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Dealing With the Backlash Against Intelligent Design

1. The Cost of Progress

Ten years ago, the Quarterly Review of Biology (December 1995) gave the following plug to the book Darwinism: Science or Philosophy?

The editors deserve credit for a very fair book. Without editorializing or bias, the book lets everyone have their say… In fact, it has a nice tone of “give and take,” mostly polite, but in places amusingly peppery…. Moreover, the book is a readable primer on scientific philosophy, and provides a relatively sophisticated and invigorating philosophical challenge.”

It is a measure of the success of our movement that no biology journal would give our books such respectful treatment any longer.

Why is that? The stakes are now considerably higher. Darwinism: Science or Philosophy? is the proceedings of a symposium that took place at Southern Methodist University in the spring of 1992. The focus of that symposium was Phillip Johnson’s then recently published book Darwin on Trial. At the time, Johnson was a novelty — a respected professor of criminal law at Cal Berkeley who was raising doubts about evolution. All harmless, good fun, no doubt. And Berkeley has an illustrious history of harboring eccentrics, kooks, and oddballs.

Ten years later, any amusement about Johnson’s critique of Darwinism has long since vanished. All sides now realize that Johnson was, from the start, deadly earnest, not content merely to tweak Darwin’s nose but intent, rather, on knocking him down for the ten-count. Johnson is, after all, a lawyer, and lawyers think contests are not simply to be enjoyed but also to be won.

This has not set well with the academic community, which thrives on irresolution. I once discussed with some philosophers the difference between mathematics and philosophy. One philosopher remarked that whereas in mathematics one finds a problem and solves it, in philosophy one finds an itch and scratches it. It would have been one thing if Johnson had raised doubts about Darwinism and then gestured at some ways of supplementing or reinterpreting evolutionary theory to take the materialist edge off. But Johnson was convinced that Darwinism had become a corrupt ideology that was being enforced by a dogmatic and authoritarian scientific elite, and that the proper course of treatment for Darwinism was not refurbishment or reformation but removal and replacement.

Thanks to Johnson, we now have a cultural, intellectual, and scientific movement that gives voice in the academic world to multiple millions of people who find it plausible, or even self-evident, that the world and its living forms were brought about by a designing intelligence. That movement is now so effective that evolutionists have to spend a lot of time writing articles and even whole books attacking intelligent design (and, in some cases, like Robert Pennock, they even make an academic career attacking it).

In contrast to the respectful review of Darwinism: Science or Philosophy? a decade ago, we now face an academic and scientific world that is increasingly hostile to intelligent design and that seeks to crush it rather than engage it as a serious intellectual project. This may seem unfair and mean-spirited, but let’s admit that our aim, as proponents of intelligent design, is to beat naturalistic evolution, and the scientific materialism that undergirds it, back to the Stone Age. Our opponents, therefore, are merely returning the favor.

We have this going for us, however, which the evolutionary naturalists don’t, namely, the evidence and arguments are on our side. It’s therefore to our advantage to discuss intelligent design and naturalistic evolution on their merits. Conversely, the other side needs to delegitimate the debate between intelligent design and naturalistic evolution, casting intelligent design as a pseudoscience and characterizing its significance purely in political and religious terms. As a consequence, critics of intelligent design engage in all forms of character assassination, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, and demonization.

Indeed, evolutionists are increasingly outraged over intelligent design, especially over its cultural and political inroads. To appreciate the extent of the outrage, check out the anti-ID blog at www.pandasthumb.org. Paul Myers, a contributor to that blog, captures the spirit of the day:

The verdict is in. Intelligent Design creationism is a load of horsesh**. What has happened is that the movement has made some inroads solely in the political and legal arenas, where the absence of a scientific basis for the belief is little handicap, and now scientists are rousing themselves to point out its glaring deficiencies. This is not a sign of its growing importance. It’s a sign of growing corruption that demands a response. Read the books. Scientists are not coming out and saying that there is something to this intelligent design idea; they are announcing, with near unanimity, that it is worthless crap, junk that has no place in the lab or the schoolroom.

Myers also had some words for the Minnesota House lawmakers who recently amended the Minnesota Department of Education’s social studies and science standards. The lawmakers amended the document to reflect the views of critics of evolution. Myers expressed his disapproval succinctly: “Bastards. Craven, ignorant, despicable bastards.”

Granted, Myers will strike most outsiders as unbalanced. But, increasingly, respectable people and organizations are weighing in against intelligent design. The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society for Neuroscience have issued formal statements denouncing intelligent design. The president of the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science, Michael Cavanaugh, has now issued a formal warning about intelligent design, the Wedge, and Seattle’s Discovery Institute, urging that people take seriously the threat to education and democracy that these pose.

My favorite is Marshal Berman’s December 2003 piece in the American Biology Teacher titled “Intelligent Design Creationism: A Threat to Society — Not Just Biology.” The epigraph to that article is the well-known quote by Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Increasingly, design theorists and their program are regarded not merely as misguided and  pseudoscientific but also as perverse and evil. In a quote widely attributed to Arthur Schopenhauer, “All truth passes through three stages: First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” There’s no question that we’ve now entered Schopenhauer’s second stage.

2. Scoring as the Key

Faced with increasing attacks by evolutionists, our natural tendency is to become defensive and to try to justify ourselves. We might even worry that perhaps there’s something we’ve overlooked and that the evolutionists might have a point. After all, there’s no question that these people are seriously worked up over intelligent design. Many of them even experience a deep moral revulsion at us and our program. What are we to make of this revulsion? I submit that we should not take it seriously.

Peter Medawar once remarked, “The intensity of a conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing over whether it is true or not.” Humans are intensely moral creatures, and their moral sensibilities will find expression, especially in the areas that are most important to them. Consequently, we can expect materialistic scientists to react viscerally to intelligent design. But consider, on Darwinian grounds, moral sensibilities are not to be trusted, certainly not as a guide to truth. Nor are they to be trusted on Judeo-Christian grounds, according to which human corruption is pervasive and warps even our moral sensibilities. Far from becoming upset or defensive, let’s take it as a recommendation of our program that people like Paul Myers are against us. Indeed, with enemies like these, we must be doing something right.

