The "Intelligent Design" Hoax

William J. Bennetta

Editor's Introduction -- Among the various frauds that creationists have used in their attacks on science education, the newest is a body of woo-woo known as "intelligent design." The creationists depict "intelligent design" as a scientific construct and as an alternative to the theory of organic evolution, though it is neither. They insist that it must be included in biology curricula and biology textbooks, though its essential assertions revolve around supernaturalism, not biology. Sometimes they even call it "intelligent design theory" or "the theory of intelligent design" to imply that it is intellectually comparable to the theory of organic evolution, though it isn't comparable at all. Nor is it a theory. It is a hoax.

"Intelligent design" is a derivative of "creation-science," the religious pseudoscience by which creationists, during the 1970s and the early 1980s, purported to show that the concept of organic evolution was false and that there was no genealogical connection between man and any other species. After "creation-science" was thoroughly discredited by scientists and was barred from public schools by federal judges, the creationists modified it, disguised it by wrapping it in some new pseudoscientific double-talk, and presented it under the name "intelligent design." Since then, "intelligent design" has figured prominently in many of the creationists' campaigns to undermine science education -- indeed, it has become the creationists' favorite device for deceiving state education agencies, for tricking local school boards, for gulling classroom teachers, and for inducing schoolbook-publishers to pervert and falsify the treatment of organic evolution in biology books.

State boards of education, officers of local school districts, science educators, and the public at large need information about the origin and features of the "intelligent design" hoax, but such information isn't easy to find. It surely can't be found in newspaper or newsmagazine articles about the creationists' campaigns, because such articles fail to provide any substantive information at all: They display the phrase "intelligent design" a few times, in throwaway lines, but they don't tell what it signifies, they don't describe the fantasies that the devotees of "intelligent design" try to peddle, and they don't explain that "intelligent design" has already been discredited by scientists, just as "creation-science" was. Many of the newspaper articles are worse than worthless because they parrot the creationists' rhetoric and mislead the public by falsely referring to "intelligent design" as a "theory."

With these points in mind, we present here a historical and scientific exposition of the "intelligent design" hoax. This material was published originally in The Textbook Letter as a part of William J. Bennetta's review of Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum, a book written by Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes. In their book, Nord and Haynes proposed a scheme for converting America's public schools into agencies for propagating biblical religion -- and as a part of their proposal, they endorsed two books that promoted "intelligent design." In his review, "A Pair of Common Tricksters," Bennetta responded with the detailed commentary that appears below.

[Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes] conclude chapter 7 of Taking Religion Seriously by offering a list of "Suggested Readings and Resources." I'm familiar with several of the items that they recommend, including the two books that they describe thus:

In Darwin's Black Box (1997), the biochemist Michael Behe provides a sophisticated argument for intelligent design in dealing with evolution. Pandas and People (1989) is a short, low-key, but controversial textbook supplement designed to inform students about intelligent design theory as an alternative to conventional evolutionary theory. [page 162]

Nord and Haynes have made some small mistakes here. The first book, Darwin's Black Box, was issued in 1996 (not 1997), and the title of the second book is Of Pandas and People (not Pandas and People).

Nord and Haynes have also undertaken some big deceptions. They haven't disclosed that Darwin's Black Box and Of Pandas and People are pseudoscientific screeds promoted by creationists, and they haven't cited any of the publications in which Darwin's Black Box and Of Pandas and People have been exposed and demolished.

Now, what do they mean when they announce that Darwin's Black Box and Of Pandas and People deal with "intelligent design" or "intelligent design theory"? What is "intelligent design"?

"Intelligent design" (or ID, for short) is the political successor to "creation-science." Among today's creationists, ID has replaced "creation-science" as the hoax of choice for bamboozling ignorant politicians and bureaucrats and educators. If we compare ID with "creation-science," we discover some central similarities and some radical differences -- and to appreciate those similarities and differences we must recall some history.

