Dembski's Five Questions: Number One.

Gary S. Hurd, Dave Mullenix

Scientific Creationism wholeheartedly embraced fundamentalist Christian dogma, particularly the notion of a six-day creation week with the inference that every ‘kind’ of life was directly and uniquely created, that a global flood covered the entire Earth in which only those life forms rescued on Noah’s Ark survived, and that the ‘ages’ associated with various biblical genealogies could be summed to obtain a chronology of creation. In the face of repeated legal losses, which excluded religious indoctrination from public schools in America, the Scientific Creationists asserted that they could use purely scientific means to “prove” that their specific biblical interpretation was literal truth. Thus, they argued their creationism was different from simple fundamentalism, and deserved to be taught as science in public schools. The origin, and (lingering) decline of Scientific Creationism are very sympathetically studied by Ron Numbers in his 1993 book, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (Berkeley: University of California Press). Scientific Creationism never made good on the promise to use science to ‘prove’ that their biblical interpretations were empirically correct, although there are a small number of individuals still trying. They have been reduced to making ‘scientific arguments’ more bizarre than accepting miracles, and lame efforts to attack evolution such as denying fossil evidence of evolutionary transitions, or equating “Darwinism” simultaneously with Nazis, Communists, and recently Al Qaeda. Throughout the 1980s Scientific Creationists lost legal battles. Scientific Creationists were turned away from public schools by the courts. This set the stage for the emergence of a new version of creationism, Intelligent Design.

Intelligent Design Creationism

William Dembski is a prominent Intelligent Design Creationist (IDC). He sports two Ph.D.s, one in Philosophy, and one in Mathematics, as well as a Masters degree in Theology. Intelligent Design Creationists have taken a strong position that they are entirely unlike other creationists in their motivation, practice or goal. Particularly, Dembski is known to insist that ID is a scientific project, and is not merely reduced to lame arguments against “Darwinism,” however defined. Further, Intelligent Design Creationists insist they are not to be viewed as primarily motivated by fundamentalist Christian ideology even when they have clearly acknowledged this is their motivation. We have been struck by the effort of scientific critics of IDC, and Dembski in particular, to generally address the ‘theory’ of Intelligent Design on its own terms. Specifically, recent books have nearly bent over backwards to be “fair” in their critical analysis of Intelligent Design’s many failures*3. If it were not for these facts, Dembski’s short article “Five Questions a Darwinist Would Rather Dodge” would draw little attention, as it is a fairly ordinary rehash of standard young earth creationist (YEC) distortions of science. It is remarkable that Dembski has published such a stereotypical piece of creationist writing. It seems that the ID movement is reverting to type.

Quote Mining

The false, or out-of-context quote is the favorite tactic of professional young earth creationists’ efforts to undermine science education. The creationist causes it to appear that there are some grave doubts about evolution among scientists, and independent of the creationist’s a priori rejection of evolution on religious grounds. This is so widely recognized among those who follow these efforts that it has come to be called “quote mining” and compilation of many examples, and their corrections has been published on-line at The Quote Mine Project. The Answers in Genesis Ministries, formerly the Creation Science Foundation of Brisbane, Australia, even produced a book of quotes called The Revised Quote Book (1990) that has been debunked at Cretinism or Evilution? No. 3. Further “quote-mine” information and examples dating as early as 1905 are found in Numbers (1992, pg. 50-53), and an large library of quotes are analyzed at Quotations and Misquotations.

We find many of the quotes used by Dembski in his Citizen Magazine article, if not his actual sources, in creationist quote mines and earlier Discovery Institute publications. For example, Dembski’s introduction used a Simon Conway-Morris quote popular in such creationist quote mines as “General Evolution of life Quote Collection:” (See page 48) by the Apologia Project, “a Christian research organization whose aim is to present the unadulterated view of the Christian faith.” We also find it on page 9 of the Discovery institute’s QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT THE DISCOVERY INSTITUTE’S BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SUPPLEMENTARY RESOURCES FOR OHIO SCIENCE INSTRUCTION2. Dembski is fond of it, as he has used it before in William Dembski Testimony for Textbook Hearing, Austin, Texas, September 10, 2003.

