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Built on Sand: The Collapsing Creationist Tower

Meeting Minutes for May 25, 2005; #186


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Announcements

In just three days (5/28) the first Freethought Garage Sale fundraiser will be held at the Lockwood Street Freethought Commune. Donations are still being accepted, tables and assistance during the day (from 8AM-5PM) are needed. Besides generating funds for our group, this should prove to be a very enjoyable social time together as well.

On June 1st at 7PM, Jason Pittman will host the next Freethought Movie Night at his Lockwood Street home. For more information, contact him at jpittman@backpacker.com.

NPR listeners may wish to tune in to the radio program, This American Life, from June 3rd through 5th, where the topic will be: In Defense of Godlessness.

Our next meeting, on June 8, will be presented by FA member, Dr. Robert Collins. His topic will be: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Optimizing Our Nature.

Don't miss the Freethought Potluck on June 11, starting at 1PM at the Van Oosterhout's Marne, MI home; 3834 Hayes. Join us for games, music, food and walking in the surrounding woods. Please bring a dish to pass. Croquet and badminton will be available. Feel free to bring additional recreational and other games, musical instruments, juggling props, etc. For more information, please call 616-677-5536, fax 616-677-6089, or email to jabivo@aol.com.

June 15 is another Freethought Movie Night. See above contact address for more information. These are always fun social gatherings in addition to the eclectic and often thought- provoking choices in movies presented.

June 18 (Sat.) at 10AM, Jennifer Beahan will host the next Freethought Women's Group. Please RSVP by email: musiqueforlife@yahoo.com or call 616-706-2029, also to get more information or directions to her house (736 Lockwood, NE, GR).

Our Annual Freethought Picnic this year will be on July 9 at Millennium Park, at the Open Shelter A, from 12 noon to 6PM. BYOB, dish to pass, rec. equipment and sunscreen. This park is large and accommodating, with many trails, a beach, and areas for all ages. For more information contact info@freethoughtassociation.org or the coordinator, C. LaRue: calart@hotmail.com.

Another fun outing this year is our second Freethought at Lake Michigan on July 23. The Van Oosterhouts (Bill & Jan) will be hosting this social event at their Lake Michigan cottage. BYOB, dish to pass, swim suit, etc. For more information, contact info@freethoughtassociation.org or the coordinator / hostess, Jan Van Oosterhout at jabivo@aol.com.

September 28 of this year, the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids will have special guest speaker, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who will present the topic Our Environmental Destiny. Ticket cost is $10.

PLEASE make note of our transitioning to a new meeting location. Starting in October, we will no longer meet at the Yankee Clipper Library but instead will be at the Women's City Club at the corner of Lafayette and Fulton near downtown Grand Rapids. We will continue to meet on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month and at the same time (7PM). We will have abundant parking, a long term rental agreement (at a lower cost than is our current arrangement), some storage accommodation, several rooms we can use as well as the main lecture room, which is already set up for seating and sound/lights, and a large kitchen area, with snacks and beverages provided through the W. C. Club. Contact info@freethoughtassociation.org or check our website: www.freethoughtassociation.org for updated information on this move and details. We will also be sending updates via our e-news service, future minutes and other forms of communication.

Our first meeting at the new location will be on October 12. Edwin Kagan will present Baubles of Blasphemy. Kagan is a Constitutional attorney, author of Baubles of Blasphemy and Founder of Camp Quest-- a secular summer camp with science and critical thinking emphasis along with traditional camping experiences.


Presentation

This meeting presentation was our first Don Hansen Memorial Lecture, commemorating the late Donald Hansen, our first Freethought Award recipient, co-founder of our organization and exemplar of Humanistic sensibilities. Some of Don's family members were present for this meeting, including Vicki, Anne and Bruce, and we were very pleased to see them.

The topic for this evening was: Built on Sand; The Collapsing Creationist Tower. It was presented by special guest speaker, Robert Pennock, Professor of Science and Philosophy at MSU and author of Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics; Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives and The Tower of Babel; The Evidence Against the New Creationism.

Robert T. Pennock is Associate Professor at Michigan State University, where he is on the faculty of the Lyman Briggs School of Science, the Philosophy Department, and the Department of Computer Science, as well as the Center for Ethics and Humanities in Life Sciences, and the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavioral graduate program. He graduated with Honors in Biology/Philosophy from Earlham College and received his PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Pittsburgh. He has received two Mellon Foundation Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, and a N.S.F./N.E.H. Fellowship. He won the Michael R. Bennett prize, and an Apple for the the Teacher award.

