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320 pages
Aug 2003
Baker / Revel

Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design

by Thomas Woodward

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1

Aroused from Dogmatic Slumber

An Introduction to Intelligent Design and a Paradigm Crisis

Although teaching evolution in public schools has been controversial, it is rare for the controversy to surface in presidential politics. One of those rare occasions was 11 August 1999, when the Kansas Board of Education voted to deemphasize the teaching of biological “macroevolution,” or large-scale morphological change over time, in the public schools throughout the state. The board’s decision, which narrowly passed (six to four), avoided any hint of a ban on the teaching of Darwin’s view of origins. Rather, the decision was to leave it to local school boards to decide how to structure their biology curriculum and also whether and how much each district would teach on macroevolution. The board mandated the continued teaching of the more limited process of “microevolution” the development of sister species within a given type. Still, the news story was clear and shocking: the Darwinian notion of common ancestry was deemed sufficiently problematic in terms of evidentiary support to merit its demotion from “mandated inclusion” in the science curriculum of Kansas high schools.1

All three Republican candidates who commented on the decision referred to it as defensible, perhaps even positive, although Elizabeth Dole essentially ducked the issue: “I am a person of strong faith. I’m going to leave that to the states.” Even Vice President Gore released a statement that initially signaled support for local control on how evolution was to be taught in public schools, though he modified his stand on the issue the next day to reemphasize the legal strictures that determine how creation may be mentioned in public schools. Only Bill Bradley forthrightly criticized the Kansas decision.

Reactions to the Kansas Board vote within editorial pages throughout the United States and many foreign countries were opposite those of the politicians. Recoiling with horror, the writers poured forth a cascade of condemnatory editorials and guest columns. Some attacks on the Kansas Board were shrill and frantic. John Rennie, editor in chief of Scientific American, went so far as to propose that college admissions officers write the Kansas Board, warning them that high school applicants from Kansas will need to have their qualifications scrutinized with extra care from now on “in light of the newly lowered education standards.”2

In one of the more restrained attacks, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote, “Removing evolution from a required science curriculum is a bit like removing verbs from the English curriculum.” She wove into her column a brief refresher in biology, asserting that there is “no serious scientific dispute about the fact of evolution. It’s supported by anatomy, fossils, carbon-dating, genetic evidence, the ages of rocks if not the rock of ages.” Referring more than once in her article to the fundamentalist agendas of Genesis literalists, Goodman invoked images of the Scopes “Monkey Trial.”3

However, in the midst of editorial denunciation, two important pieces of dissent appeared in prominent newspapers: “The Church of Darwin” by Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson in the Wall Street Journal and “Teach Evolution and Ask Hard Questions” by Lehigh biochemist Michael Behe in the New York Times. These opinion pieces argued that there are legitimate concerns about the dogmatic teaching of evolution that motivated the Kansas Board. Johnson and Behe proposed a rhetorically clever but scientifically heretical solution: Instead of teaching less evolution, schools should teach “far more about evolution.” That is, schools should continue teaching about macroevolution, but they should add a crucial new segment to such teachingÑthe legitimate scientific controversy over Darwinism.

In his Wall Street Journal piece, Johnson wrote, “So one reason the science educators panic at the first sign of public rebellion is that they fear exposure of the implicit religious content in what they are teaching. An even more compelling reason for keeping the lid on public discussion is that the official neo-Darwinian theory is having serious trouble with the evidence.” Johnson proceeded to cite a litany of evidentiary problems for the theory.4

Likewise, Behe’s opinion column advised Kansas to “teach Darwin’s elegant theory” but not stop there. He added, “Discuss where it also has real problems accounting for the data, where data are severely limited, where scientists might be engaged in wishful thinking, and where alternative even ‘heretical’ explanations are possible.”5

These closing words of Behe’s column serve as the symbolic quintessence of the deepening rhetorical challenge which evolutionists now face. When presidential candidates sided with the Kansas Board, critics could easily attribute their words to ignorance, a failure of nerve, or careful posturing for political advantage. Yet it was a much more difficult task to neutralize the complex skepticism of macroevolution expressed by Behe, a biochemist in good standing at a major research university.

This was not the first time he had diffused such “heresy.” Three years earlier Behe began to establish his own journalistic rhetoric of anti-Darwinism when he argued in the New York Times that something called “intelligent design theory” does a far better job of explaining the origin of complex biochemical machines within the cell than does Darwinian theory (“Darwin Under the Microscope,” 29 October 1996). Indeed, the August 1996 publication of Behe’s book on molecular complexity, Darwin’s Black Box, with its coinage of the now famous phrase “irreducible complexity,” was the first time sophisticated skepticism of naturalistic evolution was brought to center stage in American society.6

Behe’s doubts about Darwin, which differ in many ways from traditional creationism, have energized an entire network of dissidents in academia who share his skepticism. As a result, a flank of professors, known after 1996 as the Intelligent Design Movement, have organized themselves under the leadership of Behe, Johnson, and others for the purpose of scientific persuasion in the universities.7 Their stream of persuasion spilled over into new channels of political action, including efforts to modify the policies and curricula of classroom instruction in evolution. An excellent example of their spillover effect is Alabama’s mandated inclusion of a statewide “disclaimer” on evolution that, starting in 1996, has been pasted in the front of every biology textbook in the state’s public high schools. The adoption of the disclaimer was led by Norris Anderson, an educator who worked closely with Johnson and received advice and assistance from many of Johnson’s scientific colleagues.

