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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The ideal Kitzmas present

By Glenn Branch
December 20, for those who follow the creationism/evolution controversy, is jokingly called Kitzmas, since it was on December 20, 2005, that Judge John E. Jones III delivered his verdict in Kitzmiller v. Dover, establishing the unconstitutionality of teaching “intelligent design” in the public schools. As Massimo Pigliucci wrote in his chapter on the trial in Nonsense on Stilts (University of Chicago Press, 2010), the trial thus “culminated in one of the best examples of how science and philosophy of science can play a surprising and fundamental role in our courtrooms.” So I was particularly delighted to discover that a special issue of the philosophy journal Synthese on the creationism/evolution controversy that James H. Fetzer and I coedited was published just in time for Kitzmas 2010 – and that access to Synthese is free until December 31, 2010. It is just a coincidence — a special promotion on the part of the journal’s publisher — but to me it feels like a Kitzmas miracle.
The issue begins with my introduction, in which I briefly review the increasing prominence of philosophy in the creationism/evolution controversy. A central issue is whether creationism is, properly, science, and Robert T. Pennock, who testified at the Kitzmiller trial that “intelligent design” creationism fails to be a science, defends the philosophical basis of his view against his critics, while Sahotra Sarkar takes a different approach, arguing that insofar as “intelligent design” is not a theological view, it is, in effect, too vague to be intelligibly evaluated. Two essays offer detailed examinations of the writings of philosophers associated with the “intelligent design” movement, with Barbara Forrest — who testified devastatingly about the history of the “intelligent design movement” at the Kitzmiller trial — focusing on Francis Beckwith, and Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit focusing on William A. Dembski.
Niall Shanks and Keith Green’s “Intelligent design in theological perspective” presents a subtle argument that, in appealing to science to defend faith, “intelligent design” is in tension with the mainstream of Christian theology, while James H. Fetzer’s “Evolution and atheism: Has Griffin reconciled science and religion?” examines the process theologian David Ray Griffin’s views on evolution in detail. Bruce H. Weber’s historically rich essay on “Design and its discontents” ponders the connections between teleology and design. And John S. Wilkins and Kelly C. Smith separately discuss the cognitive barriers to increasing the public’s understanding and acceptance of evolution. Amusingly, both are intentionally provocative in their titles: Wilkins’s asks, “Are creationists rational?” and Smith’s “Foiling the Black Knight” alludes to a memorable scene from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
These essays are not, of course, going to be the last word on philosophy and creationism. Recent work that I happen to have found particularly interesting includes Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman’s “How not to attack intelligent design creationism” (Foundations of Science 2010; 15 [3]: 227–244), Gregory W. Dawes’s Theism and Explanation (Routledge, 2009); Robert T. Pennock and Michael Ruse’s updated edition of the anthology But Is It Science? (Prometheus Books, 2009), which I reviewed for Skeptic, Doren Recker’s “How to confuse organisms with mousetraps” (Zygon 2010; 45 [3]: 647–664), and the “Darwin and naturalism” chapter of Elliott Sober’s Did Darwin Write the Origin Backward? (Prometheus Books, 2010). But I hope that the special issue of Synthese, which I am proud to have helped organize, will be a welcome addition to any Kitzmas stocking.
Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that works to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools.


  1. Interesting article! One thing that played a surprisingly (to me) large role in the creationism question was the historical pedigree of creationism/ID and the real motivations of its proponents (e.g., talk about the Wedge document, reworking of previous creationist textbooks for ID, private vs public statements of its champions...).

    This made me wonder how you would evaluate ID if it had been presented from the beginning as having nothing to do with religion. Say it were originally put forward by well-funded UFO cranks; how would you assess it then?

    My sense is that, in that alternate universe, it would be wrong, but not "not even wrong." Do you (Glenn, NCSE, Massimo, others...) agree?

  2. I find this issue quite interesting, although I have to admit to some amusement regarding the timing. A couple of months ago I noticed some autumn cheer over at Uncommon Descent due to an article which for some reason didn't make it into this Kitzmas issue.

  3. [from Glenn Branch]

    Ian, there’s no need to visit any alternative universe! The Raëlian
    Movement, as Pennock notes in his Tower of Babel (MIT Press,
    1999), believes that life on earth was created, by natural means, by
    extraterrestrial aliens. Such a view isn’t vulnerable either to the
    criticism that it appeals to the supernatural or to the criticism that
    it is too vague to be evaluated — which is not to say that it is
    plausible in the slightest, of course. Although the main proponents of
    “intelligent design” seek to maintain a big tent under which
    antievolutionists of all stripes are welcome to shelter, the Raëlian
    endorsement of teaching “intelligent design” in the public schools
    (issued in 2002) seems not to have been received with any enthusiasm.


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