His book, Tower of Babel (mentioned above), critiques attacks by advocates of (oxymoron) creation-science and intelligent design theory (IDT), which is not a scientific theory and its agent, the Intelligent Designer, is the God of the biblical Genesis divine fiat creation tales. The IDT crowd attempts to discount the evidential basis of evolution, while providing no scientific alternative construct, let alone scientific theory. Tower of Babel has been highly and positively reviewed; the New York Review of Books called it: the best book on creationism in all its guises. Pennock's Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics is considered the most comprehensive source book on the topic.

Dr. Pennock's work on artificial life and evolutionary computation has been featured in over 50 publications, including a recent cover story in Discover. He speaks regularly around the country on issues of science and values, and was named a national Distinguished Lecturer by Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. He is currently working on a book that examines how Darwinian evolution, as an abstract theoretical model, can be applied in practical applications beyond biology. Examples of this are being done in aeronautical and other design work, where random changes produce different success outcomes. Those that bestow a benefit upon the design subject are preserved, mimicking the blind forces in Darwinian natural selection that generate modifications that provide a better fit for the organism or item into an environmental niche, without foresight of outcomes or intelligent drivers toward any end result. As has been noted by others: biological evolution creates only immediate adaptations for local environments, rather than foresight toward some future benefit.

Dr. Gregory Forbes introduced our distinguished guest, also mentioning that the Freethought Association Canoe Trip that he is coordinating had to be moved to July, due to scheduling conflicts (Dr. Forbes will be in Costa Rica at the time of the original June date for the get together). More information to follow on specifics for this Pere Marquette River event. Both Dr. Forbes and Dr. Pennock are deeply involved in the Michigan Citizens for Science ( www.michigancitizensforscience.org <http://www.michigancitizensforscience.org/> ) and they encouraged our membership to likewise become involved. The byline of the organization is: Protecting science education for our children. The current web page articles include topics on the Gull Lake (MI) encroachment of IDT into the science curriculum, the 11th circuit court's decision on the Cobb County ruling, and the recent Kansas hearings regarding IDT.

IDT ironically evolved out of the older creation-science (a creationist oxymoron set up to contrast with the unnecessarily redundant evolution-science; the former not having anything to do with science and its methods, while the latter is like saying egg omelette or tuna fish) strategy to foist a single creation fable into science classes. The most famous case to demolish their former strategy came from a decision by Arkansas federal judge, William Overton, who noted, among other salient points, that science had essential characteristics, including that it is has to be both guided and explanatory by reference to natural law; it has to be testable against the empirical world; its conclusions are tentative; and it is falsifiable. Since what creationists represented was clearly an Establishment Clause violation, of insinuating a wholly religious concept into a subject area (science) that it meets none of the requirements for, something new had to be created by the creationists. This became Intelligent Design Theory.

While having, again, none of the components of science—certainly nothing to qualify it as a theory in the scientific use of the word (as we understand germ, heliocentric, and gravitational theory—powerful, unifying, explanatory models), IDT kidnapped some of the language of science, along with a thin veneer of its imprimatur, while carefully side-stepping the mentioning of God per se.

Instead, IDT references an Intelligent Designer as its causal force, while postulating no mechanisms involved in the creation process and while not explaining any of the scientific data that has been gathered by real science for speciation, continental drift, factors of isolation on breeding populations, vestigial as well as homologous organs, transitional fossils, molecular biology, sexual selection, etc., etc. For IDT advocates it is merely a matter of: The ID did it---somehow--no need for any investigation, making predictions or the hard work of research, formulating hypotheses, etc. No need even for naturalism or a look-see into the material world, its mechanisms and laws.

Unfortunately for solid instruction in science, the subterfuge of IDT gained ground where a more direct creationist frontal assault (transforming biology courses into the study of Genesis) failed in court cases. Finally, the creationists had a concept, that, for the uninformed, sounded like an alternative scientific theory. It became a fairness issue for many Americans or even a cherished capitalistic construct—letting competing theories fight it out, and the victor in the educational market would prevail to be taught in science classes. But science is not a popularity contest and the veracity of its results are not dependent upon how many adherents there are for a pet concept.