An additional feature of ‘classic’ quote mining is the absent or incorrect citation. For example, the quotations used in Dembski’s “Five Questions. . .” are all unreferenced making it difficult to learn the actual intent of the original author.*1 The Conway-Morris quote, for example, was from the opening sentences of his review paper Evolution: Bringing Molecules into the Fold (Cell, 7 January 2000, Vol. 100 pp. 1-11) and, unlike Dembski’s misuse, the article cannot be read as a rejection of evolutionary biology. Conway-Morris, even though he is a theist, is dismissive of creationism (see PZ Myers on Conway-Morris).

William Dembski’s Trip to the Quote Mine:Question 1

The first question Dembski claims “Darwinists” dodge is the paleontological support for evolutionary theory. More specifically, he claims that there are no transitional fossils that demonstrate the relatedness of ancient or living species, and that scientists try to avoid this. Dembski has no experience or expertise in paleontology, and is thus forced to rely on the authority of those who do. It is fascinating, and infuriating that he blatantly ignores their actual opinions to cull bits and pieces he can use to mislead the readers of his article. Dembski handles the tools of quote mining like a seasoned professional. But this mode of argument is fatally flawed for Dembski, because to accept the authority of the sentences he quoted demands he also accepts their authority when correctly cited.

Dembski’s first quote victim is Darwin himself. In fact, Darwin devoted an entire chapter to fossils in his Origin of Species. For a topic that “Darwinists” try to doge, according to Dembski, there has been an inordinate amount of ink and forests of paper used in this discussion. And what scientists call answers, Dembski calls a “dodge.” But, what then is the advice Dembski gives his readers, should they actually pursue this on their own?

Dembski wrote:

“Don’t get lost in the details.”

In other words, Dembski says to just ignore the data. If that wasn’t enough, he admits that, “Yes, the fossil record contains organisms that can be placed in a progression suggesting gradual change.” But, either due to ignorance or malice, he then claims this is the “result from arbitrary picking and choosing.” The science, and practice of taxonomy has received the benefit of thousands of researchers for even longer than creationists have rejected the evidence for evolution; it may be incomplete, and it may even be mistaken at times, but it is not arbitrary. Paleontological taxonomy specifically is structured by time more than any other consideration. To ignore this obvious constraint is to be ignorant in a way that can only be willful.

Dembski, “ Also, such progressions invariably come from organisms with the same basic body plan.” And a bit later, “For instance, there is no fossil evidence whatsoever that insects and vertebrates share a common evolutionary ancestor. The challenge that here confronts evolution is not isolated but pervasive, and comes up most flagrantly in what’s called the Cambrian Explosion.

Consider for a moment these observations from Conway-Morris, an authority that Dembskii accepts,

“In making that connection, we were moving toward resolving a fundamental problem in evolution: How are body plans constructed, and how do new phyla actually emerge? To get from halkieriids, well represented as Lower Cambrian fossils, to Wiwaxia, which thrived in the Middle Cambrian, there is no need to postulate macroevolutionary jumps or some sort of genetic revolution. The haleeriids are not only older than Wiwaxia but also clearly more primitive. In life, halkieriids crawled across the seabed, their scales forming a beautifully arranged protective armor. Wiwaxia looked somewhat similar, but as Butterfield showed, its scales evolved into chaetae. So is Wiwaxia an annelid? It is really a matter of definition, but in my opinion, Wiwaxia is a member of the annelid stem group–a creature still in the process of becoming an annelid. Once scrutinized, the wiwaxiids and the haleeriids, despite their seemingly great differences, are closely related. They may be connected by two simple steps: the scales of halkieriids are transformed into wiwaxiid chaetae, and lobate, leglike extensions develop so that the style of locomotion changes from crawling to a kind of stepping.”

Conway-Morris wrote:

“New discoveries and interpretations have altered our view of arthropod evolution as well. The biggest surprise is Hallucigenia, exemplar of the bizarre. Or is it? Recent finds from the Chinese deposit of Chengjiang reveal that my original reconstruction of this odd-looking, spiky animal had but one simple mistake: I had envisioned it upside down. Hallucigenia (a name coined by a colleague and me in an attempt to capture its dreamlike appearance) may still look strange, but with new discoveries, especially from southern China, Hallucigenia is now seen to belong to a group of primitive arthropods. And what about the famous Anomalocaris, another of Gould’s star oddballs? “Nothing. . .about Anomalocaris suggests a linkage with arthropods,” he writes (in 1989). Now we know better. The discovery, in different species, of lobopod-like legs and jointed appendages along the length of the body not only establishes a link between Anomalocaris and the more primitive Hallucigenia but also is crucial for understanding the appearance of the first arthropods–a group that would eventually radiate into crabs, spiders, and the millions of species of insects. (Conway-Morris and Gould 1998)

In short, the Ediacarian, and Cambrian fauna show, as a scientist that Dembski accepts as authoritative points out, just the evidence that Dembski denied existed. Dembski also cites Stephen Jay Gould as an authority, and Gould agreed in principle that all life shares common ancestry, but he argued that the tempo of evolutionary change was neither fixed, nor consistent.

