Design & the Discriminating Public
Gaining a Hearing from Ordinary People
by Nancy Pearcey
Evolution has enormous purchase on the public imagination, and it’s easy to understand why. Just peek into the average living room where toddlers everywhere are sitting wide-eyed before videos like The Land Before Time series. This series offers nothing less than an excursion into evolution. Colorful one-celled organisms arise in a blue-green primeval ocean, where they “change again and again,” until they evolve into the endearing little dinos of the stories. It is a delightful, fairy-tale introduction into naturalistic evolution for children, and once a child’s imagination is populated with bright, colorful images, it becomes ever more difficult for a parent to dislodge them and teach the child to think critically.
The Response to Imperial Darwinism
Despite the immense visibility of evolution in the culture, design is supplanting it for three reasons. First, there is a growing demand for help in answering the claims of Darwinism as it grows more pervasive and more intellectually imperialistic. Whereas a generation ago, parents could simply ignore the challenge of Darwinism, today’s parents cannot. Their children are getting a Darwinian message not only in the classroom but also in books and videos and other forms of entertainment. Today not only Christians but also theists of all stripes are being forced to respond to the naturalistic, mechanistic worldview implied by Darwinism in venues far from the science classroom.
We’re talking here about a sizeable portion of the American population. A 1991 Gallup poll found that 46 percent of Americans still believe human beings came directly from the hand of the Creator, while another 40 percent believe God guided the process of evolution. (Only 9 percent accept the strict account of evolution by completely natural forces.) Moreover, a 1996 survey by the National Science Foundation found that fewer than half of Americans believe that “humans developed from earlier species.” Clearly, there is a very large constituency in America eager for help in answering the imperialistic claims of Darwinism.
As Executive Editor for Chuck Colson’s daily radio program, “BreakPoint,” I have found that the number of listener call-ins increases dramatically whenever we deal with this topic on the air. The first time we ran a radio series on the subject, the number of calls tripled and quadrupled. When we ran the series again several months later, it broke call-in records again. We then ran a series popularizing Reason in the Balance by Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, and again the calls spiked astonishingly. Consistently, we find that our radio listeners feel a need to get a handle on questions of Darwinism and evolution.
This is not to suggest that people merely are interested in science popularizations, which are readily available. The reason they are so hungry for good material on evolution is that they sense that it is really about much more than science. The scientific establishment portrays dissenters from Darwinism as backwoods rubes seeking to inject religion into the science classroom. But what these dissenters rightly note is that religion is already in the classroom. Even ordinary folks who know little about the scientific details are uncomfortably aware that Darwinism bootlegs a philosophy of naturalism that is implacably opposed to any form of theism.
And the more honest Darwinists say so. Francisco Ayala of the University of California at Irvine says natural selection “exclude[s] God as the explanation accounting for the obvious design of organisms.” Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett praises Darwinism as a “universal acid” that corrodes traditional spiritual and moral beliefs. And Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins says Darwin “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
Darwin himself made it clear that his theory had anti-religious implications. Indeed, it was devised precisely to eliminate the idea of design in living things. The function of natural selection is, after all, to sift out harmful variations and preserve only beneficial ones. But if we admit God into the process, Darwin argued, then God would ensure that only “the right variations occurred . . . and natural selection would be superfluous.” In other words, you can have God or natural selection, but not both. Alternatively, given natural selection, God would be redundant. As historian Jacques Barzun writes, the central elements in Darwin’s theory (i.e., random changes and the blind sifting of natural selection) were both proposed expressly to get rid of design and purpose in biology: “The sum total of the accidents of life acting up on the sum total of the accidents of variation . . . provided a completely mechanistic and material system” to explain the development of living things.
This atheistic message is easily picked up by kids in the classroom. A popular high-school textbook published by Prentice-Hall describes evolution as “random and undirected,” working “without either plan or purpose.” A textbook by Addison-Wesley says, “Darwin gave biology a sound scientific basis by attributing the diversity of life to natural causes rather than supernatural creation.” American state schools are supposed to be neutral with regard to religion, but these statements are clearly antagonistic to all theistic religions.
In the words of John Wiester, chairman of the Science Education Commission of the American Scientific Affiliation, “Darwinism is naturalistic philosophy masquerading as science.” And as a philosophy, its implications extend far beyond science. In a taped debate with Phillip Johnson, Cornell biologist William Provine outlines unflinchingly what Darwinism means for human values, flashing a list on an overhead projector: Consistent Darwinism implies “No life after death; No ultimate foundation for ethics; No ultimate meaning for life; No free will.” (The video is titled Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy? and is available from Access Research Network.) The only reason people still believe in such things, Provine said, is that they haven’t realized the full implications of Darwinism.
On this point, his debating partner agrees wholeheartedly—though, of course, from the other side of the issue. As Johnson writes in Reason in the Balance, when lecturing against Darwinism on university campuses, he has found “that any discussion with modernists about the weaknesses of the theory of evolution quickly turns into a discussion of politics, particularly sexual politics.” Why? Because modernists “typically fear that any discrediting of naturalistic evolution will end in women being sent to the kitchen, gays to the closet, and abortionists to jail.”
