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from December 2005 AN

Intelligent Design for Anthropologists

Chris Toumey
U South Carolina

Intelligent design is a threat to the knowledge that anthropology discovers and teaches about human origins and our place in the natural world. “Scientific creationism” was an attempt to finesse the problem of the obvious sectarian basis of old-time creationism, and intelligent design is a clever way of re-packaging “scientific creationism” after the US Supreme Court easily saw scientific creationism’s unconstitutional religious basis in the 1987 Edwards v Aguillard case. Even though intelligent design is an intellectual dead end, it is very attractive to religious conservatives who want to discredit or suppress the principles of naturalistic, secular and empirical explanation that guide the study of evolution and other sciences.

Why Oppose ID?
Our discipline of anthropology ought to take the intelligent design agenda seriously, and should actively oppose it, for two reasons: First, it is wrong for our public schools to mislead students. Secondly, intelligent design is a prominent feature of the so-called culture wars. Each victory for intelligent design in the classroom or the courtroom makes it easier to discredit the accounts of human origins that we generate in anthropology, along with the methods and concepts that guide our work.

I know this sounds alarmist. Twenty years ago, when I was writing an ethnography of scientific creationism, I felt that the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state would thwart state laws that mandated equal time for creationism in the public school science courses. Indeed the US Constitution blocked the creationist education agenda. But things are different now. Christian conservatives are more sophisticated and more powerful now than they have been in many decades, and the federal courts are much more friendly to conservative ideology. It would be unwise to think that this challenge to some of the basic assumptions of our discipline is going to go away without an active opposition.

I also worry that anthropology is poorly prepared to face this challenge. We can intellectualize everything, generating brilliant seminars or fascinating panel discussions on anything. I did my share of theorizing when I was writing about creationism, but I also noticed that few anthropologists got off campus to go to the school board meetings, legislative hearings and other venues where clashes between evolution and creationism occurred. I think many of my colleagues hoped that scientific creationism was so preposterous that it would collapse upon itself. It didn’t. It reformulated itself as intelligent design.

How to Debate ID
Here I’d like to offer some tactical advice in the form of arguments to raise against intelligent design:

Gaps Argument: The core of intelligent design theory is the belief that, because we do not know the entire natural history of a complex phenomenon, it must be a miracle. This is too goofy to be either science or science education. It is also a foolish way to embrace God. The intertwined histories of science and religion contain a recurring belief called “the god of the gaps”: when there were gaps in scientific knowledge, they must have indicated divine intervention. But when science later closed many gaps as it explained more and more natural phenomena, the god who occupied them with his interventions got smaller and smaller. That was a disservice to religious belief.

Are All Creators Equal? Intelligent design advocates pretend not to identify the Intelligent Designer, but use a wink and a nod to point to the conservative Christian portrait of the Judeo-Christian creator. Let there be a price to pay for being too cute. Just as the creationist effort to authenticate Noah’s Flood makes the Babylonian hero Utnapishtem and the Sumerian Ziusudra just as real as the Biblical Noah, so the intelligent design effort to steer people to a creator god makes Kali, Allah and other non-Christian gods just as valid as the Christian god. In this culturally diverse nation of ours, Allah and Kali and others are going to want just as much respect as their Biblical counterpart. So if I were at a school board hearing on intelligent design, I would want to ask whether Allah and Kali and other creator gods—cultural anthropologists, use your imaginations—have the same status in intelligent design as the Biblical creator god.

Evidence of Incompetent Design: The supposed proof of intelligent design consists of biological structures or behavior that work perfectly, or nearly perfectly. In other words, a simplistic biological functionalism. The counterproof includes vestigial structures that don’t work anymore, or that put a creature at a disadvantage, plus anything else in anatomy or behavior which is not perfect. Genetic load; genetic predispositions to disease; the relation between malaria and sickle cell disease; lactose intolerance; auto-immune diseases: these and thousands of other phenomena discredit intelligent design. Physical anthropologists, use your imaginations. If indeed science is being used to steer children to believe in a transcendent designer, then there is plenty of proof of incompetent design.

Question the Single Alternative Science: Advocates of intelligent design say they want to broaden the public school science curriculum by adding “alternatives to evolution.” Challenge them also to take the next logical step and add alternatives to astronomy and chemistry, and see whether conservative Christian parents are willing to include astrology and alchemy in their children’s science courses. Not likely. Why a special treatment of evolution but not astronomy?

Can There Be Balance?
When I was studying creationism, I found a healthy balance in my work. Readers noticed that I humanized the scientific creationists without endorsing their beliefs. This was a good approach, and in fact it reminded me of E E Evans-Pritchard’s chapter on Zande witchcraft and unfortunate events. The first sentence says, “Witches, as the Azande conceive them, clearly cannot exist.” But he follows that with a sensitive commentary that enables us to understand how the Zande think, and even to imagine ourselves in their situations.

I hope that some anthropologists will do similar ethnographic studies of the advocates of intelligent design. At the same time, however, it is necessary for other anthropologists to speak out publicly against beliefs that we know are bad science and bad science education.

One last bit of advice: those who care about this can make contact with like-minded people near them. The National Center for Science Education ( can put you in touch with other supporters of evolution and good science education in your state. Some states even have their own coordinators in place. School boards, legislators and other policy makers are impressed when advocates come to hearings, especially when they make lucid and persuasive arguments.

Chris Toumey ( is the author of the ethnography, God’s Own Scientists, and 20 articles on scientific creationism. He is Centenary Research Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, where he researches public understandings of nanotechnology.

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