Intelligent Design's Latest Sneaky Assault on Science

One of the architects behind the unscientific intelligent design movement is finding success in referencing its greatest enemy: Charles Darwin.

Last month, while speaking at McLean Bible Church, a megachurch in McLean, Virginia, intelligent design superstar Dr. Stephen Meyer rolled out a magnetic white board adorned with block letters spelling out “DC ROCKS.” John Donahue, the head of McLean’s apologetics ministry and a domineering man whose closely trimmed beard makes him look more like Chuck Norris than Jeremiah, introduced Meyer. A self-described “celebrity-geek,” Donahue first warning the attendees that “our faith has come under attack” and that “no doctrine or ideology has had a more negative effect that the ‘so-called’ theory of evolution.” Evolution, Donahue continued with the passion of a true believer, was supported by “fraudulent research, cherry-picked data, fabricated drawings, and scientific fraud.” Meyer, Donahue insisted, was “one of the finest scientific authors of our time,” and was there to show how the “scientists” got it all wrong.

Meyer’s “DC ROCKS” demonstration served to show what all those evolutionary scientists were missing. The fact that the letters stuck down the board was the result of the laws of magnetism, Meyer said, but the letters arrangement, in a way that bore meaningful information, was the product of intelligence.

This is the core argument that Meyer makes in his new book about an old debate. The book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, is perhaps the longest, most detailed, and most “scientific” of any works produced by the Intelligent Design movement. And it’s not surprising that Meyer is the author of this doorstop work. He co-founded the Center for Science and Culture (CSC) at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank that has been at the center of the ID debate for more than a decade. Despite Meyer’s self-presentation as someone who derives his belief in an intelligent designer purely from observable scientific evidence, Meyer’s connections to the religious community show he can’t abide the theory of evolution because of its purported ideological consequences.

If there were ever anyone that could put a respectable face on the Intelligent Design movement, it’s Meyer. He began his scientific carrer as a geophysicist, and he went on to Cambridge where he received a doctorate in the History and Philosophy of Science in 1991. Meyer wrote his dissertation on the different explanations of the origin of life. And while his background in the methodology and history of biology gives a certain heft to his arguments, it’s also important to note that he isn’t a biologist. His defense of intelligent design and his attack on Darwinian evolution is not entirely scientific, no matter what Meyer might purport.

The origins of the ID movement can be found in the so-called Wedge Document, a founding manifesto and fundraising document for the CSC, which lays out a broadly ideological agenda. It sets out a multi-decade plan for “the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies” and for the acceptance of “the proposition that human beings are created in the image of God.” Although the Wedge Document inveighs against secularism and materialism, Meyer still presents himself as a scientist who is just following the evidence.

Since Kitzmiller v. Dover, the 2005 court case in which Judge John Jones ruled that the city of Dover, Pennsylvania could not teach intelligent design in their classrooms because “the religious nature of ID would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult, or child,” the question seemed to be put to rest. But Meyer -- despite authoring a “Note to Teachers” in the discredited textbook -- has kept on promoting the theory that evolution and natural selection are not sufficient explanations for the appearance of life on earth and, moreover, insisting that his work is purely scientific.

Meyer’s presentations come equipped with props for his demonstrations: a set of large plastic blocks, made “for students ages 2-4" that snap together to represent chains of amino acids that form proteins in DNA. Meyer exhaustively calculates how the 20 amino acids that form proteins and ten sites where the proteins can be linked combine into 10 trillion possible combinations. He confidently concludes that “no scientist believes blind chance can do this.”

After casting sufficient doubt into an audience over the question with his tricks of whether life could have come about without input from some greater intelligence, Meyer pulls his best rhetorical trick -- he references Darwin. You see, Darwin, like Meyer, wasn’t around to witness evolution, he said, so he instead had to depend on “inference to the best explanation,” which is just a fancy way of saying that you look at a bunch of possible explanations for some phenomena and then pick the best one. Meyer cites the Victorian geologist Charles Lyell, to demonstrate that computer programmers producing code and we haven’t observed a similar natural process, then DNA could only be the product of a designer.

Meyer, while speaking at the conservative Heritage Foundation recently in Washington, D.C. said, almost as an aside, that the “denial of design is the foundation of this worldview in the west of physical materialism.” The only mention of God while at Heritage was in reference to the so-called New Atheists.

When I asked him to speculate on the nature of this designer, Meyer hedged and carefully said that his argument left open two possible agents for creation of life on earth, “aliens or God.” He just so happened to favor the God hypothesis. Sidestepping the tricky question of the origin of this great intelligence, Meyer assured me that God could very well be prior to the universe because of the apparent “fine tuning of the universe.” Meyer also argued that the big bang theory means there was a non-material cause; God had to be there.

But when asked at the McLean church if young earth creationists -- i.e., those that follow a literal biblical timeline stretching back roughly 10,000 -- had “fueled New Atheism by giving it something to caricature,” Meyer said the Discovery Institute takes a “neutral position on this” and that the prevalence of young-earth creationist views didn’t matter because “we would have been treated exactly the same way.”

It’s no surprise that Meyer remained open, or at least didn’t condemn, such an anti-scientific belief. Creationists are the ID movement’s base. A 2006 Gallup poll showed that 46 percent of Americans believed that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” -- a position that is totally out of line with basic scientific knowledge of geology and archaeology. The Discovery Institute specifically targets these very people. Part of the long-term plan in the Wedge Document is to “build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians. We will do this primarily through apologetics seminars.” McLean Bible Church, for example, hosted an apologetics event a month before Meyer’s to discuss how Noah’s Ark actually could have held all those animals. So it made sense that Meyer avoided offending his “natural constituency.”

Meyer more or less goes along with literal interpretations of Biblical texts; such an attitude is indicative of bait-and-switch behind ID. On one hand, ID-ers rise money and outline their goals by framing their research in terms befitting an ideological crusade. But Meyer maintains that his belief in God is based on scientific evidence of “fine-tuning” in the universe. But Meyer says that basic scientific tenants of “phyla, class, [and] order can not be explained” by evolution and natural selection. Meyer, in online debates, will go on to say that he thinks the Cambrian explosion or mammalian radiation “exceed evolutionary explanation.”

Meyer, despite his thin scientific coating, is trafficking the half-baked, over-motivated arguments that have always been peddled by creationists for as long since Darwin developed his theory of evolution. Meyer’s focus on the mystery of DNA is just a distraction. Stephen Meyer is not a scientist. He is an ideologue in the truest sense, someone who is willing to abide any distortion or untruth in order to maintain support for his crusade. His book may be new, his evident fascination with the inner workings of DNA maybe be appealing, but is just another in a long line of clever people who can’t stand the science of Darwin.

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