Hearts & Minds in the News: Selling Books on Intelligent Design and Science Amidst Public Controversy

It isn’t every day I am called an idiot or have my book recommendations criticized for their general stupidity. Or, have my character impugned the same day as being called “right on target” and “very helpful.” Ahh, the complexities of trying to sell books in the modern world. Do the big super stores that care for little other than numbers, units and money have these problems? Perhaps not, if they just sell whatever sells or don’t get involved in community discourse.

Let me explain the accusations of which I speak. In recent months a school board in our area mandated the teaching of intelligent design, that movement of scientists, philosophers of science and educators who are committed to exposing the gaps in Darwin’s theories which they base on the study of the complexity of the natural world. Unlike creationists, who presume a creator (as taught in Scripture) the ID guys insist that good science should investigate with an open mind the complexities of nature and interpret their findings logically. Evidence, they maintain, is what should guide science and the conclusions of atheistic Darwinism, they show, often are based on nothing of the sort. Indeed, authors like Phillip Johnson painstakingly document problems with Darwinist methodologies, expose the lack of evidence for their primary claims and illustrate how the naturalistic presumptions of the Darwinists preclude attending to the research and theories of the ID scholars. (Read that sentence again if you need to.) Johnson shows how Darwinist scientists, opinion shapers, and academic gatekeepers often sidestep important questions, offer crass caricature and sometimes use harsh power plays to minimize the seriousness of the charges made by ID critics. In books like Johnson’s popular Darwin on Trial or The Wedge of Truth (described below) he shows how this works. For instance, supporters of Darwinism note obvious and undeniable examples of minor adaptations within a species (sometimes called micro-evolution)-in dog-breeding, say, or the changing size of finch beaks-which are then used in fantastical ways as “proof” of macro-evolution. A commonly used line of argument (which still shows up in science text books) asserts that because a beak can adapt to the hardness of the soil after several years of lower rainfall, it can therefore eventually become an entirely different critter. “Unproven!” declare the ID guys in their bid for intellectual honesty. “Foul!” shout back the Darwinistas. Johnson reminds us that there simply is no evidence that finches become anything other than finches, even though their little beaks “evolve.” The reigning orthodoxies of the Darwinist camp simply preclude thinking about the need for reasonable proof about things like this. They are certain (that is, they have faith) that the deductions they make are sound and that any questioning implies non-scientific (read: religiously motivated) concerns which can therefore be ruled out of court. Scientists committed to this view insist that only they get to determine what constitutes good evidence and what constitutes good science. Although Johnson explains this in all of his books, much more clearly and persuasively than I have, my experience these past weeks confirms his observations precisely.

It is important to know, though, that Johnson, and some others, like, say, Nancy Pearcey in her fabulous Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, $19.97) maintain that what is at stake here is not merely the matter of teaching atheistic evolution in science classes (under the guise of academic neutrality) but rather the formation of a pervasive and debilitating cultural ethos of secularization and scientism which marginalizes all other views. (Not all ID scholars, I am quick to point out, care about this.) In such a culture, Christian faith is reduced to privatized feelings or personal values, seen nearly akin to superstition. Pearcey makes clear that it is not just the forces of Darwinist naturalism, though, that promulgates this insistence that religion stay encased in churches and private homes: our own bad theology and dualistic spirituality-a common theme in these columns-has kept Christian conviction personal and culturally accommodated. It is helpful and important that Pearcey’s worldview guide (getting rave reviews from many sources) is broad in its application; like her earliest teacher in these things, Francis Schaeffer, she insists that the Lordship of Christ cuts across all zones of life and should make a difference in the way we think, perceive and live in the world. It is interesting, though, that Phil Johnson writes the forward. He says it is a book of “unusual importance by an author of unusual ability.” Pearcey has worked hard as a co-writer with Charles Colson, helping him spell out his neo-Kuyperian, Schaeffer-esque world and life view. Her first book, however, was on science, entitled The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Crossway; $15.99.)