In other words, on both sides of the issue most people sense instinctively that there is much more at stake here than a scientific theory—that a link exists between the material order and the moral order. Though the fears Johnson encounters are certainly exaggerated, the basic intuition is right, for the question of our origin determines our destiny. It tells us who we are, why we are here, and how we should order our lives together in society. Our view of origins shapes our understanding of ethics, law, education—and yes, even sexuality. If life on earth is a product of blind, purposeless natural causes, then our own lives are cosmic accidents. There’s no source of transcendent moral guidelines, no unique dignity for human life. On the other hand, if life is the product of foresight and design, then you and I were meant to be here. In God’s revelation we have a solid basis for morality, purpose, and dignity.
Design & Alternative Worldviews
The second reason design is a winner is that it is a full-fledged scientific research program, not a narrowly conceived ideological position. As soon as one stakes a movement on some narrowly conceived position, there is a danger of splintering off into antagonistic groups and disagreeing over the details. For too long, opponents of naturalistic evolution have let themselves be divided and conquered over subsidiary issues like the age of the earth. The beauty of design is that it can unite everyone who opposes the broad, overarching claim of naturalism while providing a common framework for working on subsidiary issues as allies.
This is particularly important in selling design to the public, for the average person is put off by internal bickering and just wants help in meeting the larger challenge of naturalism, which has become not just an overarching philosophy but also a surrogate religion. A few years ago, Carl Sagan enchanted a huge television audience by presenting naturalism as an alternative religion in his PBS program Cosmos. The mere fact that he capitalized the word “Cosmos” (as religious believers capitalize “God”) was a dead giveaway that he was gripped by a religious intensity. Indeed, whatever you take as the foundation of your worldview is, functionally speaking, your religion.
Sagan regarded the Cosmos as the only self-existing, eternal being: “A universe that is infinitely old requires no Creator.” Whereas Christianity teaches that we are children of God, Sagan taught that we are children of his god—the Cosmos. “We are, in the most profound sense, children of the Cosmos,” he intones, for it is the Cosmos that gave us birth and daily sustains us. He even offers a counterfeit mysticism: “Our ancestors worshiped the Sun, and they were far from foolish,” for if we must worship something, “does it not make sense to revere the Sun and the stars?” Then there’s Sagan’s trademark phrase, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” (the opening line in his book Cosmos, based on the television series). Anyone who attends a liturgical church recognizes that Sagan is offering a substitute for the Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end”).
Sagan literally canonized the Cosmos, and far from repudiating this injection of religion into science, the scientific establishment richly rewarded him, even awarding him the National Academy of Science’s Public Welfare Medal in 1994. Today his religion is taught everywhere in the public square—even in the books a child checks out of the public library. Among the most popular picture book characters for small children are the Berenstain Bears. In The Berenstain Bears’ Nature Guide, we are invited to accompany the Berenstain family on a nature walk. After a few pages, we suddenly encounter in capital letters sprawled across a sunrise, glazed with light rays, those familiar words: Nature is “all that is, or WAS, or EVER WILL BE!” It is Sagan’s liturgy to the Cosmos, repackaged for tots. And to drive the point home, the authors have drawn a bear pointing directly at the reader—the impressionable young child—and saying, “Nature is you! Nature is me!”
Today Darwinian naturalism is pressed upon our imaginations long before we can think rationally and critically. It is presented everywhere as the only worldview supported by science, and it is rapidly usurping the role of religion. The design movement keeps its focus on these large and pressing questions that the public is most concerned about, while leaving the details open for further scientific investigation.
Design & Common Sense
Finally, design is a winner with the public because it is a scientific research program that actually makes sense to ordinary people. In the past, one of the most discouraging aspects of the creation/evolution controversy was the sheer number of scientific facts one had to master even to begin to make sense of the issues—genes, mutations, fossils, and how chemicals would react in a primeval “soup.” It was simply too much for the average person to take in, and no matter how many facts you mastered, new findings were always turning up.
But design is not so much a set of facts as it is a way of reasoning. It is sometimes said that the scientific method is merely a codification of common sense, and that certainly is true of design. That’s why some two centuries ago, the English clergyman William Paley could illustrate the argument from design with simple examples: Suppose you find a watch on the beach; would you assume it was the product of the wind and the waves? Of course not; and since living things exhibit the same structure, they too must be products of an intelligent agent.
The design movement employs similar examples to massage people’s intuitions, but then shows how they apply to actual research in the sciences. Physical chemist Charles Thaxton, co-author of The Mystery of Life’s Origin, offers the illustration of finding the words “John Loves Mary” etched into a tree trunk; immediately you would recognize that this is not the product of natural forces. Likewise, since DNA is a message (and a much more complex one), it too is best explained as the product of an intelligent agent.
Michael Behe, in Darwin’s Black Box, uses the illustration of a mousetrap to explain the concept of irreducible complexity in living things. You can’t start with a wooden platform and catch a few mice, add a spring and catch a few more mice, add a hammer, and so on, each addition making the mousetrap function better. No, to even start catching mice, all the parts must be assembled from the outset. In the same way, many structures in living things are made of interdependent, co-adapted parts that must all be present from the outset or it simply won’t work (e.g., the bacterial flagellum, the whip-like outboard rotary motor that enables a bacterium to move through solution). Such structures cannot be assembled by any gradual, step-by-step Darwinian process.
