Inferior Design
By Chris Mooney
American Prospect Online, Aug 10, 2005

From the September issue of the American Prospect:  In late September, a contemporary Scopes trial gets under way in Pennsylvania. For the right, it’s been 39 years in the making.

On September 26, 2005, an event that the national media will surely depict as a new Scopes trial is scheduled to begin. Hearings will commence in a First Amendment lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district over its decision to introduce “Intelligent Design,” or ID, into its biology curriculum. The analogy with the 1925 Tennessee “monkey trial” certainly has its merits. With a newly rejuvenated war against evolution now afoot in the United States, one being prosecuted by religious conservatives and their intellectual and political allies, it is virtually inevitable that the courts will once again serve as the ultimate arbiters of what biology teachers can and cannot present to their students in public schools.

The Dover case was filed on church-state grounds, and the Dover school-board member who drove the policy in question made his conservative Christian motivations clear in widely reported public statements (which he now disputes having made). And yet, curiously, members of the national ID movement insist that their attacks on evolution aren’t religiously motivated, but, rather, scientific in nature.

That movement’s home base is Seattle’s Discovery Institute, whose attempt to lead a specifically intellectual attack on evolution -- one centered at a think tank funded by wealthy extreme conservatives and abetted by sympathetic Republican politicians -- epitomizes how today’s political right has developed a powerful infrastructure for battling against scientific conclusions that anger core constituencies in industry and on the Christian right. Just as Charles Darwin himself cast light on the present by examining origins, in the history of the Discovery Institute, we encounter a narrative that cuts to the heart -- and exposes the intellectual sleight of hand -- of the modern right’s war on science.

* * *

Nearly 40 years ago, in 1966, two talented young political thinkers published an extraordinary book, one that reads, in retrospect, as a profound warning to the Republican Party that went tragically unheeded.

The authors had been roommates at Harvard University and had participated in the Ripon Society, an upstart group of Republican liberals. They had worked together on Advance, a magazine that slammed the party for catering to segregationists, John Birchers, and other extremists. Following their graduation, they published The Party That Lost Its Head, a spirited polemic that devastatingly critiqued Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy. The book labeled the Goldwater campaign a “brute assault on the entire intellectual world” and blamed this development on a woefully wrongheaded political tactic: “In recent years the Republicans as a party have been alienating intellectuals deliberately, as a matter of taste and strategy.” If the party wanted to win back the “national consensus,” the authors argued, it had to first “win back” the nation’s intellectuals.

Their critique was both prescient and poignant. But the authors -- Bruce Chapman and George Gilder -- have since bitten their tongues and morphed from liberal Republicans into staunch conservatives. Once opponents of right-wing anti-intellectualism, they are now prominent supporters of conservative attacks on the theory of evolution, not just a bedrock of modern science but also one of the greatest intellectual achievements of human history. Chapman now serves as president of the Discovery Institute; Gilder is a senior fellow there.

So not only have Chapman and Gilder become everything they once criticized; their transformation highlights how the GOP went in precisely the opposite direction from the one that these young authors once prescribed -- which is why the anti-intellectual disposition they so aptly diagnosed in 1966 still persists among modern conservatives, helping to fuel a full-fledged crisis today over the politicization of science and expertise.

Chapman, a Rockefeller Republican to his core during a career in electoral politics in Washington state, moved to the right after entering the Reagan administration in 1981 as director of the Census Bureau. By June 4, 1983, Chapman could be found publicly condemning liberalism for its “shabby, discredited, sophistical values” and defending “traditional morality.” In an article on the “Harvard-trained former liberal,” The New York Times singled out Chapman’s political shift as emblematic of “a converging of the intellectual left with the religious right within the [Republican Party] under the Reagan banner.” Chapman soon left the Census Bureau to work in the White House under Reagan adviser (and later Attorney General) Edwin Meese.