These “sophisticated skeptics” of Darwinian evolution have not gone unnoticed by the theory’s defenders. Dr. Eugenie Scott, a leading consultant and spokesperson for the evolutionist side in educational issues, began devoting her energies in 1987 to tracking all types of creationist or antievolutionist movements. As director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a proevolution watchdog group in Berkeley, California, she has led the effort to repel attempts to dilute the teaching of evolution (or insert creationist teachings) in U.S. schools. Just months before the Kansas Board vote, she conveyed in her NCSE fundraising letter a sense of growing frustration:


[T]he “pincer movement” I spoke of is squeezing us not just from the grassroots direction, but from the “top down” as well thanks to the rise of university-based antievolutionism in the form of “intelligent design theory” and other well-camouflaged varieties of creationism. University of California lawyer and neo-creationist guru Phillip E. Johnson boasts of his “wedge” strategy.

        But when a topic has religious implications, such as the Big Bang, the origin of life, or the origin of human beings, they don’t want us to look for natural explanations. They claim these phenomena are “too complex”; they claim that they couldn’t have happened “by chance”. They claim that “intelligence” must have been involved. “Intelligence,” of course, means divine creation, a subject outside of science.


The new rhetorical situation, described by Scott as a “pincer movement,” is no brief anomaly. It is now being generally acknowledged as a major and fundamental shift in the landscape of the creation-evolution debate.

In her letter Scott notes the new terms of the old debate, especially “intelligence” taking the place of “divine creation” as the causal agency. She implies that the “inference to design” A connection between intelligence and extreme complexity is an argument that is spreading and winning converts in American society. Of course, Scott denies the validity of this inference, and in her rhetorical analysis of the key term “intelligence” she raises an important question: What is the relationship between this alleged “intelligence” and “divine creation”? Implied here is Scott’s central rhetorical question: If divine creation is what the skeptics of Darwinism have in view when they speak of “intelligence,” how can this theory be called scientific at all, since divine creation is a “subject outside of science”? And of course, being a key rhetorical question, it invites its own rhetorical as well as philosophical analysis. For example: What are the defining traits that mark off science from other endeavors, and how are they known? Who decides what questions may be posed and what explanations may be considered within the scientific arena?

As the world begins to tune in to this public conversation, it is learning about a unique turn in the road that has occurred during the last two decades. The perennial cultural struggle over Darwinism tugged and shaped through a web of social, ideological, political, and educational forces in the United States has produced a "rhetorical crisis” for the evolutionary worldview and the scientific establishment that embraces it and to some extent depends upon it for its quotidian work.

A Controversy That Won’t Go Away

One front of the debate the Kansas School Board has fallen quiet, as conservative Republican members of the board who led the move to change policy were voted out in the August 2000 primary election. As expected, in February 2001 the new board reinstated the mandate to teach macroevolution.8 Nevertheless, neither side of the intelligent design debate views the rhetorical battle over Darwinism as receding. Rather, it seems to be steadily mounting, as seen in many recent developments. I’ll cite two.

In early November 2000 Eugenie Scott delivered a guest lecture in an undergraduate course on intelligent design at the University of California at San Diego. In her introduction she held up a copy of the newly released The Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells, a Berkeley-trained biochemist and key member of the Intelligent Design Movement.9 Icons selects ten of the most popular “visual proofs” of evolution, displayed in virtually every textbook used in high school biology classes. Some of these (like the peppered moth) combine classic photographs with a famous story; others are sketches or diagrams (like the “tree of common ancestry”) that proclaim an evolutionary narrative. Wells scrutinizes the explanatory prose surrounding each of these ten icons and subjects it to withering criticism, pointing out significant omissions and inaccuracies, some of which border on fraud. Scott’s warning to the class about Icons was blunt: “This book will be a royal pain in the fanny” for those who are dutifully teaching Darwinian evolution in high schools.10 In fact, reviews of Wells by prominent evolutionists have betrayed similar signs of foreboding about rising public hostility toward the teaching of macroevolution as “proven fact” and about the potential of Wells’s book to aggravate that situation.11

A second recognition of the growing momentum of Intelligent Design’s challenge to Darwinism was a pair of front-page stories that appeared on the new movement in March and April 2001 in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, respectively. They constitute the first important media coverage of the Design Movement. Both articles were evenhanded, presenting the movement in a generally positive light, while quoting some strong criticism from evolutionists. The articles enhanced the scientific legitimacy of Intelligent Design by contrasting it with the older genre of biblical creationism. A good example of this comes from New York Times science writer James Glanz:


This time, though, the evolutionists find themselves arrayed not against traditional creationism, with its roots in biblical literalism, but against a more sophisticated idea: the intelligent design theory. Proponents of this theory, led by a group of academics and intellectuals and including some biblical creationists, accept that the earth is billions of years old, not the thousands of years suggested by a literal reading of the Bible. But they dispute the idea that natural selection, the force Darwin suggested drove evolution, is enough to explain the complexity of the earth’s plants and animals. That complexity, they say, must be the work of an intelligent designer.12