This summer Chuck Colson and I have a book coming out illustrating the way creation functions as the fundamental plank in a Christian worldview across a broad range of subject areas. There we give the example of a place in the White Mountains of New England called the “Old Man in the Mountain,” where Chuck used to visit as a child. In the outline of the rocks, one can detect, at a certain angle, what looks like the profile of an old man. It’s an example of a “natural wonder” where wind and rain erosion has carved out a shape that resembles some familiar object.
By contrast, imagine you are driving through South Dakota and suddenly come upon a mountain bearing the unmistakable likenesses of four American presidents. Would anyone conclude that these shapes were the product of wind or rain erosion? Of course not. Immediately one realizes the work of artists, working with chisels and drills.
We intuitively recognize the products of design versus the products of natural forces. Mathematician William Dembski has now formalized this intuition in his new book The Design Inference. We detect design, Dembski says, by applying an “explanatory filter” that first rules out chance and law. That is, scientists first determine if something is the product of merely random events by whether it is irregular, erratic, and unpredictable. If chance doesn’t explain it, they next determine if it is the result of natural forces by whether it is regular, repeatable, and predictable. If neither of these standard explanations works—if something is irregular and unpredictable, yet highly specified—then it bears the marks of design. The four presidents’ faces on Mt. Rushmore are irregular (not something we see happening generally as the result of erosion), yet specified (they fit a particular, pre-selected pattern). Applying the explanatory filter, the evidence clearly points to design.
The naturalistic scientist insists that the idea of design has no place in science. In fact, however, several branches of science already use the concept of design or intelligence and have even devised tests for detecting the work of an intelligent agent. Consider forensic science. When police find a body, their first question is, Was this death the result of natural causes, or was it foul play (an intentional act by an intelligent being)? Likewise, when archaeologists uncover an unusually shaped rock, they ask whether the shape is a result of weathering, or whether the rock is a primitive tool, deliberately chipped by some paleolithic hunter. When a cryptographer is given a page of scrambled letters, how does he determine whether it is just a random sequence or a secret code? When radio signals are detected in outer space, how do astronomers know whether it is a message from another civilization? In each case, there are straightforward tests for detecting the work of an intelligent agent.
Not just in science but throughout everyday life, we make the determination between natural and intelligent causes. In fact, we hardly give it a thought. Consider the children’s game of finding shapes in the clouds; as adults, we know the shapes are just the result of wind and temperature acting on the water molecules. But what if we see “clouds” that spell out a message? In the classic film Reunion in France, set in Nazi-occupied Paris in the 1940s, a plucky pilot flies over the city every day and uses skywriting to spell out a single word: “COURAGE.” No one would mistake the skywriting for an ordinary cloud; even though it is white and fluffy, we are quite certain that natural forces don’t create words. The “explanatory filter” is simply a logical analysis of the way we reason in everyday experience.
Design & the Public Interest
Design is a concept that is simple, easy to explain, and based solidly on experience. It has tremendous popular appeal because it answers the public’s most pressing concerns. What’s more, it is poised to revolutionize science as dramatically as Newtonian physics did in the first scientific revolution.
Our times are not unlike the peak of the scientific revolution, when the presses poured forth a great stream of popularizations of Isaac Newton’s theories. What these popularizations offered was not Newton’s theories per se so much as a new, mechanistic worldview derived from them. As Voltaire put it at the time, no one actually read Newton, but everyone talked about him. In other words, the vast majority of people were only marginally interested in Newtonian physics for its own sake, but they were intensely interested in what it meant for a general view of the world—for human nature, ethics, religion, and the social order. Likewise, among the public today, most are not interested in mastering the details of biology, yet they are intensely interested in what Darwinism means for a general worldview.
The Darwinist establishment benefits enormously from portraying the debate about origins as a tempest in a teapot, driven by a small, marginalized group of Bible-thumpers. But the public knows intuitively that at stake are the great questions of human existence. “The fundamental and most far-reaching assumption of Darwinism is that life is the product of forces that are impersonal and purposeless—that life is a cosmic accident,” says Phillip Johnson. “This is a philosophy that strikes most Americans as false, not just fundamentalists.”
At stake in this controversy is which worldview will permeate and shape our culture. Design is not an esoteric question relevant only to scientists. Design, especially as it relates to God creating the world, lies at the heart of all that Christians believe. And because Darwinian naturalists use all their cultural power to undercut design at every turn, today we’re going to have to learn how to explain these worldview issues even to our toddlers.
Nancy Pearcey (M.A., Covenant Theological Seminary) is Policy Director of the Wilberforce Forum, Washington, D.C., and executive editor of Charles Colson’s daily radio program “BreakPoint.” Her articles have appeared in First Things, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today. She contributed to Of Pandas and People, a supplemental biology text advocating intelligent design, and is coauthor with Charles Thaxton of The Soul of Science (Crossway), on the rise of modern science.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Design & the Discriminating Public” first appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.