"Creation-science" was an elaborate body of hokum by which fundamentalists purported to show "scientifically" that the stories in the Book of Genesis were accounts of real events, that Earth and Earth's organisms had been fashioned directly by Yahweh (only a few thousand years ago), that the concept of organic evolution was false, and that humans were not connected genealogically to any other species. Much of "creation-science" consisted of lies, and many of the lies were so crude and transparent that they seemed risible to people who understood science -- but "creation-science" hadn't been contrived to impress people who understood science. It was intended to impress members of state legislatures, state education agencies, and local school boards. It was intended to persuade them that they should exclude modern astronomy, geology, paleontology and biology from science curricula, or (as an alternative) that they should inject biblical myths into science curricula as explanations of astronomical, geological, paleontological and biological observations.

In their writings and their public appearances, the "creation-scientists" demonstrated that biblical narratives explained a great array of natural phenomena; they also demonstrated that the prevailing scientific explanations for those phenomena were wrong. They were able to perform these mighty feats, easily, because they didn't have to deal with real phenomena or with real science. Their chosen audiences were predictably ignorant of nature and science alike, so the "creation-scientists" could simply make things up -- which is what they did. They showed, for example, that the great Flood described in Genesis accounted for the stratigraphic distribution of fossils and thus explained the fossil record -- not the real fossil record but a fake fossil record that they themselves had invented. They showed that organic evolution couldn't occur because it was precluded by a law of thermodynamics -- not a real law of thermodynamics but a law that they themselves had cooked up. To bolster their claim that Earth was only a few thousand years old, they showed that the established scientific techniques for measuring the ages of ancient rocks were incompatible with some rules of nuclear physics -- not the nuclear physics that scientists studied but a kind of nuclear physics that was known only to creationists. And so on, ad nauseam [note 31].

In the 1970s and the early 1980s, the purveyors of "creation-science" achieved numerous political victories. They succeeded in stifling the teaching of science in many local schools; they induced many school districts to stick biblical creation myths into science classes; they persuaded crooked schoolbook-publishers to print "science" books larded with creationistic double-talk; and in Arkansas and Louisiana they secured the enactment of state laws which fostered the teaching of "creation-science" in public schools.

Eventually, however, their fortunes deteriorated. Scientific organizations, individual scientists, and competent educators exposed "creation-science" for the trash that it was, civil-liberties organizations undertook lawsuits to reverse some of the creationists' most conspicuous political successes, and the "creation-science" hoax started to fall apart. The Arkansas "creation-science" law and the Louisiana "creation-science" law were declared unconstitutional by federal judges who found that the concept of creation was supernaturalistic and religious, not scientific [note 32] -- and by 1987, when the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the voiding of the Louisiana statute, shrewd creationists were busily overhauling and sanitizing their enterprise and their vocabulary. They stopped their overt promotion of biblical miracle-stories as explanations of nature, they dumped the term creation-science, and they even dumped the word creation. Instead of saying that organisms had been fashioned by Yahweh, they now claimed that organisms were products of "intelligent design," conceived by a nameless "intelligent agent" -- and instead of saying that organisms had been divinely created, they said that organisms had "appeared abruptly" or had "suddenly appeared."

The first major exhibition of the creationists' new lexicon of double-talk was Of Pandas and People. That book had been developed by a fundamentalist organization called the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE), but it was printed and sold by Haughton Publishing Company, an outfit whose principal business seemed to be the printing of agricultural labels and catalogues. In 1989, Haughton began promoting Pandas as "a supplemental high school text."

Pandas was rather narrow in scope. The FTE writers [note 33] dwelt on biology, the science that creationists hate most intensely, and they purported to examine "two different concepts of the origins of living things." One of these concepts, they said, was held by "evolutionists," the other by "proponents of intelligent design."

Pandas was meant to convince dupes that the "evolutionists" were wrong and that the "proponents of intelligent design" had the right explanation for the existence and diversity of living things.