As the 1980s ended, Chapman initially seemed to veer away from his newfound social conservatism. In the early days of the Discovery Institute -- which originated as a Seattle branch of Indianapolis’ center-right Hudson Institute -- he drew heavily on connections from his moderate Seattle past. Originally, Discovery focused on issues like the economic competitiveness of the city and national telecommunications policy. The vibe was forward-looking, futuristic, and intellectually contrarian.

Yet in the 1990s, Discovery became home to the ID movement’s reactionary crusade against the theory of evolution. Bringing creationism up to date, ID proponents insist that living organisms show detectable signs of having been designed (that is, specially created) by a rational agent (presumably God), while denouncing Darwinism for inculcating atheism and destroying cultural and moral values that had previously been grounded in piety. Such arguments put the ID campaign squarely at the center of a religiously driven culture war, and Chapman has described ID as the Discovery Institute’s “No. 1 project.” His friend Gilder, meanwhile, has ridiculously pronounced that “the Darwinist materialist paradigm … is about to face the same revolution that Newtonian physics faced 100 years ago.”

Intelligent design -- the 2.0 version of creationism, as Wired magazine called it -- has many antecedents. Before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, many -- indeed most -- educated men and women accepted the precepts of “natural theology,” an argument by analogy that just as human artifacts like watches show signs of a designer’s hand, so do specialized organs like the eye. Perhaps the most famous proponent of this argument was the Reverend William Paley, author of the 1802 work Natural Theology.

Darwin read (and was impressed by) Paley as a young student at Cambridge. His Origin, however, unfolds as an elaborate rebuttal to Paley’s recourse to divine intervention, explaining how complex organs could have evolved through gradual stages from imperfect but still useful antecedents, or from simpler structures that were co-opted for new uses. As Darwin noted in a famous passage from the book’s second edition:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.
Providing the linchpin of modern biology, Darwin’s work supplanted natural theology’s argument from design and left it by the wayside.

Representatives of Chapman’s think tank, however, have plucked the design argument from the annals of intellectual history and pronounced it modern science. Granted, today’s technophile ID advocates dress up their arguments “in the idiom of information theory,” as leading ID proponent William Dembski has put it, claiming, for instance, that the massive amounts of biological information encoded in DNA could not have arisen through natural selection and must therefore have been designed by an intelligent agent. But judging from ID’s poor scientific publication record, it has failed to persuade working biologists to join in this quixotic enterprise. In a 2002 resolution, the American Association for the Advancement of Science firmly stated that “to date, the ID movement has failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their claim that ID undermines the current scientifically accepted theory of evolution.”

Nevertheless, ID hawkers have crisscrossed the United States arguing that public schools should “teach the controversy” over evolution -- a controversy they themselves have manufactured. In Ohio, one state where they have enjoyed considerable success, the state board of education adopted a model lesson plan in early 2004 inviting students to “critically analyze five different aspects of evolutionary theory.” In fact, the lesson plan contains spurious critiques of evolution that scientific experts have rejected and that were explicitly opposed by the National Academy of Sciences. In the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, local anti-evolutionists have actually gone further and explicitly introduced intelligent design into science classes (a tack the Discovery Institute has come to oppose, probably because of its obvious unconstitutionality). So successful has the Discovery Institute been in popularizing ID, it may have lost control of how anti-evolutionists at the local level go about applying its ideas.

* * *

As these activities suggest, ID proponents have adopted many of the same political tactics practiced by the old-school creationists. Granted, ID diverges in some respects from earlier forms of American anti-evolutionism. It certainly isn’t synonymous with “creation science,” which provides a supposedly scientific veneer for the biblically based belief that the earth is only between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. Creation scientists seek to debunk radioisotope dating, which geologists use to determine the age of rocks. They also rely on the feverish claim that Noah’s flood created geological structures such as the Grand Canyon, and wrongly assert that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

Officially, ID endorses none of these positions, and its proponents tend to shy away from espousing biblically literalist views in their publications. None of this, however, rescues ID from the broader “creationist” label. Philosopher of science Robert T. Pennock defines creationism as “the rejection of evolution in favor of supernatural design.” ID clearly fits this description, even if we must now distinguish between “intelligent-design creationism” and the other species that have cropped up in the United States, such as “young Earth” creationism and “creation science.”

