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A year after Dover, the scientific debate over Darwin is as vigorous as ever

John G. West

A year ago today, Judge John E. Jones issued his 139-page ruling denouncing intelligent design in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. At the time, the ruling was hailed by defenders of Darwin’s theory as a knock-out blow against intelligent design and scientific skepticism of Darwin’s theory.

What a difference a year makes.

A year after Dover, Darwinists seem increasingly disillusioned as well as shrill, the central part of Judge Jones’ “brilliant” decision has been found to be riddled with errors and copied nearly verbatim from the ACLU, a research lab has been launched for scientists to pursue intelligent design-inspired scientific research, and states and localities are continuing to adopt public policies to encourage students to study the scientific evidence for and against Darwin’s theory. At the same time, the stereotype that all critics of Darwin’s theory are religiously-motivated zealots while all defenders of the theory are dispassionate scholars who are neutral toward religion has started to implode.

Here are the top developments during the past year in my view:

  1. The Growing Sense of Defeat among Darwinists. Darwinists like to claim that criticizing Darwin is tantamount to insisting the earth is flat. Yet last time I checked, scientists weren’t spending a lot of time in their science journals and at their professional meetings trying to refute the idea of a flat earth. But they are devoting a significant amount of time and energy trying to refute intelligent design. Why? I think the Darwinists’ efforts reflect their underlying insecurity. Despite their bluster and bravado, many of them recognize at least implicitly that they are losing the intellectual debate. Last month, for example, there was a gathering of eminent pro-Darwin scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. According to the New York Times reporter covering the event, there was “a rough consensus” at the meeting that the theory “of evolution by natural selection” is “losing out in the intellectual marketplace.” Let me repeat that statement: there was “a rough consensus” among these pro-Darwin scientists that the theory “of evolution by natural selection” is “losing out in the intellectual marketplace.” Darwinism is “losing out” not just in the public arena in their view, but “in the intellectual marketplace.” That is a stunning admission.
  2. The Growing Challenge within Science to Neo-Darwinism. A few weeks before the beginning of the Dover trial last fall, around 400 doctoral scientists had signed Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwin” statement expressing skepticism toward the central claim of Neo-Darwinism. A year after the Dover decision, the number of doctoral scientists affirming the statement is approaching 700. During the Dover trial, there was a constant refrain that scientists who support intelligent design don’t do scientific research, but as just reported last week, a research lab has in fact been established to facilitate biological research from the perspective of intelligent design. At the same time, research findings have continued to mount exposing the weaknesses of traditional Darwinism. The very week that the Kitzmiller ruling was issued, biologists admitted in the journal Science that “[t]he phylogenetic relationships among most metazoan phyla remain uncertain” because of conflicts between types of phylogenetic trees. In early 2006, Norwegian cellular biologist, Øyvind Albert Voie published an article in a mainstream scientific journal arguing that “chance and necessity cannot explain sign systems, meaning, purpose, and goals” in the DNA system. Voie concluded that since “mind possesses other properties that do not have these limitations,” it is “therefore very natural that many scientists believe that life is rather a subsystem of some Mind greater than humans.” Two highly-trumpeted “missing links” publicized by Darwinists in 2006, meanwhile, turned out to be much ado about nothing (see here and here).
  3. The Implosion of the Kitzmiller Ruling by Judge Jones. A year after Dover, Judge Jones’ opinion in Kitzmiller is not wearing well. The book Traipsing into Evolution documents the many errors of fact and analysis in Jones’ opinion as well as its overreach in trying to decide whether intelligent design is science, and the recent study co-authored by David DeWolf and myself reveals how Jones’ “brilliant” analysis of whether intelligent design is science did not represent his own work but was copied (errors and all) virtually verbatim from language submitted to him by ACLU attorneys. Practically the only defense of Judge Jones’ wholesale copying offered thus far has been the false claim that“everyone is doing it,” a response that has been too much even for some Darwinists to swallow. It is noteworthy that at least one staunch critic of ID in the legal community has joined ID proponents in taking Judge Jones to task for his judicial opinion’s overreach. Boston University law professor Jay Wexler has argued forcefully that “[t]he part of Kitzmiller that finds ID not to be science is unnecessary, unconvincing, not particularly suited to the judicial role, and even perhaps dangerous to both science and freedom of religion.” (emphasis added)