Though the writers referred to Yahweh by such code-names as "intelligent agent" and "intelligent cause" and "primeval intellect," the material in Pandas was readily recognizable. It was a collection of old "creation-science" stuff, replete with the usual devices -- false claims, false analogies, false dichotomies, and ringing refutations of scientific constructs that were unknown to science. (I especially liked the passage, on page 144, in which the writers cited eight organisms -- a plant, a pig, a duck, a turtle, a bullfrog, a carp, a moth and a yeast -- and announced that "None of [these] species is ancestral to any other." Right, but no scientist had ever claimed otherwise. No biologist had ever claimed that a duck was the ancestor of a pig, or that a pig was the ancestor of a yeast, or that a yeast was the ancestor of a duck.)

Those displays of deceit were complemented by many items that seemed to bespeak plain, ordinary ignorance -- for instance, the FTE writers imagined that the terms species and variety were synonyms, that pterosaurs were "flying dinosaurs," that all marsupials had pouches, and that there were honeycreepers "on the North American mainland" [note 34]. Then, to top things off, the writers offered claims that had no meaning whatever -- claims that were merely displays of pseudoscientific gibberish, devised to dazzle the dunces. (Example: "Evolution requires the expansion of the gene pool, the addition of new genetic information, whereas speciation represents the loss of genetic information." Go ahead and laugh.)

When they were not lying or slaying straw men or inventing "flying dinosaurs" or dispensing gibberish, the writers of Pandas told of marvelous organic adaptations, and they produced almost-English passages like these:

[P]roponents of intelligent design maintain that only a consummate engineer could anticipate so effectively to meet the total engineering requirements of an organism like the giraffe. . . . [Certain plants] are so sophisticated in their design that the same set of traits is used to accomplish two completely different purposes. The existence of such a sophisticated adaptational package is taken as evidence by the proponents of intelligent design of their theory. In our experience only an intelligent designer has the ability to coordinate the design requirements of multifunctional adaptational packages. [page 71]

"In our experience"? The FTE writers didn't say where they had gained their experience in meeting "the design requirements of multifunctional adaptational packages" (whatever that was supposed to mean), and they entirely ignored a question that is well known to anyone who has had real experience in studying the living world. The question is: Why are organisms so clunky?

Living things certainly exhibit countless adaptations that are marvelous, even stupendous, to behold -- but living things also exhibit countless structural, physiological, developmental and behavioral features that are clumsy, maladaptive, wasteful, or plainly useless. Think of the cave-dwelling fishes that bear puny, useless eyes, incapable of responding to light. Think of the island-dwelling insects that sport wretched little wings, incapable of lifting the insects into the air. Think of the ground-nesting marine birds that pack themselves so tightly into their rookeries that they trample their own eggs and young. Consider how a halibut acquires its lopsided anatomy, with both of its eyes on the same side of its head: First the halibut develops a head that is quite symmetrical, with an eye on each side, but then it resorbs and rebuilds some of its bones in a way that allows one eye to migrate through its skull. Recall that a baleen whale builds and then resorbs a useless set of teeth. Recall that a woman produces and stores hundreds of thousands of oocytes, though only a few hundred will ever become eggs and enter her fallopian tubes. Recall that a man develops nipples! Recall that the channel which carries air to your lungs intersects the channel which carries food to your stomach -- an arrangement so awkward that it literally can make you choke.

Why? Why do organisms so often seem absurd, and why do they do things that, by rational technological standards, seem foolish and wasteful?

Biologists offer cogent answers: Nature isn't rational, organisms aren't technological devices, and organisms needn't be ideal or even efficient. They merely need to be workable -- workable enough to survive and leave some descendants. They make do with mediocre mechanisms that they have inherited from their ancestors, and they still carry the relics of structures, systems, developmental programs, and behavioral scripts that once enabled their ancestors to achieve workability.

The writers of Pandas offered no answer at all. They didn't even try. They prattled (as creationists always had prattled) about the wonderful traits that some living things display, but they ignored (as creationists always had ignored) the innumerable features that make living things look like bungled contraptions. The FTE writers declined to tell why their "consummate engineer" had done so much third-rate work, or why their "intelligent designer" had designed so many kludges, or why their "intelligent agent" had not invented a more intelligent way to get both of a halibut's eyes onto the same side of its head. They even declined to reveal why the "primeval intellect" had decided that frigate-birds, which never swim, should have webbed feet.

