Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Hacking and I

Writing in the October 8, 2007, issue of The Nation, the philosopher Ian Hacking reviewed five books relevant to the creationism/evolution controversy: Philip Kitcher's Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, Michael Lienesch's In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement, Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, Ronald L Numbers's The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, and A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter's Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, a collection of HL Mencken's contemporary reportage. (His essay is also available on-line at

Hacking began by looking on the bright side: "The anti-Darwin movement has racked up one astounding achievement. It has made a significant proportion of American parents care about what their children are taught in school." However, he subsequently observed, "The debate about who decides what gets taught is fascinating, albeit excruciating for those who have to defend the schools against bunkum." With Kitcher, he prefers to classify creationist bunkum not as bad science or pseudoscience, but as dead science — or, borrowing a term from the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos, "degenerate" science.

"Degenerate programs paint themselves into smaller and smaller corners, skirting problems they'd prefer not to face," Hacking explained. "They seldom or never have a new, positive explanation of anything. In short, they teach us nothing." In contrast, "evolutionary theory is a living, growing, vital organism ... a blooming, buzzing, confusing delight, finding out more about the world every day." He cited debates over the phylogeny of the primates and the extant of horizontal genetic transfer as cases of genuine scientific controversies within evolutionary biology.

"Contrast that with pseudo-controversy," Hacking continued, "and take, for example, Michael Behe, a professor at Lehigh University who must be the most ingenious and prolific anti-Darwinian biologist at work today." Referring to Behe's first book, Darwin's Black Box, he wrote,"There is no give and take of explanation and counterexample, no new methodology, no new anything — just the same old question dressed up in slightly new clothes." With respect to Behe's latest book, The Edge of Evolution (reviewed by David E Levin in RNCSE 2007 Jan–Apr; 27 [1–2]: 38–40), he concluded," Once again,we get a recycled objection in slightly new packaging, and no new ideas. ... Can't they do better than that? Apparently not."

Hacking ended his essay on a theological note."Intelligent design is silly,"he remarked, despite its predecessors in the history of philosophy, and its central weakness is that "[i]t says nothing about the designer." Its silence about the nature of the designer, he argues, allows a number of variations on "the trite ad hominem observation" that the design in nature is imperfect: that the designer is evil, that the designer is insane ("obsessed with intricate details so long as they do not get too much in the way of other devices he concocts"), and — in what he described as a "more attractive thought" — that the designer chose to operate through chance and selection.

On its website, The Nation features web letters — "continually published replies we receive from real people, who sign their real names," it explains. Among them was mine, which was denoted with a star as an "editor's pick"; on the other hand, so was a letter from a self-described creationist, who praised Hacking "for showing the best that evolutionists can do is no threat to real science or to real faith in the living God: No intelligent creationist need fear the posturing glove puppet that is evolutionism." What follows is a lightly edited version of my letter (available on-line at

In his generally astute review, Ian Hacking wrongly rejects the terms "anti-evolution" and "creationism" to describe those attempting to undermine the teaching of evolution in the public schools. In particular, Hacking contends, "the label 'anti-Darwin' seems the right umbrella term for creationism, anti-evolutionism — and Behe." Michael J Behe, a biochemist — not, as Hacking describes him, a biologist — is the author of The Edge of Evolution, one of the books under review. Neither of Hacking's reasons for his terminology is valid, and it is important for understanding the anti-evolution movement in the United States to understand why.

Hacking writes, "Behe says, in effect, 'Sure, I believe in evolution by natural selection — it just doesn't do all it is supposed to.'"But the late Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research, and his fellow young-earth creationists also accept evolution by natural selection, if only within limits of the Biblical "kinds" (for instance, Genesis 1:25 [KJV]:"God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind.") Ironically,as Ronald L Numbers has observed, young-earth creationists have taken to invoking extraordinarily rapid natural selection to explain the vast amount of diversification they are forced to assume to have occurred in the 4000 years since Noah's Flood.

Hacking also writes that Behe "does not officially argue for special acts of creation." But "irreducible complexity" is clearly intended to indicate where God miraculously intervened in the biological world. Although Behe believes that the designer is God, it is true that he and his "intelligent design" colleagues generally refrain from claiming scientific warrant for that conclusion. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that their reticence is dictated not so much by a recognition of the limitations of their arguments as by their desire to skirt the First Amendment's ban on the advocacy of religion in public school science classrooms (see the Supreme Court's decision in the 1987 case Edwards v Aguillard).

"Antievolution" in the phrase "anti-evolution movement" is a metonymy; it is not evolution per se that creationists are fighting against but evolution education. Since Behe has actively participated in efforts to compromise the quality of evolution education, from the notorious "intelligent design" textbook Of Pandas and People onward, he is unquestionably a member of the anti-evolution movement.

Famously, Behe testified for the losing side in Kitzmiller et al v Dover School Area School District et al, where he humiliated himself by admitting that "intelligent design"is just as scientific as astrology. Less famously but more revealingly, he is serving as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in ACSI et al v Stearns et al, arguing that biology classes in fundamentalist Christian schools that use youngearth creationist biology textbooks are just as good as classes in public schools that use biology textbooks presenting mainstream biology.

Hacking's preferred label "anti-Darwin" is misleading in its own right. Evolutionary theory, as he acknowledges, is not confined to Darwin's work alone, and creationists — whether of the young-earth, old-earth, or intelligent design variety — are not attacking just Darwin but anything in the entire edifice of evolutionary science that happens to offend their various religious predilections. Hacking cites the title of Behe's first book, Darwin's Black Box, to make his point that Behe is best described as anti-Darwinian. He should have looked further, to its subtitle: The Biochemical Case Against Evolution.

By Glenn Branch, NCSE Deputy Director
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