The "New" Creationism

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
April 16 2001 9:30 PM

The "New" Creationism

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"This time, though, the evolutionists find themselves arrayed not against traditional creationism, with its roots in biblical literalism, but against a more sophisticated idea: the intelligent design theory."— New York Times, front page, April 8, 2001

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

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With this sentence, the newspaper of record has now granted official significance to the latest form of opposition to Darwinism. As the Times notes, adherents of "intelligent design theory" are doing what creationists have long done, such as trying to change public-school science curricula. But there's a difference: Instead of being a bunch of yahoos, they are a bunch of "academics and intellectuals" with new, "more sophisticated" ideas.

Two obvious questions: What is really new about "intelligent design theory"? And who are these "academics and intellectuals"? The answer to the first question—nothing of significance—is best seen by answering the second question.

The Times piece identifies three "intellectual fathers" of intelligent design theory: Phillip E. Johnson, Michael Behe, and William Dembski.

Intellectual father No. 1: Phillip Johnson, law professor. The Times says the movement's "manifesto" is Johnson's 1991 book Darwin on Trial. If true, this does not bode well for the movement. This book shows Johnson to be suffering from an elementary confusion about Darwinian theory.

Johnson notes, accurately, that species often go extinct because of what you might call bad luck, not bad genes. A meteor triggers an environmental cataclysm, wiping out thousands of species that, only the day before, seemed ideally suited to their habitat. Well, Johnson asks: If which genes perish is so often determined randomly, how could natural selection work well? Isn't the idea supposed to be that, while genetic traits are generated randomly, they are weeded out selectively, depending on whether they are "fit"?

That is indeed how natural selection creates "fit" organisms. But, according to modern Darwinian theory, most of the consequential weeding out doesn't happen conspicuously and suddenly, when whole species go extinct; it happens on a day-to-day basis within a species, as some individuals fail to spread their genes as ably as other individuals. So, even if every few hundred million years a meteor strikes, wiping out lots of well-adapted species, other well-adapted species remain, and the process of adaptation continues.

In short, Johnson wrote a whole book critiquing modern evolutionary theory without first mastering the basics of modern evolutionary theory. (I pointed out his fallacy in a New Yorker piece published a year ago—in fact, the above two paragraphs have a hauntingly familiar sound. I also argued in that piece that Johnson's confusion comes partly from reading Stephen Jay Gould—and that Gould's writings have aided and abetted creationism in myriad ways. But don't get me started on that subject.)

Intellectual father No. 2: Michael Behe, biochemist at Lehigh University. "One of the first arguments for design theory," according to the Times, is found in Behe's 1996 book Darwin's Black Box. Behe, says the Times, argues that various biochemical structures "could not have been built in a stepwise Darwinian fashion." For example, the mechanism for blood-clotting involves more than a dozen different proteins working together in complex harmony. Surely, Behe argues, the entire complex mechanism didn't spring to life from a single fortuitous mutation! So, Darwinians must contend that it was built by a series of mutations, and that each mutation, by itself, was useful to the organism. Yet, Behe insists, if you try to imagine these earlier, more rudimentary forms of the mechanism—lacking its full complement of proteins—you'll find yourself imagining a mechanism that wouldn't function at all.

The first thing to note about this "new" argument against Darwinism is that it is roughly as new as The Origin of Species. The classic formulation of Behe's question is: "What good is half an eye?"—and it was raised by Darwin himself, who then did his best to answer it.

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