ExplcitThere was something else that the FTE bunch didn't explain: How had the designs conceived by the "intelligent designer" been turned into organisms? How had the imaginings of the "primeval intellect" been turned into material creatures? How had the plans developed by the "consummate engineer" been turned into finished goods? In short, how had organisms come into existence?

The old "creation-scientists" had had a ready answer to that question: Yahweh was both a designer and a manufacturer -- a figure who not only designed organisms but also used his supernatural powers to bring them into being and to send them scurrying, loping, flying or swimming into the Garden of Eden. The writers of Pandas, on the other hand, gave no answer whatever. They refused to consider the question of how designs had become living organisms, and the reason for their refusal was obvious: Any answer that the writers might have given would have been supernaturalistic and would have shown that ID was just fundamentalist woo-woo in disguise.

Pandas was a sitting duck (or pig or yeast) for reviewers who knew something about science, and several such reviewers soon shot it to bits. For example: The paleontologist Kevin Padian, of the University of California at Berkeley, called Pandas a "wholesale distortion of modern biology," and he demonstrated that the FTE writers had mauled and misrepresented such topics as the Cambrian explosion, the history of birds, and the concept of homology. The treatment of homology in Pandas was "shameful," Padian said, and he described one of the FTE writers' tricks:

[The writers] pretend that the Tasmanian wolf, a marsupial, would be [classified] with the placental wolf if evolutionists weren't so hung up on the single character of their reproductive mode . . . . This is a complete falsehood, as anyone with access to the evidence knows. It is not a matter of a single reproductive character, but dozens of characters in the skull, teeth, post-cranial bones (including the marsupial pelvic bones), soft anatomy, and biochemistry, to say nothing of their respective fossil records, that separate the two mammals.

Padian ended his review by remarking that it was hard to say what was worst in Pandas -- its religious sub-text, its intolerance for honest science, or the FTE writers' incompetence [note 35].

So much for Pandas -- the hoax that Nord and Haynes now are recommending as a book "designed to inform students about intelligent design theory." Pandas wasn't meant to inform anyone about anything, and it surely didn't present any "theory." A scientific theory is a structure of ideas, supported by preponderant evidence, that explains a body of observations and thus explains some aspect of nature. The ID rubbish in Pandas was evidence-free, and it explained exactly nothing [note 36 and note 37].

The other ID book promoted by Nord and Haynes, Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, was another travesty and shared some essential features with Pandas. Like Pandas, it was full of disinformation about biological topics. Like Pandas, it was rigged to look like a scientific book. Like Pandas, it was a book of pseudoscience, aimed at naive readers. And like Pandas, it explained nothing.

Even so, Darwin's Black Box differed markedly from Pandas because Behe didn't vilify and flatly reject the concept of organic evolution. He accepted it, and he accepted some central principles of evolutionary biology, e.g., the inference that living things have been shaped by natural selection, and the inference that modern species, now quite distinct, are descendants of a common ancestor. But, Behe wrote, the principles of evolutionary biology couldn't account for certain phenomena that have been observed in the living world: Certain biochemical systems -- such as those involved in the movement of a bacterium's flagellum or in the clotting of a vertebrate's blood -- couldn't have arisen by evolution, Behe said, because they were "irreducibly complex."

Behe employed the phrase "irreducibly complex" to describe a system which couldn't function at all, and couldn't produce any effect, unless all of its components were present and properly integrated. Such a system couldn't have evolved in discrete stages by the successive addition of new components, Behe asserted, because the preliminary stages would have been useless: The preliminary stages wouldn't have been able to function, wouldn't have had any adaptive value, and wouldn't have been preserved and propagated by natural selection. If a system was "irreducibly complex," Behe said, it must have originated all at once, with all its components in place and ready to perform -- and this implied that the system must have been designed.

Like the writers of Pandas, Behe was unwilling to identify any putative designer -- but creationists immediately discerned that Behe's "irreducibly complex" systems had been designed by old Yahweh, and they soon began to use Darwin's Black Box in their attacks on science education. They saw Behe's book as a new "scientific" endorsement of biblical myths, as a new "scientific" demonstration that evolutionary biology was fallacious at best, and as a new "scientific" justification for injecting miracles and woo-woo into public-school science classes.

