists are involved in the "intelligent design" movement, to one degree or another, in that they happily quote these supposedly new ideas, although the leading lights of the new movement are not drawn from these same old faces. Some, like Johnson and Behe, are not even young-earth creationists. However, they are trying to advance the same old idea — get rid of evolution. Like their predecessors, they do not have an alternative theory to offer, although they are loath to admit this, still. At least the older-style creationists have a model, of sorts, which they prefer!