Punches on the Darwinian front lines

DarwinBlackBox.gifI am shocked, shocked to discover a strong interest among GetReligion readers in the topic of mainstream media coverage of debates between defenders of Darwinian orthodoxy and their critics.

This quickly breaks down into two camps: those who see themselves as defenders of free speech and those who believe it is proper to lock people that they believe are non-scientists out of debates in science education. Non-scientists are those — such as Pope John Paul II — who criticize strictly naturalistic interpretations of the data gathered in traditional scientific research. To read the original post, click here.

Meanwhile, The New York Times has published a short piece by Dr. Michael J. Behe, a professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University, attempting to clarify what most advocates of “Intelligent Design” believe, as opposed to what they are often accused of believing. Behe is the author of a controversial volume titled Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. The Times piece is clearly addressed at people engaged in the public debate over science education, as opposed to the scientists themselves. For example:

(What) it isn’t: the theory of intelligent design is not a religiously based idea, even though devout people opposed to the teaching of evolution cite it in their arguments. For example, a critic recently caricatured intelligent design as the belief that if evolution occurred at all it could never be explained by Darwinian natural selection and could only have been directed at every stage by an omniscient creator. That’s misleading. Intelligent design proponents do question whether random mutation and natural selection completely explain the deep structure of life. But they do not doubt that evolution occurred. And intelligent design itself says nothing about the religious concept of a creator.

Behe has a way of finding simple ways of stating complex issues. For some, this makes him an effective apologist. For others, this makes him easy to mock. (More on that in a minute.) Here is a very typical sample of how Behe writes, when addressing readers in a daily newspaper:

. . . Unintelligent physical forces like plate tectonics and erosion seem quite sufficient to account for the origin of the Rocky Mountains. Yet they are not enough to explain Mount Rushmore. Of course, we know who is responsible for Mount Rushmore, but even someone who had never heard of the monument could recognize it as designed.

There is, of course, more to this than a single op-ed piece. For journalists, the key is that Behe is attempting to clarify what he believes and how he is defining his terms. The goal, in the end, is for Behe to be able to read coverage of this hot-button issue in a news report and then say: “Yes, that is what I said. Yes, that is what I meant.” The same standard, of course, applies to his critics. This will lead to news features that are packed with tension and disagreement. So be it.

Meanwhile, the folks at The Revealer have greeted with scorn Behe’s tiny footprint on the sacred pages of the Times. This is, I am afraid, par for the course. Here is the item as it ran. Doesn’t this have a kind of a Bill O’Reilly (in reverse) flair to it?

Michael J. Behe, a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute, pleads the case of Intelligent Design in The New York Times, explaining I.D.’s “four linked claims,” and disingenuously describing the first two controversial assumptions as “uncontroversial.” It’s an exercise in anachronism, pointing mechanical metaphors backwards towards biology to prove that “life overwhelms us with the appearance of design.” Like this: we can see that Mount Rushmore isn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon, but designed. Likewise, clerics have described cell life as resembling man-made mechanics, like a watch, designed. And even Darwinists admit that life is complex, so let’s call that agreement with watch-theory. Don’t trouble your head about putting this in any sort of chronological order. Go with the flow. This is about motors and watches, not watchmakers. Resting on these supposedly shared presumptions, Behe leads to his “controversial” claims: 3, Darwinists haven’t recreated evolution in any studies, and 4, until they prove otherwise, it’s scientifically reasonable to believe in I.D., according to Behe’s final, binding scientific standard: “The Duck Song.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000797.html Bartholomew

    “Bill O’Reilly (in reverse)”? Come off it. The Revealer does indeed mock Behe, but the author shows that he/she understood Behe’s op-ed. O’Reilly just revelled in know-nothing stupidity.

    But how about taking on actual scientists rather than Jeff and co.? Behe’s piece is currently under discussion at The Panda’s Thumb:


  • http://www.lexalexander.net Lex

    It is no slam on orthodox Christianity in particular or religious faith in general to acknowledge that “intelligent design” is crap posing as science. It’s not even coherent enough to be called faith.

  • http://www.designorchance.com Denyse O’Leary

    At least the New York times is trying. What about the following statement in a USA Today article by one of their board members?

