Those Defensive Darwinists

Jonathan Witt
Seattle Times
November 21, 2005
Print ArticleOriginal Article

The first court trial over the theory of intelligent design is now over, with a ruling expected by the end of the year. What sparked the legal controversy? Before providing two weeks of training in modern evolutionary theory, the Dover, Pa., School District briefly informed students that if they wanted to learn about an alternative theory of biological origins, intelligent design, they could read a book about it in the school library.

In short order, the School District was dragged into court by a group insisting the school policy constituted an establishment of religion, this despite the fact that the unmentionable book bases its argument on strictly scientific evidence, without appealing to religious authority or attempting to identify the source of design.

The lawsuit is only the latest in a series of attempts to silence the growing controversy over contemporary Darwinian theory.

For instance, after The New York Times ran a series on Darwinism and design recently, prominent Darwinist Web sites excoriated the newspaper for even covering intelligent design, insulting its proponents with terms like Medievalist, Flat-Earther and "American Taliban."

University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers argues that Darwinists should take an even harder line against their opponents: "Our only problem is that we aren't martial enough, or vigorous enough, or loud enough, or angry enough," he wrote. "The only appropriate responses should involve some form of righteous fury, much butt-kicking, and the public firing and humiliation of some teachers, many school board members, and vast numbers of sleazy far-right politicians."

This month, NPR reported on behavior seemingly right out of the P.Z. Myers playbook.

The most prominent victim in the story was Richard Sternberg, a scientist with two Ph.D.s in evolutionary biology and former editor of a journal published out of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. He sent out for peer review, then published, a paper arguing that intelligent design was the best explanation for the geologically sudden appearance of new animal forms 530 million years ago.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel reported that Sternberg's colleagues immediately went on the attack, stripping Sternberg of his master key and access to research materials, spreading rumors that he wasn't really a scientist and, after determining that they didn't want to make a martyr out of him by firing him, deliberately creating a hostile work environment in the hope of driving him from the Smithsonian.

The NPR story appalled even die-hard skeptics of intelligent design, people like heavyweight blogger and law professor Glenn Reynolds, who referred to the Smithsonian's tactics as "scientific McCarthyism."

Also this month, the Kansas Board of Education adopted a policy to teach students the strengths and weaknesses of modern evolutionary theory. Darwinists responded by insisting that there are no weaknesses, that it's a plot to establish a national theocracy — despite the fact that the weaknesses that will be taught come right out of the peer-reviewed, mainstream scientific literature.

One cause for their insecurity may be the theory's largely metaphysical foundations. As evolutionary biologist A.S. Wilkins conceded, "Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one."

And in the September issue of The Scientist, National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell argued that his extensive investigations into the matter corroborated Wilkins' view. Biologist Roland Hirsch, a program manager in the U.S. Office of Biological and Environmental Research, goes even further, noting that Darwinism has made a series of incorrect predictions, later refashioning the paradigm to fit the results.

How different from scientific models that lead to things like microprocessors and satellites. Modern evolutionary theory is less a cornerstone and more the busybody aunt — into everyone's business and, all the while, very much insecure about her place in the home.

Moreover, a growing list of some 450 Ph.D. scientists are openly skeptical of Darwin's theory, and a recent poll by the Louis Finkelstein Institute found that only 40 percent of medical doctors accept Darwinism's idea that humans evolved strictly through unguided, material processes.

Increasingly, the Darwinists' response is to try to shut down debate, but their attempts are as ineffectual as they are misguided. When leaders in Colonial America attempted to ban certain books, people rushed out to buy them. It's the "Banned in Boston" syndrome.

Today, suppression of dissent remains the tactic least likely to succeed in the United States. The more the Darwinists try to prohibit discussion of intelligent design, the more they pique the curiosity of students, parents and the general public.

Jonathan Witt is a senior fellow with Discovery Institute and co-author of "A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Science Reveal the Genius of Nature" (IVP 2006).