Posted by: cjobrien | 18 April 2008

Getting Archaeology Engaged In The Intelligent Design Debate

I am at the Society for California Archaeology meetings in sunny Burbank, CA this week. As I posted previously, I was working on something to be unveiled today, coinciding with the opening of Expelled. I gave folks a hint in the last post, by referring to the program for the SCA meetings. Anyone looking at that might have noted the following paper being presented in the symposium entitled Public Lands Archaeology: 35 Years of Cultural Resources Management on Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service Public Lands:

Of Turkeys, Timber Sales and Intelligent Design: Is Federal Archaeology More than CRM? Christopher O’Brien, Lassen National Forest

I gave that paper this afternoon, noting during the presentation the irony of it being given on the same day Expelled is set to open. I even showed the Expelled movie poster for a moment, but then switched to a slide of the Expelled Exposed website, suggesting that the audience would not want to look at Ben Stein’s face for too long. The main thrust of the paper was to suggest to my federal archaeology colleagues that we must do more than just “flag and avoid” archaeological sites. And while I talked about turkey historical ecology in California, the lack of knowledge most of the public has with regard to historical processes, and that federal archaeologists should take a more active role in public education regarding science education, the highlight was my assessment of archaeology’s role in the debate over Intelligent Design. Some excerpts from today’s paper:

The direct issues that we confront as federal archaeologists, especially with regard to a public that does not adequately comprehend the historical context in which we plan and implement on-the-ground projects, is intertwined with a much broader issue that affects us on multiple levels. I am talking about the war on science. If we consider our discipline a scientific endeavor and not merely a casual fulfillment of academic curiosity, then archaeology must pull its collective head out of the excavation pit and recognize when science and science education are under attack. We can no longer simply leave the war to the biologists, geologists and climatologists. Archaeology is part of the science continuum and we must engage aggressively in educating the public about archaeology specifically, but about science in general….


Not content with attempting to purloin false archaeological credentials by nefariously claiming directorship status on volunteer archaeology projects, these charlatans of the anti-science movement have now recruited archaeology as an ally in its most current manifestation: intelligent design.  [ I would point out that today the pro-intelligent design/anti-Darwin movie Expelled opens across the country and have note the irony of my presentation at this particular moment in time]. Intelligent Design, referred to by many as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”, claims there is evidence for design among living organism and that evolutionary theory is not sufficient to account for that design. Many of you are probably familiar with the concept and I won’t bore you with the details at the moment. It  will probably change in the next 20 minutes anyway as the most consistent feature of Intelligent Design is its inconsistency with respect to substance and definition. The issue here is that proponents of Intelligent Design regularly hijack archaeological method and theory to cite as a metaphor for our poor biologist cousins who can’t seem to accept the concept of design in nature. ID proponents insist that the archaeologists are all about “identifying design” in the archaeological record and seem to think there is an analogy to be drawn between an archaeologist’s recognition of intelligent design in artifacts and their own identification of intelligent design in biological systems. Nothing could be further from the truth. Design in archaeology is not “self evident”; it belies centuries of thought on archaeological method and theory, ethnographic analogy, experimentation with raw materials and an appreciation for context. A lot of hard methodological and theoretical work has gone into method and theory distinguishing the signatures of human intervention from those attributed to natural processes. More importantly, archaeologists never separate the design from the designer (something ID proponents do regularly): understanding the material culture is only a proximate goal of archaeology. Archaeology’s ultimate goal is to understand human behavior, i.e. the nature of the designer.


Certainly, our academic and contract archaeology brethren are either blissfully unaware of the public perceptions of archaeology or have purposely chosen to remain ensconced in the ivory tower. I once heard a well-known contract archaeologist in California largely dismiss the creation-evolution debate by suggesting, “if you take antibiotics, you have to be a proponent of natural selection”. From an academic biological perspective, how absolutely true; and yet in the broader scheme of public perception…how utterly naïve. When your opponents long ago abandoned issues of microevolution and switched to using analogies with the archeological Antikythera Mechanism as valid scientific methodology for inferring design in biological systems, you are way behind the curve ball in the public debate over science. 

