From Scopes to Dover-22: Creation science is reborn as intelligent design

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It was with this history of US Supreme Court decisions in mind that we can understand the emergence of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement. IDC has to be understood as a carefully crafted theory that was designed to overcome the legal restrictions placed by the establishment clause on inserting religion back into the public schools.

The fundamental goal was still the same: to undermine the theory of evolution and to bring back into schools a god-centered view of creation. But mindful of all the legal setbacks that previous efforts had met, IDC advocates like Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson, tried to find a way to make it acceptable to the courts. Johnson is considered the father of the intelligent design creationism movement, and his book Darwin on Trial (1991) marked its beginning.

The Berkeley Science Review describes the founding of the movement:

Two years later [i.e. 1993], Johnson organized a meeting at Pajaro Dunes near Monterey to bring like-minded thinkers together. Its participants would become the major public figures in intelligent design: Scott Minnich and Michael Behe, who would testify on behalf of ID in Dover, Steven Meyer, who would direct the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and Jonathan Wells, who pursued a PhD in molecular and cell biology at Berkeley after becoming convinced that he “should devote [his] life to destroying Darwinism.”

As we have seen, a succession of judicial rulings had drastically narrowed the range of options open to evolution’s opponents. To recapitulate, in the early days of the republic, public schools taught a generic Protestant-based ideology and the King James’s Bible. But even before the theory of evolution had been announced by Charles Darwin in 1859, the idea of separation of church and state had gained ground and largely resulted by the end of the 19th century in the elimination of religious instruction and the Bible from schools. As the theory of evolution gained ground and became widely taught in schools in the early days of the 20th century, those who were sensitive to its negative implications for religion sought to ban its teaching in schools in order to restore neutrality between what they saw as religious and anti-religious viewpoints.

But attempts to forbid the teaching of evolution had been ruled unconstitutional in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), the case that was the rightful successor to the Scopes case. The subsequent attempt in 1974 by Tennessee to restore the balance by explicitly teaching the Genesis theories of creationism along with evolution had been ruled unconstitutional by an appeals court and did not even reach the US Supreme Court. (The ever-resilient people of Tennessee tried again in 1996 to pass legislation restricting teaching evolution in schools. The effort failed, presumably because enough legislators realized that they were facing an uphill constitutional battle. (Larson, p. 262))

Realizing that trying to keep evolution out of the schools was futile and introducing explicitly religious ideas into the curriculum to balance evolution was also going nowhere, religious people adopted the ‘equal time’ or ‘balanced treatment’ strategies that Arkansas and Louisiana attempted in 1981. This removed explicit references to religion and the Bible, and instead requested equal time for something called “creation science” to counter the effects of evolution. That strategy had not swayed the courts either, with the Arkansas statute overturned in 1982 in a federal district court and the Louisiana statute overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard.

This did not leave religious advocates with much room to maneuver. People who wanted to bring back god into the classroom realized that it required a much more subtle and sophisticated strategy than what had been tried before. The first thing they had to do was to disown any formal links with earlier creationism movements such as “creation science” since those movements had already been tainted by being identified with one particular religious view and teaching that view been rejected by the courts as violating the establishment clause. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the court had made this point quite clear: “The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind. The legislative history demonstrates that the term “creation science,” as contemplated by the state legislature, embraces this religious teaching.” The decision said that the creation science legislation failed all three Lemon tests: the legislation must have a secular purpose, its primary purpose must be neutral towards religion, and avoid excessive entanglement of the government with religion.

This is why the IDC people tried to avoid at all costs being associated with “creationist” label. It was seen as the kiss of death, as far as constitutional acceptability went. The IDC strategy would be to never even mention the Bible or god or Christianity or creationism or creation science, or even to require the teaching of any alternative theories to evolution, since that too had been seen as constitutionally suspect.

The only option that remained was to seek to discredit the theory of evolution altogether by undermining its credibility. In order to do this, two of the original IDC strategists, Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells wrote their own books, Darwin’s Black Box (1996) and Icons of Evolution (2000) respectively, both targeting evolution and alleging that the theory had fatal weaknesses. These books would become the sacred texts of the IDC movement. Wells’ book follows up a 1978 book that also sought to highlight the alleged weaknesses of evolution, Evolution – The fossils say no! by Duane Gish. (It is interesting that the IDC movement umbrella covers a wide spectrum of religious believers, with Behe being a Roman Catholic and Wells a member of the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon.)

Of course, such a minimalist strategy of merely discrediting the theory of evolution by natural selection fell far short of the goals that fundamentalist religious people wanted, which was to bring back into the schools prayer and Bible readings as well as the Genesis story. Since the IDC movement needed the political and economic support of these religious people, what we saw was a delicate maneuvering, trying to balance the legal requirement to avoid seeming to have anything to do with religion, while at the same time reassuring religious believers that intelligent design was a way of getting religion back in the schools.

So there developed an elaborate and carefully choreographed dance, consisting of nods and winks and nudges to the faithful that the IDC movement was merely the vanguard designed to get the religious nose into the tent of the schools. Once that had been established, once the wall of separation in the establishment clause prohibition had been breached in that way, it was felt that the other religious practices could be slowly re-established. This strategy was fully laid out in an IDC internal document known, appropriately enough, as the ‘Wedge Strategy’, which will be described in the next posting.

POST SCRIPT: Creation Science 101