How, then, do we effectively handle the attacks and abuse that increasingly are being sent our way? A sports analogy, for me, captures the essential insight. Consider an athletic contest between two teams. For definiteness, let’s say soccer. The other team is abusing your team, especially your star players. They’re constantly talking trash, constantly trying to trip you up. When the referee isn’t looking, expect a knee in the groin or an elbow in the eye. In response, you’ve got three options: (1) respond in kind; (2) complain to the referee; (3) score. The first two options are dead-ends. The third is supremely satisfying and moves the ID program forward. Some recent notable “scores” for the ID movement have been the PBS broadcast of Unlocking the Mystery of Life, the decision by the Ohio board of education to permit weaknesses and criticisms of evolutionary theory to be taught, and the publication of The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards.

We score whenever we do something decisive that develops our intellectual and scientific  program or that increases our sphere of influence in the wider culture. The two are mutually reinforcing: as we develop our intellectual and scientific program, we make our program more winsome to the wider culture; alternatively, as our program gains ground in the wider culture, we attract talent that helps develop that program intellectually and scientifically.

There are temptations here to get sidetracked. The biggest temptation by far is to get bogged down in a war of words with people who are sold out to the old way of thinking. As Thomas Kuhn clearly taught us, the old guard is not going to change its mind. By being wedded to a failing paradigm, they suffer from the misconceptions, blindspots, and prejudices that invariably accrue to a dying system of thought. This, in turn, limits their usefulness as conversation partners. What’s more, insofar as they regard intelligent design as evil, and therefore as something to be destroyed, they adopt a purely adversarial stance that shortcircuits fruitful interchange. As lawyer Edward Sisson points out in a book I edited, “A psychology I see everyday in litigation is that opposing lawyers are primed to reject every statement by the other side because there is no advantage to considering that the statements might be true. I also see that psychology again and again within institutional science in the debate over the origin and subsequent diversification of life.”

I’ve witnessed this psychology in the attacks on my own work and that of my colleagues. By any objective standards, the principal players in the ID movement are reasonably intelligent people. Phillip Johnson, for instance, graduated first in his law school class at the University of Chicago and clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren. Jonathan Wells got double 800s on his SATs and was awarded a full, merit-based undergraduate scholarship at Princeton in the 1960s. Guillermo Gonzalez, though a young assistant professor, has over sixty articles in refereed astronomy and astrophysical journals. These are just a few examples off the top of my head. And yet, when critics attack our work on intelligent design, we seem to get nothing right. You’d think that somewhere, somehow we might make a valid point critical of evolutionary theory. You’d think that no scientific theory can be as good as evolution’s defenders make it out to be. Alas, no, the design community is entirely misguided and confused in finding fault with evolution.

The evolutionists’ reaction to Jonathan Wells’s book Icons of Evolution exemplifies this psychology. In that book, Wells analyzes ten “icons of evolution.” The reason for calling them “icons of evolution” is that they are presented in high school and college biology textbooks as slamdunk evidence for evolutionary theory. Included here are the Haeckel embryo drawings, the Miller-Urey experiment, and changes in coloration of the peppered moth. In every instance, when these icons are carefully examined, they do not confirm evolutionary theory. Haeckel’s embryo drawings, for instance, are now known to have been faked, a fact that has been widely admitted in the peer-reviewed biological literature. And yet, these icons continue to appear in the textbooks. What has been the response of the evolutionary community? To issue an apology for misleading our young people? To fix the mistakes in the textbooks? No, but to cast Jonathan Wells as a lunatic. Go to the National Center of Science Education website, and you’ll find that there is no admission that any of these icons represent a problem for evolutionary theory or should be corrected in the textbooks. Rather, the fault lies with Wells for inventing problems where there are no problems.

3. Two Policies

Our critics have, in effect, adopted a zero-concession policy toward intelligent design. According to this policy, absolutely nothing is to be conceded to intelligent design and its proponents. It is therefore futile to hope for concessions from critics. This is especially difficult for novices to accept. A bright young novice to this debate comes along, makes an otherwise persuasive argument, and finds it immediately shot down. Substantive objections are bypassed. Irrelevancies are stressed. Tables are turned. Misrepresentations abound. One’s competence and expertise are belittled. The novice comes back, reframes the argument, clarifies key points, attempts to answer objections, and encounters the same treatment. The problem is not with the argument but with the context of discourse in which the argument is made. The solution, therefore, is to change the context of discourse.

Hardcore critics who’ve adopted a zero-concession policy toward intelligent design are still worth engaging, but we need to control the terms of engagement. Whenever I engage them, the farthest thing from my mind is to convert them, to win them over, to appeal to their good will, to make my cause seem reasonable in their eyes. We need to set wishful thinking firmly to one side. The point is not to induce a cognitive shift in our critics, but instead to clarify our arguments, to address weaknesses in our own position, to identify areas requiring further work and study, and, perhaps most significantly, to appeal to the undecided middle that is watching this debate and trying to sort through the issues.

For now, evolutionists are sitting pretty. They hold the reigns of power in the academy, they control federal research funds, and they have unlimited access to the media. But, like English colonialists trying to keep a colony in check, they are in a distinct minority. A feature of colonialism is that colonists are always vastly outnumbered by the people they are controlling and that maintaining control depends on keeping the requisite power structures in place. The reason intelligent design has become such a threat is that it is giving the majority of Americans, who don’t buy the atheistic picture of evolution peddled in all the textbooks, the tools with which to effectively challenge the evolutionists’ power structures.