Scientists, on the other hand, recognized that Darwin's Black Box was a hoax, and commentators who understood biology soon began to demolish Behe's pseudoscience. Knowledgeable refutations of Behe's claims and pretenses appeared in print or on the Web during the second half of 1996 and throughout 1997, and Behe's book lay in shreds by the time when Nord and Haynes undertook to glorify it.

Many more responses to Darwin's Black Box have been issued since then, and we now have a weighty body of literature devoted to showing that Behe's ID stuff is just another effort to gull the ignorant and to make magic seem plausible. For a survey of that literature, go to http://dlindsay.best.vwh.net/creation/behe.html -- a Web site maintained by Donald Lindsay. Please be sure to read Lindsay's section headlined "Rebuttal: [Behe's] Ignorance of His Own Subject Area," and please use the links Lindsay offers in that section and in his "Further Reading" list. You should also give attention to the sections titled "Rebuttal of Example: Cilia and Flagella" and "Rebuttal of Example: Clotting." You will learn that, contrary to Behe's claims, neither a bacterial flagellum nor a vertebrate's blood-clotting system is "irreducibly complex."

So much for Darwin's Black Box, and so much for the woo-woo that Nord and Haynes have described as a "sophisticated argument for intelligent design." Behe's argument was about as sophisticated as a pratfall.


  1. For some detailed information about the structure and content of "creation-science," see the essays in Crusade of the Credulous, issued in 1986 by the California Academy of Sciences Press. [return to text]

  2. For short accounts of both the Arkansas case and the Louisiana case, see "Alabama Will Use Schoolbooks to Spread Lies and Foster Creationism" in TTL for November-December 1995. For a detailed explication of the Louisiana case, see my two-part article "The Rise and Fall of the Louisiana Creationism Law" in Terra for July-August and September-October 1988. (Terra is published by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.) [return to text]

  3. The FTE writers were mystery-men. The opening pages of Pandas listed two authors (Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon) as well as an "academic editor" (Charles B. Thaxton), eight "editors and contributors" and thirty-five "critical reviewers," but none of these luminaries was identified in any way. They were just naked names, with nothing to suggest their professions or their affiliations: See "Fundamentalists Launch Bogus 'Supplemental Text' " in TTL for March-April 1990 (or go to http://www.textbookleague.org/53panda.htm on The Textbook League's Web site). For information about Davis, Kenyon and Thaxton, see my article "Creationists issue a phony schoolbook" in the April 1990 issue of BASIS, the bulletin of the Bay Area Skeptics. [return to text]

  4. The honeycreepers, or drepanidids, are small birds that constitute a family by themselves. The entire family (Drepanididae) is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. It includes more than 50 species, all descended from some sparrow-like ancestors that evidently reached one of the islands about 5 million years ago. Passages about the drepanidids appear in many introductory books about evolutionary biology because the diversification of these birds provides a spectacular example of adaptive radiation. The FTE writers apparently encountered such a passage but failed to grasp the fundamental point that all the drepanidids are endemics and occur only in the Hawaiian Archipelago. [return to text]

  5. Padian's review appeared (with two other analyses of Pandas) in Volume 2, Number 11 of Bookwatch Reviews, published in 1989 by the National Center for Science Education. [return to text]

  6. For a detailed discussion of what the word theory means in the vocabulary of science, see "The Treatment of Theory in Textbooks," by Lawrence S. Lerner and William J. Bennetta, in the April 1988 issue of The Science Teacher. [return to text]

  7. A second version of Pandas was issued in 1993, but Nord and Haynes evidently don't know this. Haughton Publishing's advertisements for the 1993 version described it as "new" and "even more helpful," but it differed little from the 1989 book. See "Panda Poop" in TTL for July-August 1994 (or at http://www.textbookleague.org/53panda.htm on The Textbook League's Web site). [return to text]

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

The cartoon "I think you should be more explicit here in step two" was reproduced
The Textbook Letter with permission from Sidney Harris, who drew it in 1977.


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