Martin Luther suggested during the theological debates and ecclesiastical upheaval of the 1500’s that one must fight a battle at the place where it most rages; taking some sort of strategic cue from that reformational idea, Pearcey insists that offering alternative theories other than the reigning paradigm of materialistic Darwinism is an essential front in the battle to see cultural reformation in our world. If we want a world that is more humane, more meaningful, more beautiful, more coherent, more just, we must re-think the theoretical ideas that undergird much of the commonly accepted wisdom and ways of thinking in the public square (including that which is routinely taught to our children and college students.). Her Total Truth: Liberating”¦ does this well and we highly recommend it.

My little contribution here of late has been on the very front which Pearcey uses as a case study: the battle of origins, the debunking of Darwinist half-truths, and the offering of intelligent design as a “wedge of truth” to break open the dominant and too often un-questioned assumptions about secular naturalism. You know how Sagan famously put it on PBS: “The universe is all there is and all there ever will be.” (How’s that for a confessional bit of propaganda not even disguised as provable science?) To further her point that this a part of the dominant worldview of the culture at large, she tells of a cute Berenstein Bears children’s story that incants the exact same Sagan line. Re-reading Total Truth recently (it came out in the mid-summer and I flew right through it) prepared me, it seems, to want to pay more attention to the ID movement and their plea for a fair hearing for their plausible theories.

Which takes us to the Dover School Board decision and media brouhaha. Since the announcement of their policy, the ACLU have helped some local families file a lawsuit, insisting that their religious freedoms have been stomped upon (or something like that) from this alleged violation of the First Amendment. Reps from the world-renowned ID think-tank (www.discovery.org) have been in town and subsequently issued a press release applauding Dover for the good sense to desire clarity in the science education (including the problems with neo-Darwinism’s macro-evolution theory) but nonetheless saying “thanks but no thanks” to this particular Board proposal. For a variety of reasons they recommended that Dover re-think their rather poorly written policy. With national news media here, letters to the editors and talk radio flying fast and furious each day, even the local college bio department issuing a statement, we pondered how we might contribute to the public debate. I had already weighed in earlier in the summer with a piece suggesting that educational pluralism is a good thing and not unconstitutional (click here to read that article, which we had linked in our August website column on politics.) So, in late November I wrote another op-ed piece in the paper, saying that “teaching the controversy” need not be vexing but an opportunity for good teachers to do what good teachers do: teach students to think critically and read widely. I recommended Parker Palmer on teaching, Neil Postman on education and Thomas Kuhn to understand paradigm shifts in science. (Read it here: http://ydr.com/story/op-ed/52316/.) And I invited those who are so adamant against ID to actually read the ID scholars. It is my hunch-made clearer each day as I get emails now from near and far—that many of those who say they are offended by ID, or that ID is unacceptable because it is religious, or that ID isn’t good science simply have never read any of the real ID authors. To write publicly or to speak out at a public hearing against this new paradigm for science without understanding what it is or who its chief advocates are is bad form. It is, I might chide them, bad science, too-allowing biased opinions determine conclusions rather than actually looking at the data.

To wit: I offered in said opinion column in the Sunday paper an invitation to email me for a list of titles about intelligent design. I wanted to make available a general list of some starting titles—not a comprehensive bibliography but more of a basic reader’s guide to the ID literature. And, I am happy to report, some folks have found this very helpful. Some have applauded our effort to have our bookstore make a public contribution by offering some suggestions for titles that might clarify the stuff being said in the papers. The caricatures from both sides have been unfortunate and some of the name-calling (especially from Christians) has been reprehensible. It is clear that many people have no awareness of what it is they are decrying (and I bet it is in this way in your town, at your university, perhaps in your church, too.) If the correspondence I’ve had recently about this, or the local letter-writers are any indication, many people misunderstand the principled difference between the ID movement and old-school Bible-based “creation science.” Few who hold opinions have actually read the right stuff.

