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Whither "Intelligent Design" Creationism?

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Whither "Intelligent Design" Creationism?
Author(s): 
Lawrence S Lerner
Volume: 
29
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2009
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
18, 23–24
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Since the 1960s, creationism has evolved, with the pressure of "judicial selection" giving rise to new species. The most prominent 1960s program — young-earth creationism or YEC — was based explicitly on the Book of Genesis. It aimed at teaching K–12 science students that God created the universe in six days by a series of fiats and that nearly all of geology could be explained in terms of the action of Noah's Flood. In spite of such labels as "creation science", the courts had little difficulty in perceiving that this was a religious rather than a scientific explanation, inappropriate for public school science classes. Thus the creationist search was on for a fuzzier God who might do better, and I remember hearing the noncommittal term "abrupt appearance" for the first time from creationist lawyer Wendell Bird around 1991.

That term has certainly been used, but by itself it is too impersonal to satisfy most creationists. Thus arose "intelligent design" creationism (IDC). By implying a designer, IDC fulfilled the need of many or most creationists to inject the supernatural works of a chronically interventionist God into observable nature (and by extension into human affairs). At the same time, the IDC approach was vague enough to allow dissembling about the designer's identity. He/she/it might indeed be the biblical God for insider consumption, but space aliens or other even less identifiable entities could be used to satisfy the wider public that the movement was not a religious one.

The 2005 decision of Judge John E Jones III in Kitzmiller v Dover put a crimp into that approach (see the complete ruling at http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf). The trial testimony made crystal clear the religious motivations of the Dover Area School Board, to the extent that even the Discovery Institute — the main proponent of IDC — backed off. But beyond that, the inherently religious nature of IDC, and its essential identity with creationism in the broader sense, were made transparent.

With further disguise of the religion-driven agenda a pressing need, the Discovery Institute and other organizations have searched for deeper cover. Favored catchwords include "teaching the controversy", stressing the "gaps in Darwin's theory", presenting "the arguments for and against Darwinism", or simply "critical analysis". Specifically, critical analysis is to be applied to biological evolution in a way that singles it out as somehow less scientific than gravitation or the atomic theory of matter. Of course, calling modern evolutionary biology "Darwin's theory" or "Darwinism" is just about as accurate as calling modern physics "Newton's theory" or "Newtonism".

But these negative tactics by themselves can never be very satisfactory for forwarding the overall creationist program (see, for example, the "Wedge" document, available on-line at http://www.antievolution.org/features/wedge.html). All they do is cast doubt on science. True, if one can preach to students about the inadequacy of biological evolution in class, one may perhaps tell them about the ubiquitous interventions of the Old Testament God after school. But something more positive is clearly wanting. IDC badly needs a crypto-religious device that can masquerade as a superior (or at least competitive) scientific alternative to "Darwinism" and has a chance of passing the court tests excluding religion from public school science classes.

In the wake of the Kitzmiller decision, I wondered where creationists might find such a device. It would not have to be good science — there is no law requiring that good science be taught in science classes — as long as it did not look like religion to the casual observer. Yet it would have to have strong religious implications to satisfy the actual creationist program.

Rising from the ashes of defeat

This idea drew me back to a college humanities class I attended about 1953, in which a major reading was French metaphysician Henri Bergson's 1907 classic, Creative Evolution. Building on earlier ideas going back as least as far as Aristotle, Bergson argued that the natural processes underlying evolution are supplemented — or perhaps even driven — by a nonmaterial élan vital (of which more later). Whatever it may be, élan vital adds contingency to what he saw (erroneously) as an otherwise deterministic pathway. Bergson also puts heavy weight on the idea that intuition is in some sense a path to knowledge superior to reason — an argument that can easily be directed to stress the importance of faith (though this was not Bergson's intent).

There was some irony in the fact that I was at the same time reading Erwin Schrödinger's seminal small book What is Life? (1945) in my scientific studies. As a physics major, I took Schrödinger seriously and Bergson as an entertaining intellectual gymnastic. While Bergson speculated about his élan vital, Schrödinger proceeded more parsimoniously, asking, "How can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundaries of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?" He continued:

The preliminary answer which this little book will endeavour to expound and establish can be summarized as follows: The obvious inability for present-day [1944] physics and chemistry to account for such events is no reason at all for doubting that they can be accounted for by those sciences. (1945: 1–2)

In the extraordinary flowering of molecular biology that followed (and was in part inspired by him) Schrödinger's simple assertion was amply justified.

