Debating with Evolution Deniers

Deborah Lipstadt, the distinguished expert on the Holocaust, refuses to debate with Holocaust deniers. If I remember a radio interview correctly, Prof. Lipstadt said, in so many words, “I do not debate with liars.” In her view, a respected historian’s debating Holocaust deniers would give them and their views stature and credibility they do not deserve. Indeed, the very fact of a debate will imply that there is something to debate, that Holocaust denial is a legitimate intellectual endeavor.

Evolution deniers such as intelligent-design creationists may not be consciously fabricating anything, but their intellectual output is as devoid of content as Holocaust denial. Debating or collaborating with them, it seems to me, will imply that there is something to debate, that evolution denial is a legitimate intellectual endeavor.

It is a pity, then, that the noted philosopher, Michael Ruse, saw fit to collaborate with William Dembski in an edited volume for Cambridge University Press. Indeed, on a recent edition of Science Friday on NPR, a representative of the Discovery Institute spoke of the Ruse-Dembski collaboration with approbation:

Recently the Cambridge University Press published a book entitled “Debating Design,” with a variety of scientists both making the case for design and criticizing the case for design and defending the traditional Darwinian position. And when school boards find out about this debate, they think, ‘Gee, our students would really benefit from learning about it.’ And I think that’s a great educational idea, and I don’t see any legal reason why students should be prevented from learning about it.


Well, I think there’s a distinction between the state of intelligent design theory as a way of exploring the scientific question and the policy of mandating it as part of the curriculum. We think it’s a great idea if a teacher has the urge to present this debate in a way, just as the Cambridge University Press presented the debate–obviously made age-appropriate in terms of the way the concepts are explained. But if the teacher has that urge, go right ahead and do that. We believe that’s legally permissible and great education.

Kenneth Miller of Brown University tried some damage control,

…I think there’s a pretty good reason for not mandating the teaching of intelligent design, and that is–and this is something that’s become apparent to people in Ohio and people in Kansas and people in Pennsylvania who’ve looked at the issue. And that is, there’s nothing to teach. And what I mean by that is–and I was one of the essayists in the Cambridge University volume that he is referring to. And what you see in that is that there simply is–even in the views of its proponents, there is no evidence for design, and that the papers in that booklet talking about design are really a collection of arguments against Darwinism, against evolution, I should say–arguments that I might add are pretty easily refuted.

but I am afraid that Prof. Ruse has collaborated with evolution deniers and may have given them precisely the credibility that so concerned Prof. Lipstadt.


Before you ask, I make distinctions among appearing on a scheduled radio program on which evolution deniers may also appear, engaging in a formal debate with evolution deniers, and actively collaborating with them. The line is fuzzy, but I draw it at debating. I am sure Prof. Ruse had his reasons for drawing it elsewhere, and I am sorry if this article causes him any embarrassment.

You may find the Science Friday program, “Teaching Evolution,” at

Deborah Lipstadt’s home page is You may find an article about a libel suit against Prof. Lipstadt at,, or

The Dembski-Ruse collaboration is Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA, William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse (eds.), Cambridge, New York, 2004.

This article may be freely reproduced on the Web, provided that it is reproduced in its entirety and the copyright notice and the original URL are displayed. Copyright © 2004 by Matt Young.