Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism

Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism
Edited by Andrew J Petto and Laurie R Godfrey
New York: WW Norton, 2007. 463 pages.
Reviewed by
Joel Cracraft

The first thing I wondered when opening the pages of this fine book was why in the hell — almost a decade into the 21st century, supposedly in the most technologically and scientifically advanced country on earth — why is it that this book is even necessary? Have we utterly failed in promoting rational thinking about the world around us, an effort that should penetrate beyond the walls of academia? I'm not sure that any chapter in this book answers my question satisfactorily, but without books like this, what hope is there?

In their preface, the editors note a quiescent period in creationist activity following McLean v Arkansas (1982), brought about by Judge William Overton's penetrating opinion. But a few short years later, none other than Justice Antonin Scalia stated in his dissent to Edwards v Aguillard (1987):

The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian Fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools.

Scalia's "whatever scientific evidence" eventually took on the moniker of "intelligent design".

This book is an update of a 1983 book — Scientists Confront Creationism — edited by Laurie Godfrey that was published in an effort to thwart the creationism of the '80s. A few of the participants in that volume are here again (disclosure: I was one of the original culprits), but numerous other experts have been added to create a volume more relevant to today's brand of creationism. Like the 1983 book, this book is also caught in an interregnum of court cases, following as it does the Kitzmiller v Dover trial (2005) that put a large nail in the coffin of "intelligent design". Yet although we are in somewhat of a quiescent period once again, hardly a week goes by without pernicious activity in one state legislature or another. Which is why this new volume will have a readership for some time.

There is a lot packaged into this book. It comes with an introduction by Massimo Pigliucci and is followed by fifteen chapters. In part 1, "Creationism and Intelligent Design, "there are three chapters by Ronald L Numbers (the history of creationism and "intelligent design"), Eugenie C Scott ("intelligent design" as the new anti-evolutionism), and John R Cole (on how the "wedge" strategy has empowered "intelligent design" creationism). In the seven chapters of part 2, "Scientific Perspectives," Victor Stenger writes about physics and cosmology, G Brent Dalrymple writes about earth science, Antonio Lazcano treats the origin of life, Kevin Padian and Kenneth Angielczyk discuss transitional forms, Robert Dorit holds forth on biological complexity, Wesley Elsberry dissects the smoke and mirrors of Dembski's so-called "design inference," and C Loring Brace focuses on human origins. Finally, part 3 contains five chapters on "Understanding Science": Robert T Pennock dissects "intelligent design" arguments from his broad philosophical perspective, Norman A Johnson discusses the nature of theory in evolutionary biology, J Michael Plavcan examines the logic of creation science, Alice B Kehoe writes about why evolution is being targeted by creationists, and finally the editors explain why we should be teaching evolution.

A lot of familiar names are here and I salute them for their uniformly excellent chapters. There is a lot of information in these pages that will be of use to a wide audience — professional biologists and educators, teachers at all levels, the general public, and even public officials and school boards who need to understand the issues better before making decisions that might dumb down science, or worse, introduce religion into the classroom masquerading as science. The contributors avoid polemics for the most part, which should facilitate its impact with its audience.

The book contains much pointed refutation of creationism, especially its "intelligent design" form. Thus, readers will learn why "intelligent design" is vacuous for philosophical (Pennock, Plavcan) as well as scientific reasons (all the chapters in part 2), and multiple authors trace the history and sociology of creationist movements as they have mutated over the years in an attempt to keep ahead of the constitutional noose that always seems to dance around them (Numbers, Scott, Kehoe). In his chapter, Numbers argues that these debates will continue as long as our constitutional democracy allows both religious fundamentalism and science to give vent to their respective points of view. So cycles of controversy and culture wars will continue. This is a depressing future indeed.

What is not discussed much in this book is how the cycle might be broken (the exception is the chapter by Petto and Godfrey on teaching evolution). Science has often carried a chip on its shoulder, conveying the impression that scientists know how to think and explain the natural world but, by and large, nonscientists/laypersons don't. Scientists are held in high esteem by the public, because the latter relies on science to reveal and interpret new knowledge, and to look after its welfare with discoveries and innovations. But science is largely the codification of rationalism in the context of learned, special knowledge. Laypeople need to understand that they too are "scientists" because they also largely understand phenomena and events around them through the use of evidence and reasoning. The growth of knowledge, whether within the sciences or not, accrues via this approach. Thus, whether people realize it or not, they are "scientists" much of their lives.

Recent polls indicate people are tired of the culture wars. They seem to be responding to a new American administration that promotes science, evidence, and transparency in decision-making. I take this as evidence of a latent reservoir of rational thinking. One should not get overly optimistic, however, given all the miracle-mongering in the media and everyday life. But now is the time to expand scientific thinking. Some evolutionists have not always been helpful, I think, by belaboring the theme that science and religion are compatible. In the sense that a person can be both religious and a scientist, there's truth in this, and often it is an expedient way to gain some acceptance for evolution. But it is incomplete: merely pointing out that there are people of faith who accept evolution doesn't itself help educate the public about the nature of science. So let's focus instead on teaching how we come to have knowledge, whether in everyday life or in the science lab.

A book like this could not hope to cover all the new and exciting aspects of the science or explain in detail the role of evolution in making people's lives better, but it succeeds in showing the merits of evolution and the bankruptcy of "intelligent design" in juxtaposition and thus is an important contribution. Now we have to get it into the hands of people who matter.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.