Between the publication of Creative Evolution in 1907 and my exposure to it in college, the Modern Synthesis had merged classical evolution with genetics. The result was a much more robust body of knowledge, resolving the basic scientific questions of evolutionary process that had troubled Bergson and played a role in motivating his thinking.

Nevertheless, the elegance of his writing sustained interest in literary if not scientific circles. By the late 1950s the metaphysical works of the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, suppressed by his superiors during his lifetime, had also been published. Teilhard's thinking on evolution moved along what one might call Christianized Bergsonian lines. He perceived evolution in the cosmological as well as the biological sense as a process converging toward a final state of unity of the material (the "biosphere") and the spiritual (the "noosphere") — a state that he called the omega point (Teilhard de Chardin 1975). This point is connected theologically with the Second Coming of Christ.

There is much in this view to attract the "intelligent design" creationist. What is more, there is practical utility in the slippery possibilities of translating Bergson's key term élan vital. The rather odd French word élan can be translated into English as force, or impetus, or impetuousness, or burst, or ardor, or enthusiasm, or vivacity, or spirit. These terms run the gamut from the prosaically physical to the evidently spiritual. With such latitude, a creationist might have good hope of dodging judicial barriers to injecting religion into the science classroom without compromising his aims.

I was therefore surprised that Bergson and Teilhard has not yet popped up widely in IDC discourse (but see the discussion in Tipler 2007; though not a creationist in the typical sense, his work has influenced William Dembski). There is a passing reference to Creative Evolution in a short article by Discovery Institute fellow Bruce Gordon (2001). This piece predates the Kitzmiller decision, but it has been extensively quoted in IDC blogs since then. It is mainly a criticism of the creationist practice of sidestepping the work of doing real science and acquiring scientific credibility before heading to the K–12 classroom. However, Gordon does emphasize the "one-size-fits-all" characteristic of Creative Evolution:

Design research is compatible with a realistic teleology like that of the vitalism espoused by thinkers such as Henri Bergson and [his contemporary, the embryologist] Hans Driesch. ... It is compatible with a theistic-evolutionary perspective of continuous development in which the unfolding of the universe and of life was implicit in finely-tuned initial conditions. On a less sanguine note, it is logically compatible with "creationism" in a variety of forms, though many of these can readily be dismissed on well-established scientific grounds. And there may be other metaphysical possibilities.

The possibilities of using Bergson as a weapon against "Darwinism" have been apprehended in broader anti-evolution circles as well; a particularly amusing example is provided by professional philippicist Lev Navrozov in "Darwinism vs intelligent design" (http://archive.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2006/1/12/200838.shtml). But I was still more surprised when a discussion of Bergson's élan vital turned up recently in a publication by young-earth creationist (YEC) Jerry Bergman (2007). After some years of papering over their considerable differences with the IDC movement, the YECs have become much more critical of what they now see not only as an ideological rival and a hypocritical or even quasi-heretical concealment of God's hand in nature, but also as a losing strategy.

It is not clear what Bergman has in mind. His main point, which has nothing to do with Bergson's work, seems to be the frequent YEC assertion that new genetic "information" cannot appear. In making this assertion, he plays the common creationist game of quoting scientists out of context. His victims of misquotation run the gamut from distinguished biologist Lynn Margulis (2006; Margulis and Sagan 2002) to Harvard biology major Jonathan Esensten (2003). Bergman's twisting of the latter's writing is particularly amusing. In an article uncompromisingly denunciatory of creationism, Esensten says, "Evolutionary theory is a tumultuous field where many differing views are now competing for dominance." But Bergman does not continue the quotation: "...'intelligent design' cannot even be considered among possible alternatives because it fails the basic tests of any scientific hypothesis." This complete reversal of the author's meaning exemplifies the creationist practice of misrepresenting genuine scientific controversies about the fine points of evolution as a collapse of the entire science.

