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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

 July 2000

Political Scene

Creationists Open a New Front

David Applegate

“God’s in his heaven — All’s right with the world!”
                                                                                                    Robert Browning

It was just another day on Capitol Hill. With Congress in session, a dozen or so briefings were taking place as interest groups were eager to bring their issues before congressional staff. Some provided well-rounded perspectives but most, as is normal, pushed particular points of view. Thus, there was nothing particularly remarkable about the May 10 briefing and reception by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute think tank. Nor was it surprising that the briefing was part of a broader strategy to “cultivate and convince” opinion leaders and policy-makers, including congressional staff. What geoscientists might find remarkable about this briefing was its topic: Scientific Evidence for Intelligent Design and its Implications for Public Policy and Education. Intelligent design is the latest variation of creationist theory, and it may be that this otherwise normal day was the first wave of the creationists’ new front: the U.S. Congress.

Last summer’s events in Kansas — which the Associated Press rated 1999’s top story — brought the debate between evolution and creationism to the fore. Since then, efforts to discredit evolution have intensified with brushfires raging in county school boards and state capitals. Geoscientists involved in public outreach report a rise in aggressive challenges from creationists. Until now, the issue has been quintessentially local. But the May 10 briefing could represent a shift to a national stage.

Leading lights and heavy hitters

How well did the briefing succeed in reaching its target audience? Fifty people attended, but many appeared to be considerably older than the typical Hill staffer, and several questioners identified themselves as intelligent design (ID) supporters from the D.C. area. But any comfort one might draw from the low staff turnout was offset by the fact that about a dozen members of Congress — including two members of the House Science Committee — served as honorary “hosts” (mostly in absentia) or introduced the speakers. The briefing and reception were held in a hearing room of the House Judiciary Committee, the space having been arranged by Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution. Both Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) warmly introduced several of the speakers. Petri is first in line to become chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce when the current chairman retires 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 creationism.

Those who attended the briefing were treated to a three-hour primer on ID creationism from some of the movement’s leading lights, 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. Pearcey is 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.

Most of the ID advocates were excellent communicators. They used highly technical jargon only when they wanted to amaze their audience with the incredible complexity of life. They transformed the listeners’ amazement into laughter when they said that scientists try to explain this complexity as resulting from random, evolutionary processes, leaving the audience convinced that life could only, obviously, be the handiwork of an intelligent designer. Consider it Occam’s razor run amok: confronted with two explanations, one (seemingly) dizzyingly complicated and the other disarmingly simple, choose simple. Choose design.

A ‘purely scientific’ debate

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 intelligent design creationists voiced their acceptance of the depth of geologic time, modern genetics, even certain aspects of evolution itself. In fact, ID creationists 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 two competing, empirically derived scientific theories — a debate that does not include religion. In their view, they are engaged in an open-minded investigation to see where the empirical evidence about life on Earth leads them. They contrast such openness with a rigid scientific orthodoxy that forcibly constrains explanations to purely natural phenomena, disallowingexplanations that involve a higher intelligence. But while ID creationists tout the empirical derivation of their theory, their intentions are far from secular. As 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.”

Demonizing scientists

Ironically, the ID creationists accept the achievements of science and indeed place their theory at the pinnacle of modern knowledge, but also demonize the scientists who made those advances as well as the naturalistic method by which the advances were achieved. At the briefing and in his popular books, Johnson portrays scientists 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 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 sociology 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.”

The political landscape

In an earlier column (Geotimes, October 1999), I asserted that the events in Kansas must serve as a wake-up call for geoscientists to get involved in their local school boards and local and state governments. But I also suggested that they do so with their eyes open to the political landscape. ID creationists are an important part of that landscape, especially with 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 within the creationist camp to unite under their big tent.

The ID proponents have gone to great lengths to make an end run around the constitutional safeguards that blocked previous attempts to introduce creationist teachings into public schools. Two of the briefing speakers co-authored a legal guidebook on how to get intelligent design material into public school science curricula. Their efforts threaten to erode science education at the very moment when our technology-based society needs it more than ever.

What does the new front portend? 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 have faced challenge enough to keep provisions in these bills supporting science and math education. If creationists choose to move into this arena and gain support from leading members of Congress, good science will face an even tougher challenge.

Applegate directs the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program and is editor of Geotimes.

For a summary of the May 10 briefing, visit

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