May 10, 2000, was just another day on Capitol Hill. With Congress in session, a dozen or so briefings took place as interest groups were eager to bring their issues before congressional staff. As such, there was nothing particularly remarkable about the briefing and reception by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute on this day. Nor was it surprising that the briefing was part of a broader strategy by the Institute to "cultivate and convince" opinion leaders and policy-makers, including congressional staff. What readers might find remarkable about this briefing was its topic: Scientific Evidence for Intelligent Design and its Implications for Public Policy and Education. It may be that this otherwise normal day was an early move by "Intelligent Design" creationists (IDCs) on their newest front in the struggle against evolution: the US Congress.
Last summer's events in Kansas rekindled the creation/evolution debate around the nation. The Associate Press rated it the top story of 1999. Since then, efforts to discredit evolution have intensified with conflicts raging in county school boards and state capitals. For much of the last 2 decades, the issue has been quintessentially local. But the May 10 briefing could represent a return to a national stage.
Leading Lights and Heavy Hitters
How well did the briefing succeed in reaching its target audience? Although only about 50 people attended, about a dozen members of Congress were involved - including 2 from the House Science Committee. These members served as honorary "hosts" for the briefing or introduced the speakers. Rep Charles Canady (R-Florida), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, arranged for the use of a House Judiciary Committee hearing room. Sen Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Rep Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) warmly introduced several of the speakers. Petri is first in line to become chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce at the end of this year. Thus, the committee responsible for federal education programs may be run next year by a man who expressed his hope for a "swelling chorus" of support for "intelligent design" theory.
Those who attended the briefing were treated to a 3-hour primer on ID creationism from some of the movement's best-known advocates, including Whitworth College philosophy professor Stephen Meyer, Lehigh University biology professor Michael Behe, and University of California law professor Phillip Johnson. All are fellows of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC). Joining them was another CRSC fellow, Nancy Pearcey - the former executive editor of Breakpoint, a conservative talk radio show hosted by born-again Watergate figure Rev Charles Colson, with whom Pearcey writes a regular column.
A "Purely Scientific" Debate
Most of the ID advocates were excellent communicators. They stayed away from highly technical jargon except to amaze their audience with the incredible complexity of life. They transformed the listeners' amazement into laughter at scientists' trying to explain this complexity as the result of random, evolutionary processes. They led the audience to the "obvious" conclusion that life could only be the handiwork of an intelligent designer. Consider it Occam's razor run amok: confronted with 2 explanations, one that appears dizzyingly complicated and improbable, and another, disarmingly simple, choose simple. Choose design.
They did not thump Bibles. They did not try to convince the audience that dinosaurs are the "behemoth" of the Book of Job nor did they seek to explain that the Grand Canyon was formed during the Noachian flood. The IDCs voiced their acceptance of the depth of geologic time, modern genetics, even certain aspects of evolution itself. In fact, IDCs not only accept the advances of science, they argue that those advances have revealed a universe of physical and biological systems so complex that they could not possibly have come from evolutionary processes. Indeed, one theme was how "shocked" scientists have been by their discoveries of the awesome complexity of living systems. Shocked and disheartened, because their outmoded theories such as Darwinian evolution - adequate perhaps for the limited knowledge of the 19th century - cannot handle that complexity. This approach cleverly places ID theory at the cutting edge of scientific discovery while relegating Darwin to the dustbin of history.
Intelligent design, they said, is one side of a debate between 2 competing, empirically derived scientific theories - a debate, they claimed, that does not include religion. In their view, they are engaged in an open-minded investigation to follow the empirical evidence about life on earth wherever it leads. They contrast such openness with a rigid scientific orthodoxy that forcibly constrains explanations to purely natural phenomena, disallowing explanations that involve a higher intelligence. However, the tone of the Congressional briefing does not resonate with articles published by ID's "leading lights" in the nonscientific literature. For example, Pearcey wrote in the May 22 issue of Christianity Today
: "Clearly, while [intelligent design theory] does not require any theological presuppositions, it has theological implications: It is resolutely opposed to the atheistic, purposeless, chance view of evolution taught in the power centers of science."
The speakers also tarred evolutionary theory with the controversial findings of social scientists who apply Darwinism to human interactions. Pearcey shocked the audience with a recent book that asserted rape was a natural male impulse driven by the need to confer evolutionary advantage. She also blamed Darwinism for the excesses of popular culture, quoting lyrics from a current hit song: "You and me, baby, ain't nothin' but mammals, so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel."
Ironically, the IDCs accept the achievements of science and indeed place their theory at the pinnacle of modern knowledge, but also demonize both the scientists who made those advances and the naturalistic method by which the advances were achieved. At the briefing Johnson replayed the portrayal of scientists from his popular books as an elite priesthood jealously guarding the power and prestige garnered from the ascendancy of their Darwin-inspired creation myth, having deposed the church's priests. There is a disconnect between the pains they take to portray the debate between ID and evolution as purely scientific and this separate line of argument portraying Darwinism as a religion.
The Political Landscape
I have previously asserted (Geotimes
, October 1999) that the events in Kansas must serve as a wake-up call for scientists to get involved in their local school boards and in local and state governments. But I also suggested that they do so with their eyes open to the political landscape. IDCs are an important part of that landscape, and they have a sympathetic audience for their populist portrayal of scientists as an elite responsible for societal perversion. "Intelligent design" will be even more a part of the landscape if its partisans succeed in convincing the often warring factions among anti-evolutionist camps to unite under their big tent.
Why is this briefing so important to those interested in quality science education? The Discovery Institute chose to hold its briefing at the same time that both the House and Senate were actively considering legislation to overhaul federal K-12 education programs. Scientific societies and other interested groups faced serious challenges as they tried to retain provisions in new federal legislation which supports and strengthens science and math education. If anti-evolutionists move into the Congressional arena and gain support from leading members of Congress, good science will face an even tougher challenge. Their efforts threaten to erode science education at the very moment when our technology-based society needs it more than ever.
For a summary of the May 10, 2000, Congressional briefing, visit www.agiweb.org/gap/legis106/id_update.html
[Adapted with permission from David Applegate's column in
Geotimes 2000 Jul; 45 (7): 12, 58.]
David Applegate directs the American Geological Institute's Government Affairs Program and is editor of