Fine-Tuned Deception

Old-fashioned Young Earth Creationism may have been false but it was at least entertaining. We were supposed to imagine that Noah landed his ark on Mount Ararat some 6,000 years ago, and all the animals around us today are descended from its occupants. We imagine sloths hurrying all the way to Brazil to arrive in time for us to find them today. We imagine ungainly wallabies moving across deserts and oceans to get to Australia within a mere six millenia.

From the 1960s to the 1980s there were concerted efforts in the United States to put Young Earth Creationism into high school science classes. Those efforts were quashed with the 1987 Supreme Court decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, which ruled that Young Earth Creationism was a religious doctrine and requiring it to be taught violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

But creationism, of course, did not die. In the 1990s, it reappeared wearing a lab coat. It was now called Intelligent Design (ID). Proponents claimed ID to be an entirely secular scientific theory that showed the existence of design in nature by finding features that allegedly could not be explained by chance and natural selection. They also claimed that ID theory reveals irreparable flaws in the theory of evolution. The ID creationists were slick. Their patron saint, William Dembski, boasted a Ph.D. in mathematics and presented his claims under a cloak of formidable mathematical symbolism. A few others, such as Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells, even had Ph.D.'s in biology. They were also very well-funded. Their propaganda center, the Discovery Institute in Seattle, was generously endowed by Howard Ahmanson, a right-wing businessman who explicitly endorses the goal of creating a Christian theocracy in America.

Few people were fooled. The test came when Dover County in Pennsylvania required mention of ID in high school biology classes. Following a lawsuit, in a December 2005 ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover School District, Judge John E. Jones III, a churchgoing Republican, ruled in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania that ID is a religious doctrine that was inadmissible in science class curricula. Judge Jones' ruling was so comprehensive that it is doubtful that ID has any future in debates on science education in the United States, though it continues to make some headway in countries such as Britain and Turkey.

Meanwhile, U.S. creationists have changed tactics. Though none have explicitly abandoned ID in public, the focus of their scientific cover arguments has shifted from organic change to the creation of the universe. They have picked up on the controversial claim that human life could only have evolved because some constants of nature -- the electron's charge or the strong nuclear force in a hydrogen atom, for example -- have very precise or "fine-tuned" values. The fine-tuning claim has been around since the 1930s and is called the "anthropic principle" in physics. Some physicists buy this principle but others (notably including the Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg) are not at all convinced. Some critics have pointed out that the case for fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants in the universe has been grossly overstated. Others have argued that the formation of complex physical objects always requires subtle interplay between various forces and certainly provides no evidence for design.

Initially largely unnoticed by their critics, creationists began to co-opt the fine-tuning argument when, in their book Rare Earth (2000), paleontologist Peter T. Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee emphasized that complex life is very uncommon in the universe. Though their claims were subsequently subjected to scathing criticism by David Darling in Life Everywhere (2001) as well as other astrobiologists, they were picked up by astronomer Guillermo Gonzales (who had been a consultant for Rare Earth) and Jay Richards from the Discovery Institute.

Together, Gonzales and Richards published The Privileged Planet in 2004, which has since become the sacred text of the new stealth creationism. According to Gonzales and Richards, conditions on Earth have been carefully optimized for scientific investigation in such a way that it is "a signal revealing a universe so skillfully created for life and discovery that it seems to whisper of an extraterrestrial intelligence immeasurably more vast, more ancient, and more magnificent than anything we've been willing to expect to imagine." The evidence for creation, in other words, now comes from physics, not biology.

The Privileged Planet was launched with much fanfare, including a screening of an accompanying documentary at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution in 2005. The Smithsonian had agreed to co-sponsor the event unaware of the creationist agenda of the documentary and found itself immediately embroiled in a controversy with scientists and the press who pointed out that it was violating its own policy of not presenting political or religious material. Ultimately it tried to resolve the controversy by returning a rental fee to the Discovery Institute, while allowing the screening to proceed explicitly without its co-sponsorship. Ever since then, the Discovery Institute's Web site has gloatingly publicized the Smithsonian screening without, of course, noting the controversy and withdrawal of co-sponsorship.

As the physicist and astronomer Victor Stenger noted in the Skeptical Briefs newsletter last September, The Privileged Planet represents a new wedge in the creationists' arsenal. Equally importantly, the Smithsonian episode shows how this new physics-based version of creationism is being propagated with unusual stealth. Biologists may now feel safe that the problem of combating creationism has moved out of their backyards to infest the haunts of the physicists. Some religious biologists have even endorsed the idea of a conscious creator of the universe, so long as it does not affect biological theory. For instance, the biochemist Ken Miller, who ably defends evolution against creationist charges in Finding Darwin's God, goes on to claim that God created the universe with its laws and evolution is simply a result of these laws.

These moves are dangerous: once the creator enters the science classroom, even through the physicists' backdoor, the room for mischief is enormous. Biologists would do well to remember that, ultimately, what has motivated creationists to action throughout history is the natural origin of the human species. Sooner or later creationists will return to the theory they fear and detest most: evolution by natural selection. Moreover, if religious dogma manages to breach the defenses of science, there is every reason to believe that it will proactively encroach on every other secular institution of society. The new stealth creationism is, in short, as dangerous as its older cousins, Intelligent Design and Young Earth creationism. It can and should be defeated in the same way they were.

Sahotra Sarkar is professor of integrative biology, geography and the environment, and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is author of Doubting Darwin? Creationist Designs on Evolution (Blackwell, 2007), Molecular Models of Life (MIT, 2005), Biodiversity and Environmental Philosophy (Cambridge, 2005), and Genetics and Reductionism (Cambridge, 1998).

* * *

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.

Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.

Advertisement