A critic reading the last paragraph will immediately retort that we are flattering ourselves, and that except for the burger-eating, fries-munching, coke-swilling moronic masses, who refuse to accept evolutionary theory for purely religious reasons and, to their further embarrassment, take the public policy recommendations of design theorists like me to heart (recommendations that, for instance, challenge the place of naturalistic evolution in the high school science curriculum), there is absolutely nothing of intellectual substance to intelligent design. Yes, it is a pernicious threat, but for all the wrong reasons.

Let’s talk about this. Obviously, this criticism flows directly out of the zero-concession policy. Indeed, it is merely a restatement of the zero-concession policy. How shall we respond to it? As I noted, the temptation here is to engage in a war of words, justify intelligent design, recapitulate its program, lay out its research agenda, or, perhaps, even complain that the critic is being unfair. Stop and think. The critic will be satisfied at no point, deny every claim that supports intelligent design, ask for endless detail, throw in countless red herrings, and, whenever possible, turn the tables and accuse you and your program of the very faults that you are raising against evolution. So, our job is not to try to justify to such critics why intelligent design has a right to exist, but rather to justify to the outsiders listening in on our debate why intelligent design has more going for it than the hardcore critics are willing to concede.

The proper answer to the critics’ zero-concession policy is therefore a there-might-be-something-to-it-after-all policy. In other words, it is enough to indicate to nonpartisans listening to the debate that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Often it suffices to plant in the minds of nonpartisans a reasonable doubt suggesting that the critic’s blanket dismissal of intelligent design is less than credible. Of course, this is not to sidestep the hard work of developing intelligent design as a rigorous intellectual and scientific program. That work must proceed. Rather, I’m talking about how we can make best use of our hardcore critics.

4. Putting Critics to Use

Critics and enemies are useful. The point is to use them effectively. In our case, this is remarkably easy to do. The reason is that our critics are so assured of themselves and of the rightness of their cause.  As a result, they rush into print their latest pronouncements against intelligent design when more careful thought, or perhaps even silence, is called for. The Internet, especially now with its blogs (web logs), provides our critics with numerous opportunities for intemperate, indiscreet, and ill-conceived attacks on intelligent design. These can be turned to advantage, and I’ve done so on numerous occasions. I’m not going to give away all my secrets, but one thing I sometimes do is post on the web a chapter or section from a forthcoming book, let the critics descend, and then revise it so that what appears in book form preempts the critics’ objections. An additional advantage with this approach is that I can cite the website on which the objections appear, which typically gives me the last word in the exchange. And even if the critics choose to revise the objections on their website, books are far more permanent and influential than webpages.

An illustration might be helpful here. As I was working on my book No Free Lunch, I wrote a section critical of Thomas Schneider’s article “Evolution of Biological Information,” which appeared in Nucleic Acids Research. I would have liked to get from Schneider a well-considered response to my criticisms. But with Darwin fish crawling over his website, I frankly doubted that he could serve as a fair-minded respondent. I therefore posted the relevant section on the science-religion listserve META, framing the discussion around some remarks on design by the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. I posted my 3000 word critique one day. Wesley Elsberry immediately alerted Schneider. Schneider posted his rebuttal the following day. I love the Internet!

Schneider failed to address the substance of my critique, but provided some useful details about his work that I was able to incorporate into my section. Also, he engaged in some hair-splitting that could only look ridiculous to outsider observers: no, he was not claiming evolution brought about biological complexity as a “free lunch,” but, yes, he was claiming that it brought about biological complexity “from scratch”; no, he did not generally find fitness a useful concept, but, yes, his research did require error-counting functions that scored errors monotonically with respect to survivability (that sure sounds like a fitness function to me). This hair-splitting made it into my book and made for amusing reading, though not at my expense.

As far as possible, I try to steer the attacks of my critics by the judicious dissemination of information. This has the advantage that I know what to expect. Often, however, the attacks by our critics blindside us. A common feature is that they are vicious and personal. Sometimes they are written to employers to discredit us or even to destroy our reputations and careers (I write from personal experience). Our natural tendency in response to such attacks is to get upset and react in one of three ways, none of which is advised.

One reaction is to placate: My, you really are angry. I must have done something wrong. Help me make things right with you. Another reaction is to flee: What did I get myself into? This kitchen is a lot hotter than I can stand. I don’t need to be dealing with this level of conflict. Let me out of here. Still another reaction is to fight: You no good so-and-so. I’ll show you. You want to play hardball? You came to the right place. I submit that none of these reactions is helpful in advancing our cause. The hardcore critics with whom I regularly deal are intellectual bullies, and they don’t deserve to be placated. What’s more, they are not very frightening, especially when you get past their initial defenses, so there’s no reason to flee.

Fighting, however, is not advised either. The problem with fighting is that it consumes valuable energies and is motivated by anger, which always distorts mental clarity and distracts from the real issues. As John Cassian noted over 1,500 years ago,

No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul’s eyes, preventing it from seeing the Sun of righteousness. Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes, obstruct the sight equally, for the value of the gold does not affect the blindness it produces. Similarly, anger, whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision. Our incensive power can be used in a way that is according to nature only when turned against our own impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts.

So, let’s put anger aside. Let the other side fume with indignation. Indeed, many of them have turned indignation into a full-time occupation. From our vantage, however, we need to take their vitriol as par for the course. These valiant defenders of evolution are just that — valiant defenders. It would be unworthy of them not to use every means at their disposal to try to stop us. They are as committed to their program as we are to ours (sometimes I wonder if they are not more so).

Think of their no-concession policy in pure business terms. When, for instance, gas prices go down, we don’t congratulate oil companies for their generosity. So, when gas prices go up, we would be out of line to accuse them of greed. Oil companies and the prices they charge are constrained by market forces. So, too, the market of ideas is constrained by ideational forces (especially the inertia of entrenched ideas), and our opponents are simply playing their part. I find this perspective freeing. Far from wanting to curl up in a corner when attacked, I’m grateful for my critics. Truth be known, their attacks are my idea of a good time. Indifference is a far worse form of violence.