    “Among its most prominent spokespeople are scientists such as Michael Behe of Lehigh University, who point out major flaws in Darwin’s theory of a continuous evolutionary chain from a few original forms. For example, many of the necessary transitional fossils that would link ancient forms to their contemporary ancestors are missing. Therefore, only design (or God) and not evolution could create the intricate diversity of life, he says.”


    I wrote to USA Today as follows:

    - 0 -

    “Regarding Rabbi Zelizer’s comments (February 6, 2005), could you please provide some real coverage of the intelligent design controversy instead of the usual uniquack?

    Imagine my amazement at reading “Among its most prominent spokespeople are scientists such as Michael Behe of Lehigh University, who point out major flaws in Darwin’s theory of a continuous evolutionary chain from a few original forms. For example, many of the necessary transitional fossils that would link ancient forms to their contemporary ancestors are missing. Therefore, only design (or God) and not evolution could create the intricate diversity of life, he says.”

    Behe is best known for accepting Darwin’s challenge by pointing to irreducible complexity INSIDE the cell. Anyone who does not know that should not be writing about this issue or about Behe.

    Please, no more rubbish about religion and science. It is the SCIENCE issues that cause increasing numbers of people to turn away from Darwinism. Bloviating from science boffins is increasingly ineffectual when so many people can find out so much from the Internet.

    Denyse O’Leary


    journalist and author of “By Design or by Chance?” (Augsburg Fortress, 2004)”

  • http://www.shmoozenet.com/yudel Larry Y.

    Could you explain to me why the ID approach to paleontology and evolutionary biology would not have applied equally well, five hundred years ago, to physics or medicine?

    “nor does it seem useful to search relentlessly for a non-design explanation of Mount Rushmore” sure sounds like a call to just throw up our hands and end scientific research, because it’s all just too complicated.

  • Tom Harmon


    That’s precisely not what the ID crowd wants to do. Someone studying Mount Rushmore who comes to the conclusion that there is an itnelligent mind behind its design does not say, “Well, that’s the end of the story. No more research to be done here.” instead, he would likely still be interested in how the project came about, with what tools, with what materials, with what end in mind, etc. There’s all sorts of research to be done. in fact, there’s still the same research to be done as before we figured out Rushmore was designed.

    SImilarly, there’s no God of the gaps argument here. What they say is that specified complexity, or information, only has one source: an intelligent mind. ID does not say, “Well, you darwinists can’t explain specified complexity, so it must have been God.” It’s a positive theory with positive claims rooted in evidence about the causes of things.

    Does that mean i buy it all? No. But, i do think that it’s on to some important things that establishment materialist/positivist scientists would do well to pay attention to and stop dismissing out of hand.

  • Greg Popcak

    I’ve argued this point with Mr. Sharlet before. The one thing reporters do just about as badly as religion reporting is science reporting (e.g.,Scientist Discovers Gene For –Insert Quality Here). And when you have an article that examines science AND religion, what results is often a total stinkfest. For once, the NYTimes gets it right, but Sharlet & Co. still can’t hit the broad side of this barn with a shotgun and a map.

    Those who can’t do….

  • http://www.designorchance.com Denyse O’Leary

    From Denyse:

    Intelligent design is not about religion. After all, as they frequently point out, Christian Darwinists are just as religious as anyone else.

    But their theory is simply wrong.

    ID is about information theory. There is simply too much information in the living cell, for example, to be accounted for by Darwinian natural selection within the time available. That is where information theory comes in.

    The ID people may not be right, but they are far closer to the facts than the Darwinists are.

    Hence the huge campaign to discredit ID before very many people have a chance to look at the facts seriously.

    I was astounded, while writing my recent book, at the dogmatism of the Darwinists, all the more so because their theory keeps changing to accommodate new uncomfortable data. They reminded me most of Marxists, defending a hegemony, not because it is proven successful but because it is the only system that rewards them.

    I was also disappointed that so few of the legacy media can be bothered to look into the underlying issues, as I have done. So they generate worn-out cliches and get people to write on the subject who actually don’t know anything about it (i.e. USA Today).

    Denyse O’Leary


    journalist and author of “By Design or by Chance?” (Augsburg Fortress, 2004)”

  • http://jeremiads.blogspot.com Jeremy Lott

    Couldn’t they have picked a *good* duck song?