At one time, geocentricism had a virtual lock on how our local planetary and star system was viewed. We used to regard flies as being spontaneously generated from fecal matter. Everyone knew this! The problem was, once scientific investigation was performed on these and countless other matters, these erroneous notions were felled. Just as it takes a diamond to cut diamonds, it takes better scientific understanding to generate a clearer window into the natural world and to knock down impoverished former scientific paradigms. As a side note on this, while scientific views have been shattered when newer, better information had been accumulated, no scientific theory has ever been overturned. They have been refined and added to, but not usurped, or found lacking as potent explanatory models. This is why it is so cursed a thing that creationists do when they pronounce the word theory as only a hunch or as one among many competing scientific theories regarding a certain problem. So far, no creationist “research”--none of their copious writings—none of their claims, has made even a single slight contribution to our comprehension of the natural world, let alone provided anything like a scientific alternative to evolutionary theory.

IDT, postulating a supernatural agent, can only pertain to concepts regarding the supernatural. For natural world understandings, we need to focus on natural laws and mechanisms. Since ID used supernatural means for divine fiat creation, then it is outside the bounds of science and therefore should not be taught in science classes. If ID employed, however, natural means such as chemical bonding and self organization principles, then it is indistinguishable from nature and natural processes and no supernatural agent is called for! As we continue to understand more and more about how the natural world works, the gaps inexorably shrink that the ID controls through mysterious supernatural means. Rather than have God master of an ever-constricting sphere of influence, it might be better to have It reign over the boundless vistas of the supernatural realm. While this realm can never be shown to exist, at least science can never evict its superintending entity from it.

Science cannot be done by invoking miracles or deities whenever the natural subject under investigation proves daunting in wresting information from it. What sort of science is it that IDT proponents wish for? Saying ID/God did it, using means that are incomprehensible to humans is anathema to the methodology of science, though perfectly acceptable for one's personal religious faith.

By avoiding the Constitutional minefield of calling the Intelligent Designer God, the ID Creationists inadvertently provide an avenue for all manner of heretical intelligences to flow into their construct. If they won't specify their favored Designer as the biblical God, then how can they say it is not the Raelian race or some extraterrestrials from Vega? ID becomes ET. Why not? As Michael Shermer contended in a recent book (Science Friction): What we are really talking about here is not a scientific problem in the study of the origins of life; it is a religious problem in dealing with the findings of science.

Creationists mostly accept so-called micro-evolution, since they are innocent of the understanding of species and feel that the created kind (their word) is not violated by small modifications to the organism (changes in the beak of the finch or the neck of a giraffe, as examples). But then why is it that if they accept natural selection's role in transformations in sub-species, they cannot allow for its role in macro-evolution—speciation? And if their Intelligent Designer created species, then why was it powerless to work upon subspecies? Even the darling of IDT, Michael Behe, has had to focus on micro-evolution to try to find gaps in our scientific knowledge, since the macroscopic world's gaps are mostly filled in. He and his ilk are chasing science, not leading it. This is especially true when you consider that as science has refined its testing, gathered more data and done more research, scientists were the ones who discovered initial problems—not creationists (of any stripe) and it was scientists who tackled those problems and provided resolution. Science cannot accept untestable, mystical means to account for problems, gaps and anomalies.

Pennock noted in his book Tower of Babel, that Behe- when he asserts his now famous irreducible complexity argument, is really doing the old bait and switch. He argues ideas that are true enough out of context, in isolation and by definition—his definitions—but ones that do not hold up or are not proved through empirical evidence. Whether Behe knows better or not—he is, after all, a biochemist-- he limits his arguments to ones involving fully formed organic parts for one specific function in modern conditions. Indeed, if one took a crow and severed its wings from it, it would cease to be functional as a flying “kind” of animal—(I'm not sure what creationists do with aquatic birds and flightless terrestrial birds who span biblical kinds by being both swimming and flying kinds simultaneously, or being a representative of a flying kind but which cannot fly, respectively). However, evolution does not work from a top down approach and it is a lot more interesting than that. Organic structures that served one function at one time and under certain environmental conditions, can be pressed into very different uses at another time in evolutionary development and under the influence of new environmental pressures. Others have multi-functions, where adaptation is expressed via survival pressures in changing environments-- whatever function is most suited for survival of that organism gets expressed most strongly; others might be expressed at a future time in the organism's evolutionary history, with slight modifications to the structure—not the wholesale addition of fully-formed parts out of nowhere. Half-wings were not poorly developed wings but well developed something elses.

