What happened to the Intelligent Design movement?

When the Intelligent Design movement started there were four key players. The founder was a professor of law at Berkeley named Phillip Johnson who cast a legal eye at the evidence on favor of evolution and wrote a book Darwin on Trial that argued that the case for evolution had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. He was the brains behind the so-called ‘Wedge Strategy’ that sought to undermine naturalism, staring by gradually undermining the idea that methodological naturalism was an integral part of science.

Then there was Michael Behe, a biologist at Lehigh University, who wrote Darwin’s Black Box that argued that there were certain biological systems that exhibited what he called ‘irreducible complexity’ in that they could not come about by incremental steps, an idea that was integral to natural selection. Then there was Jonathan Wells, who had a PhD in biology that he obtained for the purposes of having credentials to attack evolution, who wrote a book Icons of Evolution where he took aim at well-known examples of evolution to argue that they were flawed. And finally there was William Dembski, someone with a lot of formal education including advanced degrees in mathematics, statistics, psychology, philosophy, and theology and a prolific author of books and articles, who argued that evolution was statistically unlikely to have occurred. I met all of them (other than Dembski), some several times, during the time that ID was in its prime and I was invited for debates with them

In my book God vs. Darwin, I said that the massive legal defeat in 2005 suffered by the ID movement as a result of the ham-handed efforts by the Dover School Board had left them with nowhere to go, their stealth Wedge Strategy pretty much in a shambles. And so it has proved, with little heard from them since. Whereas before one heard of ID all over the place, now one has to seek them out by visiting the Discovery Institute which has become kind of a refuge for the last holdouts.

Johnson, interviewed by Berkeley Science Review (Spring 2006, p. 31) immediately post-Dover, seemed to immediately recognize that Dover was a major legal loss and resigned to the fact that ID was going nowhere, saying:

“I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that’s comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it’s doable, but that’s for them to prove…No product is ready for competition in the educational world.

I think the fat lady has sung for any efforts to change the approach in the public schools…the courts are just not going to allow it. They never have. The efforts to change things in the public schools generate more powerful opposition than accomplish anything.”

Then in September 2016, Dembski said that he had ‘officially retired’ from the ID movement in the sense that he no longer works in the area and has resigned from the Discovery Institute. In my book I also wrote about the latent tensions that had always existed between the ID group (who believe in most of evolutionary science but just disagree that it makes god completely unnecessary) and young Earth creationists (who take Genesis literally) that had been papered over but exploded into the open during and after the Dover trial fiasco where the judge’s excoriating verdict roundly drubbed the ID side.

In a recent interview, Dembski confirms this tension by describing the opposition the ID movement received from within the Christian community and lambasted the young Earth group.

I would say that the church broadly and even the evangelical community has — on balance — been somewhere between useless and downright counterproductive to the success of ID. I know this may sound strange, but note my qualification: on balance. Of course, a crucial nucleus of support for ID has come largely from the church and especially evangelical Christians. But that nucleus is small. By contrast, the opposition to ID in the church is large.

On the one hand, there are the theistic evolutionists, who largely control the CCCU schools (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities), and who want to see ID destroyed in the worst possible way — as far as they’re concerned, ID is bad science and bad religion.

And then there are the young-earth creationists, who were friendly to ID in the early 2000s, until they realized that ID was not going to serve as a stalking horse for their literalistic interpretation of Genesis. After that, the young-earth community largely turned away from ID, if not overtly, then by essentially downplaying ID in favor of anything that supported a young earth.

The Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky is a case in point. What an embarrassment and waste of money. I’ve recently addressed the fundamentalism that I hold responsible for this sorry state of affairs.

So, how much good has the Christian community really done in advancing ID? Sure, there have been pockets of genuine support in the Christian community. But why is the first and only ID think-tank/research center at a Christian college or university Baylor’s Michael Polanyi Center (which I founded in 1999, and which was dismantled the following year — thanks in this case not to young-earth creationists but to theistic evolutionists)? And why is the $100M spent on a Noah’s Ark theme park several times more than has been spent on all ID efforts over the last 20 years? Let’s get some sense of proportion.

His bitterness towards young Earthers is understandable since they demanded that he be fired from his job at the highly conservative Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for having the temerity to suggest in a book that the book of Genesis not be taken too literally and that Noah’s flood may not have been the global event portrayed in the Bible. I described Dembski’s subsequent trials and tribulations in a post Gen fight at the Baptist corral.

Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells are still members of the Discovery Institute and presumably still plugging away at ID but the air definitely seems to have gone out of the movement.


  1. Kreator says

    With creationism gaining more ground than ever in the political landscape, perhaps ID has outlived its usefulness…

  2. grasshopper says

    What I think is the best quote to come out of the Dover “incident” came from a creationist pastor called Ray Mummert.

    We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture.

    Ray isn’t often right, but he nailed it that time.

    You can read more about Ray at the Encyclopedia Of American Loons

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    From the Florida Citizens for Science blog, concerning recent tours of the state by noted IDiots:

    Any time creationists come knocking, their visits are followed by a flurry of creationist shenanigans involving textbooks, or some local school board, or the state legislature. The back to back visits by Nelson and Behe make me wary. Something is up.

    FCS also notes a potentially creationist-friendly “religious liberty” bill now slithering into the state House and Senate.

    Or maybe Behe & Nelson are just hustling the yokels to subsidize February-in-Florida vacations…

  4. mountainbob says

    Now it’s the turn, once again, of the creationists. They hold to the belief that tribal peoples 2,000+ years ago had a complete and inerrant understanding of everything. Those folks, way back then, did not believe their stories were “truth” but that they could reveal truth and be instructive to others (they also formed the backbone of efforts to differentiate the in-group from all those lesser groups). Creationist/evangelical ideology still serves that “us vs them” function.

  5. says

    It’s like watching white supremacists switching from “racial superiority” to “defence of white culture”. Both arguments are equally ludicrous, but the old guard is disappointed that they no longer hold power and influence with the young.

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