The Big Tent and the Camel’s Nose

The Big Tent and the Camel’s Nose

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“The Big Tent and the Camel’s Nose.”

 William Dembski has responded to my January 18 Tom Jukes Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley.  Others are responding on META and elsewhere to the focus of his essay, whether natural selection is testable, and I shall not do so here.  I should, however comment on views attributed to me.

I wasn’t really dealing with the testability of ID, though that is the impression one might get from Dembski’s essay.  In this public lecture, I discussed both traditional creation science as well as Neocreationism, and compared them.  I talked about Behe’s irreducible complexity idea, and Dembski’s Design Inference, and illustrated religious motivation for fighting evolution.  I am not especially concerned with whether ID is testable. I look at the testability of ID the same way I look at the testability of traditional Young Earth Creationism (YEC): YEC can make empirically or logically or statistically testable statements (the Earth was covered by a body of water, all living things are descended from creatures that came off a boat) but its foundational claim that everything came into being suddenly in its present form through the efforts of a supernatural creator is not a scientifically testable claim.  I1ll let theologians argue over whether Special Creationism is good theology, but evoking omnipotent supernatural causes puts one smack out of the realm of science, protestations of the validity of 3theistic science2 notwithstanding. One cannot use natural processes to hold constant the actions of supernatural forces; hence it is impossible to test (by naturalistic methodology) supernatural explanations (Scott, 1998 ).  Whether a supernatural force does or does not act is thus outside of what science can tell us.

Similarly, ID can make empirically or logically or statistically testable claims (that certain structures are irreducibly complex; by using probability arguments like the “design filter” one can detect design) but the foundational claim that a supernatural “intelligence” is behind it all is not a scientifically testable statement. (And please, let’s be grownups here: we’re not talking about a disembodied, vague “intelligence” that *might* be material, we’re talking about God, an intelligent agent that can do things that, according to ID, mortals and natural processes like natural selection cannot.  Not for nothing does Dembski say that ID is the bridge between science and theology.)

In my talk, I wasn1t deploring the untestability of ID *per se* but the fact that its proponents don1t present testable models. I was referring to the fact that ID proponents don’t present a model *at all* in the sense of saying what happened when.  At least YEC presents a view of “what happens”: the universe appeared within thousands of years ago, at one time, in its present form, living things are descended from specially created 3kinds2 from which they have not varied except in trivial ways, there was a universal flood that produced the modern geological features, and humans are specially created apart from all other forms.  So what happened in the ID model?

  I said (and have said repeatedly) that the message of ID is “evolution is bad science”, without providing an alternative view of the history of the universe.  This is not trivial: in books by Philip Johnson as well as in Jonathan Wells’ new *Icons of Evolution* teachers are told that they should be teaching students about how evolution is a weak, unsubstantiated 3theory in crisis2, to use former antievolutionist Michael Denton’s phrase. The theories of astronomical, geological and biological evolution attempt to explain evidence demonstrating that the universe has been around for a long time, and has gradually unfolded from a different form to its present form.  There are lots of details in there, about when and how things happened: when our galaxy formed, when other galaxies formed, when Earth formed and out of what matter, when warthogs or whortleberries or liverworts came to resemble their present forms, and on. Something happened, and we1re trying to figure out what, and trying to figure out the mechanisms that brought it about.  ID tells us that evolution didn1t happen (what else is one supposed to take away from *Icons of Evolution*?) but it doesn1t tell us what *did*.

Unless ID proponents can come up with an actual model of “what happened”, all they have is a sterile antievolutionism that adds little to YEC beyond the specific ideas of irreducible complexity and the design filter.

The reason ID proponents are so vague about an actual picture of what happened is that they strive to include YECs, progressive creationists (PCs), and theistic evolutionists (TEs) among their theorists and supporters (though the TE gang must feel rather uncomfortable, Dembski himself having proclaimed that 3ID is no friend of theistic evolution2 (Dembski, 1995).  This is not just a big tent; it is one bulging with people who must be eying one another warily.  Phil Johnson may want everyone to just be nice for the time being until evolution is vanquished, and then they can work out their disagreements, but if you think evolutionists squabble, wait until you see what happens when the ID folks have to sort out their differences.

As Ronald Numbers and Kelly Smith independently urged at last summer1s esign and Its Critics2 conference, if ID is going to attain any level of scholarly respectability, its proponents are going to have to distinguish their model from the discredited, unscientific YEC model, even if that means losing the support of biblical literalist Christians.  For aspiring scholarly movements, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend.

