Inherit an Ill Wind

"Intelligent design" theory as an alternative to evolutionary theory

BY: Edward Larson and Larry Witham

 
From The Nation, October 4, 1999

Way down in Georgia last month, REM lead singer Michael Stipe paused in the middle of a solo during a rock concert because he had Kansas on his mind. "What's with Kansas and creationism?" he asked, looking puzzled. He had heard, he explained, that Kansas officials had brought in "a Hollywood ad man" to put the best spin on their actions. "We have medieval sodomy laws here in Georgia," he added, "but we don't advertise it."

The sold-out crowd cheered, and America's great debate over Darwinism found its place once again in the popular culture. Even rockers in Atlanta were asking how Kansas could strip evolution from its science-education standards seventy-five years after the Scopes trial had supposedly ended such silliness. It did seem as medieval as Georgia's sodomy law-but even that was struck down by the state Supreme Court last year. The question merits an answer because the episode is not a home-grown Kansas anomaly. It arose from forces that are national in origin and scope.

[Several new theorists] propound that intelligent design, rather than random chance, is apparent in nature.

The first step toward understanding the events in Kansas is to disregard all that we've learned about the Scopes trial from "Inherit the Wind." Clarence Darrow did not slay William Jennings Bryan, or if he did, the spirit of the old war-horse has risen again, largely in the body of Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson. The Kansas episode reflects the convergence of Johnson's new anti-evolution crusade and old-style biblical creationism.

In 1961, The Genesis Flood, by Virginia Tech engineering professor Henry Morris and conservative Christian theologian John Whitcomb, gave believers scientific-sounding arguments supporting the biblical account of a six-day creation within the past 10,000 years. Even Bryan and other early twentieth-century fundamentalists could not accept such a young earth in light of modern geology.

Yet the book spawned a movement within American fundamentalism, with Morris as its Moses leading the faithful into a promised land where science proves religion.

This so-called creation science spread among ultraconservative churches through the missionary work of Morris's San Diego-based Institute for Creation Research. The emergence of the religious right carried it into politics in the seventies. Within two decades after the publication of Genesis Flood, three states and dozens of local school districts had mandated "balanced treatment" for young-earth creationism along with evolution in public-school science courses.

It took nearly a decade before the Supreme Court finally unraveled those mandates as unconstitutional. Creation science was nothing but religion dressed up as science, the High Court decreed in 1987, and therefore was barred by the Constitution's establishment clause from public school classrooms along with other forms of religious instruction. By this time, however, young-earthers, who were deeply concerned about science education, were entrenched in local and state politics from California to Maine.

Then along came Johnson-a chaired professor at the University of California's Boalt Hall Law School and former clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren. He is no young-earth creationist, but he is an evangelical Christian with an uncompromising faith in God. Reading Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker in 1987 enraged him. Dawkins uses Darwinian evolution to deny God and dismiss the supernatural-but Johnson saw the argument as circular. "I could see that Dawkins achieved his word magic with the very tools that are familiar to us lawyers," Johnson explained in the journal Christianity Today. "If you take as a starting point that there's no creator, then something more or less like Darwinism has to be true."

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