Inherit an Ill Wind

"Intelligent design" theory as an alternative to evolutionary theory

BY: Edward Larson and Larry Witham


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Johnson then launched his own crusade-not for biblical creationism but against philosophical naturalism in science. In a series of popular books beginning with Darwin on Trial in 1991, Johnson argued that science should not automatically exclude supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. It was an easy sell in a country where opinion polls find about 10 percent of the people believing that life evolved by natural processes without divine intervention along the way. Of course God could have created humans, or at least laws that guided their evolution from the primordial ooze, most Americans readily concede.

The Berkeley don brought what his allies call "cultural confidence" to the familiar lament against excluding God from science. A sophisticated law professor conversant in postmodernist rhetoric (though a realist himself), Johnson could argue that science makes metaphysical assumptions no less than religion, and some scientists and philosophers began to concede a bit. "You had to meet intimidation with counterintimidation in order to move the discussion along," says Johnson. "Now, that perhaps was the lawyer's contribution." Johnson also reached beyond the academy to latent popular distrust of science.

His latest book, aptly titled An Easy-to-Understand Guide for Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, captures his tone. "Given that only a small minority of Americans believe the central finding of biology," he asks, "how should our educational system deal with this important instance of disagreement between the experts and the people? One way would be to treat the doubts of the people with respect.... The opposite way is to tell people that all doubts about naturalistic evolution are inherently absurd.... American educators have chosen the second path."

Johnson's books have sold more than a quarter-million copies, and it is no wonder that his kind of arguments showed up among conservative Christians who voiced their opinions during the science standards hearing in Kansas.

Another "authority" often cited in Kansas was a Lehigh University biochemistry teacher named Michael Behe, who enlisted in Johnson's crusade in 1991. That year, Behe wrote a letter to the journal Science defending Darwin on Trial. Johnson responded by encouraging Behe, a devout Catholic, to write his own easy-to-understand book presenting biological phenomena that defied Darwinist explanation. It was the type of argument popularized more than a century ago by Darwin's archfoe, the great Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, updated with examples of complex organic molecules. Another bestseller was born-Behe's Darwin's Black Box.

Johnson and Behe do not argue for the young earth of creation science, but they do propound that intelligent design (rather than random chance) is apparent in nature. This, they argue, divorced from biblical creationism, should be a fit subject for public school education. With this argument, they have expanded the tent of people willing to challenge the alleged Darwinist hegemony in the science classroom, and this emboldened the populist uprising in Kansas.

Bottom-up revolts against authority can come in reaction to top-down reforms, and that was evident in Kansas. The state Board of Education members who rejected evolution were also trying to strike a blow for local control and against national education standards.

The federal push for standards-based education reform began in 1989, when the nation's governors met with President Bush to rally around his call for "measurable national goals" in education. The governors, of course, emphasized state flexibility under increased federal grants, an idea that worked for the Bush White House as well. Some federal education experts, flush with new theories of learning, saw the reform movement in more centralizing terms. Here was a financial and political vehicle to advance a national curriculum.

The Bush Administration's "America 2000" was more a tone-setter than legislation, and the tone was picked up in Kansas. In 1989, led by its then-progressive Board of Education, Kansas set in motion a program to establish measurable and unified goals for its public schools. It fit neatly into a general trend, in which states began to displace local school boards in financing and setting standards for public education.

The centralizing move, along with the rise of new theories of education like outcome-based grading and process-based science, provoked a conservative reaction in many states. In Kansas it was led by Kansas Education Watch, or KEWNET, which criticized experts for usurping the role of parents and local schools. This new grassroots activism began affecting decisions of the elected state Board of Education, especially after 1996, when four social conservatives friendly to KEWNET won seats. The board was then split 5 to 5 on issues of local and state control.

This was not a partisan division in solidly GOP Kansas, but intraparty warfare pitting Bob Dole-type Main Street Republicans against the party's right-wing activists. No one has been more critical of the board than the state's stalwart GOP Governor, Bill Graves, who has advocated abolishing that elected body ever since the right-wing resurgence. Board member Val DeFever, a moderate Republican who voted with the minority on the science standards, calls the conservatives "stealth candidates" who sneaked into power. Others said they were forthright campaigners who promised an independent board, but most voters probably did not fully appreciate what that might mean before the fireworks in August.

Either way, as one Kansas teacher said, the 1996 election "blew the education establishment out of the water. They'd never seen a board like this." Lawrence Lerner, an emeritus science professor, reviews state science standards and how they are adopted. "State boards at least tend to have people with professional qualifications" and are usually appointed, he says. "Kansas is a peculiar situation."

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