Now, I suspect that Dembski knew full well that the fossil evidence is clear that the “fundamentally different body plans” evolved in the Pre-Cambrian. Does Dembski propose that there should be a starfish to horse sequence? In that case he should surrender all pretence of understanding the sciences he is criticizing. That his ignorance is feigned, and his real intent is deception is clear when he moves directly to a discussion of the Cambrian “explosion” where he tells a very direct lie,

“In a very brief window of time during the geological period known as the Cambrian, virtually all the basic animal types appeared suddenly in the fossil record with no trace of evolutionary ancestors.” (emphasis added)

Now, a lie is quite different from merely being wrong. In order for a false statement to be a lie, one must know that the statement is false prior to making it. We can even allow Dembski to have been honestly ignorant of any writing other than those he has directly quoted. We can turn to Dembski’s familiarity with the popular writing of Peter Ward. Dembski quotes Peter Ward,

“If ever there was evidence suggesting Divine Creation, surely the Precambrian and Cambrian transition, known from numerous localities across the face of the earth, is it.”

Dembski quoted a bit more in an email responding to our request for his reference,

“The seemingly sudden appearance of skeletonized life has been one of the most perplexing puzzles of the fossil record. How is it that animals as complex as trilobites and brachiopods could spring forth so suddenly, completely formed, without a trace of their ancestors in the underlying strata? If ever there was evidence suggesting Divine Creation, surely the Precambrian and Cambrian transition, known from numerous localities across the face of the earth, is it. “ (Ward, 1992:29, emphasis added by gh)

The main interest here is that Dembski clearly has the text available. So he could not have missed the point that the single sentence he quotes was a ‘framing’ sentence, and was merely rhetorical. Further, he must be accountable for a least the rest of the section he from which he quoted. Following a historical review, Ward resumes,

“Until almost 1950 the absence of metazoan fossils older than Cambrian age continued to puzzle evolutionists and earth historians alike. Other than the remains of single-celled creatures and the matlike stromatolites, it did indeed look as if larger creatures had arisen with a swiftness that made a mockery of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This notion was finally put to rest, however, by the discovery of the Ediacarian and Vendian fossil faunas of the latest Precambrian age. (Pp 35)”

In other words, we learn that science has known for well over 50 years that the supposed “sudden” appearance of Cambrian fossils was invalid, and Dembski has quoted this 12 year-old book in a basically dishonest manner. Ward goes on to explain that the pre-Cambrian fossil assemblage is entirely consistent with evolutionary theory in the clearest possible language,

“The long accepted theory of the sudden appearance of skeletal metazoans at the base of the Cambrian was incorrect: the basal Cambrian boundary marked only the first appearance of relatively large skeleton-bearing forms, such as the trilobites and brachiopods, rather than the first appearance of skeletonized metazoans. Darwin would have been satisfied. The fossil record bore out his conviction that the trilobites and brachiopods appeared only after a long period of evolution of ancestral forms (Pp 36-37, emphasis added).

So, a paleontologist that Dembski accepts as authoritative (else why quote him?) stated plainly that Darwin’s concern about the fossil record has been satisfied in the same section of the same chapter that Dembski earlier quoted. Recall that it was this concern that Dembski claims “Darwinists” dodge. There is no acceptable excuse for Dembski not to have read and understood Ward’s clear meaning. And, for Dembski to have used Ward’s opening rhetorical flourish as authoritative while denying his obvious meaning expanded throughout the chapter is at best hypocritical.

