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Traipsing into History: The Dover Judge’s Partisan History of Intelligent Design

Below are the notes for my comments at the Traipsing into Evolution book party held at Discovery Institute yesterday. There the four authors discussed Judge Jones’ lengthy opinion in the Dover intelligent design trial, and touched on some of the highlights from the book, which was our response to his opinion.

My primary contribution to the book was comparing Judge Jones’ history of intelligent design with the true history of it I discovered in my research.

For instance, Jones suggests that the design argument began with St. Thomas in the Middle Ages. This was part of the judge’s attempt to depict intelligent design as fundamentally Christian. The problem is that the design argument dates back much further, to the pagan philosophers Socrates and Plato.

Jones also appears unaware of the modern design argument’s rich history in the 20th century, stretching back to discoveries by Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble. This isn’t surprising since Judge Jones told the media that he planned to watch an old Hollywood film, Inherit the Wind, for “historical context.” Inherit the Wind is a thinly veiled account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial, where a man was tried for teaching evolution. Taken as history, the film grossly misrepresents the actual trial, a fact well attested to even by historians of science favorably predisposed to Darwinism.

The film’s central trope turns out to be Judge Jones’ central trope: Anyone who questions Darwinism is a dangerous creationist driven by Christian fundamentalist impulses.

In keeping with that trope, Jones suggests that intelligent design is just biblical creationism repackaged after a 1987 Supreme Court decision against biblical creationism.* If Jones had read key briefs submitted to him, he would know that the intelligent design arguments in biology pre-date that Supreme Court decision by several years, drawing on developments in information theory in the ’50s and the information revolution in biology in the ’50s and ’60s.

One of the first to describe the significance of these discoveries was chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi. In the late ’60s, in essays published in the journal Science and in Chemical and Engineering News, he argued that DNA isn’t reducible to physics and chemistry any more than the sentences in a newspaper are reducible to ink and paper.

Polanyi’s work influenced the seminal 1984 book The Mystery of Life’s Origin. In the book that launched the contemporary theory of intelligent design, Charles Thaxton and his co-authors argued that some features of the biological world could only “be accomplished through what Michael Polanyi has called ‘a profoundly informative intervention.'”

Who published the book? The Philosophical Library of New York, a publisher of more than twenty Nobel Laureates. When it appeared, the book was praised by several leading origin-of-life researchers as well as leading British philosopher Antony Flew, at the time an atheist.

These events never make it into the judge’s official history. Jones also ignores discoveries in physics and cosmology that began to reinvigorate the design argument as early as the 1920s.

These culminated in a growing body of evidence suggesting that the universe was fine tuned for life, a point attested to even by prominent scientists outside the intelligent design community. For instance, in 1982 prominent theoretical physicist Paul Davies described this growing evidence for fine tuning as “the most compelling evidence for an element of cosmic design.”[i] Physicist and agnostic Fred Hoyle and Nobel Laureate Arno Penzias made similar statements. Did Judge Jones dismiss their arguments as creationist drivel? Actually, Jones never addresses these matters because he’s apparently unaware of them. They didn’t fit his Inherit the Wind rubric, and so for him they don’t exist.

For a more extensive essay on the history of intelligent design, go here.
* Biblical creationism begins with the Bible and then moves into science. Intelligent design begins and ends with the science, though (like Darwinism) it has larger cultural and metaphysical implications. For more on this, go here.
[i] Paul Davies, The Accidental Universe, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982), 189.

Jonathan Witt

Executive Editor, Discovery Institute Press and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Witt, PhD, is Executive Editor of Discovery Institute Press and a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Culture. His co-authored books include Intelligent Design Uncensored (IVP), A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (IVP), and The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot (Ignatius Press). Witt is also the lead writer and associate producer for Poverty, Inc., winner of the $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award and recipient of over 50 international film festival honors. His latest book is a YA novel co-authored with astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, The Farm at the Center of the Universe.