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne explained in a rebuttal to Behe, that biochemical pathways supposedly impossible to come about without an ID did not evolve by sequential additions of steps to pathways that became functional only at the end—instead they have been rigged up with pieces co-opted from other pathways, duplicated genes, and early multi-functional enzymes. Behe evokes blood clotting as one of his famous examples of something that evolutionary processes cannot explain (all of his supposedly challenging models have been thoroughly demolished by naturalistic scientists.) Coyne shows that in fact thrombin is one of the key proteins in blood clotting but also acts in cell division and is related to the digestive enzyme trypsin. Natural selection does not create forms out of a warehouse of parts, all awaiting a master Craftsman to assemble them into a single use, whole, for all time.

To cast all of life as the product of an All-powerful Designer is to recast the Designer as a bit of a putterer, tinkering away in some tool shed, cobbling together far-from perfect products, fraught with design flaws that no human designer, using foresight and an optimizing strategy, would ever engineer. Because organisms have evolved to fit into their environmental niches, with the most successful ones passing on genes for an ever better fit-- life superficially looks well designed. But a more than cursory investigation shows that the Earth's biota was formed from what worked well enough, or in some cases extraordinarily well for one purpose but in different conditions only well enough to bestow a slight advantage to the organism, leaving a myriad of outcomes that show no design by a superior intelligence—whether ET or ID. Evolution is blind and has no future goal or direction. There is no selection pressure for perfection, so many structures that are ill-designed but serve the organism adequately, pass under the radar of natural selection; natural selection not being granted the powers of omniscience.

Per the topic title of Dr. Pennock's presentation, he came before us not to tear down the various modalities of creationism, including IDC/IDT, but instead to suggest that its tower was already falling, built- as it is, metaphorically- on a foundation of sand. He has found that in the last four or five years, he no longer has to answer the same questions all the time and there are signs all around that the challenges IDT used to present are fading. He said that the problems for those who advocate strong science instruction are not ones so much anymore matters of scientific debate but instead ones of politics and social agendas.

He discussed how IDT proponents have infiltrated school boards and framed the issue as one that should be part of a public debate ,or of letting the students choose which “theory” they prefer. As mentioned earlier, science is not a majority-consent enterprise; if 90% of students believed that the Earth had a watery dome of a firmament over it, or that lightning was the result of bolts hurled from the arm of a deity, this would still not make it fit for modern science standards in education. Another tactic is to make the issue part of the Culture Wars. Evolution is connected by creationists with everything from homosexuality to divorce; armed killing sprees to abortion. Theirs is a highly dichotomous view: black and white/ good versus evil. Satan is with the humanists and naturalistic sciences, while Christianity (not just belief in a Higher Power) is on the team characterized by virtue and family values.

Creationists often try to put on a show of being in a united front, with all of them in agreement over the tenets of their belief system. However, as Dr. Pennock showed, there are many species of creationist, ranging from geocentrists and flat- Earth types, as well as the YECs (young Earth creationists) to OECs (those accepting an older Earth) to Theological Evolutionists, Gap creationists, Progressive creationists, and Evolutionary creationists . The Young Earthers are mostly Bible literalists, seeing the Earth formed within the last 6,000-10,000 years, Adam and Eve as literal first humans, and all life made by God basically in their present form from the beginning, and all the rest of the Genesis-as-fact mentality. Every geological formation can be explained for them by the the Deluge that Noah navigated. Dr. Pennock mentioned at this point that a creationist museum opened up where there had been a natural history one, so the new proprietors took the dinosaur displays and put plastic mannequins around them, or even riding them! Flintstones- redux.

The Old Earth variety have at least a modicum of understanding of geological time. They can get around biblical time frames by asserting that the days of creation refer to ages. I've personally often wondered how they know when to shift temporal gears—are the 40 days and nights of the Flood 40 epochs? Some of this ilk even like the Big Bang theory since is resonates well for them with the Creator bringing everything into being in a burst of potent creative force. These two (YEC and OEC) brands of creationists alone disagree more with each other than they do with evolutionary biologists! So much for their unity. Under their new banner of neo-creationists, with the scientific sounding IDT logo, many disparate groups attempt to assemble to do battle against the common enemy (secularists and naturalists). This makes for strange bedfellows since even YECs are using the sword and shield of IDT (even though they disagree with almost every aspect of it, except for the existence of a creating supernatural being). The IDC/IDT leadership draw upon the strength in numbers from having so many otherwise oppositional groups under one banner to defeat a common foe, figuring that they will tackle the divisive aspects of their various contrary beliefs at some later time, after the war is won.