In fact, the peculiar characteristics of the ID movement are a direct response to the tactical and legal failings of earlier creationists, and its advocates have even outlined First Amendment legal strategies to justify their approach. They have done so precisely because creation science, as a legal strategy, proved a dramatic failure: In the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard, seven out of nine Supreme Court justices ruled that a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of creation science as a counterpoint to evolution violated the First Amendment by promoting religion. Instrumental in the case was a statement from the real scientific community. Seventy-two Nobel laureates signed an amicus brief favoring the overturning of Louisiana’s law, arguing that “teaching religious ideas mislabeled as science is detrimental to scientific education.”

Following the Aguillard defeat, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) prepared an intriguing evaluation of what the movement should try next. Among other points, the ICR 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 anti–ID National Center for Science Education has observed, this comment shows that the Discovery Institute’s favored “teach the controversy” strategy was “pioneered in the wake of Edwards v. Aguillard.”

Clearly ID proponents follow in the footsteps of their creation-science forebears, especially when it comes to conveying the impression that they are doing science instead of trying to advance religious and moral goals. Yet the express strategic objectives of the Discovery Institute; the writings, careers, and affiliations of ID’s leading proponents; and the movement’s funding sources all betray a clear moral and religious agenda.

The most eloquent documentation of ID’s religious inspiration comes in the form of a Discovery Institute strategic memo that made its way onto the Web in 1999: the “Wedge Document.” A broad attack on “scientific materialism,” the paper asserts that modern science has had “devastating” cultural consequences, such as the denial of objective moral standards and the undermining of religious belief. In contrast, the document states that ID “promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” In order to achieve this objective, the ID movement will “function as a ‘wedge’” that will “split the trunk [of scientific materialism] … at its weakest points.”

The Wedge Document puts ID proponents in an uncomfortable position. Discovery Institute representatives balk at being judged on religious grounds and accuse those who probe their motivations of engaging in ad hominem attacks. Yet given the express language of the Wedge Document, it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t take them at their own word. Discovery’s ultimate agenda -- the Wedge -- clearly has far more to do with the renewal of religiously based culture by the overthrow of key tenets of modern science than with the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.

And in case the Wedge Document doesn’t speak eloquently enough, leading proponents of ID, too, give explicitly religious reasons for their “scientific” advocacy. The ID movement’s central strategist and popularizer, University of California, Berkeley emeritus law professor and Darwin on Trial author Phillip Johnson, turned to Jesus “at the advanced age of 38” and went on to publish several books critical of evolution. Leading ID proponent Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?, is a follower of Unification Church leader Sun Myung-Moon. He has written that Moon’s teachings, as well as his own studies and prayers, “convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism.”

And that’s just the beginning. William Dembski, another of ID’s leading proponents who is armed with doctorates in philosophy and mathematics, recently left Baylor University to head the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s newly established Center for Science and Theology. Commenting on his appointment to Baptist Press, a Southern Baptist national news service, Dembski welcomed the opportunity “to mobilize a new generation of scholars and pastors not just to equip the saints but also to engage the culture and reclaim it for Christ. That’s really what is driving me.” And then there’s Stephen C. Meyer, a Cambridge history and philosophy of science Ph.D. and anti-abortion Christian. Meyer has been described as “the person who brought ID to DI” by historian Edward Larson (who was a fellow at the Discovery Institute prior to its anti-evolutionist awakening). Seeking to institutionalize the ID movement, Meyer turned to timber-industry magnate C. Davis Weyerhaeuser, who was until his death a major funder of Christian evangelism in the United States through his Stewardship Foundation. According to Larson, Weyerhaeuser provided key “seed money” to establish the Discovery Institute’s ID program.