Glanz then reinforced this “separateness from biblical creationism” in several ways. First, he said that while God is one candidate for the role of the designer, other ideas are discussed as possibilities within the movement. Also, his article showcased the work of Behe and mathematical theorist William Dembski. Embedded within the article was a visual legitimizer. A large picture of Behe, bearded, bespectacled, and dressed in his trademark lumberjack shirt, leaning against a counter filled with chemical flasks in his biochemical laboratory at Lehigh University. Glanz implied that evolutionists sense “seductive danger” lurking within the theory of intelligent design, thereby adding an air of tension and even a hint of melodrama: “Supporters of Darwin see intelligent design as more insidious than creationism, especially given that many of its advocates have mainstream scientific credentials, which creationists often lack. ‘The most striking thing about the intelligent design folks is their potential to really make anti-evolutionism intellectually respectable,’ said Dr. Eugenie Scott” (emphasis added).13

Design proponents viewed these two articles as a significant milestone marking the “end of the beginning,” according to Phillip Johnson. Suddenly, at the turn of the century, a platoon of several hundred skeptics of Darwinian evolution were striving as a cohesive scientific-rhetorical movement toward the goal of radical transformation in the way biological origins is taught in public schools and universities. This initiative constitutes a rare attempt at revolutionary defiance in the world of science. The movement’s own rhetorical vision, which is based on a symbolic “projection” of what can be accomplished through concerted action, amounts to an ambitious campaign of paradigm “sabotage.”14 Yet, these are no ordinary saboteurs. As alluded to in Glanz’s article, many in the movement are university professors15 and relatively few of them adhere to the traditional cluster of beliefs that define classic creationism.16

Glanz pointed out that the leader of the Intelligent Design Movement is Phillip Johnson, emeritus professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley. Johnson has been the tireless organizer of this movement since 1990 when he joined forces with a preexisting group called the “Ad Hoc Origins Committee.” Even more than Behe, he has been the skeptics’ most visible media presence. ABC’s Nightline interview with him on 27 July 2000 was typical of his media appearances. During the interview, which was prompted by network coverage of the primary election of members to the Kansas Board of Education,17 Johnson defended the controversial 1999 actions of the state board. He said that a “public movement is beginning to question the dominant religious philosophy of our time effectively the established religion of our culture which is scientific naturalism.”18

The character of Intelligent Design as a public movement rather than a movement only among the educational elite has tended to blur the distinction between it and the older “scientific creationism.” Both movements have large and somewhat overlapping public constituencies. While the literature on traditional creationism is voluminous,19 relatively few have written about this newer movement, and very few have made more than a cursory attempt to trace its history step-by-step.20

Many who have written on the recent outbreaks of public activism against evolution, even when such outbreaks have involved Intelligent Design scholars in university venues, have stereotyped the activists as biblical literalists. Evolutionists who write about the Intelligent Design Movement typically characterize its theorists as dangerous ideologues, driven by impulses that are ultimately religious or emotional, not empirical and rational.

Such a picture is at best a poor caricature and at worst a stark inversion of reality. I shall argue in this book that all who ply this stereotype are ignoring crucial characteristics that distinguish Intelligent Design as a social and scientific movement. Often overlooked or distorted are its diverse social composition, its guiding assumptions and values, its vision and goals, its conceptual and critical content, and its alliances and strategies. In fact, the Intelligent Design Movement (to which I will also refer as the Design Movement, Intelligent Design, or simply Design) displays an entire network of contrasts from traditional creationist activism.

Most importantly, opponents of Design commonly ignore (or purposely avoid) the larger historical and rhetorical frame of the movement, which gives insight into why and how opposition to macroevolution has gained such energetic recruits from the ranks of university professors. Rather than carefully trace the personal accounts of how Design scholars began to doubt Darwin, critics often have rooted such doubters in the soil of biblical creationism and at times have hinted that they have covert plans to insert Genesis into the science class. Such criticism can be understood as part of a stigmatizing “anti-Design rhetoric” or as part of Darwinism’s “fantasy theme,” employed to stir up its own ranks, but it does not count as responsible scholarship. Indeed, such criticism paints an astonishingly skewed picture of Design, one in which the social reality is seriously misreported and from which a huge part of the story is absent.

The purpose of this book is to probe and trace this missing historical frame the story of the rapid emergence of the Intelligent Design Movement as a unique and snowballing rhetorical phenomenon in American society. My investigation will emphasize the historical dimension, tracing the key events, personalities, sociocultural forces, and other factors that shaped this movement and coaxed it into the paths it took. I will also stress the rhetorical dimension by focusing on the processes of Design’s persuasion. Thus, I shall take advantage of the perspectives, insights, and analytical tools that come from the accumulated scholarship about how informative and persuasive discourse achieves its goals within a given rhetorical situation. I work in a rapidly growing field known as the “rhetoric of science,” whose labor is to explore the question, How do scientists and the public at large come to be persuaded that they are in the possession of solid scientific knowledge on a given topic?21

As a rhetorical historian of Design, I view the field of narrative drama as revolving around two poles representing two kinds of scientific drama. The first pole is the drama of the rise of the movement’s leaders. Observers of Intelligent Design often overlook the pivotal role played by this experiential reality. A growing fund of stories detail how many of the movement’s leaders, to borrow Kant’s phrase, were “aroused from dogmatic slumber.” Several of the founders frequently relate a vivid tale of how they previously had assumed the validity of Darwinian scenarios and were later shocked to discover major weaknesses in the case for Darwinism. Typically this intellectual epiphany leads to further reading and research, which cements the new radical doubt about the theory’s plausibility.22

When Design theorists tell such stories of intellectual conversion, they invariably stress their “empirical persuasion,” pointing to the key evidentiary points as opposed to religious factors that led them into skepticism. Typically, lively interactions with evolutionists with whom they raised the issue only confirm their doubts. Such stories form a significant part of the bedrock of the persuasive power of Design. I will begin to flesh out many of these microdramas to reveal their rhetorical importance and function.

