“Intelligent Design in Public Schools,” Part 1

Science and Religion: One Planet, Many Possibilities

It’s nice to be asked to write something, and it’s especially nice to be asked to write something in your field of expertise, and it’s nicest of all to be asked to write something when the people who ask you know exactly what they want. So when Whitney A. Bauman of Florida International University’s Department of Religious Studies and Lucas F. Johnston of Wake Forest College’s Department of Religion asked me to write a piece on “intelligent design” in public schools for their collection Science and Religion: One Planet, Many Possibilities (Routledge 2014), I was delighted to do so. Now that my author’s copy is here, I’m pleased to see my piece in print. My contribution appears in a section entitled “Cosmology, Creation and Boundary Questions,” which (as Johnston explains) discusses how science and religion interact with regard to questions like Why are we here? Where did we come from? What is the future of the universe?

Big questions! There are five essays in the section, and I’ll say a word or two about the other four. Richard Randolph’s essay describes contemporary cosmology and sketches three attitudes toward the possibility of engagement between scientific cosmology and religious faith: no engagement, a spiritual engagement, and a traditional religious engagement. The title of Bernard Lightman’s “From Natural Theology to the New Atheism: Constructing the Link Between Modern Science and Unbelief” speaks for itself. Chris Doran’s essay canvasses various religious reactions to evolution, from scientific creationism through “intelligent design” to theistic evolution, and the intellectual challenges facing them. And Nancy R. Howell’s “Religious Issues, Great Apes, and Human Nature” argues that “the subject of animals...influences and reflects how religious believers understand God/the Sacred and humanity” (emphasis in original).

My contribution, nestled between Lightman’s and Doran’s, bears the title “Intelligent Design in Public Schools”; that was the topic that Bauman and Johnston asked for, and it seemed like a reasonable title. Naturally, I won’t repeat the whole essay here, but I thought that I would sketch it, and say a bit about a few of its noteworthy features. With a title like “Intelligent Design in Public Schools,” it was appropriate to begin with the landmark event, the 2005 decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which the teaching of “intelligent design” in the public schools was held to be unconstitutional. But after devoting two paragraphs to Kitzmiller, it was necessary to place the “intelligent design” movement in the context of American antievolutionism. Here I used a scheme for the periodization of antievolution activity adopted (and adapted) from various writings of Eugenie C. Scott and Edward J. Larson.

The scheme distinguishes three waves of antievolution activity, focusing on banning the teaching of evolution (as in the 1920s, when Tennessee’s Butler Act was the most conspicuous example), balancing it (with the Bible, with creation science, or with “intelligent design”), or belittling it (as “just a theory” or as “controversial,” for example). In “Intelligent Design in Public Schools,” I focused on “intelligent design” as playing the starring role in “a third subwave: a way of presenting creationism in the public schools (to balance the treatment of evolution) that would survive a constitutional challenge.” The leading edge of the subwave was the textbook Of Pandas and People (1989), which (as was extensively discussed during the Kitzmiller trial) was under development before the case that became Edwards v. Aguillard went to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in 1987 that teaching creationism in the public schools was unconstitutional.

In the wake of Edwards, “intelligent design” flourished in the niche that creation science was forced to abandon, thanks in large part to Phillip Johnson’s activities, leading to the establishment of the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture and its pursuit of his wedge strategy. Since the Wedge document referred to “scholarship, research and argument,” I was provided with a natural transition to the two main supposed innovations of “intelligent design”—Michael Behe’s argument from irreducible complexity and William Dembski’s motley assemblage of notions (the explanatory filter, the design inference, complex specified information, and so on)—to which I devoted a pair of paragraphs each, one to sketch the idea and one to sketch the criticism with which it was countered. “Neither of these two supposed innovations was all that innovative after all,” I added, noting the precursors of both in the creation science literature.

“Intelligent design was innovative strategically, though,” I explained. Unlike creation science, which was aimed, and appealed, primarily to a narrow sectarian constituency, “intelligent design” from the outset was intended as a big tent under which antievolutionists of all stripes were welcome to shelter. Yet it resembled creation science in promoting what have been dubbed the three pillars of creationism: the claims that evolution is a theory in crisis, that it is antireligious, immoral, and antisocial, and that fairness requires that alternatives to or criticisms of evolution be taught in the public schools. I selected, as the primary representatives of the first two pillars in the “intelligent design” movement, Jonathan Wells’s Icons of Evolution and the film Expelled, again devoting a pair of paragraphs to each, one to sketch the basic message of the work under consideration, and one to sketch the criticism with which it was countered.

I felt obliged to select two instances as representative of the third pillar, however, reflecting the strategic shift of the “intelligent design” movement from calling for “intelligent design” to be taught alongside evolution to calling only for “teaching the controversy”—ushering in the third wave of antievolution activity in the United States, of course. The first instance was taken from a guidebook published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (the publisher of Of Pandas and People) in 1999 and coauthored by Stephen C. Meyer, the director of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. The guidebook argued that “school boards have the authority to permit, and encourage, teaching about design theory as an alternative to Darwinian evolution—and this includes the use of textbooks such as Of Pandas and People that present evidence for the theory of intelligent design.” As for the second instance, I’ll begin with it in part 2.

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.

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