Furthermore, Bergman slyly slips past the fact that Bergson was not "anti-Darwinian" at all — he saw himself as supplementing rather than supplanting evolutionary theory, as is evident in the title Creative Evolution. Then Bergman tries to show that Bergson's newly invented "anti-Darwinism" makes creationism respectable science. He does this by insinuating that Bergson's Nobel Prize was in the biological sciences (Bergman 2007), thus justifying the subtitle "An Anti-Darwin Theory Won A Nobel." In fact, Bergson's 1927 award was in literature (http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1927/press.html).

Though the Nobel award was not in science, the presentation speech by 1927 Nobel Committee President Per Hallström does present much potential grist for the IDC mill:

[Bergson experiences] a liberating crisis of the soul. One can only guess that this crisis was provoked by the heavy atmosphere of rationalistic biology that ruled toward the end of the last century. Bergson had been brought up and educated under the influence of this science, and when he decided to take up arms against it, he had a rare mastery of its own weapons and full knowledge of the necessity and grandeur it had in its own realm, the conceptual construction of the material world. Only when rationalism seeks to imprison life itself in its net does Bergson seek to prove that the dynamic and fluid nature of life passes without hindrance across its meshes.

Today, Bergson has fallen out of prominence in the scholarly world, even in France. And his thinking never passed muster in the scientific community. More than three decades ago, the late biochemist and 1965 Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod (1972),who was indeed a scientist, had this to say about Creative Evolution:

There has probably been no more illustrious proponent of a metaphysical vitalism than Henri Bergson. Thanks to an engaging style and a metaphorical dialectic bare of logic but not of poetry, his philosophy achieved immediate success. It seems to have fallen into almost complete discredit today [1970]; but in my youth no one stood a chance of passing his baccalaureate examination unless he had read Creative Evolution.

Evolution, identified with the élan vital itself, can ... have neither final nor efficient causes. Man is the supreme stage at which evolution has arrived, without having sought or foreseen it. ... [R]ational intelligence is an instrument of knowledge specially designed for mastering inert matter but utterly incapable of apprehending life's phenomena. Only instinct, consubstantial with the élan vital, can give a direct, global insight into them. Every analytical statement about life is therefore meaningless, or rather irrelevant. (p 26)

The concept of an élan vital, comprehension of which is approachable by human intuition but not by reason, has an evident appeal to the ID creationist. Moreover, unlike the "intelligent designer", élan vital is depersonified — perhaps sufficiently to pass muster in the courts as a nonreligious concept. And yet for those who wish it so, élan vital can be seen as a divine property or even a divine manifestation.

But what about K–12 science education? The opinions of the scientific community may weigh less in this matter than the response of the courts to the simple question: Does Bergsonian élan vital carry a religious message? As I have noted, there is nothing legally wrong with teaching scientific nonsense in public school classrooms, however repellent the idea may be to those concerned with providing the next generation with a good background in the sciences. I think there is a pretty good chance that Bergson, Teilhard, and perhaps other vitalists will provide a foundation for the efforts to insert vitalism as an entrée to those classrooms that can carry religious creationist views on its coattails.

References

Bergman J. 2007. Creative evolution: An Anti-Darwin theory won a Nobel. Impact 36 (7). Available on-line at http://www.icr.org/article/3383. Last accessed August 10, 2009.

Bergson H. 1920. Creative Evolution. Mitchell A, translator. London: Macmillan.

Esensten JH. 2003 Mar 31. Death to intelligent design. The Harvard Crimson Available on-line at http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=347206. Last accessed August 10, 2009.

Gordon B. 2001. Intelligent design movement struggles with identity crisis. Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology 2 (1): 9.

Margulis L. 2006. The phylogenetic tree topples. American Scientist 94 (3): 194

Margulis L, Sagan D. 2002. Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species. New York: Basic Books.

Monod J. 1972. Chance and Necessity. Wainhouse A, translator. New York: Vintage Books, New York, 1972.

Schrödinger E. 1945 What is Life? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Teilhard de Chardin P. 1975. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper & Row.

Tipler F. 2007. The Physics of Christianity. New York: Doubleday.

About the Author(s): 

Lawrence S Lerner
College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
California State University, Long Beach
1250 Bellflower Boulevard
Long Beach CA 90840
lslerner@csulb.edu

Lawrence S Lerner is Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach, and a recognized expert on state science standards. He was the recipient of a Friend of Darwin award from NCSE in 2003.