This is the way creationism ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.
According to scientists, teachers, and civil libertarians, the Taliban has invaded Ohio. Creationists have devised a theory called "Intelligent Design" (ID) and are trying to get Ohio's Board of Education to make sure it's taught alongside Darwinism. Unlike creationism, ID accepts that the Earth is billions of years old and that species evolve through natural selection. It posits that life has been designed but doesn't specify by whom. Liberals call ID a menace that will sneak religion into public schools. They're exactly wrong. ID is a big nothing. It's non-living, non-breathing proof that religion has surrendered its war against science.
Creationism used to be assertive and powerful. Darwinism wasn't allowed in schools. As Darwin gained the upper hand, conservatives fought to preserve creationism alongside evolution. They lost the war on both fronts. Courts struck down the teaching of creationism on the grounds that it mixed church and state. Meanwhile, scientific evidence discredited the belief that the Earth was created in six days and was only 6,000 years old. Like the Taliban, creationists were washed up. Their only hope was to flee to the mountains, shave their beards, change their clothes, and come back as something else.
What they've come back as is the Intelligent Design movement. Gone are the falsifiable claims of a six-day creation and a 6,000-year-old Earth. Gone is the God of the Bible. In their place, ID enthusiasts speak of questions, mysteries, and possibilities. As to whether God, the Force, or ET created us, ID is agnostic. "We simply ask the question as to whether something can form naturally or if there must have been something more, a designer," Robert Lattimer, an ID proponent in Ohio, told the Columbus Dispatch. "Our main contention is that [evolution-focused curriculum] standards are purely naturalistic and leave no room for the possibility that part of nature can be designed."
This soft-headed agnosticism matches the soft-headed arguments for including it in the curriculum. They're the same arguments leftists have made for ebonics. According to ID proponents, the committee in charge of Ohio's science curriculum is too "homogenous" and lacks "diversity." It marginalizes alternative "points of view" to which students should be "exposed." A conservative state senator says some people "think differently, and all those ideas should be explored." A conservative member of the state education board says Ohioans deserve a science curriculum "they can all be comfortable with."
Behind these pleas for diversity is the kind of educational relativism conservatives normally despise. "Biological evolution, like creationism and design, cannot be proved to be either true or false," writes one ID enthusiast in Ohio. Since evolution is an "unproven theory," says another, "belief in it is just as much an act of faith as is belief in creationism or in the theory of intelligent design."
The response of liberals, teachers, and scientists has been hysterical. They accuse the ID movement of peddling "intolerance," fronting for the Christian right, and trying "to force a narrow religious ideology into our schools." If Ohio lets ID into its curriculum, they prophesy, the state will become an "international laughingstock," triggering a corporate exodus, a decline in property values, and the collapse of Ohio's standard of living. They refuse to acknowledge a difference between ID and creationism. "This is just a new paint job on the same old Edsel," says an Ohio University physiologist.
The analogy is inside out. Creationists haven't repainted their Edsel. They've taken out the engine and the transmission. Without distinctive, measurable claims such as the six-day creation, the 6,000-year-old Earth, and other literal interpretations of the Bible, creationism no longer materially contradicts evolution. The reason not to teach intelligent design isn't that it's full of lies or dogma. The reason is that it's empty.
Advocates of ID do offer interesting criticisms of Darwin's theory of evolution. They argue that natural selection doesn't account for the rise and fall of species, that many biological mechanisms wouldn't make organisms more fit to survive unless those mechanisms appeared all at once, and that the combinations necessary to create life are so complex that it would be statistically impossible to generate them by chance. My colleague Bob Wright answered these criticisms in Slate last year. I don't know whether they stand up to his rebuttal or not. But I do know this: They don't add up to a theory.
A theory isn't just a bunch of criticisms, even if they're valid. A theory ties things together. It explains and predicts. Intelligent design does neither. It doesn't explain why part of our history seems intelligently designed and part of it doesn't. Why are our feet and our back muscles poorly designed for walking? Why are we afflicted by lethal viruses? Why have so many females died in childbirth? ID doesn't explain these things. It just shrugs at them. "Design theory seeks to show, based on scientific evidence, that some features of living things may be designed by a mind or some form of intelligence," says one ID proponent. Some? May? Some? What kind of theory is that?
As Wright explains, Darwinian theory makes predictions that can be tested. It predicts that the average difference in size between males and females will correspond to the degree of polygamy in a species, and that in species in which females can reproduce more often than males, females will be more sexually assertive and less discriminating about their sex partners than males will be. These predictions turn out to be true. Darwin claimed that humans had descended from apes. If fossils unearthed since his death had exhibited no such connection, his theory would have been discredited. What empirical predictions does ID make that, if proven untrue, would discredit the theory?
John Calvert, the country's principal exponent of ID, answered that question in a treatise he presented to the Ohio board. Calvert described the "methods" by which scientists can "detect" design in nature.
In summary, if a highly improbable pattern of events or object exhibits purpose, structure or function and can not be reasonably and rationally explained by the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry or some other regularity or law, then it is reasonable to infer that the pattern was designed. — the product of a mind.
That, in a nutshell, is ID. It offers no predictions, scope modifiers, or experimental methods of its own. It's a default answer, a shrug, consisting entirely of problems in Darwinism. Those problems should be taught in school, but there's no reason to call them intelligent design. Intelligent design, as defined by its advocates, means nothing. This is the way creationism ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.