Despite our intention to be helpful, some have found my one-sided list to lack intellectual honesty; one writer called my recommendations of books by authors such as William Dembski (a Cambridge University Press author, by the way, with two PhD’s) “stupid.” Another wildly called Nancy Pearcey a liar. She has a chapter in Uncommon Dissent, an anthology which I recommended, (a similar section appears in Total Truth) where she explores the trajectory of naturalistic/atheistic Darwinist ideology when it gets into what is now called “evolutionary psychology.” A pair of authors wrote a controversial book indicating that even rape has served natural selection, implying that such abhorrent behavior is just part of the evolutionary scheme. She dared to suggest that this a-moral asessment by Darwinist social scientists is very significant and culturally dangerous. My verbal attacker said she is a trashy liar. I rechecked her book, noted the direct quotes from the book in question, and can only scratch my head at wonder. Phillip Johnson warned that if you start rejecting the secularized ideology of the Darwinist faith, they will say very bad things about you. And I’ve learned that he is correct.

One might think that an invitation to read widely and think deeply and question the dominant worldview that pervades the modernist scientific project would illicit at least a bit of admiration from free-thinkers, social critics and secular prophets. Oddly, the progressive movement, it seems to me, is deeply enthralled with the naturalistic worldview and seems largely unwilling to think unconventionally about Darwinism. To suggest that evangelical scientists might have something profound to offer in their debunking of bad science is just incredible to some. (Why can’t they think this through, I wonder; Social Darwinism helps create the justification for cutting welfare and provides ideological foundations for everything from racism to eugenics to capitol punishment, harsh practices the liberal movement [rightly, in my view] opposes.) They are so enmeshed in a simplistic red state-vs-blue state knee jerk reactionary perspective that they can’t imagine that ID work might actually be being done by religious agnostics, political liberals, or Ivy League trained scholars. Or that if guys like Dembski or Johnson are theologically orthodox, they must be disqualified to speak about science. So, I’m stuck in the middle, being called unpatriotic and liberal when I criticize the war in Iraq and being called an unthinking member of the “religious right” when I support teaching more than one standard party line in public education. And I thought book selling was a relatively safe job.

Below is the list I offered in my column in the York Sunday News. I have added a couple of titles from what I initially sent out, wishing for this web column to be a bit more substantive. I also want to note that for a more general approach to thinking in a Christian way about the sciences (not just the debate about Darwin, macro-evolution and intelligent design) you should see the handful of good recommendations found here at our “books by vocation” part of our website. Just click on (https://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com/vocation.htm) and click, then, on the science section. As I like to remind readers, that bibliography describes books by professional field, career area, and academic discipline. Anyone who wants to ponder a Biblical perspective as it relates to their calling or vocation—from business to sports, art to history, medicine to environmental studies-may find useful books to nourish their efforts. May we all fight the battle where it most deeply calls us, rejecting the spirit of the age, wherever the idols of our culture are found. As we learn to think differently, we may come to live differently and truly make a difference in our efforts to make a healing, innovative impact on the broken world around us.

That exact goal—of subverting the dominant ethos of the American empire of globalized consumerism, offering a liberating and culturally redemptive Kingdom vision instead—is what is behind the book that we have announced as our “book of the year” last month, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by good friends Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat (IVP) $22.00 See my rave review in the November review article if you haven’t seen that yet! ( Find it at https://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com/articles.htm.) Although they don’t enter the debates about intelligent design and they don’t promote the work of writers like Phillip Johnson, the overall effort-trying to forge a Biblically responsible alternative to the givens of the 21st century-is similar. Since they are engaged in postmodern cultural studies, it would be a healthy addition to reading in the ID literature.