Once led into doubt about Darwin, these leaders begin to speak out, both orally and in print. Thus, the second historical pole, which I shall explore as well, is the drama of the design discourses themselves. Some discourse stories are inherently factual, such as the story of how a discourse was developed and produced, the embedded scientific narratives within design discourses, and the stories of the discourse responses (reviews, reactions, affirmations, or rebuttals of Design’s books, articles, and speeches). On the other hand, some discourse stories, while they are linked to facts, employ clearly imaginative themes. I prefer to call these stories “projection themes,” although rhetoricians refer to them as “fantasy themes.” Such projections, which I will explain in more detail in the next section of this chapter, play a crucial role. They gradually link together and accumulate, creating the substance and shape of Design’s rhetorical vision.

The Pervasive Power of Narrative Rationality

Stephen Jay Gould acknowledged that humans are essentially “storytelling creatures” and pointed out “the centrality of narrative style in any human discourse (though scientists like to deny the importance of such rhetorical devices while using them all the time and prefer to believe that persuasion depends upon fact and logic alone).”23 Walter Fisher, a leading communication theorist, would agree with Gould. In contrast to the “rational-world paradigm,” Fisher has identified and elaborated in recent decades a “narrative paradigm” of communication an alternative and much more pervasive structure of reasoning and persuasion. Fisher argues that human societies use two basic modes of persuasion. One is the “rational-world” type of persuasion, which relies on formal argumentative skill. People arguing in this mode use cogent logic and compelling data within well-defined structures of reason; they speak from a certain level of expert knowledge. The second mode, says Fisher, is “narrative reasoning,” which is common to all human beings. It is part of our normal socialization and thus is virtually a universal and often more effective mode of discourse and persuasion.

While distinguishing between the ground rules and function of these two kinds of rationality, Fisher resists the notion that one must choose one or the other. Rather, he implies, to use my own crude analogy, the “narrative pudding” in any discourse or interactive setting will naturally contain some “argumentative raisins.” Or, to quote Fisher, speaking about narrative rationality’s perspective on all kinds of social interactions, “Discourse often contains structures of reason that can be identified as specific forms of argument and assessed as such. Narrative rationality incorporates this fact but goes beyond it to claim that reason occurs in human communication in other than traditional argumentative structures.”24

Fisher’s concept of a narrative paradigm of communication provides a fruitful perspective for my research on the history of Intelligent Design. Although the more formalized types of argumentative persuasion are clearly detectable in both Darwinist and Design discourses, the overall rhetorical situation is so sprawling and eclectic that it virtually guarantees the predominance and supreme relevance of the narrative paradigm. From this perspective a valuable picture emerges of a vast, society-wide debate that is building in suspense from year to year and is culturally central to all people on planet earth. Yet, at the same time, this debate is centered and focused on a smaller, more “elite” context. I’m referring here to the rhetorical sparks now flying in the university world, as described in the previously mentioned New York Times article by Glanz. It is in this center circle where the “Design versus Darwin” debate is elevated to its peak of intensity, yielding the most exciting clashes and drawing interest from the watching public. Both sides, Darwinism and Design, are locked in this inner narrative struggle; both are vigorously deploying their own stories and busily attacking the stories of their opponents.

“Factuality” in Scientific Narrative

Earlier, when speaking of discourse stories, I distinguished between two different levels of “factuality” in scientific narratives. It is important to understand these two levels. In fact, both Design advocates and Darwinists are constantly deploying stories at both levels. One level can be called “factual-empirical narrative.”25 This level embraces any kind of story or even a proposed plausible scenario that seeks to align itself carefully with the best available data. (Of course, skillful art and purposive selectivity are always involved in such factual storytelling.) Any purely factual stories are intended to be taken as such, and they may even take place in the distant past, such as the story of human evolution from early hominids. Alternatively, a story may pertain to the recent past, like the account of Darwin’s development of his theory. Some factual stories, such as the current debate over Behe’s critique of Darwinism, are literally in today’s science news. In a later chapter I will deploy a three-part toolkit, a taxonomy of such factual stories to help in our story sleuthing. For now, I shall note that most of the narrative action takes place at this factual level, and the plausibility of such stories, as told by those on both sides of the debate, is constantly being evaluated by others for empirical and evaluative credibility.

