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New Book Debunks Common Myths in ID-Evolution Debate

Casey Luskin

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A new book, Conceptualizing Evolution Education: A Corpus-Based Analysis of US Press Discourse (Cambridge Scholars Press), has been published that debunks myths about the debate over intelligent design and Darwinian evolution. The author is Shala Barczewska, who earned a PhD in linguistics from the University of Łódź in Poland. She studies the rhetoric of the debate over evolution especially as it is conducted in the media, and works with the Drogosz Communication and Evolution Research Group at the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, which is by no means a pro-ID entity. Having listened carefully to the various sides in this debate, she has a keen awareness of when the media or other spokespersons are misrepresenting the views of others.

As a result, her book is a very even-handed exercise — filled with examples — in debunking common myths and stereotypes that permeate this debate. Her book is fair because it offers critiques of both evolution lobbyists and ID proponents and other Darwin-skeptics.

The book isn’t cheap but it is significantly discounted for a limited time if you buy it through Also, the code “conceptualizing20” gives a 20 percent discount.

Barczewska opens by debunking clichés about how the debate over evolution is one of “religion vs. science.” As she points, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has published a list that includes many religious groups that support evolution, and Discovery Institute has published a list of scientists who are skeptical of Darwinian evolution. She also notes that there is a “Third Way” camp that seeks alternative materialistic evolutionary explanations apart from the standard neo-Darwinian paradigm. She continues:

Neither is it a question of religion. Voices for Evolution contains quotes supporting evolution from authority figures in a variety of belief systems. At the same time, the list of senior fellows at the Center for Science & Culture on the Discovery Institute website also includes representatives of a variety of worldviews: agnostic, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Unitarian. Thus, although treating the debate as a constant rehashing of the same creationism-vs.-evolution or, more broadly, RELIGION-vs.-SCIENCE, controversy is polemically useful, it is overly simplistic. (p. 37)

Next she goes after another myth, the notion that most proposals for academic freedom in public education seek to drive creationism or intelligent design into schools. “True, some argue for teaching an alternative to evolution, such as creation science or intelligent design,” she writes, “however, these suggestions are increasingly rare.” (p. xvii) Instead, Barczewska accurately explains:

[T]here is a trend to propose bills that support teachers in discussing potentially controversial science subjects, including evolution and climate change, with the caveat they stick to peer-reviewed scientific publications and do not discuss religious issues (e.g., Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-1030 [2012]). In the press, these bills are often forced into the existing discourse of “introducing creationism,” even though the bills do always not fit neatly into that pattern. (p. xvii)

This introduces another common rhetorical problem in the debate over evolution — the conflation of sharply differing viewpoints. Barczewska is acutely aware of this issue and the need to avoid it. “I try to avoid referring to those who doubt evolution as ‘creationists,’ unless I am referring to a group of people who so define themselves,” she explains. She continues: “I use only those labels that are accepted by the proponents of the movement they describe.” (p. xvii) Unfortunately, not everyone abides by such reasonable rules of discourse, as she explains:

“Anti-evolutionist” is used as an expedient cover term for those who doubt the sufficiency of purely natural forces in explaining life’s variety. Scare quotes are necessary, as many of these doubters do not have a problem with evolution within kinds or species and some even allow for change between species. In fact, design proponent David Klinghoffer (2016) claims that intelligent design “is a theory of evolution, seeking to explain why biological diversity flowers and grows in the manner it does. It’s just not Darwin’s theory of evolution”. Thus, it is not exactly accurate to label this movement “anti-evolution.” (p. xvii)

She thus hopes that the “book can be a step forward by identifying ways in which linguistic choices help and/or hinder communication in this and other controversies.” She clearly accomplished her goal.