Dembski next moves on to Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was one of the most widely known scientists, and clearly the best known paleontologist of the late 1900s. He was also the most popular with creationists who were drawn to his many exaggerated, and even bombastic pronouncements concerning evolution appearing in the popular press. Robert Wright has pointed out,

“This particular excess has drawn criticism from Gould’s mentor, the renowned biologist Ernst Mayr. In his book “Toward a New Philosophy of Biology” Mayr insists that any plausible version of punctuated equilibrium is “completely consistent” with the modern Darwinian synthesis, and that the engine of change in punctuated equilibrium is natural selection. Mayr should know. He, more than anyone else, created the theory of punctuated equilibrium, decades before Gould gave it that catchy title.” (1999)

Dembski wrote:

“To his credit, the late evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould conceded this point: “The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils.”

This quote from Stephen Jay Gould (1977:181-182) is one of the creationist quote miner’s most basic stock in trade. A Google search of just Gould’s first few words will turn up hundreds of creationist web pages prancing about and cheering over this so-called “concession.” Dembski’s mentor, Phillip E. Johnson has used a distorted version of this quote for years, and it is very likely Dembski took his cue from a Johnson publication that manipulated Gould’s writing, such as Darwin on Trial (1991: 59) that used this ‘quote.’ Indeed, the first question Dembski poses smacks of Johnson’s 1998 essay on Gould, “The Gorbachev of Darwinism” Phillip E. Johnson, First Things 789:14-16.

As Gould wrote in response,“This quotation, although accurate as a partial citation, is dishonest in leaving out the following explanatory material showing my true purpose - to discuss rates of evolutionary change, not to deny the fact of evolution itself.” Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition (1999) Page 28. NAS

Gould also had this to say

“Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim. If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am–for I have become a major target of these practices.”


“Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists–whether through design or stupidity, I do not know–as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.” (1981)

And perhaps we should afford the dead the last word here, as they cannot have it by mere dint of living longest. Gould’s review of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial can be taken as a considered opinion of the totality of Intelligent Design Creationism.

Gould wrote:

“Johnson’s grandiose claims, backed by such poor support in fact and argument, recall a variety of phrases from a mutually favorite source: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind” (Proverbs 11:29, and source for the famous play that dramatized the Scopes trial); “They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). But Darwin on Trial just isn’t good enough to merit such worrisome retorts. The book is scarcely more than an acrid little puff–and I therefore close with a famous line from Darwin’s soulmate, born on the same day of February 12, 1809. Abraham Lincoln wrote: “‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!” (1992)


*1 We emailed and then telephoned Peter Ward to ask him for a citation to this quote. He actually couldn’t recall where he had written this. Ultimately we had to ask William Dembski for the citation, which he promptly provided. We would like to thank him publicly for this courtesy. Professor Ward was not at all pleased, and wished us to convey to Dr. Dembski his displeasure at his writing being manipulated in this fashion. We consider this as done herein.

*2 The use of Conway-Morris’, and other scientists’ writing by the Discovery Institute’s efforts to introduce creationism into public school science is discussed in Analysis of the Discovery Institute’s Bibliography.

*3 Scientists respond to IDC: Robert T. Pennock (Editor) 2001 Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives MIT Press

Mark Perakh 2003 Unintelligent Design New York: Prometheus Press

Niall Shanks and Richard Dawkins 2004) God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory Oxford University Press

Matt Young, Tanner Edis (Editors), (available July 2004) Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism Rutgers University Press

Barbara Carroll Forrest, Paul R. Gross 2004 Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design Oxford University Press


We would like to acknowledge the editorial assistance of Dick Hoppe and Reed Cartwright. Of course, all errors of fact or inference are the authors’ very own.


Conway-Morris, S., and S. J. Gould.

  1. Showdown on the Burgess shale. Natural History 107 (December/January): 48-55.

Gould, Stephen Jay 1977 “The Episodic Nature of Evolutionary Change” Natural History, Vol. 86(5) May, p. 14. Reprinted in The Panda’s Thumb 1980, pp. 179-185.

  1. Impeaching a self-appointed judge. Scientific American 267 (1): 118-121.

“Evolution as Fact and Theory, May 1981” in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, p. 253-262.

Johnson, Phillip E. 1998 “The Gorbachev of Darwinism” First Things 789:14-16.

Myers, PZ 2004 “Curse You Simon Conway-Morris”]

Ward, Peter Douglas 1992 On Methuselah’s Trail: Living Fossils and the Great Extinctions (New York: W. H. Freeman,).

Wright, Robert 1999 “THE ACCIDENTAL CREATIONIST: Why Stephen Jay Gould is bad for evolution.” The New Yorker, Dec. 13.