The second level of narrative is “semi-imaginative.” Mentioned earlier under my term “projection,” it is literally a mixture of fact and faith. I call such stories “projection themes,” although the standard term for such stories among rhetoricians is “fantasy themes.” (I don’t care for the term “fantasy” because of the natural implication to the lay reader that such stories are entirely invented and “fantastic” or “implausible” at that.)26 Regardless of one’s terminology, these stories are striking and recognizable. From the facts at hand they “project” into the realm of imagination what is really happening now, what can be accomplished in the future, or what surely must have happened in the past. Such projection themes play a leading role in the formation of the rhetorical visions of both Darwinism and Design.27

A school of rhetorical analysis called Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT), whose origins go back to 1972, specializes in the study of fantasy themes and their role in all kinds of discourse and social interaction. According to SCT, these imaginative stories are not hard to spot. They are typically populated with heroes and villains and bear recognizable plot lines. As effective fantasy themes are generated, they strike an enthusiastic response within a social grouping or movement, and then they are reproduced or retold by others in that group with modifications and variations. In other words, they “chain out” through the social movement and beyond. This chaining process builds up and coalesces into (or contributes to) a rhetorical vision. SCT pioneer Ernest Bormann at the University of Minnesota described this process: “A rhetorical vision is constructed from fantasy themes that chain out in face-to-face interacting groups, in speaker-audience transactions, in viewers of television broadcasts, in listeners to radio programs, and in all the diverse settings for public and intimate communication in a given society. Once such a rhetorical vision emerges it contains dramatis personae [characters in a play] and typical plot lines that can be alluded to in all communication contexts and spark a response reminiscent of the original emotional chain.”28

One such theme spun by Phillip E. Johnson was a vivid allegory sketched at the close of an epilogue in the revised edition of his Darwin on Trial.29 Darwinism was pictured as a seemingly impregnable battleship which, though armored and equipped with huge guns, had sprung a metaphysical leak and was now mustering “high-tech” escape craft. In 1996, in Johnson’s concluding speech at the Mere Creation conference in Los Angeles (sometimes identified as the public birthplace of Design), Johnson repeated this projection theme in his conclusion (i.e., he chained it out), adding there would likely be “academic wine and cheese parties on the deck” even as the ship of Darwinism began to sink. The editor of Mere Creation, the 1998 compendium of the eighteen papers read at that conference, also did his part in the chaining, entitling Johnson’s contribution “Afterword: How to Sink a Battleship.” Others since have carried on this chaining process.30

SCT theorists claim that this approach can powerfully account for the formation of a movement’s shared consciousness. Donald Shields explains this perspective:

SCT provides the account of how consciousness is created, raised and sustained and thereby effects human action. SCT does so by demonstrating that the existence of the communicative force of fantasy, a force that continuously effects consciousness in individuals, groups, and large publics, is due to our intrinsic nature as fantasizers and our ontological inquisitiveness. In other words, as Bormann put it, “SCT posits the communicative force of fantasy (fantasy-sharing and -chaining) interlinked with ontological need to provide explanation as the causative component that ignites the creation, raising and sustenance of consciousness.”31


Clearly, the insights of SCT apply to the unique rhetorical-historical struggle between the Intelligent Design Movement and its detractors. Let me recap my overview of the two levels of factuality of narrative:

  • Factual Scientific Narrative relatively stable, nonfiction “constructions of reality”
  • Semi-imaginative Narrative projection themes (SCT’s fantasy themes), which are retellings of or extrapolations from “perceived reality”

Together, the factual narratives and projections feed into and shape Design’s “rhetorical vision.” The same is true of Darwinism’s rhetorical vision.

I shall now posit my central thesis about the Intelligent Design Movement: The narrative of the movement itself functions as the central integrating and motivating factor of all the rhetorical projects that the movement is pursuing. The movement narrative of Design, which encompasses both the past and the present, is continually under dramatic tension as it seeks a convergence in its trajectory with its own ultimate rhetorical vision of a paradigm shift. As a result, the Design Movement story is not only the movement’s own central integrating narrative, it is also an underreported phenomenon, badly in need of fleshing out and clarification. The coming chapters are structured around the major stages of this story.

The Leaders of the Intelligent Design Movement

Four principal spokespersons represent the Design Movement. Proceeding in the order that their work in this area was published, the first is Michael Denton, whose Evolution: A Theory in Crisis inspired the second and third figures, Phillip E. Johnson and Michael Behe. The fourth figure, William Dembski, is both the leading intellectual theorist of Design and a symbol of the rising generation of young scholars who are joining the movement. My rhetorical history will devote two chapters to Denton and the setting in which he wrote, three to Johnson, one to the “aftermath” of Johnson’s Darwin on Trial and the rapid growth of Design in the 1990s, and one each to the labors of Behe and Dembski.

Because I will be focusing on the key texts, I will begin with the story of Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Denton, a self-described agnostic, argued that Darwinian microevolution is quite plausible but that the macroevolutionary thesis suffers a chronic weakness of empirical support. After surveying several fields of scientific evidence, he concluded his book on a biting, sarcastic note:


One might have expected that a theory of such cardinal importance, a theory that literally changed the world, would have been something more than metaphysics, something more than a myth.