The proponents of IDT are nothing if not prolific; even if their work is not sufficiently scientifically based to appear in peer reviewed journals of science or contribute anything to the knowledge base of humankind about the natural world. Some of those writing articles and books on IDT are Stephen Meyer, Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, Michael Behe, Jonathon Wells and Paul Nelson. Meyer's writings on the design inference, as with the writings of many of his cohorts, is really nothing more than warmed over Rev. Paley (of the watchmaker argument), summed up briefly as: if you see a watch, unlike a stone, you infer it is designed by an intelligence, assembled as it is by well formed parts designed to work together in synchrony. By the same token, Paley inferred, if you see a complex organism it too must be designed purposefully by an Intelligence. Not only have modern creationists not contributed a thing to modern science but they have not even improved on their arguments or added anything of significance in some 200 years. Science itself, being only about twice as old, has brought us a staggering cornucopia of knowledge and fruitful study.

William Dembski's stab at the issue is focused mostly on the conservation of information, which along with a called upon explanatory filter (see they DO sound scientific!), infers design in biological entities. While he sees his argument as being ruinous of evolution, it actually is irrelevant to it, even if it had other merits; however its formulation is flawed to begin with. Information in the natural world is transferred via DNA—that is, by natural processes. DNA itself has all the hallmarks of contingent evolution and messy naturalistic history. Biologist Kenneth Miller talks of the genome resembling nothing so much as a “...hodgepodge of borrowed, copied, mutated, and discarded sequences and commands that have been cobbled together by millions of years of trial and error against the relentless test of survival. It works, and works brilliantly, not because of intelligent design but because of the great blind power of natural selection to innovate, to test, and to discard what fails in favor of what succeeds.”

In the Culture War, Phillip Johnson also smears on the war paint liberally. A professor of law, he relies more on legalistic persuasive techniques than in scientific arguments. Dr. Pennock pointed out his role in creating the Wedge strategy. The idea being that if creationists, via IDT or whatever means, can get the thin edge of their agenda into any perceived cracks in the log of naturalism (or Darwinism), they are more likely to insinuate more of it in, until they blow naturalistic evolution asunder with the rest of the metaphoric wedge. Because Johnson makes no scientific pretensions and uses none of the pedagogy or concepts of science, he is more inclined to openly refer to his strategy's purpose as to undermine secularism and to bring the gospel to the masses. Jonathon Wells, too, is quite forthcoming in his public declarations of intent, saying on one occasion that through prayers he was convinced that he should devote his life to destroying Darwinism. Wells is a follower of Rev. Moon.

Since none of the IDC proponents have anything to offer to our understanding of the natural world, what they do instead is attempt to find weaknesses in evolutionary theory. They have no positive evidence to offer for their own position, just negative arguments, and asking How -do- you- explain questions endlessly. That most of their questions have been well answered matters not to them. The purpose of asking the questions is to plant doubt in the minds of their flocks. They can reduce their talking points to sound bites rather than scientific discourse, so it is easier to digest for the majority who haven't a solid grounding in evolutionary biology.

IDT appeals to many who are educated, in contrast to the more simplistic forms of creationism that almost rejoice in glorious ignorance. For many who are educated but wish to maintain the faith they had in their childhood, they turn to what they deem lend rationalistic and scientific support for their faith. They bolster their beliefs by sounds-like-science arguments. In a study that polled people on the basis for their belief in God, most stated things like the apparent good design in the world and other rationale. When asked, however, why they think others believe in God, they attributed it to the comfort it provided, or feeling good in fellowship. In other words, they saw emotionalism in others and rationalism in themselves.

Behind the scenes, the IDT leadership are more honest. In public they declare the controversies are matters for scientific debates and that evolution is a theory in crisis or that it is a failure, while promoting their version positively. But their strategy is laid out clearly when they are out of the spotlight. Dr. Pennock noted how the real world is far from the polarized construct that the ID Creationists present. Former US President, Jimmy Carter, a born again Southern Christian, (whom Pennock did not mention in this presentation) spoke of how he had no problem reconciling his deep faith with his training as an engineer and scientist, and as a professor at Emory University. After talking about the compatibility of Christian belief with proven facts in the sciences, he said that there is no need to teach that stars can fall out of the sky and land on a flat Earth in order to defend religious faith. The late Pope, John Paul II, told a billion Catholics that essentially evolution happened. God still had an item left on His to-do list, however; that business of ensoulment for the evolved primate that would be called human.