The appropriate response to attacks by critics is to see the attacks as opportunities to advance our cause. Think of them as gifts. As a student of the Old Testament, I’ve always been fascinated with the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land. The pattern that kept repeating itself was this. The Israelites would approach a fortified city. Instead of entrenching themselves in their city and allowing their countryside to be ravaged, the inhabitants of the city would come out for battle. Once outside their positions of safety, however, they were fair game, and the Israelites were able to make short work of them. That’s the pattern I see in this debate. The proponents of evolution would very much  prefer to stay in their fortified positions. They don’t want to dignify us by devoting time and energy to refute us. They would prefer to ignore us. They wish we would just go away. But the challenge to evolution in the schools and public square is real and threatens their monopoly. The unwashed masses are not with them. The evolutionists cannot leave these crazy design theorists unanswered. So, out they come from their positions of safety to challenge us. But, in the very challenge, they open evolutionary theory to a scrutiny it cannot withstand.

Richard Dawkins is a case in point. Dawkins refuses, as a matter of principle, to debate me and my colleagues because it would, in his view, dignify our position. Yet he cannot resist criticizing us in print. Notwithstanding, whenever he does so, he makes himself vulnerable. This was brought home to me in a foreword that Dawkins wrote for a recent book attacking intelligent design — Niall Shanks’s God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory. In that foreword, Dawkins asks who owns the argument from improbability. His answer: Not those crazy design theorists but evolutionists like himself. Thus, he writes, “Darwinian natural selection, which, contrary to a deplorably widespread misconception, is the very antithesis of a chance process, is the only known mechanism that is ultimately capable of generating improbable complexity out of simplicity.”  At the risk of immodesty, I’m the guy who wrote the book on the argument from improbability — it’s called The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities. Dawkins is a great popular science writer and he is expert in certain aspects of biology, but he is a duffer when it comes to the argument from improbability. He’s now on my turf, and I’m only too happy to instruct him.

5. Attacks Relating to “Logos”

Although the attacks against us by evolutionists can be turned to advantage, our success here is not assured and depends on us knowing what we’re doing here. Recall the soccer analogy. Our side is not the only one that’s capable of scoring. The other side is quite capable of scoring as well. Our game plan, therefore, requires not just an effective offense (one that enables us to score points for our team) but also an effective defense (one that keeps the other side in check and hinders them from scoring points). To understand how to defend ourselves in this debate, we need first to understand the forms that the attacks take. The attacks take three forms, corresponding to the three traditional aspects of rhetoric: logos, ethos, and pathos.

Logos refers to the reasoned case that is being advanced. Think of it as the formal argument that can be written out on a sheet of paper. The identification of presuppositions, the marshalling of evidence, and the drawing of inferences all fall under logos. The evolutionist threatens to score here by making an argument that is not adequately answered by our side. Whether the argument is sound or fallacious, it does not matter. The important thing is that the argument is allowed to stand and that nonpartisan bystanders think the argument raises a substantive difficulty for intelligent design (note that evolutionists are just as intent on winning the undecided middle as we are). Next comes ethos. Ethos refers to the perceived character, integrity, and accomplishment of the rhetor. Ethos is what inspires confidence and establishes credibility in the eyes of the audience. Conversely, it is what destroys confidence and erodes credibility. And, finally, there is pathos. Pathos refers to the emotion or passion that the rhetor is able to elicit from the audience. The rhetor may be able to play on the audience’s heartstrings, thereby eliciting sympathy. Alternatively, the rhetor may inspire anger or fear in the audience. Pathos is especially important if the rhetor is attempting to get the audience to take action.

Evolutionists attack intelligent design by appealing to each of these three aspects of rhetoric. Accordingly, they attack intelligent design with respect to logos by claiming that science utterly fails to support it, whether on evidential or theoretical grounds. What’s more, they attack intelligent design with respect to ethos by charging its proponents with being morally and intellectually deficient. And, finally, they attack intelligent design with respect to pathos by instilling the fear that intelligent design means not just the end of science but also the end of rational discourse in a free and open society. Let’s look at these attacks more closely, especially how to counter them.

Usually, in keeping with the no-concession policy, an attack relating to logos starts with some blanket dismissal such as “intelligent design offers no testable hypotheses” or “intelligent design is just an argument from ignorance” or “intelligent design is incoherent because of the poor design evident in biological systems.” The first thing to do when confronted with such an attack is to ask for elaboration of the objection so that it’s clear what exactly is under dispute. This can be quite illuminating. Take the objection that intelligent design offers no testable hypotheses. Implicit in this objection is that biological systems are inherently incapable of exhibiting any feature that could more adequately be explained as the result of intelligent design rather than material mechanisms. But, if so, Darwinian and materialistic accounts of evolution become themselves untestable because, in that case, they trump design regardless of evidence. Once such objections are fully laid out, they often reveal a double standard and succumb to internal contradiction.

Not all objections to intelligent design fall this easily. Some require a more in-depth analysis. Take the trio of objections that constitutes Kenneth Miller’s standard attack on intelligent design. Miller’s main interest is in unseating Michael Behe and his notion of irreducible complexity. Behe argues that certain types of functionally integrated systems, those exhibiting irreducible complexity, resist Darwinian explanations. Miller argues that they don’t. To make his case, Miller focuses on three points:

  1. Because irreducibly complex systems invariably contain subsystems that are functional in their own right and therefore subject to natural selection, the Darwinian mechanism faces no obstacle in bringing about irreducible complexity.
  2. Genetic knock-out experiments that disable a key component of an irreducibly complex system and then successfully (re)evolve a substitute component that restores function support the evolution of irreducibly complex systems.
  3. Evolution is a proven instrument for bringing about biological complexity, a fact that can be seen from biological structures that serve the same basic function but that exist at various levels of complexity (e.g., the eye in its many incarnations).