        Ultimately the Darwinian theory of evolution is no more nor less than the great cosmogenic myth of the twentieth century.  In the final analysis we still know very little about how new forms of life arise. The “mystery of mysteries” the origin of new beings on earth is still largely as enigmatic as when Darwin set sail on the Beagle.32

In 1987 Johnson was drawn to the topic of evolution when he read Denton alongside The Blind Watchmaker, a vigorous defense of Darwinism from Richard Dawkins, the Oxford champion of evolution.33 He was impressed by Dawkins’s rhetorical brilliance, but it was Denton who persuaded him that macroevolution by natural selection was more mythological than empirical. Johnson was intrigued with the rhetorical techniques and strategies that were discernable in the literature of Darwinism, and he dedicated his sabbatical year in London (1987Ð88) to researching the topic. He returned to California with a lengthy research paper on Darwinism, and in September 1988 he defended this paper at a Berkeley faculty seminar. Encouraged by the forthright interaction, he did further research and rewriting on the manuscript until Darwin on Trial was published in 1991. The 1993 edition added an epilogue, which replied to the published criticisms of Stephen Jay Gould and many others. During the nineties and beyond, Johnson spoke widely in universities and expanded his criticism in five sequels: Reason in the Balance (1994), Testing Darwinism (1997), Objections Sustained (1998), The Wedge of Truth (2000), and The Right Questions (2002).

In all six books Johnson argues that every area of relevant scientific evidence tends to falsify Darwinism rather than confirm it. How can this be, if the texts declare Darwinism a “fact”? Johnson says that key philosophical assumptions, especially “metaphysical naturalism,” buttress evolutionary biology and protect it from questioning.34 He defined naturalism as the belief that the universe is a “closed system” of material causes and effects that cannot be influenced by any “outside entity” like God. Johnson said his central purpose was to legitimize well-informed dissent that asks the key question, Is Darwinism true? Not being a literalist himself, he asserted that his critique had nothing to do with bringing a literal reading of Genesis into the biology class.35

The books of Denton and Johnson have functioned as the early intellectual manifestos of Design. Yet it was Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, discussed briefly already, which propelled Design into the spotlight of media attention in 1996 and firmly lodged the “design inference” as a plausible scientific notion in the American consciousness. Several reasons account for this. Whereas Johnson was often dismissed as a curmudgeonly lawyer, meddling with matters outside his own expertise, Behe wrote as a tenured professor of biology. Also, Behe’s attack on Darwinism was highly focused. His entire case for the scientific consideration of design was built out of recent discoveries in his own field of biochemistry.

The fourth leader, William Dembski, who completed a doctorate in mathematics and another in the philosophy of science, is a research professor at Baylor University.36 In 1996 he formally proposed a procedure for detecting design called the “explanatory filter,” and it quickly began to play a central role in the movement. The filter is a step-by-step matrix of statistical and logical criteria whereby Dembski claimed an investigator can reliably detect which phenomena or objects in the universe are designed and which are not. His ideas, first published in Mere Creation (1997), were presented in a highly technical form in The Design Inference (1998) and at a more accessible level in Intelligent Design (1999) and No Free Lunch (2002).

Although Dembski’s explanatory filter is a fundamental “plank” in the Design platform, it is in the work of Behe that critics of the Darwinian paradigm detect firm ground for administrating a challenge against macroevolution. Here amid Behe’s spinning rotary motors and molecular cascades, the skeptics sense that they have been granted the weaponry to foment an unmistakable paradigm crisis and ultimately a paradigm shift within the scientific community, hence throughout the world. As I have hinted, however, the business of this challenge is not (and cannot) be confined to the arguments, beliefs, and practices of science, because implicated in this particular scientific challenge or rather exposed in this controversy is the important issue of the existence of a creator of biological diversity. At this stage it is sufficient to say that the core argument of Design, which claims to supply evidence for some sort of creator, is Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity.

Behe’s development of irreducible complexity starts with Charles Darwin. Behe seizes upon a quote from Darwin’s The Origin of Species: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down” (emphasis added).37 Behe then argues that in molecular biology, Darwin’s “wager” can at last be put to the test. Scientists have identified and researched many subcellular “machines” that are extremely complex. Scientists have no idea how these systems could have evolved step-by-Darwinian-step. Thus, says Behe, a compelling case for design can be drawn from irreducibly complex molecular systems, such as blood clotting and the flagellum. As a result, Behe argues, evolutionary theory has, in Darwin’s own words, absolutely broken down.

What is an irreducibly complex machine? Behe says it is a system with several working parts, wherein the removal of any one part would prevent the machine from functioning. Behe’s famous illustration for irreducible complexity is the mousetrap. It has five parts, yet it does not catch a single mouse until all parts are present and properly fitted together. It could not plausibly evolve, step-by-step, and is therefore irreducibly complex. Likewise, says Behe, such systems as the cilium and the biochemical vision-cascade were apparently designed, since they appear to have no plausible evolutionary pathway (none has ever been published in scientific literature). From here he introduces a controversial proposal. Behe argues that biologists should begin applying basic tests to see which cellular systems are clearly designed and which are plausibly evolved from earlier systems. Yet, he cautions that science alone cannot determine “who” or “what” this designing intelligence is. He suggests that scientists engage in dialogue with scholars in other relevant fields on this crucial question.38