But the following presentation was the highlight:

If you don’t think this issue has anything to do with federal archaeology then I offer you this: the Antiquity editorial was prompted by an article written, not by an academic archaeologist, or a contract archaeologist. It was written by a United States federal archaeologist. As professional scientists we have a role to play in science education; and our role in this is probably greater given the significant public outreach we engage in relative to our academic and contracting counterparts. If you still think this is not federal archaeology’s business, or are more comfortable avoiding such issues and sticking with flag and avoid archaeology, or if you happen to accept intelligent design as a valid scientific method (and I submit there are more individuals accepting intelligent design in the audience than many of you may realize) let me offer you an image.

If you are asking where I’m going with this, in the immortal words of William Wallace…[I then flashed the following picture]:

I’m going to pick a fight.

I challenge the SCA to develop a statement of scientific standing and declare that archaeology is a professional discipline adhering to principles of sound scientific investigation and rejects intelligent design and similar anti-science pursuits because they are not scientific in methodology. I challenge the SAA to do the same. And I challenge federal archaeologists in this room to make proper science education part of every public outreach, be it a brochure, an interpretive panel, a public lecture or a public archaeological project. Emphasize the professionalism of archaeological research and the scientific foundation upon which it is based to your public audiences. Whether we are talking turkeys, timber sales or intelligent design, federal archaeology needs to be more than just CRM – we are the face of archaeology that the public sees most often; we reach the largest audiences; we are presented with the best opportunities to engage the public and educate them about the importance and professionalism of archaeology.

I plan to clean the paper up, expand some points a bit and add some references. I’ll have it available to anyone who would like a copy after that. I’ll also let everyone know what kind of feedback I get at the bar tonight….



  1. Good job! Thanks for putting that so forcefully.

  2. Excellent! I would love a copy…

  3. Nicely stated, I’ll be looking forward to hearing about the feedback you get: I hope you aren’t correct about the number of IDists in your audience.

  4. I am not an archaeologist( I am a writer) but I would dearly love a copy of your paper. At a first casual reading it seems to me to be also applicable to the noisome community of alternative ‘archaeologists’ (of which we have more than our fair share, here…)
    Kia ora, cheers n/n Keri

  5. Get post, let me know if you guys need any art for the whole statement against ID. I’d be happy to wave any fees, that nonsense needs to be delt with.



  6. I would have thought that any archaeologist would be painfully aware that “the public” has a different view of archaeology than they do. Basically, they think of archaeology as Indiana Jones, if they think about it at all. BTW, I, too, am a writer, and I would also like a copy of your paper when it becomes available. But obviously, to get back to the subject at hand, some of these archaeologists aare unaware of, or do not factor in, the phenomenon of cognitive consistency/inconsistency here. And a lot of people with creationist leanings(e.g., most people in the US), there is a definite disconnect between taking antibiotics(which is part of evolution, though they don’t realize it), and the creation/evolution debate. People simply don’t think of the two as related at all, which is why the famous contract archaeologist was wrong. They are connected, and it’s up to the science community, of which archaeology and anthropology are a part, to show that they are.
    Anne G

  7. Excellent, Chris. Would love a copy of the cleaned up version. Cheers, Eric

  8. I’ll probably submit it to the SCA Proceedings for this year and will have copies available for those who expressed an interest.

    Brett – thanks for the offer…and great artwork by the way…everyone needs to check out your site.

    Anne – I know the contract archaeologist personally (used to work for him as a undergraduate, actually) and let me make it clear that he is as concerned with the public debate over evolution as any of us. I think you’re right about the disconnect between microevolution and species evolution, but the point I was really trying to get to was that many of our own professionals understand the connection and see it as supportive of evolution, but don’t fully realize that the public doesn’t see it as “self-evident”. In a lot of ways, they really don’t understand the debate and have not become publicly active in it…as they should.

  9. Eric – by the way, I also discussed the “faux archaeologist” problem, using you and your book as one of the few areas where this is being addressed….I flashed a photo of your book on the screen, so hopefully I got you some miles in book sales!….more on that in a separate blog…

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