‘Intelligent Design’ Belongs in Church, Not Biology Class

Posted June 17, 2005 at 5:47pm

“Intelligent Design,” the religious alternative to Darwinism, ought to be taught in schools — Sunday schools and high school social studies or history classes. But in biology classes? No way. [IMGCAP(1)]

In about 20 states — most notably, right now, before the Kansas Board of Education — conservative Christians are trying to demand “equal time” for ID and evolution as the explanation for how life developed on earth.

But ID isn’t science. Its concepts can’t be independently verified. In essence, ID holds that living organisms are so complex that they couldn’t be the product of blind natural forces, but had to be the work of a Designer — or, at least, a designer.

The scientific problem is this: There is no way to locate actual evidence of a designer, be it small-d or big-D. Proponents of ID, including some sophisticated scientists, point to holes in Darwinian explanations for the development of life and say that only “intelligent design” can fill the gap. But that’s not proof of design.

Kansas’ conservative-dominated Board of Education seems to be on the verge of changing its state standards for science education by removing evolution as the preferred concept for students to learn in biology and creating a toss-up with ID.

In 2001, when Congress considered President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) tried to mandate that challenges to Darwinism be included in school curricula. He got a favorable vote in the Senate, but the provision didn’t make it into the final law.

Charles Darwin transformed science in 1859 and set off a political and philosophical storm that hasn’t stopped by arguing in “The Origin of Species” that life forms have evolved by a process of random genetic mutations and the added (and cruel) process of “natural selection” whereby only the fittest mutants survived and reproduced.

It’s essentially a God-less theory, and religious conservatives have been at war with it ever since, most famously in the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial in Tennessee that pitted lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan against each other.

Technically, the conservative side won the court battle — biology teacher John Scopes was fined $100 for teaching evolution — but Darwin triumphed almost everywhere else. The U.S. Supreme Court has twice struck down laws requiring the teaching of biblical creationism as breaching the barrier between church and state.

It’s remarkable that, despite the preference for evolution in school curricula and overwhelming scientific evidence, polls consistently show that at least a plurality of adults — sometimes a majority — still hold the creationist belief that God created humans within the past 10,000 years.

In a 2004 CBS poll, only 27 percent supported the belief — one that has been endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church — that humans evolved from lesser species, but that God guided the process. And only 13 percent believe in pure Darwinism — that humans evolved without divine intervention.

Sixty-five percent of those polled said that both creationism and evolution should be taught in schools. Fully 37 percent favored teaching creationism instead of evolution.

Scientific critics of ID gibe that it’s “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” or “creationism with God remaining anonymous,” but that’s not true.

Leading ID theorists — they are organized through the Seattle-based Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute — have long since abandoned “young earth” biblical literalism, accepting scientific evidence that the earth is billions of years old.

In fact, even though it receives much of its funding from religious conservatives, ID doesn’t totally dismiss evolution or claim that the “intelligence” behind the universe is divine.

This constitutes such a retreat from old-line creationism and some commentators have said that the American scientific community should pocket the victory and, instead of turning their backs on ID as beneath debate, engage its advocates and prove them wrong.

In fact, that’s happened to some extent —among other places, in a printed 2002 debate in “Natural History” magazine in which establishment scientists pretty well refuted the contentions of leading ID scientists Michael Behe, a Lehigh University biochemist, and William Dembski, a mathematician and theologian at Baylor University, that the complexity of cells and organisms implied “design” and a “designer.”

As Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller wrote, “if Behe wishes to suggest that the intricacies of nature, life and the universe reveal a world of meaning and purpose consistent with a divine intelligence, his point is philosophical, not scientific. It is a philosophical view, incidentally, that I share. However, to support that view, one should not find it necessary to pretend that we know less than we really do about the evolution of living systems.”

A valuable primer on the proofs of Darwinism was published by National Geographic magazine in November 2004 (“Was Darwin Wrong? No.”), arguing that evolutionary theory is sustained by numerous lines of inquiry from fossil studies through the microbiology of infectious diseases.

The ability of various microbes — bacteria like staphylococcus and viruses like HIV — to quickly develop immunity to the medicines invented to combat them is evolution in real-time, according to writer David Quammen.

Personally, I think that high school students ought to be taught about disputes between religion and science, but in a history class that covers the suppression of Galileo and the battles over Darwin.

They also ought to be taught that no one knows for sure what caused life to originate on earth or what caused the creation of the universe. I favor the religious view of this, but there’s a secular view that students should know about, too.

But as to the “how” of biology — the science — schools should teach the best evidence available, which is evolutionary theory. That’s especially true when a majority of Americans still think the world is only 10,000 years old.