The Stewardship Foundation (which has generally funded mainstream, moderate evangelical activities) is not the only Discovery funder that betrays its religious-right agenda. Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., an Orange County tycoon who has contributed millions to religious-right candidates and causes, has heavily supported the group and sits on Discovery’s board of directors. Other funders include the Tennessee-based Maclellan Foundation, which describes itself as “committed to the infallibility of Scripture, to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”

* * *

Despite failed attempts to win scientific backing for ID, this new blossoming of anti-evolutionism has found dramatic support both on the religious right and among its political allies. ID critic Barbara Forrest has noted that virtually all of the leading organizations on the Christian right have embraced or at least shown sympathy for ID, including James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, the Concerned Women for America, D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries, the American Family Association, and the Alliance Defense Fund (a Christian legal group).

ID proponents have also teamed up with conservative Republican legislators to further advance their agenda. ID’s most significant supporter has been Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. In 2001, Santorum teamed up with ID supporters to slip “teach the controversy” language into the No Child Left Behind Act. Singling out evolution in particular, Santorum’s amendment to the Senate version of the bill stated that “good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science.” This may sound innocuous enough, but when you learn that the language comes in part from ID movement progenitor Phillip Johnson, who believes that “Darwinism is based on an a priori commitment to materialism, not on a philosophically neutral assessment of the evidence,” you see where Santorum is headed.

The Discovery Institute heralded the Santorum amendment, claiming that “the Darwinian monopoly on public science education … is ending.” Santorum himself defended ID in an op-ed article in the conservative Washington Times, calling it a “legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes.” The Santorum amendment ultimately did not make its way into the actual No Child Left Behind Act, but language in a nonbinding conference report stressed that “where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist.” Discovery Institute representatives have used this language to claim that the U.S. Congress has endorsed the teaching of ID.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush recently gave an endorsement to ID, commenting, “I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.” This despite the fact that Bush science adviser John Marburger has explicitly stated that intelligent design is not science.

But federal support may not be the most important factor: All of the anti-evolutionist action today is happening at the state and local level. According to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), between 2001 and 2004, 43 states saw some kind of anti-evolution activity within their borders. Much of this activity has been inspired by young-Earth creationists, who remain highly motivated and active. But the strategies advanced by the Discovery Institute have increasingly taken precedence. Meanwhile, Republican state political parties have also embraced anti-evolutionism: A survey by the NCSE found seven state parties with explicitly anti-evolution platforms or public statements.

Which brings us back to Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman, the former Republican liberal who veered right and went on to found a think tank that would almost single-handedly lead a war against one of the most robust theories in the history of science: the theory of evolution. On the one hand, Chapman’s career suggests a stunning intellectual contradiction. Yet when viewed in a broader historical context, his personal evolution seems quite consistent with trends in the development of the modern right and its strained relationship with science -- a tension that has been on dramatic display throughout the Bush presidency, which has seen an unprecedented fight over the political abuse of science in government.

To be sure, the ID movement does not claim an animus against science. Science abusers never do. Rather, the movement seeks to redefine the very nature of science to serve its objectives.

But just like creation scientists of yore, ID hawkers have clear and ever-present religious motivations for denying and attacking evolution. And like creationists of yore, they have failed the only test that matters: They simply are not doing credible science. Instead, they are appropriating scientific-sounding arguments to advance a moral and political agenda, one they hope to force into the public-school system.

That is where the true threat emerges. ID theorists and other creationists don’t like what the overwhelming body of science has to tell us about where human beings come from. Their recourse? Trying to interfere with the process by which children are supposed to learn about the best scientific (as opposed to religious) answer that we have to this most fundamental of questions. No matter how many conservative Christian scholars Chapman and the Discovery Institute manage to get on their side, such interference represents the epitome of anti-intellectualism.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent and the Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine. This article is adapted from his new book, The Republican War on Science, to be published in September by Basic Books.

Copyright © 2005 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Chris Mooney, "Inferior Design", The American Prospect Online, Aug 10, 2005. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to