  4. The Persecution of Darwin’s Critics. Evidence continues to accumulate that leading Darwinists are trying to win the debate over Darwin’s theory through harassment and intimidation rather than reasoned argument and open discussion. Last week’s devastating report from congressional investigators documenting the persecution of evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg at the Smithsonian is only the most recent example of the effort to suppress legitimate dissent over Darwin’s theory. That report also revealed the unsavory role played by the pro-Darwin National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in the campaign to smear and persecute Sternberg. In the words of congressional investigators, “[t]he extent to which NMNH officials colluded on government time and with government resources with the NCSE to publicly discredit Dr. Sternberg’s scientific and professional integrity and investigate opportunities to dismiss him is alarming.”(emphasis added) The more people learn about Darwinist efforts to shut down the debate over Darwinism through harassment and intimidation, the more skeptical they will likely become of the Darwinists’ unrelenting dogmatism.
  5. Continued Public Policy Efforts to “Teach the Controversy” and Promote Academic Freedom. It is true that in the initial months after the Dover decision, Darwinists were able to use the ruling to bully the Ohio State Board of Education into repealing its excellent science standard and model lesson plan that merely promoted the critical analysis of evolution. Yet in subsequent months, it has become apparent that the Dover ruling has had a decreasing impact on public policy debates over evolution. While some political candidates who favored teaching the controversy over Darwin lost in the recent elections, others won, most notably state board of education members in Texas, the Governor of Texas, and the Governor of Minnesota. In addition, states and localities have continued to advance science education policies that encourage schools to teach the controversy over Darwinian evolution. In March, Oklahoma’s House of Representatives passed a bill to protect the academic freedom of teachers and students to study all of the scientific evidence relating to evolution by an overwhelming (and bipartisan) vote of 77-10. The bill was later denied a vote in the state Senate, but it will likely be reintroduced. Also in March, the Lancaster School District in California passed a policy protecting the right of teachers to present scientific criticisms of Darwinian evolution. In June, South Carolina adopted a science standard requiring students to learn how “scientists… investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” At the end of November, the Ouachita Parish School District in Louisiana enacted a policy that protects the academic freedom of teachers to objectively cover scientific criticisms of Darwinian evolution as well as the evidence in favor of the theory. And according to a national Zogby poll conducted earlier this year, nearly 7 out of 10 Americans (69%) continue to believe that “biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.” Only 2 out of 10 (21%) believe that “biology teachers should teach only Darwin’s theory of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it.” This is virtually unchanged from a national Zogby poll in 2001, and the rates of support are even higher in some state surveys.
  6. The Debate over Darwin Goes Global. Darwinists often insist that the debate over Darwin’s theory is limited to the United States, but recent outbreaks of the debate in Britain, Japan, and various European countries have refuted that claim, as do the growing number of international scientists who have signed the Dissent from Darwin statement.
  7. The Darwinist War on Religion. For years the National Center for Science Education has tried to convince leading Darwinists to tone down their anti-religious rhetoric and cultivate the impression that Darwin’s theory of unguided evolution is perfectly compatible with traditional monotheism. But this fall the public relations strategy has unraveled with books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and conclaves like the gathering of scientists at the Salk Institute in November, which overflowed with expressions of hatred and contempt toward religion. According to one participant in the latter gathering quoted in the New York Times, “[w]ith a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints [at the conference] have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?” (emphasis added) It is becoming sharply evident just how much Darwinism functions like a religion for many of its leading champions, and how the blind allegiance to atheism or agnosticism of leading Darwinists skews their evaluation of the debate over evolution. Ironically, Darwinists routinely criticize defenders of intelligent design because many of them happen to be traditional theists (just like the vast majority of Americans), but these same Darwinists see nothing wrong with the fact that leading evolutionists are largely anti-religious. Indeed, according to a 1998 survey of members of the elite National Academy of Sciences (NAS), nearly 95% of the NAS biologists identify themselves as either atheists or agnostics. As I’ve said repeatedly before, the debate over Darwin’s theory should be decided on the evidence, not on motives. But if Darwinists insist on stigmatizing the motives of anyone who criticizes Darwin’s theory who happens to believe in God, then the Darwinists’ own motives surely should be open to scrutiny. Either motives are irrelevant for everyone, or they are relevant for everyone. As public knowledge of the metaphysical baggage of leading Darwinists increases, the ability of Darwinists to maintain their double-standard about motives in the public debate should diminish.

In summarizing my reflections on the past year, I keep coming back to a phrase that stuck in my mind immediately after the Dover decision last December: Pyrrhic victory. Darwinists thought they had succeeded in shutting down the debate over intelligent design by court order. But they were wrong, and the longer it takes for them to grasp that fact, the more Darwinism will continue to lose out in the free marketplace of ideas.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.