In a 2001 Gallup poll, 37 percent of those polled believed in a God-guided evolution; another reconciliation between religious belief and a scientific theory. Not as many people as the IDC people would propose, are convinced that evolution must equate to godlessness. Some say God could choose to create through natural selection. Interestingly, Benjamin Warfield, who produced and distributed the pamphlets entitled: The Fundamentals, which would be used as the basis for Christian Fundamentalism, had no problem with evolution. One person Pennock quoted said that yes, evolution is godless—but then so is the work of the plumber. Not everything that the faithful person cherishes or enjoys must be suffused with religion to be of use or value.

Further support for Dr. Pennock's assertion that the castle of creationism is crumbling came from what he reported of the less than encouraging feedback that IDC luminaries themselves were getting from their own flocks. Phillip Johnson, as one example, has to desperately exhort his congregation into feeling the passion of what is at stake—making such inflammatory remarks as: This is about whether God is real or imaginary!! Still even his believer audiences are not terribly impressed with the rhetoric these days, according to Pennock. Johnson purportedly claimed that he is sometimes dismissed out of hand by Christian denominations.

William Dembski (author of Darwin's Black Box, and other such works) has been dismayed at the cool reception he has been given by the theological community. It may be telling that those among the IDT leadership who are supposedly providing a scientific alternative to evolution, make their cases primarily to religious gatherings or religious publications rather than presentations to the scientific community itself. One would think that if a scientist had evidence in support of something that would overturn one of the most powerful theories in science, s/he would not head to a church first to make his/her case. Imagine this headline: Scientist disproves Copernicus in lecture held at the Hooterville Baptist Church. Professor Pennock said that Dembski is now only taken seriously as a political threat.

The President of the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science, which is a pro-religion organization, issued a warning that IDT is a threat to education and democracy. Another religious organization declared the Wedge strategy to represent totalitarian religious thought. Another stated that ID is an apologetic for Christians, to give hope, but that it has none to deliver. Abandon ID, yet another blared, as fool's gold. There have been notable negative eruptions from Christian colleges too when speakers from the IDT camp are to hold forth at these religious institutions. Some evangelicals eschew IDT speakers and say that they can accept the evidence for evolution from an evangelical standpoint. Many people realize that the whole point of faith is belief in things not shown via empirical evidence, and that, for them, insinuating the beam of light from scientific investigation, is is violative of their deep personal faith.

However, even if their influence is waning in theological circles (and of course it carries no freight in scientific ones), politically, they still exert some power. The reason is that politicians respond to polls and when a recent Gallup poll shows that about 47% of the American population agrees with the YEC belief system and that this statistic has changed very little in the last 20-25 years, it gets their attention. Kissing babies and stating one's profound faith in God wins the hearts of the masses. Tom DeLay could unabashedly attribute the Columbine shootings on godless evolution, saying that when youths believe they came from animals and slime they will act accordingly.

As alluded to earlier, fairness is a big issue for Americans, so when IDT is presented as a merited scientific theory that is not getting a fair hearing, blocked by the scientific elite, then people rally to include IDT at least along with evolution. It is sort of like when people are asked whether they think the Ten Commandments should be placed in public institutions—courthouses, schools, etc.--they generally think that is a swell idea. When asked to recite what is contained in it, they almost invariably mention the stealing, killing prohibitions. When the ones commanding the worship of one god, or put women in the category of chattel possessions along with slaves and other property, etc., then they will often reconsider. On the surface, IDT seems benign to many. A whopping 68% of Americans polled think it is just dandy to teach IDT along with evolution.

40% even say that Creationist views should be taught instead of (!) evolution. Politicians, when seeing these statistics are not looking to buck the majority opinion, especially if they want to be re-elected. George W. Bush believes it should be about local control, whether IDT is taught or not. He also stated that he believes children ought to be exposed to different ideas—which sounds reasonable until one places it in its context of allowing IDT along with evolution in the science classroom. As Dr. Pennock said, it is not just about Kansas anymore. Many states are considering IDT, some even getting textbooks (such as Of Pandas and People) from IDC sources and other support. They range the spectrum in various schools from pushing IDT only to a blending of the two, to warning labels affixed to biology textbooks that regard evolution to any extent. Frighteningly, in Michigan in '03 there was a push for changing the science curriculum to include IDT with a statement referring to the purposeful intelligent design of a Creator! Of course, being based in Michigan, our group has become fairly aware of the Gull Lake situation.