None of Miller’s three points holds up under scrutiny. With regard to (1), just because a functionally integrated system includes a subsystem that can be functional in its own right does not mean that the system evolved from the subsystem. To confirm the evolution of the subsystem into the system requires that a continuous sequence of functional intermediates be exhibited and that a nontelic process be specified that could plausibly connect the intermediates. Miller offers neither. With regard to (2), whenever Miller cites such experiments, he fails to underscore that gene(s) coding for the substitute component were either already present or introduced by the experimenter. Far from showing how irreducibly complex systems might have evolved in the first place, these experiments at best show how sensitive such systems are to perturbation. And, finally, with regard to (3), Miller is presupposing precisely the point in question, namely, whether evolution, a materialistic form of it, can bring about biological complexity. Sample enough organisms, and you’ll find structures in different states of complexity that perform the same basic function. But arranging such structures according to some similarity metric and then drawing arrows marking supposed evolutionary relationships does nothing to show whether these systems in fact evolved by material mechanisms. Similarity may suggest evolutionary relationships, but evolution is a process, and the  evolutionary process connecting similar structures needs to be made explicit before the similarity can legitimately be ascribed to evolution. Miller’s analysis never gets that far. He gestures at similarities but never demonstrates how evolution accounts for them.

When defending intelligent design with respect to logos, I cannot overstress the importance of staying on topic. This is a nasty debate. For instance, one of my colleagues, who previously was involved with the abortion controversy and now works on public policy aspects of intelligent design, finds the level of hostility here even greater than with abortion. It’s therefore tempting to respond in kind. Our work is not interpreted charitably, so let’s not interpret our opponents’ work charitably. They nitpick, so let’s nitpick in turn. They capitalize on insignificant mistakes and oversights, so let’s return the favor. Responding this way hurts us. We come across as churlish and catty. Precisely when the other side throws civility and courtesy to the wind is when we need bend over backwards to address any legitimate concerns that our opponents might be raising. This keeps us on topic and maintains our composure. This is important because maintaining composure under pressure is especially effective for establishing one’s credibility.

What does it mean to stay on topic in this debate? The central question that must always be kept front and center in addressing intelligent design’s critics is this: Why might material mechanisms (such as Darwinian natural selection and random variation) lack the creative capacity to bring about the full complexity and diversity of living forms? The materialist scientist resists this question (and I include here the scientist who is a religious believer but who thinks that science must understand the natural world entirely in terms of material processes that give no evidence of design). Indeed, from a materialist vantage point, what else could be responsible for life’s complexity and diversity except material mechanisms? The materialist sees designing engineers as appearing only after evolution — a materialistic form of it — has run its course. That’s why Daniel Hillis remarks, “There are only two ways we know of to make extremely complicated things, one is by engineering, and the other is evolution. And of the two, evolution will make the more complex.” But whether a purely materialistic form of evolution is able to perform what otherwise would require superengineers to perform amazing feats of design is precisely the point at issue. What’s more, unless we are able to press this point, the evolutionist will win by default, having defined science as the study of material processes that, by logical necessity, disqualify design and that, again by logical necessity, ensure that some materialistic account of evolution must be true.

6. Attacks Relating to “Ethos”

Next, let us turn to attacks against intelligent design with respect to ethos. Attacks here tend to focus on peripheral issues, such as whether design theorists have published their ideas in the right places, whether the scientific community is accepting intelligent design in sufficient numbers to render it credible, whether intelligent design is being unduly politicized, whether design theorists are religiously motivated, and so on. Such questions are, to be sure, interesting, but they don’t touch on the validity of intelligent design as an intellectual and scientific project, nor do they go to its truth.  Nonetheless, such questions are important to people on the sidelines. We therefore need to make certain that we are not misrepresented here.

Take the question of peer review. It’s certainly the case that intelligent design is a minority position and that it is only now beginning to gain a hearing in the mainstream, peer-reviewed literature. But our critics contend that intelligent design has no presence in the peer-reviewed literature whatsoever. For instance, Eugenie Scott at the National Center for Science Education claims that my book The Design Inference is not peer-reviewed. Nevertheless, that book appeared as part of a Cambridge University Press monograph series: Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction, and Decision Theory. That series has an academic editorial board (which includes members of the National Academy of Sciences as well as one Nobel laureate), and my manuscript had to be passed on by three anonymous referees before Cambridge University Press could agree to publish the book in that monograph series. In a similar vein, Scott has disparaged my work by claiming that it is not favorably cited in the peer-reviewed literature. But mainstream mathematics and biology journals have cited my work favorably.

At the Design and Its Critics conference (Concordia University, Mequon, summer 2000), Kenneth Miller claimed that Michael Behe’s notion of  “irreducible complexity” was nowhere to be found in the mainstream, peer-reviewed biological literature. Yet, in fact, Thornhill and Ussery had several months earlier published an article in the Journal of Theoretical Biology on that very topic. Currently, the most popular strategy for discrediting intelligent design with regard to peer review is to admit that it is represented in the peer-reviewed literature, but not in any literature that matters. Thus, in particular, it is claimed that design theorists are not publishing work that supports intelligent design in the peer-reviewed biological literature. But this claim too is false, as can be seen from the ID FAQ on my website (www.designinference.com). Nevertheless, in keeping with their zero-concession policy, our critics won’t concede that this claim is false. They can accept that the papers in question are by design theorists and that they appear in respectable, peer-reviewed biology journals. What they can’t accept is that the papers support intelligent design.

This raises an important point. We are accustomed to think that what it means for data to count as evidence supporting a hypothesis is uncontroversial. But, in fact, it can be highly controversial. What it means for something to count as evidence is not itself decided by evidence. Rather, it depends on certain cognitive predispositions, and these are heavily influenced by our views on the ultimate nature of reality (metaphysics) and the scope of human knowing (epistemology). In particular, for the materialist, no facts of biology can count as evidence for intelligent design. Thus, when it is claimed that there are no articles supporting intelligent design in the peer-reviewed biology journals, it is appropriate to ask whether any data from biology could even in principle provide such evidence, and, if so, what these data might look like. If the answer is that no data could even in principle provide support for intelligent design, then that’s a good indication that our conversation has moved from biology and the natural sciences to epistemology and metaphysics.

