The Discovery Institute: a change or just a pause?

[Hurricane Rita]
Hurricane Rita on 21 Sept. 2005 as a
category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico
NASA satellite image downloaded from Wikimedia. Public domain


Jerry Coyne has published a post at his blog, Why Evolution Is True asking “Has the Discovery Institute changed its mission?” After a review of the DI’s mission statements, the goals in its 1998 Wedge Document, and information on its funding, he notes that they are still well-funded and active. Nowadays the activity is making human-exceptionalist arguments about AI, and highlighting “problems of evolution”.

Previous campaigns to “teach the controversy” and introduce ID into the classroom were rejected by the courts, culminating in the famous Dover School Board case of 2005. Here is Jerry’s summary:

This is where creationism in America has gotten to. It started with mandating Biblical creationism in schools, and when that was rejected they tried to get “scientific creationism” taught, but that failed, too, as it was just Biblical creationism gussied up in scientific language. Then it became the “teach the alternatives” (evolution/Biblical creationism), which was declared unconstitutional since the Biblical alternative was just religion pushed into the public schools. Then the strategy became “teach intelligent design (which isn’t creationism),” something that federal judge John Jones deep-sixed in the Kitzmiller case. Now the pathetic institute is reduced to just pointing out problems with evolution, but nobody’s adopting that strategy either.

I wonder whether this isn’t too reassuring. Here’s why …

Their AI initiative

First, an aside on their AI initiative. This is concentrated in the relatively new Walter Bradley Center of Natural and Artificial Intelligence. It seeks to present mathematical arguments that artificial intelligence will never be able to achieve true natural intelligence. This is a human-exceptionalism argument, which implicitly works against human intelligence having evolved by unintelligent processes. But I can’t see how it plays out in the public sphere. (I suppose that judging whether true natural intelligence has been achieved is to be done by a panel of True Scotsmen).

Is it all over?

With the 2005 Jones decision in the Dover case, there seemed to be no chance that courts would allow the Religious Right to teach creationism, even in its ID guise. The precedents were all clear: Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982), Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), and finally Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board (2005). These rulings presented a huge legal barrier for introducing creationist and ID arguments into schools. It was settled precedent, as well established as, well, say Roe v. Wade.

And there lies the problem. With a right-wing supermajority on the Supreme Court, and with the Federalist Society shepherding hundreds of right-wing federal judges into the lower courts, there is now no guarantee that any of these precedents will be effective. (And yes, I’m aware that Kitzmiller is not formally precedent at the national level). It’s not paranoia to foresee that

  • State legislators will continue to introduce bills allowing teachers to introduce creationist and ID material into their classes
  • and bills demanding equal time for this material
  • and bills mandating discussion of “problems of evolution”
  • Local teachers and their school boards will feel uninhibited in violating separation of church and state
  • Governors and legislatures in Red states will delight in pushing measures that reward the Religious Right.
  • Appeals against these in the courts will fare badly, and no one will be able to foresee success at the Supreme Court.

Low expectations

It’s true that right now (or perhaps I should say “Right now”) wars over evolution are not very visible. The Right in general, and the Religious Right in particular, are concentrating on demonizing transgender people and LGBTQ+ rights more generally.

But alongside desperate struggles to defend democracy and human rights more generally, we will see gradually increasing efforts to attack the teaching of evolutionary biology at all levels. Waiting for the courts to do the right thing will only end with them doing the Right thing.

We are in for a long period of war in the trenches, including struggles to provide good and accessible resources for studying and teaching evolutionary biology, not just for biology students but for interested folks in general. And yes, the DI will be there, brewing their usual noxious stew.


In the longer run I’m hopeful, because I think that many students will understand that this struggle is going on, and where the attacks on evolution are coming from. And most young people won’t buy them.

Any thoughts?