Behe’s ideas and proposals have not evoked widespread agreement among professional biologists. In the New York Times, James Shreeve spoke respectfully of this idea but rejected it as premature, asking, “Shouldn’t we leave something for our children and grandchildren to puzzle out besides which systems in the cell are intelligently designed and which are not? Because something is beyond our understanding today does not mean it will be beyond theirs.” A number of Behe’s opponents attacked his basic idea of bringing design a “religious concept” into science as an explanation. They derided this as “thinly veiled creationism.”39

On this point, Behe and his colleagues have faced their greatest rhetorical problem. They have struggled simply to gain a hearing.40 The movement has tried to separate itself from traditional biblical creationism and thereby escape the “Inherit the Wind” (i.e., Bible versus science) stereotype. This is one reason the renegades began to identify themselves in the mid-1990s as the Intelligent Design Movement.41

Several defining traits distinguish design theory from traditional creationism. Some of these were mentioned above, in conjunction with the New York Times coverage, such as the fact that the vast majority of design advocates are open to a universe that is billions of years old. Another mark is the avoidance of any discussion of the Noahic flood, the creation of Adam and Eve, or any other details that come from a literal reading of Genesis. Echoing Behe, members of the Design Movement say that science can only indicate that some “intelligent cause” is the agent of biological complexity. Science, by its very nature, is ill-equipped to identify God as the creator.42

However, such differences do not prevent Darwinian critics from linking this movement with its fundamentalist cousins. Opponents of Design often refer to members of the movement as “neo-creationists” or “Intelligent Design Creationists.”43 Joining the two groups of creationists is one way that defenders of Darwinism have acted symbolically to prevent the dawning in the public mind that macroevolution has indeed entered a crisis. And that brings us to the notion of “crisis” as a key conceptual focus.

The Rhetorical Crisis of Darwinism

In his landmark book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Denton uses “crisis” in the sense coined by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s general theory that scientific paradigms change over time is well known and widely accepted among scientists, despite criticism of some of Kuhn’s descriptions and details. In Kuhn’s view, a crisis emerges when a scientific paradigm has accumulated too many anomalies to ignore and is approaching the brink of a scientific revolution.44 Ever since 1962, when Kuhn’s ideas began to spread and penetrate deeply in academia, it has not been uncommon for scientists in a given field to speculate about the next paradigm or to measure ideas and events in terms of changing paradigms.

Denton deemed evolution a theory currently in (or ready to undergo) such a crisis, as though it were on the verge of dismissal, but he doubtlessly intended to be more provocative than descriptive. By whatever standards one might use to define a total paradigm revolution in historical-biological science, Darwinian evolution seems secure at the moment. This is best symbolized by the fact that not one of the mainstream biological or other scientific journals has published an article favorable to the detection of true design in nature.45 Yet Denton’s rhetoric no doubt persuaded Behe, Johnson, and many others that the current scientific narrative that our biosphere was continuously constructed through Darwinian forces was now empirically bankrupt. Moreover, this “awakening from dogmatic slumber” has acted as the core of a larger historical drama, an implicit paradigm crisis, something destined to culminate in what Darwin’s new skeptics “Kuhnistically know” will be the next great paradigm revolution the overthrow of Darwinism.46 This historical framework is a key to understanding the rhetorical vision of the Design Movement and the dramatic scene in which Behe and Johnson are acting.

Johnson views the movement as the “wedge” and himself as the “leading edge.” The purpose of this wedge is to pry open a crack in the Darwinian paradigm, to dislodge the stubborn log of Darwinian domination in the biological sciences and in universities generally.47 The long-range goal is both clear and radical the replacement of the current evolutionary paradigm with one that is open to both natural and intelligent causes in the history of biological origins.

One of the most exciting features of this clash of paradigms, as illustrated in the writing and speaking of those such as Behe and Johnson, is that it demonstrates a scientific crisis is, and must be, a rhetorical crisis as well. That is, the “science” of Darwinism or Design will stand or fall in relationship to the arguments that are made on behalf of these two movements. While Darwinism has been variously challenged and assimilated in relationship to religious beliefs from the outset (see Russett’s Darwin in America, 1972), nevertheless the persuasive case for macroevolution appears to be eroding in the minds of many university-educated citizens the same group of people whose beliefs and practices will constitute what is and what is not scientifically valid, or indeed what is or is not science itself.

At least part of the erosion of certainty about the truth of Darwinism is the product of a rhetorical onslaught the persuasive case making of skeptics, critics, and motivated rhetors like Behe and Johnson. Johnson has even used the projection theme of “vietnamization” to describe this spreading “grass roots guerrilla campaign” that is difficult for the Darwinian establishment to deal with.48 Whether or not sufficient dissent exists to put Darwinism in what we might call a “scientific crisis,” organized doubting such as Design represents has served to put Darwinism in an incipient rhetorical crisis, one in which the “priests of scientific orthodoxy” are called upon to answer the challenge from a heretical minority.

One important piece of evidence that demonstrates we have reached this point surfaced in April 2002 when, against the protests of some senior scientists, the American Museum of Natural History featured contributions from Design theorists in its magazine, Natural History. Moreover, in conjunction with the magazine coverage, Natural History sponsored a public debate at the museum. Behe and Dembski were permitted to give brief addresses, and two prominent Darwinists subjected them to intense questioning.49

Readily apparent in the opening remarks of the debate were the nervousness and internal strain that have arisen among evolutionary biologists when confronting the enigma of Intelligent Design. Darwinists seem divided in their strategy for confronting this threat, but they are united in their puzzlement. In fact, they are asking the same questions I am posing: How has a relatively tiny band of academicians managed to spread a remarkably virulent new strain of dissent, with its vision of “scientific crisis,” and the triumphant “paradigm shift” predicted to follow? Of equal interest to me is how the new infection has prompted the production of Darwinian “rhetorical antibodies,” counter-arguments and counter-projections that constitute a counter-rhetorical vision whose purpose is to defeat the invaders.