  • Molly

    Isn’t this entire debate a leftover from Scopes? Has anyone out there in reporter land sniffed around this angle?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks, you can shout at each other all you want on the science issues and we won’t make any headway.

    That’s the point. It is hard for journalists to cover debates when people are shouting at each other and calling each other names.

    The goal is to cover the information behind the shouting. That starts with knowing what the two sides are saying. It starts with saying that both sides deserve to have their views reported accurately.

    And the main ID thinkers are perfectly happy to hold this debate at the level of lab materials. They want a chance — in the public square — to engage in a free-speech debate on data, with religion removed from the debate.

    All together now: You cannot prove God in a lab. You also cannot disprove the existence of God in a lab. The statement that the Cosmos (upper-case C) is “all that is or ever was or ever will be” is a creedal statement of tax-payer funded religious dogma.

    Behe is more than happy to meet his critics in a lab.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    I don’t need to take a side in the ID / creationism debate (and I don’t; it’s just not that interesting either way to me) to defend Kathryn Joyce’s astute analysis of the master narrative guiding Behe’s argument. What’s interesting about it to me is not whether he’s right or wrong, but how he expresses himself — what stories he needs to appeal to make his argument make sense. Once we accept the constituent parts, then we get a persuasive argument. It IS worth pointing out that there plenty of people who believe in evolution who engage in a similar form of meaning making — particularly when they appeal to “democracy” and “science” as abstract concepts that require us to believe in evolution. This doesn’t disprove evolution, of course, and it doesn’t mark them as dummies anymore or less than than Behe.

    I’m under the assumption that the common cause of Get Religion and The Revealer is to examine the way people make meaning and the way the media does same and reports on the whole endeavor. Terry, let me know if you’ve chosen sides. I’ll still respect you in the morning.

    Last and rudest: Greg Popcak suggests that “Those who can’t do…” applies to The Revealer. Greg, I’ll put my reporting record against yours any day. Looks to me like you’ve been busy writing self help books, telling people what to think, while us journalists have been busy ASKING people how they live and think. No disrespect to your profession — I think what you do is just fine, just as I think being a journalist, like myself, is just fine — but you ought to do a little research before you slam someone in a public forum.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    Just thinking about my statement of common cause between Get Religion and Revealer. Perhaps the difference is one of approach. Terry, Jeremy, and Doug are all pretty much lined up on the same page, some personal theological positions excepted.

    Whereas The Revealer consists, most directly, of me, Kathryn Joyce, and Scott Korb; and less directly of maybe a dozen contributors. There is no common denominator of belief whatsoever to this group.

    Which is why I get ticked off when know-nothings (not you, Terry) accuse The Revealer of lockstep-anything because they find something on it they don’t agree with. This points to what may be the really decisive question about the internet as a medium. Some people seem to want it to be a way of lining up sides, of making things consistant above all else. Others want it to be an anarchic conversation. That includes people changing their minds, learning new things, and creating websites that do not have a consistant point of view.

    Get Religion achieves that through its lively forums. The Revealer also pursues it through an editorial staff that is not as intellectually homogenous (that’s no slur; all three GR’ers may think more or less along the same lines, but they’re very interesting lines).

  • http://jeremiads.blogspot.com Jeremy Lott


    I think you overestimate our homogeneity. (Not that there’s anything wrong with homogeneity.)


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Part of a message just sent to Jeff:

    This was a case where I meant “par for the course” in the MSM in general. However, can you cite a Revealer post that has not exhibited this basic snarky tone toward folks on the other side of the Darwinian front lines? Jeff, I will glady be corrected on that point. The odds are good that I may have missed something.

    But our commitment, as my posts make clear, is to fair coverage of the two sides in this debate. If someone can find me a mainstream media story that is as negative toward the priests of Darwinism as toward their opponents, I will gladly post that and snipe at it.

    As for the Borg nature of GetReligion, we have already come very clean on our basic approach to historic and creedal faith issues. I think everyone knows that. But we take shots at the views and methods of the Religious Right quite frequently. I know that the Revealer gang likes to shoot at the knee-jerk left, as well.

    But the key is a commitment to the press managing to cover these issues in a way that does not lock one side or the other into stereotypes and inaccurate statements.