So read Nancy Pearcey, Walsh & Keesmaat, Brian McLaren, Marva Dawn, Tony Campolo, Chuck Colson, Os Guinness (more about his forthcoming book next month!), the new collection of short pieces called He Speaks to Me Everywhere: Essays on Christ and Culture by Philip Ryken (P&R, $13.99), nearly anything published by Brazos Press, and other such contemporary cultural critics for the more broad analysis of the contours of Western culture and what people of faith might think. Alister McGrath’s recent, The Twilight of Atheism (Doubleday, $23.95) is brilliant and very important for those wanting a history of contemporary ideas. The books listed below, specific as they are to one topic, are a key part of that important project. We invite you to order a few and after reading and discussing them, maybe donate them to a local library. Just be prepared to be called dumb names when you do.


What Darwin Didn’t Know: A Doctor Dissects the Theory of Evolution Geoffrey Simmons (Harvest House) $12.99 An enjoyable and good writer explains the complexities in the human body and how, in his view, the “by chance” assumptions of Darwin are implausible. Includes a brief, good forward-“The Gig is Up”– by Cambridge-trained mathematician, William Dembski, a heavyweight scholar in the ID movement.

Darwin on Trial Phillip Johnson (IVP) $14.00 One of the popularizers of the ID movement, this jovial former Supreme Court clerk wondered what would happen if he used his legal training in determining what constitutes legitimate evidence and put the evidence for classic Darwinism on trial. A hoot of a book, a good primer to the issues that are causing many to abandon Darwinist orthodoxy. A good afterward chronicling the debates and scholarly reception the book has gotten is very instructive.

The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism Phillip Johnson (IVP) $13.00 A fine collection of essays by this very informed gat-fly of the ID movement. A few of these chapters are so compelling and useful that I would recommend the book for just a few. And the rest are pretty impressive to. A forward by Dallas Willard invites us to “look to the evidence and breathe the fresh intellectual air that nourishes genuinely opened minds.” Read any of his books, for that matter”¦

Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design Thomas Woodward (Brazos Press) $16.99 Beginning with the agnostic biochemist Michael Denton’s revolutionary 1986 book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, this gives a good overview of the rise of the ID movement. Woodward follows the key players and confrontations that are creating the recent scientific paradigm shift. As a good reporter, he explains the unfolding drama, from the rise of Phillip Johnson’s popularity (with nice coverage of his debates with Stephen Jay Gould) to the academic work of evolutionary micro-biologist Michael Behe to, yes, the writing of the text, Of Pandas and People.

By Design or by Chance? The Growing Controversy on the Origins of Life in the Universe Denyse O’Leary (Fortress) $15.99 An arts-major journalist walks us through the debates, the shifts in argument and provides an up-to-date, reasonable case in favor of design. Accessible, balanced and evenhanded. Very useful as an overview.

Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intelligent Design Edited by William Dembski & James Kushiner (Brazos Press) $14.99 With contributions by Michael Behe, Phillip Johnson and other standard scholars and activists in this movement, this is a fabulous collection that could bring readers up to speed on the debates at hand. Covers not only the question of the facts of the scientific data, but ponders concerns that are cultural and philosophical as well.

Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong Jonathan Wells (Regnery) $16.95 Here’s what Michael Behe says: “Wells demonstrates with stunning clarity that the textbook examples Darwinists themselves chose as the pillars of their theory are false or misleading.” Textbooks full of misinformation have helped fuel the ID efforts and this expose is an important contribution for those who seek integrity in the sciences. Very important.

Uncommon Dissent: Intellectual Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing William Dembski, editor (ISI Books) $18.00 A recent erudite collection of essays by serious intellectuals (scientists and philosophers, mostly) who find one or more aspects of Darwinism unpersuasive. Measured, thought provoking and very useful as a bracing book of great thoughtfulness.

Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution Michael Behe (Touchstone) $15.00 Behe not only is a biochemist, but teaches science writing. This book is a serious and important challenge to evolution, clearly written and highly recommended. His argument is essentially that “irreducible complexity” cannot be accounted for by the standard-bred, gradualist, Darwinian process. Very significant.