Alabama had a disclaimer on their textbooks that evolution was a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for life's origin... and is only a theory not a fact. Another statement held that macro-evolution had never been observed, so the inference was to treat the subject with a grain of salt. Since the teaching of biological evolution is challenged so powerfully, fewer students are armed with the information necessary to see through the warnings and disclaimers. Just teaching what constitutes a SCIENTIFIC theory and basic science methodology would go a long way in helping youth to not fall prey to the IDC rhetoric. In Pennsylvania (Dover) students were warned about the putative gaps and problems of evolutionary theory, and that, of course, it is “just a theory.” Another disclaimer actually stated that theory is not fact.

Still, there is room for tentative encouragement. Many are backing away from embracing the IDT agenda. Dr. Pennock quipped that in Georgia, schools had to add and remove their disclaimer warning labels so many times, that they should simply put them on Post-It notes. The creationist Discovery Institute (when was it again that they made any scientific discoveries?) does not even want the label IDT used in public hearings since they are well known for their narrow sectarian views and it has become an embarrassment. They realize that when they present their case for alternative science instruction from their obviously religious and anti-science stance, their case will be lost.

The old idea was to get IDT in by stealth or through the back door. Now, Pennock said, it is more like smuggling it in through the basement. Just as calling God an Intelligent Designer as a ploy to sidestep Constitutional Church / State separation issues, lets in the ET people--getting so-called alternative theories (that are religiously- based) into public schools only serves to encourage other non-Christian groups to want to promulgate their own creation stories and religious mythologies in science classes. Other groups realizing that schools no longer need to teach good science anymore, are becoming more insistent on getting their own non-scientific (whether technically religious or not) beliefs into the curriculum. IDC proponents are starting to realize this problem for their agenda.

While the US president is more than happy to pander to the Religious Right, his own science spokesman (John Marburger) has declared that he does not regard IDT as a scientific topic.

Dr. Pennock spoke of other former IDT proponents who have about faced in part or in entirety. Michael Denton (of the evolution being a theory in crisis claim) used to reject the core thesis of common descent but now accepts this. Natural laws can produce complexity, he now believes. Ironically, he was the one who served a major springboard for other IDT people in getting public attention and having their claims taken seriously.

Behe (who is gleefully quoted by YECs even though he was never in their camp) notes that IDT has many who are sympathetic to their claims but few workers; allowing that there are really only the same five or six core people as they have always had, doing the work on behalf of IDT. They have made no significant gains in leadership, or those working in the trenches, over the years. Others have seen former staunch supporters backing away. Other former allies have called IDT repetitive, imprecise and immodest in its claims and otherwise very unsatisfactory. Perhaps some of this waning of excitement in IDT stems from the fact that, unlike scientific research, IDT does no investigation, collects no data, makes no hypothesis based on data, does no testing and, most importantly, generates no new findings and no new testable claims. Nothing new or interesting emanates from them, in other words.

Religious institutions, too, are drawing from the same material and are slow to add fresh insights or interpretations, but since they are unabashedly religious, with no pretense to science, they can draw upon the appetite for the majority of people for spiritual enlightenment. IDT, being political, trying to be scientific and with a religious agenda tries for too much while achieving too little, and satisfying too few potential adherents over the long haul.

Many see (according to Dr. Pennock) the debate going around in tiresome circles. The Wedge metaphor which once ignited the cause is now seen as having outlived its usefulness. For many former supporters it has become a liability. Creation-science as a strategy has dwindled and has been seen for what it is. Now Dr. Pennock sees the same fate befalling IDT. Many theologians consider IDT to not only not be science, but to be bad theology as well.

We have to eternally vigilant and get politicians to realize the importance of good science for our future and the critical role science plays in our modern world. In making evolution controversial, Dr. Pennock believes that IDC proponents lent it the allure of forbidden fruit, so actually more young people are becoming interested in it.

As alluded to above—evolution isn't just something that happened in the past. It isn't about doctrines from a certain time—it is, instead part of life. The frequency of newspaper and magazine articles and even cover stories about new finds, awesome discoveries and exciting new perspectives on life's story and evolution is at a high level now. Where IDT has only negative assaults to make upon evolution, the science itself continues to grow and tell us more. While it has never been a theory in crisis, it is now more robust than ever; every finding from various fields of science unite to tell a tale of humanity, our Earth and our universe that is more wondrous than any tribal creation fable could ever hope to be.