Given my odd line of work, I1m concerned with practical issues such as what teachers are being told to do, and what effect this will have on American education. As near as I can tell, teachers are being encouraged to teach students that evolution didn1t happen, and that if it did, that natural selection isn1t the cause of it, and that in any event we have to leave room for the direct actions of a Creator, and all this is still called science.  But to keep all the ID factions quiet, an actual picture of what happened, which is what evolution is trying to explain and what ID has to explain, is never mentioned.  What should teachers teach?  Apparently, judging from *Icons of Evolution*, they should teach the familiar old YEC saws about the weaknesses of evolution.  Evolution is bad science, they say.  So to my way of thinking, ID doesn1t rise above familiar antievolutionism, though it may be served up in probability theory and information theory with a side order of biochemistry, but there is no coherent ID  model of what happened for teachers to actually teach.

This invites the question of what, according to the proponents of ID, should teachers teach about the following issues?

1)  Is the universe a few thousand years old or billions?  Most ID proponents will if forced, uncomfortably confess that they accept an ancient age of the earth, but they are quick to dismiss the question as unimportant, presumably to keep the YECs in the antievolution tent.  But should a teacher teach that the earth is millions or thousands of years old?  You can1t have it both ways if you are proposing a K-12 curriculum. What is the ID model?  What happened?

2)  Is the geological column which shows a succession of species through time, 3real2 or an artifact?  At least the YECs present a model of what happened: the arrangement of species in the geological column is a result of sorting by Noah1s flood, rather than their appearance at different times.  Does ID accept the geological column as 3real2?  This is a simple thing to agree to: it is still possible to argue (as Jonathan Wells does) that the arrangement of species through time doesn1t represent descent with modification, but Dembski et al. are going to have to come clean as to what this means. Minimally, it means the Special Creationists are wrong, but it also requires the PCs and the TEs to fight it out as to whether the succession of species through time represents separate creations or a geneological pattern of related species.

3)  Did living things descend with modification from common ancestors?  This is what biological evolution is all about, and where the ID big tent starts showing the strain of trying to stretch over incompatible views. How is ID going to accommodate both Theistic Evolutionist Michael Behe and Special Creationist Paul Nelson? More important, what do proponents of ID expect teachers to teach? What happened?

I think I know the answer.  Teachers are supposed to teach that evolution didn1t happen.  Of course, if they did, they would be teaching a view that is well outside the scientific mainstream, and be doing their students no favors.  I like to remind people that evolution is taught matter-of-factly at every solid university in the nation, including Brigham Young, Notre Dame, and Baylor.  But more importantly for our purposes here, ID does not present a coherent model of 3what happened2, making it impossible for teachers to present ID as an alternative to evolution, as proponents seek.

Now, maybe Dembski or other ID proponents will tell me that they are not trying to influence the K-12 curriculum, that they are merely trying to build a scholarly movement at the university or intellectual level, trusting that eventually ID will be validated and like other intellectual movements, it will trickle down to the K-12 level. If Dembski had attended my talk, he would have heard me advocate exactly this strategy.  I don1t think ID will enter the academic mainstream, but if it does, then obviously it will eventually be taught in high school.  But I don’t think ID proponents are willing to wait until they get this validation: Jonathan Wells, whose book provides disclaimers to be copied and placed in K-12 textbooks, is obviously concerned primarily with the K-12 curriculum; Philip Johnson’s *Defeating Darwinism* is explicitly aimed at high school students; and CRSC1s Steven Meyer is an author of a substantial 3Afterward2 to teachers in the ID high school textbook, *Of Pandas and People*.  Bruce Gordon, presently interim director of The Baylor Science and Religion Project, has correctly noted, : ID 3has been prematurely drawn into discussions of public science education, where it has no business making an appearance without broad recognition from the scientific community that it is making a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the natural world2 (Gordon, 2001).

So, what happened, Bill? Will you go beyond 3evolution is bad science2 to give us an actual model of what happened?


Dembski, William 1995 What every theologian should know about creation, evolution, and design. Center for Interdisciplinary Studies Transactions 3(2):3.

Dembski, William.  2001. Is Intelligent Design Testable?  A Reply to Eugenie Scott.  META 004. 2001.01.24.

Scott, Eugenie C. 1998 Two kinds of materialism. *Free Inquiry*, Spring, 1998, p. 20.

 I thank Glenn Branch for useful comments.

Eugenie C. Scott, Ph.D. Executive Director National Center for Science Education, Inc. 925 Kearney St. El Cerrito, CA 94530-2810