Mere Creation edited by William Dembski (IV) $25.00 A very serious collection of articles by a wide-ranging collection of scientists and philosophers. These were given at a major conference that some see as the “coming-out” part of the ID movement. Only for those who want a scholarly and technical anthology.

Science and Its Limits Del Ratzsch (IVP) $14.00 The former head of a prestigious public school science department has recommended this small but weighty book, which explores just what science discourse is, what science can and cannot show, thereby helping us navigate the controversies around religion and science. Includes a bit about ID, a movement of which the author himself is not a part. Very, very helpful.

The Reenchantment of Nature: The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis Alister McGrath (Doubleday) $14.00 A theological heavy-weight offers his accessible treatment of the ways in which faith can enhance care for creation and that a scientist reductionism actually damages our ability to engage coherently in the struggle to protect the Earth. An important case study in the resolution of the tired science vs religion debate.

Darwinism, Design and Public Education edited by John Campbell & Stephen Meyer (Michigan State University Press) $28.95 This is an outstanding, thick and diverse collection of essays not only about the controversy, but about the question of teaching the controversy. Anyone seeking a fair and comprehensive debate about the teaching of evolution in public schools will benefit from this remarkable anthology.

Perspectives on an Evolving Creation Keith B. Miller, editor (Eerdmans) $36.00 This is the most academic book on my list, 500 + pages packed full of serious scientific articles—on everything from the Cambrian fossil explosion to human genetics-as well as thoughtful Biblical reflections offered by serious scientists. Some of these kind of pieces are hard to come by making the book is an essential resource for those who are interested in the mature, progressive interface of science and religion. These scholars are not ID activists and some are plainly (theistic) evolutionists. Miller teaches at Kansas State and is an officer in the Affiliation of Christian Geologists.

An Evolving Dialogue: Theological and Scientific Perspectives on Evolution Edited by James B. Miller (Trinity Press International) $40.00 Wow! What a diverse collection. This really does include the proverbial “left, right & center” with various biologists and theologians—from Stephen Jay Gould to Michael Behe, John Haught to Arthur Peacocke, Mark Ridley, Ronald Numbers, William Dembski, Freeman Dyson. Good to see a few ID scientists included”¦ Over 500 pages.

Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life Alister McGrath (Blackwell) $18.95 This is a brand new book written by a top-shelf evangelical thinker, theologian and scholar from Oxford. McGrath’s Ph.D. in molecular biophysics makes him uniquely qualified to debate the world’s most famous and flamboyant Darwinist. Scholars have raved—“a tour de force” says a professor at Cambridge; “a devastating critique” claims a Queen’s University prof. Michael Ruse (an evolutionist of much renown) says “a wonderful book”¦This is scholarship as it should be—informed, feisty and fun. I cannot wait to see Dawkin’s review of McGrath’s critique.” Highly recommended for those needing this kind of serious argument.

“As a local bookseller, I admit to being a bit perplexed that such books do not seem to be known or debated widely. If those anxious about the intellectual or legal implications of informing students about these views were to familiarize themselves with these recommendations, I am confident that many of their fears will be allayed and, indeed, they might themselves become passionate advocates of doing what good teachers always do best-help students read widely, think deeply and make up their own minds about the meaning of their daily dose of public schooling.”.

That was my final paragraph in the paper, summing up my desire for teachers and other folk to read a few of these titles. I would hope that friends of Hearts & Minds, staff and members of churches, campus ministries and others who drop in to read my monthly column would agree: reading this kind of stuff is important and kindly offering intelligent alternative views is part of the calling we have to shape culture. Those who are followers of Christ will want to do this for His glory, and will be especially attentive to ways to witness effectively in the modern world. As always, thanks for buying books, reading, and thinking. As this episode shows, it is important to do it well.