In science, there are no raw data. Data are always collected in light of background knowledge and assumptions. These condition the aspects of nature to which we attend and from which we collect our data. Once collected, we interpret these data. At one level of interpretation, we see facts. At a higher level of interpretation, we see patterns connecting these facts. At still higher levels of interpretation, we formulate hypotheses and theories to make sense of these patterns. It follows that, as an inherently hermeneutical enterprise, science can never guarantee consensus, especially at the higher levels of interpretation. More and more, critics of intelligent design are outraged by what they call “quote-mining.” Accordingly, they fault design theorists for going to the biological literature to pull out quotes and ideas that support intelligent design. The critics are outraged because they see the design theorists as shamelessly exploiting the hard scientific work of others and interpreting it in ways that the scientists who originally did the work would reject. We have nothing to be ashamed of here. As Nobel laureate William Lawrence Bragg remarked, “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” Intelligent design is doing just that — discovering new ways of thinking about and interpreting the well-established facts of science that pertain to biological complexity and diversity.

I’ve stressed that we need to clear up misrepresentations of our work by critics, and so we do. At the same time, we also need to clear up misrepresentations of evolutionary theory. It is, for instance, completely unacceptable that, in edition after edition of high school biology textbooks, not only do the Haeckel embryo drawings get recycled, but so does the misconception responsible for those drawings, namely, the mistaken idea that similar structures in the adult result from similar developmental pathways in the embryo. It is a fact of embryology that similar adult structures can arise via vastly different developmental pathways. With such misrepresentations — especially when they appear in textbooks, mislead our young people, and are supported by our tax dollars — we need to hold the evolutionists’ feet to the fire.

Nevertheless, in clearing up misrepresentations, let’s not become obsessive or pedantic. We don’t need to respond to every misrepresentation that the other side makes. It’s typically enough to respond to those that are troublesome to the undecided middle. And even here, let’s be careful not to become defensive. In line with our there-might-be-something-to-it-after-all policy, it’s usually enough to indicate that there’s more to the story than the other side lets on. John Angus Campbell puts it this way:  A draw is a win! The other side wants to obliterate intelligent design. Yet to persuade the undecided middle, we just have to show that intelligent design has something going for it. As much as possible, therefore, let’s always return to the main point at issue, which is that material mechanisms lack the creative capacity to bring about the complexity and diversity of living forms and that intelligent design is helping to elucidate this central issue in biology.

7. Attacks Relating to “Pathos”

Finally, let us turn to attacks against intelligent design that appeal to pathos. The strategy of the other side here is clear: induce fear and loathing of intelligent design in the undecided middle — fear that science and society will be subverted and loathing that intelligent design is just a tool for advancing religious and political extremism. By contrast, to promote intelligent design with regard to pathos, the most effective approach is to appeal to the undecided middle’s sense of fairness and justice, especially its tendency to root for the underdog and its predilection for freedom of expression.

In practice, to induce fear and loathing of intelligent design, the other side invokes pejorative labels that are rich in negative associations. “Creationism” is by far the preferred pejorative, though “anti-evolution,” “anti-science,” “fundamentalism,” “right-wing extremism,” and “pseudoscience” are great favorites as well. My advice is that, as far as possible, we resist being labeled. To do this effectively, however, it is not enough simply to deny a label. In fact, being too vocal and adamant about denying a label can be a good way of attaching it more firmly (“thou dost protest too much …”). Denial works best if we are explicitly asked to comment on a label and then can explain why the label is inappropriate. For instance, most reporters who interview me ask how intelligent design differs from creation. That gives me a perfect opening, and I can explain how intelligent design is not a religious doctrine about where everything came from but rather a scientific investigation into how patterns exhibited by finite arrangements of matter can signify intelligence.

Denial can also be effective when it’s clear that a pejorative label has been attached maliciously or unfairly. Take Robert Pennock, for instance. Pennock prefers the term “intelligent design creationism” over “intelligent design.” His preference is his thing, and it doesn’t do us any good to argue about it with him. Nonetheless, it’s a different matter when he tries to force that label into our mouths. A few years ago, he published a collection of essays titled Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics. When the book appeared, I was surprised to learn that I had two essays in it. Pennock, without my knowledge, had approached the publishers of those two essays and gotten their permission to reprint them. Yet, the fact that he went around my back to procure these essays was nowhere evident in the collection. Thus, when the book appeared, it would have seemed to the average reader that I had given my permission to have the essays appear in it. In fact, there is no way I would have given my permission with that title. Imagine if someone critical of Darwinian evolutionary theory decided to publish a book titled Dogmatic Darwinian Fundamentalists and Their Critics, managed to obtain copyright permissions for pieces by prominent Darwinists without their knowledge, and then situated their pieces within a collection of critical replies designed to make them look foolish. Substitute intelligent design for Darwinism, and that’s what Pennock did. I pointed this out in a press release. Because the issue was one of fairness, public opinion went in my favor rather than Pennock’s. Nonetheless, if I had simply complained about Pennock inaccurately labeling me a creationist, I would only have reinforced the label.

The best way to resist being labeled, however, is not by denying the labels but by developing our own vocabulary and ideas that set the agenda for the debate over biological origins. In this way, the other side is increasingly forced to engage us on our terms. Consider the following terms: (1) irreducible complexity; (2) specified complexity; (3) design inference; (4) explanatory filter; and (5) empirical detectability of design. The other side now spends an enormous amount of time discussing these terms and the ideas underlying them. Insofar as the other side engages us on our terms, it is in no position to label us. Of course, the other side sees this, and therefore self-consciously makes a point of labeling us and our program. Labeling is therefore inevitable. Still, we do ourselves good service by, as much as possible, steering the discussion to matters of substance and away from labels. I’ve found that clarity and consistency in how we express our ideas is the best antidote to labeling by the other side. Increasingly, the media are grasping our ideas and expressing them not with tendentious labels but in our own words. For instance, the media now consistently refer to “intelligent design” and not to “intelligent design creationism.”

