Probing Beneath the Surface of the Intelligent Design Controversy
‘… to truly understand I.D., people need to look at things in ways that are different from our accustomed patterns.’
On October 21st, Cornell University’s Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III gave the school’s annual State of the University speech. Almost from the beginning of his talk, Dr. Rawlings attacked intelligent design (I.D.). The Cornell Daily Sun called the president’s attack a “condemnation.” Why would I.D. be an issue that would sidetrack Rawlings from focusing on the usual topics college presidents talk about? Rawlings explained that the threat to science and education from I.D. was too great to remain silent.
Other news reports tell of British philosopher Antony Flew’s change of mind about the existence of some sort of super-intelligence being involved in creating the universe. Last December Flew, a lifelong atheist, said in a video he released entitled, “Has Science Discovered God?” that biologists’ investigation of DNA demonstrates “by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved.” He says that he still rejects Christianity and monotheism in general, indicating that his was not so much a religious conversion as an empirical one.
From my position as science and medical news reporter with The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN, an avowedly evangelical Christian organization), my sense is—as stories mentioned above indicate—that there are very deep issues involved in coverage of this topic. This sense comes from my personal observations and reading during the past 20 years, as well as from my reporting experiences for nearly that long with CBN News. For example, woven into this story are such critical issues as public education, freedom of speech and religious liberty, academic censorship, the nature of science, and the essence of religion.
I believe that being well informed and self-conscious about one’s worldview can help reporters to convey the bigger picture as we cover the I.D. controversy in this country. At times I fear that reporters, and I include myself, are not asking the important questions we should be asking. In part, this situation might be blamed on the dearth of awareness of the underlying philosophies connected with evolution and intelligent design. I also fear that too often, because of this lack of awareness, we use clichés and boilerplate accusations in our reporting instead of working harder to understand the issues. What this means is that journalists might be missing or misinterpreting many stories related to our origins, design and evolution.
Reporting on Intelligent Design
I began to report on intelligent design just as the issue was entering the public dialogue. In September 1992, I first interviewed Phillip E. Johnson, the University of California at Berkeley law professor, who had written “Darwin on Trial.” Johnson, whose specialty is evidence, had been on sabbatical in Britain a few years earlier and had seen and read books by the noted evolutionist Richard Dawkins. He analyzed Dawkins as being weak in evidence and claimed that he relied too much on naturalistic philosophy to make up for that absence. From my own reading about weaknesses in evolutionary theory, I was aware of some of this, but Johnson impressed me with his command of the issues. I left my interview with him with a sense that I’d now be better able to direct a critical eye toward science reporting when, for example, such events as fossil finds were in the news. In 1993, Johnson met with other scholars interested in intelligent design and they sparked what became the intelligent design movement.
This fall an important legal case involving the teaching of I.D. in the public schools, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, was argued in Pennsylvania. Even when a decision is reached, appeals might go on for some time, and one day it is possible this case might lead to a Supreme Court decision about whether I.D. can be taught in public schools. Even now, the testimony in this case speaks to some of the deeper issues animating public interest in this issue.
A common thread in the news coverage of this trial is dueling accusations about whether intelligent design is about religion or about science. But this thread is only one of many aspects of this story that is worthy of journalists taking a closer look. For instance, many reporters refer to the Dover trial as a repeat of the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial, but many Americans (including some reporters) draw their understanding of Scopes from the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind.” But like many movies, this one does not depict reality, as Edward J. Larson’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Scopes, “Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion,” documented. And after I learned about this disparity, I reported about the film’s false image.
Similarly, reporters would do well to look into their overuse of other clichés that seem to be surfacing in coverage of this contemporary conflict between religion and science. Into this category I’d put the Roman Catholic Church vs. Galileo and the flat earth accusation. In his book, “Inventing the Flat Earth,” University of California, Santa Barbara historian emeritus Jeffrey Burton Russell describes, for example, how Darwinists marketed this myth in the late 19th century as a way of attacking critics of the theory. These historic controversies have a complexity that seems to be at variance with their common usage by journalists.
Perhaps it might help if reporters started to think about the Dover case as Scopes turned upside down. By this I mean they might want to explore the ways in which institutional power can now be found in the evolution establishment opposing freedom of thought and speech in the academy. If reporters were willing to take an even more historic—and I’d argue relevant—leap they could help people realize how today’s issues compare with a similar debate that occurred in ancient Greece among philosophers, with the atomists (proto-evolutionists) facing off against the First Cause crowd (proto-design advocates). In doing this, reporters would help to clarify that this is a long-lived debate, one that is not likely to die out in the foreseeable future.
Complexity of Ideas
The issues at the heart of this debate are complex. In the Dover trial, the complexity is apparent. Scientist Ken Miller testifies one week about how evolution can explain the miniature machines in bacteria. Then, in the next week, biochemist Michael Behe, the author of “Darwin’s Black Box,” rebuts Miller’s testimony, explaining how those “machines” are products of design. Certainly it is a challenge to explain this conflicting testimony to readers and viewers as part of daily news about the trial. But this difficulty should not deter reporters from trying to learn as much as they can about the complexities of these arguments, then look for ways to convey this understanding as part of their news reporting.
My reporting on this controversy has been helped by a lot of background reading. Early on, I read about the differences between microevolution and macroevolution, enough to know that no one disagrees with microevolution, which generally refers to small changes in existing species or gene pools, such as changes in the size of finch beaks or the development of antibiotic resistance. By contrast, macroevolution refers to the formation of fundamentally new features and structures, such as the origin of animal’s basic body plans during the Cambrian explosion. When a scientist says evolution is a fact, he is rightfully referring to microevolution. Yet macroevolution—what generally is called the theory of evolution—is a contested issue. Recognizing one as fact does not confer that status on the other.
There are unanswered questions, too, about the fossil record. Study of the fossil record, for example, led the late evolutionary author Stephen Jay Gould to develop the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which posits great leaps forward in evolution in a geologically short time span. Dawkins attacked Gould on this issue. If major camps of evolutionists can’t agree on such a central issue—one that Darwin said could contradict his theory (a clear fossil record)—a reporter might well have questions, too.
When Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published in 1859, people took a type of intelligent design point of view for granted. To properly understand Darwin’s new theory of evolution, people had to think in an entirely different way. Similarly, today, to truly understand I.D., people need to look at things in ways that are different from our accustomed patterns.
When I was a graduate journalism student in 1985, a coauthor of “The Mystery of Life’s Origin,” scientist Charles Thaxton, spoke at Regent University. Thaxton was one of the early advocates of intelligent design. A story he told struck me with its theological and philosophical implications, and it has remained as a backdrop of my reporting. He told of a time when he’d spoken to a biology class at Johns Hopkins University. During the first half of the period, he gave a best-case scenario for evolution. In the last half, he critiqued evolution based on the science. Despite the fact that Thaxton had mentioned nothing but science, one student went up to him afterward and said, “I now know why I believe in evolution. It’s not because of the facts, it’s because I hate God.”
Truly, evolution and intelligent design are each connected with questions about God and both have implications for worldviews and elicit philosophical overtones. Taking those considerations seriously has been quite helpful to me in “getting under the story,” as one of my journalism mentors describes it. Being aware of my own presuppositions makes me more aware of the philosophies of my sources. And delving into those might produce a wealth of story ideas as we try to have the stories we do help readers, listeners and viewers think more expansively about intelligent design and evolution. n
Gailon Totheroh is the CBN News science and medical reporter. He worked for several years in media relations before starting with CBN as a general assignment reporter in 1988.