Evolution also has practical applications! Ones that touch every one of us potentially. The techniques of harnessing Darwinian natural selection are being used in technologies to shape mechanical forms, run routines and create improved items, all while creating beauty and complexity. This was mentioned at the top of this summary, so I'll turn instead to another application Dr. Pennock mentioned regarding applied evolution: genetic algorithms. Darwin's mechanism is now used to let software evolve and Google Labs announces, in recruitment advertising, the importance of understanding evolution as applied in technology. Everything from computer chip to drug design can be and is being done using evolutionary principles. In virtual worlds, neural networks of artificial evolution are seen creating beings that start off simple and clumsy but slowly evolve to increasing complexity and gracefulness. Beings begin by randomly acting. Then environmental pressures are introduced—friction, gravity, wind resistance, terrain changes, etc. The movements that give the artificial being more success are preserved and replicated so that each successive generation is better adapted—all without intervention from designers or other intelligences. Even the programs themselves will evolve. To sum up: Evolution passes the most basic test—it works!

There are fields of study where knowledge of evolution is essential traditionally, such as medicine, genetics, zoology, biology, etc., etc. But now, more and more, there are technological and engineering and other fields that will require one to be competent in basic evolutionary theory just to be a viable candidate for employment. Americans who are the most religious of industrialized society people on the one hand, are also enamored with ways to make money, on the other. Evolution will play an increasing role in top, cutting- edge careers. Dr. Pennock ended his presentation, before the Question & Answer portion, by alluding to Kansas again, and saying that the Culture Wars should not be fought in the schools. Remember what Dorothy learned in The Wizard of Oz: There's no place like home---to teach religious values and ideas.

One audience member asked our special guest speaker why modern genetics had not done in IDT. Pennock responded that creationists stake so much on their beliefs—seeing it as giving them purpose in life, a basis for morality, dealing with the very veracity of God, and so on. This is not something that is easily overturned by new findings in scientific research, no matter how significant. There was discussion that all that some children are taught about evolution is that it is evil and a lie. This does not prepare them well for college when they encounter evolutionary concepts for the first time and are handicapped by their ignorance of it.

Dr. Pennock updated us, in the Q&A portion, over pending school board elections, and the results of others regarding the teaching of IDT. We discussed the strong support that the Christian Reconstructionists (those who believe in biblical laws including stoning to death adulterers and disobedient children, etc.) provide to the Discovery Institute.

We talked about how a vituperative approach to creationists is one that is ill advised. Dr. Pennock reminded us that while the IDT leadership is manipulative and disingenuous in their schemes, the bulk of believers in creationism are often good people who are misled and who desperately want to believe; it isn't about politics or control for them. The majority of people say the issue isn't one of science versus religion, but the extreme fringes have a polarizing effect. If one keeps in mind the Law of Large Numbers one can realize that even something with odds at a million to one of occurring to someone in America will happen 250 times in our country on average. Out of this number the most sensational will be reported on, and since there are reports occurring throughout the country (even though vanishingly small compared to our population) it will seem like it is happening all over, with great frequency–everywhere! If it is a societal ill, and in these times of 24 hour sensationalized news, people are more prey to believing we are going to hell in a hand basket. In such a climate, people clutch ever more firmly their religious faith and are more prone to making erroneous connections between naturalistic mechanisms and impending societal collapse.

We talked about issues of emphasis in evolution education, looking at other components including the role of sexual selection in addition to natural selection. We also discussed the power of exponential growth and Malthusian ideas as fitted to evolutionary mechanisms regarding competition and survival. We also talked more about how evolution programs can run at great speeds so that one can observe evolution in action before one's eyes. An NSF grant is in place to use this exciting type of program to do science—that is make predictions, consider variables, make hypotheses and test results while seeing the outcomes arise almost immediately.

Another person commented on how people are led to link morality with biblical mandates and how sorry this link can be when put into practice. Since the ones most indoctrinated into Bible literalism and black and white / good and evil thinking are also ones who are the most dissuaded from investigating scientific findings, they are unlikely to see the wonders of the real world and the beauty of critical thinking and natural investigations into the world around them.

While Dr. Pennock sees the IDT structure ultimately collapsing on its foundation of sand, he cautioned that we cannot rest easy; we must be eternally vigilant and proactive. We must become more involved not only in science but in politics. We must show that ethics is not based on a outside supernatural entity in an ethereal realm but is generated by and for natural beings in real world situations. We must seek to assuage the worries of creationists that all is lost if they adopt a more naturalistic tolerance and interest. No anarchy will ensue if good science is taught.

There is much work to be done in building a new secular edifice from out of the crumbling ruin where the tower of creationism had once stood tall.

Secretary (and unofficial eye candy) Charles LaRue.


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By Robert Price, speaker at the May 10, 2006 meeting

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