Thus far, I’ve characterized labeling by the other side as a purely negative activity that needs to be resisted. Not all labels, however, have the intended negative effect. To be sure, some do. There’s no way, for instance, to give the labels “anti-science” or “pseudoscience” a positive spin. But what about “anti-evolution” or “Wedge”? The evolutionists who are our main critics think evolution is the greatest concept ever conceived. Daniel Dennett, for instance, writes: “If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.” For most of the population, however, the term “evolution” holds no such positive associations. For most people, evolution is an implausible and controversy-riven theory of biological origins, one that gives comfort to atheists and undermines religious faith. To characterize intelligent design as a form of anti-evolution is therefore a positive advertisement in some circles.

Even so, there’s an important clarification to keep in mind here. Intelligent design is anti-evolution not in the sense of rejecting all evolutionary change. Indeed, some design theorists, like Michael Behe, accept the universal common ancestry of all organisms. Rather, intelligent design is anti-evolution only in the limited sense that it regards blind material forces as inadequate for explaining all evolutionary change. Michael Behe and I debated Kenneth Miller and Robert Pennock at the American Museum of Natural History in the spring of 2002. The debate was initially titled “Blind Evolution or Intelligent Design?” Yet when the debate actually took place on April 23rd, the program bulletin that was distributed at the event quietly dropped the word “blind” and titled the debate simply “Evolution or Intelligent Design?” The original title was more accurate. Intelligent design is opposed to blind evolution, not to evolution simpliciter. But since, by evolution, our critics mean a blind form of it, that is, a form of evolution underwritten entirely by undirected material mechanisms, they label us as anti-evolutionists. It would be more accurate if they labeled us as being against blind evolution. But calling attention to the blindness, or absence of teleology, in the evolutionary process is clearly not in their interest.

The term “Wedge” is also a mixed curse. Normally, when this term is cast our way, our opponents want to stress the political and religious dimensions of intelligent design — that its proponents are on a crusade to stamp out materialism and that evolution is the first item on their agenda. The consistent reaction by materialists to the Wedge is therefore outrage. Here they are, these proponents of intelligent design, claiming to advance science; but, in fact, they are just pursuing an ideological agenda to which they themselves have attached the moniker “Wedge.” Adopt a nonmaterialist perspective, however, and the situation looks quite different. From our vantage, materialism is not a neutral, value-free, minimalist position from which to pursue inquiry. Rather, it is itself an ideology with an agenda. What’s more, it requires an evolutionary creation story to keep it afloat. On scientific grounds, we regard that creation story to be false. What’s more, we regard the ideological agenda that has flowed from it to be destructive to rational discourse. Our concerns are therefore entirely parallel to the evolutionists’. Indeed, all the evolutionists’ worst fears about what the world would be like if we succeed have, in our view, already been realized through the success of materialism and evolution. Hence, as a strategy for unseating materialism and evolution, the term “Wedge” has come to denote an intellectual and cultural movement that many find congenial.

I want to make one last point about attacks against intelligent design that appeal to pathos. Normally, when intelligent design is attacked, the attackers are in positions of power and authority, and proponents of intelligent design are the underdogs. That’s not always the case, however. The world of evangelical Christianity, for instance, seems to prefer intelligent design over theistic evolution. Theistic evolutionists, therefore, feel increasingly beleaguered among evangelical Christians. Thus, at a meeting of evangelical scientists a few years back (the American Scientific Affiliation meeting at Westmont, College in the summer of 1997), an interesting reversal occurred. Phillip Johnson had been speaking, and Keith Miller, a theistic evolutionist (who recently edited Perspectives on an Evolving Creation), challenged him during the question-and-answer period. For several minutes, Miller read from notes and, in bullet-point fashion, listed the faults that he found in Johnson’s program. There was no way, in the allotted time, for Johnson to respond adequately to Miller’s many objections. Thus, after Miller finished, Johnson simply remarked that he and Miller saw things differently. At this, Miller burst into tears and ran out of the auditorium.

To Johnson’s supporters, Miller’s tears amounted to a histrionic display not worthy of reasoned discourse in an academic setting. Yet that misses the point — the appeal of tears is not to logos but to pathos. Moved by his tears, several members in the audience rallied around Miller to console him. Further, they cast Johnson as a villain. The lesson for us here is that when appealing to the undecided middle, don’t allow our opponents to cast themselves as underdogs or intelligent design proponents as villains. I see a dynamic increasingly at work among theistic evolutionists, whose science, let us always bear in mind, is no different from that of a Richard Dawkins or a Stephen Jay Gould. Accordingly, they cast themselves as the kind face of religion, and they characterize intelligent design as theologically naive and misguided. Theistic evolutionists have now become marvelously adept at rationalizing not only how their religious faith makes sense in light of evolution but also how evolution enhances their religious faith. Let’s not play this game. The issue for us is not how evolution relates to religious faith but whether evolution, as currently understood by science, is true. If, as we argue, it is not true, then exploring its religious ramifications constitutes a vain exercise.

8. The Principle of Radiating Confidence

In closing this essay, I want to speak to a topic I’ve already addressed in passing but now wish to focus on in earnest, namely, our composure under pressure. Years ago, as a teenager in the 1970s, I read a book titled Winning through Intimidation. The title was slightly misleading because the point of the book was not to instruct readers on how to win by intimidating others. Rather, the point was to instruct readers on how to win by not allowing others to intimidate them. This was made somewhat clearer when the book was recently reprinted under the title To Be or Not to Be Intimidated? That Is the Question. To this day, I love the book. In fact, I regard it as required reading for anyone who challenges evolution and has to deal with the inevitable backlash. Although the book offers many useful principles and insights (the “leapfrog principle” is especially important in our debate), its primary lesson is this: once your opponent has intimidated you and knows it, you’re lost. In closing, therefore, I want reflect on how we can avoid being intimidated and maintain our composure in the face of evolutionist opposition.