Dramatic Supremacy and Cultural Centrality

Design’s rhetorical vision the arrival of a “Darwinian paradigm crisis” possesses two unique characteristics that pump into the vision a unique quality of energy and boost the general perception of its cultural importance. First, Design’s vision of paradigm crisis possesses a relatively rare quality that I call “dramatic supremacy.”50 By this I mean that any measure of success in overturning or drastically modifying the Darwinian paradigm would dwarf nearly all previous revolutions in the history of science. This is so because of the ramifying intellectual and social effects that the installation of a Design paradigm would have on the academic world and on modern culture worldwide. The cultural stakes of this science drama could not be more elevated. Any such “supremely dramatic” process will have great interest for the rhetorician, the historian, and even the anthropologist who maps and studies the quirks and patterns of human nature.51

“Dramatic supremacy” is a powerful, energizing force for Design, even as it strives for the interim goal, a sort of halfway house on the road to revolution, which is the collapse of neo-Darwinism’s monopoly in public education. The rhetorical challenge in reaching even this interim goal is quite daunting, not just because neo-Darwinism is securely entrenched and well funded, but because the proposed replacement design theory is viewed by its opponents with deep hostility and suspicion. The intensity of Design’s opposition adds high drama to the rhetorical ambience of “dramatic supremacy.” And yet Design is gaining friends in the media; its voice is being heard.52 This friendly recognition in universities and the media adds still another nuance of excitement to the drama and continues to reshape and boost the rhetorical dynamics of the debate.

Second, the Darwinism-Design debate that is building to a fever pitch in American society is not peripheral but rather culturally central, even though it may not dominate the news at this point.53 It is central because questions posed in any debate on origins touch the deepest level of our personal and societal notions of what it means to be human. The cultural stakes of the Darwinism-Design debate are high. The debaters are contending over the fundamental cultural story of humankind, and those who succeed at crafting and telling the most convincing story of origins hold in their hands supreme cultural authority. If any group, religious or scientific, gains the authority to present its own story as uniquely true and to label other stories as mythological, this group functions as the high priesthood of our time.

The current priesthood, that of Darwinian science, like the theological hierarchy it parallels (and in one sense replaces), carries an aura of scientific objectivity and infallibility. Thomas Kuhn showed that in general any prevailing scientific metanarrative, or master story, appears to possess infallibility in its field. However, this infallibility remains only during the tenure of a paradigm. It is shattered in the course of a scientific revolution, when the new paradigm is embraced and old stories may completely disappear as textbooks are rewritten.54

Kuhn’s notions have virtually become academic cliches and the subject of various criticisms. Nevertheless, Design spokespersons who are picking up the conceptual battle implements scattered across the post-Kuhnian landscape have predicted the impending collapse of the Darwinian paradigm.55 If such a paradigm collapse took place in the public universities, one could expect it to trigger incalculable and highly unpredictable shock waves through the secularized bedrock upon which so much of our civilization is built.

A Final Word: Design’s Motivation

A central purpose of this book is to understand more fully the development of Design’s rhetorical vision. One of the most important components of this vision is its own perceived set of “noble motives,” which both legitimize the existence of the movement and bestow a peculiar kind of urgency upon it. By following the stories of each of the major figures, I can highlight their own recollections and expressions, which reveal the deep “reformist impulse” that drives the movement. Along the way I will clearly note key additions to the moral core of that impulse. The primary target of Design’s attack is the perceived suppression of free speech a pervasive misrepresentation about “what science really knows” when it comes to biological origins.56 Thus, Design theorists see themselves as spearheading an intellectual reformation within science, seeking to restore academic integrity and to expose and dissolve networks of self-deception as well as public deception.

Many Design participants believe that if the scientific establishment recognized that life and humankind arose from an intelligent designer, a huge spiritual payoff would result. But for many the main motive is not the foreseen spiritual implications but simply the denuding of what they believe is a contemptible flow of misinformation. Those driven by this motivation see their task as simply telling the truth. We detect this most vividly in the recollections of Behe made during my 1997 videotaped interview (“Opening Darwin’s Black Box”). Twice he recalled his profound anger upon reading and hearing things in Darwinian presentations that were blatantly false and known to be false by experts in the field.57 He said such statements make one want to “fight” for change. In a similar vein Johnson has said that academia views macroevolution as a “given.” It is something that only religious fundamentalists could doubt, and it would be irrational for clear-thinking citizens to question it on scientific grounds.58 As far back as 1988, in a seminar he organized with twenty faculty members at Berkeley, Johnson described this “factual status” of Darwinism as a cognitive “illusion” and expressed his intention to expose such.59

Both Johnson and Behe were converted to this state of robust skepticism by reading the work of Michael Denton. It was Denton, more than anyone else, who triggered the birth of Design. We now turn to his story.