2016-07-27
A legal battle is currently raging over whether it is constitutional to teach the theory of intelligent design (ID) in public school science classrooms. The controversy started when the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, required science teachers to read a 4-paragraph disclaimer that mentions intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinian evolutionary theory as an explanation for biological origins. Within two months, the ACLU helped file a lawsuit to ban the disclaimer, and intelligent design, from Dover classrooms.

This past week, the Discovery Institute filed an Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court) brief supporting the school district in its claim that it is constitutional to teach students about the theory of intelligent design in science classes. But the story is a bit more complicated than that.

Ever since Dover instituted its disclaimer policy, the Discovery Institute has opposed it publicly, because it requires teachers to teach a subject about which they may know very little. Unfortunately, many critics of intelligent design have promulgated an urban legend about the theory, wrongly contending that it claims "life is so complex that it could not have evolved, therefore God must have done it."

Such a straw-man version of intelligent design is widely believed to be true, and science teachers as a whole could themselves use a course in intelligent design before it should be mandated. Additionally, the meaning of the policy is difficult to interpret, and it employs controversial "evolution is theory . not fact" language. Nonetheless, intelligent design is a bona fide scientific theory, and there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching about intelligent design in the science classroom. Most important, as a matter of academic freedom, teachers should be able to mention these scientific ideas in the classroom without fear of threats from the ACLU.

It is no secret that ID theory is a fairly young scientific theory, currently supported by a minority of scientists. But the scientific community is debating it. In the past year, three peer-reviewed research articles have been published in mainstream scientific journals supporting ID theory. In the past five years, three high-profile academic publishers-including Cambridge University, Michigan State University, and MIT Press-have published volumes with articles from pro-ID and anti-ID scholars debating the scientific merits of intelligent design.

Unfortunately, when school boards mandate the teaching of such a new and controversial idea, they politicize a debate that should be taking place among scientists, free from political considerations. Schools boards are best advised to require the teaching of something long-established in the literature: that Neo-Darwinism fails to account for much of what we observe in biology.

The difference between Dover and Scopes
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  • Yet despite Dover's poor policy choices, they did nothing unconstitutional simply by requiring that teachers mention ID. So why the lawsuit? To greatly oversimplify this case, the ACLU's arguments can be broken into three categories:

  • Dover had predominantly religious motivations, and did not rely upon secular purposes, in enacting their policy.

  • Dover's policy employs "evolution is theory . not fact" language, which has a primary effect of advancing religion.

  • Intelligent design is an "inherently religious view" such that teaching it will in all circumstances, have a primary effect of advancing religion.
  • The ACLU's first argument is specific to the facts, actions, and events that have taken place in the Dover Area School District. Those facts are being argued in court, and we have no way to know their veracity. But regardless of what the Dover Area School Board has actually done, a school district can teach about intelligent design for a variety of secular purposes, including informing students about competing scientific theories of biological origins, helping students to better understand Neo-Darwinism, and enhancing critical thinking skills. Regarding the second argument, intelligent design could be taught without using controversial "evolution is theory . not fact" language. Thus, Discovery is most interested in the ACLU's third argument.

    Yet, in the third argument, the ACLU states that teaching design is unconstitutional in all circumstances because it postulates a "supernatural designer" and could not be taught for legitimate secular purposes. But the ACLU's arguments do not hold up to scrutiny.


    The textbook referred to in the Dover disclaimer, "Of Pandas and People," explains that intelligent design theory does not address religious about the nature or identity of the designer. Consider these two clear disclaimers from "Pandas":

    "[I]f we go further and conclude that the intelligence responsible for biological origins is outside the universe (supernatural) or within it, we do so without the help of science." (pg. 127)

    "[T]he concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs and normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as a young earth, a global flood, or even the existence of the Christian God. All it implies is that life had an intelligent source." (pg. 161)

    "Pandas" makes it clear that when it comes to the nature or identity of the designer, "the intelligent design explanation has unanswered questions." (pg. 126) Thus design refrains from untestable, unscientific, or unconstitutional claims about God, or the "supernatural." There should be nothing illegal about teaching students something we can learn through scientific method: that life bears the informational characteristics we commonly find in objects we know were designed.

    Admittedly, these issues can be challenging for courts. When a biology classroom investigates "how humans arose," it is going to provide answers that might support, or conflict with a wide variety of religious beliefs of students. For example, teaching that life was designed by intelligence might conflict with the religious beliefs of an atheist student. Similarly, teaching that humans arose through blind, purposeless Neo-Darwinian processes conflicts with the religious beliefs of many theist students who believe that God supernaturally intervened to make humans or other organisms through "special creation." How, then, can we teach biological origins?

    Thankfully, courts have legal doctrines to cope with such quandaries. Government policies can be constitutional if the "principal" or "primary" effect does not "advance" or "inhibit" religion. If teaching about intelligent design establishes religion, then by the same logic teaching Neo-Darwinism should have a similar primary effect, since (as even plaintiffs have acknowledged) both theories have larger religious, or anti-religious implications. However, since both intelligent design and Neo-Darwinism make their claims based upon empirical evidence, teaching both theories has a primary effect that advances scientific knowledge. Any effects upon religion are merely "incidental," or "secondary."

    In the Scopes Trial of 1925, the ACLU rightly sought to prevent a state from banning the teaching of evolution. Today the roles are reversed: now it is the Darwinists and the ACLU who seek to ban the legitimate science of intelligent design from the classroom.

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