What follows in Conceptualizing Evolution Education is an investigation into the discourse used by the media when covering the debate over evolution and intelligent design, focusing in particular upon controversies over public education. She notes: “Language has played, and continues to play, a key role in the debate, and research continues to acknowledge its centrality.” (p. 3)  After tracing a history of public education controversies and public debates over evolution, she turns to ID — again debunking more myths:

Philosophically, ID differs from both young and old earth creationism in that it does not start with Genesis. Rather, it argues that science does itself a disservice by confusing methodological and metaphysical naturalism. P. Johnson claims that Darwinists, in effect, beg the question by including the results — naturalism — as part of the cause. From the perspective of biology, Behe argues that certain “molecular machines” provide examples of organisms that could not have evolved randomly in the step by step manner outlined in Origins (Darwin 1859). In 1996, the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture was established at the Discovery Institute and became the main voice of the ID movement. One of their websites ( dedicated to providing information about the theory, gives the following explanation:

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. (Discovery Institute Center for Science & Culture 2014) (p. 25)

However, she notes that not everyone took kindly to this new concept of intelligent design. In fact, some critics were so opposed to ID that they could not even fairly and validly recognize its distinctions from other viewpoints, such as creationism. She writes:

Needless to say, neither staunch defenders of naturalistic evolution nor “religiously neutral” organizations such as the [National Center for Science Education] were willing to recognize ID as a new movement, much less a partner in scientific research. For them, ID appeared to be yet another form of creationism. On the other hand, many creationists, particularly those committed to a young earth, felt that in ignoring the biblical book of Genesis, ID was just another version of theistic evolution. Theistic evolutionists, having observed that ID proponents had been rejected by mainstream evolutionists, were also unwilling to accept the new theory into their fold. In expressing these conflicts, language played, and continues to play, an important role in demarcating group identity. (p. 26)

That analysis is just about right. Hostile atheistic and agnostic pro-Darwin groups have been unwilling and unable give up their addiction to conflating ID with creationism, because it’s such a convenient, if fallacious, tactic for marginalizing and dismissing ID. Yet many creationists also have difficulties with ID because they feel that ID’s scientific approach doesn’t go far enough to promoting religion. This produces a strange irony, where ID’s critics can’t recognize that ID is different from creationism, even though both ID and creationism are quick to disclaim that the two viewpoints are the same.

She thus also recognizes the need to protect academic freedom for scientists who critique evolution:

Ben Stein’s movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008) drew attention to the need to protect scholars who criticize evolution. The documentary includes interviews with ID proponents who have experienced professional discrimination, such as the loss of a job or tenure, as a result of expressing doubt in Darwin’s theory. (p., 31)

Barczewska returns to discussing the public education controversy. Again, she refutes more myths, expressing a correct awareness of the true nature of public education battles. “Although an occasional proposal is put forward in support of teaching ID or scientific creationism in the classroom, this is increasingly rare,” she points out. (p. 30) Instead, she writes, “the most frequent” type of policy “is seen in attempts to emphasize evolution’s status as a theory and encourage discussion of its ‘strengths and weaknesses.’”

However, she correctly points out that rather than calling evolution a theory, “The latter is the strategy recommended by Discovery Institute as the most legally sound. In fact, the institute’s website offers a model bill that states can adapt to fit their needs.” (p. 30) She explains that “the case that ‘brought ID to trial’ neither resulted from a Discovery Institute-supported initiative, nor involved the actual teaching of an alternative theory.” (p. 30)

Barczeska  turns finally to media discourse on the debate. She begins by correctly observing, “Even though reporters label new court cases ‘Scopes II,’ the debate has changed in form and content since the 1920s.” (p. 37) But how does the media perpetuate these old myths and stereotypes? Reviewing numerous examples, she notes that in media stories, “There is strong correlation between intelligent design and words identifying it as religious.” (p. 282) Yet her examples show that, “Whereas ID is commonly classified in the U.S. press as a religious belief or religious approach to scientific questions, evolution is for the most part presented as belonging securely within the domain of SCIENCE.” (p. 286) Insightfully, Barczewska  points out that different types of “framing” in different news articles can lead to stories that only satisfy some of the concerns of certain segments of readers. Thus, she notes:

It is common and often convenient to view any controversy as a dichotomy. In the debates over evolution, the multiple views and opinions are usually simplified as creationism vs. evolution, thereby ignoring the many perspectives located somewhere in-between. (p. 180)

After an extensive and technical review of various media stories on the evolution debate, she observes:

[A]ll articles include elements from the semantic domain of RELIGION in their discussion … The articles  [promoting evolution only in the classroom] … view the controversy as caused by the force of fundamentalist religious beliefs on the doubters. They see this belief as the result of a blind irrationality that causes “anti-evolutionists” to reject and attack the theory. (p. 214)

She concludes that media stories often

draw upon a dichotomous model of US-vs.-THEM. The broadest expressions of this in terms of its scope of the respective members is found in “Evolution Isn’t a Natural Selection Here” and “Criticism of Evolution Can’t Be Silenced.” Huffstutter’s article groups ID, creationists, deeply religious people, and right-wing conservatives into one ICM [Idealized Cognitive Model], representing the minority position. Scientists, rational moderates, and Democrats are construed as the majority and comprise US. (p. 214)

Similarly, she concludes that the media foster a warfare theme that demonizes certain viewpoints and politicizes what should be a scientific debate:

Even more disconcerting is the fact that journalists and activists alike still seem to favor the source domain of WAR when construing the debate. What is more, this conflict is not limited to philosophical or scientific spheres, but is extended to include the broader ICMs to which these varying viewpoints are felt to belong. As a result, the debate over evolution becomes part of the broader culture war in the US, entwining in its grasp both religion and politics. One of the consequences is that what began as a debate over scientific theories is now characterized by language presupposing an US-vs.-THEM divide, a strategy that is conventionally more closely associated with political rhetoric than scientific research.


The source domain of WAR offers certain benefits for those actors favored by the conceptualizer. They are construed as brave heroes, honorable and worthy of recognition. This also provides the opportunity for mapping the role of aggressor or villain onto the opposition, making it easier not only to discredit their work and words, but also to justify one’s own (aggressive) behavior. This ability to villainize the opposition may be a discursive convenience when it comes to winning a battle, but it does little to achieve a permanent cease-fire. (pp. 318-319)

As a prime example, she notes that ID critics try to demonize ID as “deceptive” through “Trojan Horse” arguments. (p. 319)

Unfortunately, this kind of discourse does not foster progress in the debate. But what kind of progress does the debate need? Barczewska explains how different viewpoints see the debate, and offers a compelling conclusion about problems with the anti-ID view:

Despite the contention expressed by the NCSE and others that evolution is being underrepresented or avoided by journalists (Caudill 2013), this project shows a high level of support in the US press for the uncompromised teaching of evolution. In fact, support for teaching the alternatives to evolution or even recognizing the controversy in the science classroom was significantly underrepresented. This should assuage the fears of some evolutionary biologists that their field is marginalized in the media. (p. 317)

Again, this is exactly right. Darwin lobbyists often try to present themselves as the poor, oppressed minority when in fact they hold nearly all the cultural power in the scientific community, the media, law, and education, and they often engage in persecution of those who disagree with them.

The best way to achieve progress in the debate, she argues, is that scholars should be more sensitive to “underrepresented” viewpoints: “Because of the underrepresentation of ‘open-to-alternatives’ discourses, future study should make a concerted effort to better understand the communication styles of scholars who place themselves under this umbrella as well as the journalists who support their approaches.” (p. 317)

Barczewska’s book is not a quick read, but it is loaded to the brim with citations, examples, and deep analysis to back up her points. And I should note that Conceptualizing Evolution Education critiques ID proponents and other Darwin-skeptics who have misrepresented evolutionary biologists. The book is probably not ideal for the casual reader, but scholars who want a strong demonstration that fair treatment of the ID viewpoint is underrepresented in the media will want to add this book to their collection.

Photo credit: CGP Grey via Flickr.