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Why Darwin Matters to Creationists

April 7, 2009

On April 2, 2009 I was the keynote speaker for the University of California at San Diego Biological Science Symposium, giving my talk on “Why Darwin Matters” based on my book of that title. Earlier that day I awarded the winners of the “Why Darwin Matters” contest, in which students submitted entries on different ways to express their answer to the implied question in my book title. The winning entry was a fun rap song entitled Holla Atcha Boy Charlie Darwin, by “Missing Link Mel” and “HMS Beagle-licious Brian,” which you can watch here:

Unbeknownst to me, in attendance (among the 900+ students and teachers) was famed “expelled” creationist Caroline Crocker, featured in the Ben Stein film Expelled as having been, well, expelled for simply mentioning Intelligent Design in her college course on cell biology at George Mason University. (You can read about what really happened to Crocker here: I would like to comment on her review of my talk, which you can read in full here:

Crocker says she was “disappointed” in my talk primarily because I discussed religion and especially because I used humor. In my experience, I find that humorlessness is a trait endemic to quacks and pseudoscientists, who take themselves and their unproven ideas far too seriously. Even so, my sequence of editorial cartoons about creationists, along with the string of images of the iconic Time-Life book foldout of the linear sequence of human evolution from apes to us, both serve a larger purpose, which I telegraphed for people like Crocker who missed the point nonetheless: the evolution-creation controversy remains a lively cultural debate that must be addressed (and thus, Caroline, this is why I discussed religion), and the “ladder of progress” lineal descent is wrong (and Steve Gould devoted his life to debunking it and promoting in its stead the “richly branching bush” of evolution) and has led to a standard myth promulgated by creationists along these lines: “If humans came from apes, why are there still apes around?” (I even had a cartoon of this exact question from the B.C. cartoonist Johnny Hart, who is a creationist—Answers-in-Genesis features him here: The answer is simple: we didn’t come from apes; apes and humans came from a common ancestor 6-7 million years ago.

Crocker also upbraids me for an oversimplified characterization of ID thusly (in a non-cartoon slide):

1. X looks designed
2. I can’t think how X was designed naturally
3. Therefore X was designed supernaturally. (God of the gaps.)

Well, Caroline, this may well be a characterization of how IDers argue, but it is true nevertheless. All of the arguments of IDers really do reduce to this simple syllogism, whether X represents the wing, the eye, DNA, or the bacterial flagellum. It all comes down to an argument from personal incredulity along these lines: “Because I, Caroline Crocker, cannot think of how the wing (or eye, DNA, or flagellum) could have evolved naturally, it must have been designed supernaturally.”

But I didn’t just end my discussion of ID with that single slide (although I could have and made the point in full), I devoted about a third of my slides to specific arguments made by William Dembski, Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson, and the other ID leading lights. I know because I’ve debated them all and so I just used a facsimile of their slides to illustrate what they argue, then I presented the rebuttals provided by scientists in this debate over the past decade, such that in the end there is nothing left of substance to ID (UCSD filmed my talk and I gave them my powerpoint slides to drop into the video for clear presentation, and they will have that up on their web page soon).

Crocker also whines: “Then Dr. Shermer came to the question that children always ask, ‘Well, if God made everything, who made God?’” Well, if it is such a childish question, it should be easy to answer, no? No. For IDers like Crocker, finding an unanswerable X is the end of the search. For scientists, X is just the beginning of the search. I made this point about dark energy and dark matter: these are just words—linguistic placeholders—until cosmologists figure out what they are and how they operate in the natural world. Analogously, saying that “an Intelligent Designer” did it is not an answer for a scientist; it is just a linguistic placeholder until a natural cause can be found.

I punctuated this point with “Shermer’s Last Law” (“any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God”), as a rebuttal to William Dembski’s statement that IDers make no claims about who or what the designer is (to avoid using the “G” word), and that ID could even be an alien intelligence. My initial response to Dembski is “baloney” (well, that’s the nice word for what I would actually say in private). Dembski doesn’t think that ID is ET, and neither does anyone else, so why make the argument? The answer is the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But my actual answer is that the most we could ever hope to find in search of a top-down intelligent designer of life (who is not an actual omniscient, omnipotent deity) is an ET capable of genetic engineering, cellular construction, and the technological capability of creating life, which any ETI more advanced than us by, say, 500 to 5000 years (following Ray Kurzweil’s logic of the coming singularity) will surely be capable of doing.

Finally, I did not (or did not mean) to say that every last proponent of ID is a Christian (exceptions provided by Crocker include Ben Stein, Anthony Flew, David Berlinski, and Steve Fuller), only that most of them are, most notably ID’s founding fathers: William Dembski, Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson, and Phillip Johnson. But don’t take my word for it. Here are their own words:

“Thus, in its relation to Christianity, intelligent design should be viewed as a ground-clearing operation that gets rid of the intellectual rubbish that for generations has kept Christianity from receiving serious consideration.” —William Dembski, “Intelligent Design’s Contribution to the Debate over Evolution: A Reply to Henry Morris,” 2005

On February 6, 2000, Dembski told the National Religious Broadcasters at their annual conference in Anaheim, California: “Intelligent Design opens the whole possibility of us being created in the image of a benevolent God…. The job of apologetics is to clear the ground, to clear obstacles that prevent people from coming to the knowledge of Christ. … And if there’s anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ as the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view.”
(Quoted in: Benen, Steve. 2000. “Science Test.” Church & State, July/August, online at

In a feature article in the Christian magazine Touchstone, Dembski was even more succinct: “Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.”
(Dembski, William. 1999. “Signs of Intelligence: A Primer on the discernment of Intelligent Design.” Touchstone, p. 84.)

“Christians in the twentieth century have been playing defense. They’ve been fighting a defensive war to defend what they have, to defend as much of it as they can. It never turns the tide. What we’re trying to do is something entirely different. We’re trying to go into enemy territory, their very center, and blow up the ammunition dump. What is their ammunition dump in this metaphor? It is their version of creation.”
(Phillip Johnson, quoted in Benen, Steve. 2000. “Science Test.” Church & State, July/August, online:>.)

Johnson was even blunter in 1996: “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science…. It’s about religion and philosophy.”
(Quoted in Jay Grelen, Jay. 1996. “Witnesses for the Prosecution.” World, November 30, online at:

“Johnson calls his movement ‘The Wedge.’ The objective, he said, is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’”
—Description of Phillip Johnson’s Wedge Program, “Missionary Man.” Church & State magazine, 1999

Q.E.D. This is all about religion and thus should be handled on this level.

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