|Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design
By Thomas Woodward
304 pp., $19.99
In 1990, the anti-Darwin crusader Phillip E. Johnson sent me a manuscript of Darwin on Trial and asked for my advice about its publication.
I deferentially cautioned the chaired professor at the University of California's respected Boalt Hall School of Law that he could encounter problems finding a mainstream publisher and attracting a popular audience. I thought there were too many books that made essentially the same arguments against Darwinism for there to be much of a market for Darwin on Trial, even if it articulated those arguments far better than most.
I was decidedly wrong. After InterVarsity Press published the paperback edition, it became a standard in evangelical households and churches.
As Thomas Woodward's new Doubts About Darwin shows, Darwin on Trial not only became a bestseller within the evangelical Christian community but helped revive popular interest among conservative Protestants and Catholics in Intelligent Design (ID) as an explanation for innovation in biology.
ID is the hypothesis that highly complex organs (such as the eye) and functionally interdependent organisms (such as butterflies and flowers) reflect the handiwork of an intelligent designer (such as God).
This traditional biological concept of an intelligent designer fell from favor during the late 1800s with the ascent of Darwinism, which relied on random variation and natural selection to fine-tune organs for their uses and organisms for their environment. But some nonscientists clung to the notion of a designer behind nature, especially evangelicals who took seriously the words of Romans 1:20: "For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made."
With the publication of Darwin on Trial in 1991, Johnson conferred a Berkeley pedigree on such thinking by marshalling evidence against the sufficiency of evolution to account for the origin of species. Doubts About Darwin concentrates on Johnson's argument and traces its impact on a core group of followers in academia. Woodward counts himself among this group.
Although (like many books based on dissertations) it's laced with technical terms, Doubts About Darwin demonstrates that Johnson is a master rhetorician. As Johnson himself explains in the book's forward, "Rhetoric is the art of framing an argument so that it can be appreciated by an audience." He calls it "a noble art."
Woodward analyzes the rhetoric associated with the modern ID movement that began in 1985 with the publication of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis by Australian physician and biochemist Michael Denton; that spread throughout the U.S. evangelical community through Johnson's writings and speaking during the 1990s; that peaked in 1996 with the publication of mathematician David Berlinski's article "The Deniable Darwin" and biochemist Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box; and continues with the subsequent publication of The Design Inference by William Dembski and Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells.
Woodward measures the rhetorical effectiveness of each of these major ID works. More than anyone else in the ID movement, Johnson highlighted the effect of scientific materialism (or methodological naturalism) in shaping the debate over origins. By their own definition of their field, modern scientists investigate only natural causes, not supernatural ones. In his various popular books and public statements, Johnson denounces such reasoning as circular.
"We define science as the pursuit of materialist alternatives. Now what kind of answers do we come up with?" he noted in a 1997 interview with Tim Stafford for CT. "By gosh, we come up with materialist answers." Darwinism may be the best naturalistic answer to biological origins, Johnson stresses, but it is still wrong.
As Woodward illustrates, the writings of other key ID proponents have broadened the critique of Darwinism. Unlike Johnson, Behe does not deny the core evolutionary concept of common descent for all organisms, but in Darwin's Black Box he does assert that some biochemical processes (such as the cascade of multiple proteins required for blood clotting) are too irreducibly complex to have originated in the step-by-step fashion envisioned by modern Darwinists. Recalling the old claim that the eye could not have evolved piecemeal because it only functions as a whole, Behe maintains that something intelligent must have designed certain functional systems into organisms.
For his part, Dembski invokes mathematical probability filters (like those used to sift radio signals from outer space for messages sent by intelligent beings) to suggest that life's complexity is more likely the product of design than chance. In Icons of Evolution, Wells debunks various outdated bits of scientific evidence still invoked by some to support evolution theory, such as long-discredited pictures illustrating similarities in the embryonic development of various species and dubious experiments demonstrating the power of natural selection in transforming the peppered moth.
Fighting for Status
Woodward's own rhetoric artfully advances his argument, but his book tells little about the status of evolutionary theory within the wider scientific community. In surveys of scientists and studies of federal support for scientific research, I have not detected any appreciable impact of ID within core biological disciplines. Although funding for biological research has soared under the Bush administration, for example, none of it is going to any projects pursuing an ID paradigm, and much of it flows into evolutionary research. When it comes to where the U.S. government puts its money in science, evolution still wins.
Nevertheless, the ID arguments, together with other products of the movement, have found a ready audience among many Americans who either accept the Genesis account of origins as literally true or at least believe in a God who superintends his creation.
By all accounts, most Americans respond favorably to the central ID plea that science should not a priori exclude supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. To do so, ID partisans argue, imposes an atheistic filter on answers to the question of origins. This is particularly insidious, they stress, when it limits what students learn in public school science classrooms. Such rhetoric helped rekindle the long-running debate over teaching evolution—with most recent effectiveness in Kansas, Alabama, and Ohio.
Woodward's book is based on his 2001 doctoral dissertation (in speech, not history) for the University of South Florida. A minor criticism of Doubts About Darwin is its subtitle, which misrepresents Woodward's focus: It's actually less on the history and more on the rhetoric of the movement.
To be sure, the history of the rhetoric contains some history about the movement. But the book never mentions, for example, the Seattle-based Center for Science and Culture, which has served as the institutional home for the ID movement over the past decade, or the Fieldstead and Stewardship Foundations, which have sustained the ID movement by generously supporting its major players and conferences.
These institutional partners and their patrons deserve their place in the modern history of Intelligent Design. Indeed, when that larger story is told, Woodward and his book may themselves appear in the narrative.
Edward J. Larson, winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in history, is the Russell Professor of American History and Talmadge Chair of Law at the University of Georgia. His latest book is Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Doubts about Darwin is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Books & Culture editor, John Wilson, recently argued that the ID rhetoric is too hostile to Christians with different views,
More Christianity Today articles on ID from our Science & Health page includes:
The Dick Staub Interview: William Dembski's Revolution | The author of Intelligent Design set out to answer the toughest questions about the movement he helped promote. (March 30, 2004)
'A Nuclear Bomb' For Evolution? | Critics of Darwinism say skull's discovery isn't all it's cracked up to be. (Aug. 14, 2002)
Design Interference | William Dembski fired from Baylor's Intelligent Design center. (Nov. 28, 2000)
Your Darwin Is Too Large | Evolution's significance for theology has been greatly exaggerated. (May 25, 2000)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.