    P.S. I think the GR crowd is actually pretty uniform on “mere Christian” issues in theology. I think we are actually quite diverse on political issues, especially those other than the classic “Culture Wars” moral issues.

    P.S. II Yes, Greg’s “those who can’t …” line was out of line.

  • Greg Popcak


    1. I never claimed to be a journalist, Jeff. My only point was that you are extraordinarily dismissive of anyone with a traditional spirituality who dares to do science. Worse, you resort to name-calling when you are called on your bias. (I believe, “paranoid” was the adjective you used in our last exchange on a similar topic.)

    2. At any rate, if I was out of line with my last comment, as it appears I was, I do apologize.

    And I apologize to Mr. Mattingly as well.


  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    Behe believes in evolution, including common descent: “I find the idea of common descent (the idea that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it” (Darwin’s Black Box, p. 5)–and lest someone protest that he isn’t pledging fealty to evolution enthusiastically enough, most scientists talk that way about things that are outside their specialty, which evolutionary biology is for Behe. That needs to be kept in mind when analyzing his “master narrative.”

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    Sorry to double-post, but just to head off an obvious misinterpretation of what I just wrote: Behe immediately goes on to say, “Although Darwin’s mechanism–natural selection working on variation–might explain many things, however, I do not believe it explains molecular life.” That is, he has no particular trouble with macroevolution at the level of organisms (where evolutionary biologists have done most of their work); he does have trouble with it at the level of biochemistry and biomechanics.

    And that _is_ his specialty.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    I’ve no problem with Get Religion’s “borg,” because it’s a lively, thinking borg.

    Greg writes: “you are extraordinarily dismissive of anyone with a traditional spirituality who dares to do science.”

    Dude: WHAT are you talking about? Do I know you? ‘Cause you don’t know me.

    “Sides” and snark. Snark has its place. It’s useful in letting the air out of disingenuous statements. I’m not referring to Behe — again, I don’t know much about and don’t care much about it — not because I’m “dismissive,” but because those areas of theology AND science just don’t excite me. “Sides” though — those are dangerous. When we start talking about sides, we’re already in the land of stereotype. Sometimes, its unavoidable. But to speak of “Darwinian front lines” is to reduce the world to black and white, isn’t it? You’re on this side or that? Last I looked, there weren’t many clear boundaries in the landscape of faith.

    BTW Isn’t that also rather an insult to old Charles, who, from what little I know, was a man of “traditional spirituality” (whatever that is)?

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    Terry challenges, The Revealer responds…

    A Revealer post that is not a snarky attack on creationism (In fact, it’s a snarky attack on journalists who don’t take creationism seriously):


    A nonsnarky, neutral notice of Intelligent Design news:


    And another:


    And another:


    And another:


    And another:


    And another:


    Bemused, not snarky, and neutral:


    A non-snarky, fair critique of some poor, pro ID rhetoric:


    That said, a review reveals that there is just as often a pretty skeptical attitude toward ID. That’s the result of the diversity of views in our staff. Kathryn Joyce, who is a proud and well-informed supporter of evolution theory, pays attention to these news items; I don’t. And so what? The Revealer isn’t a newspaper, and it isn’t publicly funded. It contains an array of views. And we frequently tout creationist writers.

  • http://www.evolutionnews.org Tornado Todd

    Thanks for this Behe post. The Revealer is correct in saying Behe is a senior fellow [not at your link--ARN--but] at Discovery Institute [www.discovery.org], who helped him assemble “Darwin’s Black Box,” and many other writings. Discovery Institute, BTW, has a new

    BLOG critiquing the ongoing controversies within evolutionary theory: http://www.evolutionnews.org.

  • http://www.evolutionnews.org Tornado Todd

    OOOOOPS! Shoulda said: a new BLOG critiquing NEWS COVERAGE of the on-going controversy surrounding evolutionary theory: http://www.evolutionnews.org.

  • http://jeremiads.blogspot.com Jeremy Lott

    >I’ve no problem with Get Religion’s “borg,” because it’s >a lively, thinking borg.

    What in the world is a lively thinking borg? The whole point of the borg is that it’s a single, massive mind that quashes all free and independent thought. Drop the metaphor already.