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Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer

Posted: June 15, 2005 07:38 PM

ID Works in Mysterious Ways: Evolution Denial & Intelligent Design


The Evolution-Creationism controversy is back in the news, with Kansas yet again at the epicenter of the continuing aftershocks left over from the earthquake originally triggered in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. At stake for science is that the single most powerful overarching theory of the biological sciences will not be taught in public schools. At stake for religion is that the creation myth of yore must step aside for a theory of origins that has the benefit of evidence on its side. But if there is so much evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, why do so many people not accept it?

In March of 2001 the Gallup News Service reported the results of their survey that found 45 percent of Americans agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” while 37 percent preferred a blended belief that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,” and a paltry 12 percent accepted the standard scientific theory that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”

In a forced choice between the “theory of creationism” and the “theory of evolution,” 57 percent choose creationism against only 33 percent for evolution (10 percent said they were “unsure”). Only 33 percent of Americans think that the theory of evolution is “well supported by evidence,” while slightly more (39 percent) believe that it is not well supported, and that it is “just one of many theories.” One reason for these disturbing results can be seen in the additional finding that only 34 percent of Americans consider themselves to be “very informed” about evolution. Clearly the 66 percent who do not, have not withheld their negative judgment on the theory’s veracity.

In any case, truth in science is not determined vox populi. It does not matter whether 99 percent or only 1 percent of the public believes a theory, whether they are from Kansas or not—a theory stands or falls on evidence, and there are few theories in science that are more robust than the theory of evolution. The preponderance of evidence from numerous converging lines of inquiry (geology, paleontology, zoology, botany, comparative anatomy, molecular biology, population genetics, biogeography, etc.) all independently point to the same conclusion—evolution happened. The 19th-century philosopher of science, William Whewell, called this process a “concilience of inductions.” I call it a “convergence of evidence.” By whatever name, this is how historical events are proven.

Since the U.S. Constitution prohibits public schools from promoting any particular brand of religion, this has led to the oxymoronic movement known as “Intelligent Design” (ID) where ID (aka God) miraculously intervenes just in the places where science has yet to offer a comprehensive explanation for a particular phenomenon. ID used to control the weather, but now that we have a science of meteorology He has moved on to more obdurate problems, such as the origins of DNA or the evolution of cellular structures such as the flagellum. Once these problems are mastered then ID will presumably find even more intractable conundrums. Thus, IDers would have us teach students that when science cannot fully explain something we should look no further and declare that “ID did it.” I fail to see how this is science. “ID did it” makes for a rather short lab lecture.

By contrast, a scientist would want to know how ID did it. Did ID use known principles of chemical bonding and self-organization to create the first DNA molecule? If so, then ID appears indistinguishable from nature. Is this the God IDers worship? No. IDers want a supernatural God who uses unknown forces to create life. But what will IDers do when science discovers those forces? If they join in the research on them then they will be doing science. If they continue to eschew all attempts to provide a naturalistic explanation for the natural phenomena under question, IDers will have abandoned science altogether. This is, in fact, what they have done.

The primary reason we are experiencing this peculiarly American phenomenon of evolution denial (the doppelganger of Holocaust denial), is that a small but vocal minority of religious fundamentalists misread the theory of evolution as a challenge to their deeply held religious convictions. It is no coincidence that almost all IDers, like the creationists of old, are Christians, male, and educated. In an extensive study on why people believe in God, the University of California at Berkeley social scientist Frank J. Sulloway and I discovered that the number one reason people give for their belief in God is the good design of the world. When asked why they think other people believe in God, however, the number one reason offered was emotional need and comfort, with the good design of the world dropping to sixth place. Further, we found that educated men who already believed in God were far more likely to give rational reasons for their belief than were educated women and uneducated believers. (All results of this study are reported in my book, How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God.) One explanation for these results is that although in general education leads to a decrease in religious faith, for those people who are educated and still believe in God there appears to be a need to justify their beliefs with rational arguments.

What is really going on in the ID movement is that highly educated religious men are justifying their faith with sophisticated scientistic arguments. This is old time religion dressed up in new fangled language. The words change but the arguments remain the same. As Karl Marx once noted: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The creationism of William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes trial was a tragedy. The creationism of the Intelligent Design theorists is a farce.

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Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com), the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American (www.sciam.com), and the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, How We Believe, and The Science of Good and Evil. His latest book is Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown (all published by Henry Holt/Times Books).