Two extremes need to be avoided. On the one hand, we must refuse to allow evolutionists to send us cowering into a corner. Instead, we need to be mentally and emotionally tough enough to withstand their attacks and to avoid being cowed. This depends on doing our homework so that we know what we’re talking about. It also depends on going out and mixing it up with enough evolutionists so that we know what we’re up against. The other extreme to be avoided is this, namely, we must refuse to allow evolutionists to get under our skin, make us angry, and thereby upset our equanimity. Once that happens, we lose self-control. This, in turn, typically leads us to denounce our opponents, issuing in harsh and bitter words, and these never help our cause. Aggressiveness and argumentativeness are almost always interpreted as defensiveness, and rightly so. As Seneca noted two millennia ago, harshness is always a sign of weakness, not of strength. Victor Hugo put it this way: “Strong and bitter words indicate a weak cause.” The reason is plain: we act harshly because people are not spontaneously behaving the way we would like and that, in turn, is because our strength of personality is not enough to fetch compliance.

I do a fair amount of public speaking and know from experience the feeling of a questioner getting under my skin and the urge to let him have it. Unless I’m overtired or otherwise not firing on all cylinders, however, I now resist that urge. The simplest way I’ve found to do that is simply to stay on topic, answering the questioner’s actual questions rather than being distracted by his animus or rudeness. Staying on topic, being courteous throughout, and, as much as possible, attributing to the questioner sincere motives has several advantages: (1) it prevents you from seeming defensive (as noted, aggressiveness and argumentativeness indicate defensiveness); (2) it wins the respect of the audience (and they’re the ones we’re trying to reach); and (3) it usually is the best way to slap some sense into a recalcitrant questioner, whose aim is to distract you from your message — by refusing to be distracted, you reinforce your message.

The most effective people on the other side always maintain their composure. They come across as neither servile nor aggressive. Instead, they always exude confidence. Even when they are speaking far outside their area of expertise, the confidence is still there. Even when their confidence has no basis in reality, it’s still there. There’s a principle at work here that John Maynard Keynes saw with special clarity in the circle surrounding the Cambridge moral philosopher G. E. Moore. As Toby Young describes it,

According to Keynes, Moore succeeded in dominating his disciples not because he could outmaneuver them in argument but simply because he had the loudest voice. Moore carried the day because he appeared to be so much more confident than anyone else. In Keynes’s view, the key to persuading someone of the rightness of your moral point of view lay in asserting it as emphatically as possible. There was nothing more to it than that. Once your opponents got a whiff of just how unambivalent you were, they’d come round to your way of thinking.

I see this principle of “radiating confidence” at work every day among evolutionists, whether it be in print, on the Internet, or in person. 

But what about us? In closing, I want to suggest that we, on the design side, are in an even better position than the evolutionists to radiate confidence. Here’s why. The evolutionists are essentially in a defensive posture. If they could demonstrate the power of material mechanisms to generate biological complexity and diversity, we wouldn’t be having this discussion — Darwin on Trial would never have been written and the intelligent design movement would not exist. But they have nothing here, and that despite possessing, as far as they are concerned, the greatest scientific theory ever put forward — the theory of evolution. Furthermore, given Richard Dawkins’s claim that “biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose,” we have no burden to show that every feature of biology is actually designed. To demonstrate that there is more to biology than merely apparent design, it is enough for us to show that certain key biological systems (such as the bacterial flagellum) are actually designed. As evolutionists continue to fail to explain the origin of these systems in materialist terms and as the design characteristics of these systems become increasingly evident, the evolutionists will themselves face severe pressures to maintain their composure.

But there’s more. Evolution has become totally status quo. Its supporters, therefore, tend to be stodgy and humorless (see the video Icons of Evolution and decide for yourself). They continually need to instruct the benighted masses on why criticisms of evolution should be disregarded, especially criticisms by those crazy design theorists. We, on the other hand, can afford to keep our sense of humor. We don’t have anything to lose. We don’t have positions of authority to preserve. We don’t have public moneys to administer. We don’t have a professional guild that we need to keep happy for the sake of our careers. We can be free spirits. This sits especially well with young people, who thrive on rebelling against the status quo and don’t like it when an authoritarian elite tells them what they must think and believe. And these young people are the scientists of tomorrow.

Perhaps most significantly, however, we can admit our mistakes and receive instruction. The evolutionists cannot. Indeed, the moment they admit that we might have a point, they let the genie out of the bottle. To open evolutionary theory to critical scrutiny would destroy their monopoly over the study of biological origins. It is simply not an option as far as they are concerned. All the same, their no-concession policy is a loser as well. The problem with this policy is its heavy-handedness in stifling inquiry. I quoted Edward Sisson earlier about the psychology he sees at play as a litigator in which “opposing lawyers are primed to reject every statement by the other side because there is no advantage to considering that the statements might be true.” Although Sisson sees this psychology at play among evolutionists, he does not find it in our ranks: “I do not see that psychology in the work of intelligent design proponents. The fact that this psychology is missing from their work is one reason why I have come to trust them more than their opponents in the debate.” Our ability to inspire such trust is the key to victory in this debate.

William A. Dembski

Founding and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture, Distinguished Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence
A mathematician and philosopher, Bill Dembski is the author/editor of more than 25 books as well as the writer of peer-reviewed articles spanning mathematics, engineering, biology, philosophy, and theology. With doctorates in mathematics (University of Chicago) and philosophy (University of Illinois at Chicago), Bill is an active researcher in the field of intelligent design. But he is also a tech entrepreneur who builds educational software and websites, exploring how education can help to advance human freedom with the aid of technology.