The debate over "intelligent design," a topic on the borderland between science and theology, has climbed its way to two new pinnacles lately: the White House and the Vatican.
Last month, a leading cardinal said that despite church acknowledgment of evolution, it still teaches divine design in nature. When President Bush was recently asked whether he supported teaching intelligent design in public school science, he said students should learn all views. [Read transcript of Bush's remarks.]
For Americans, the idea of finding design and purpose in nature is not unusual, according to polls. But when compounded with the politics of public schools, the authority of science in society, and the culture war led by religious conservatives, "design" can be a fighting word.
It all began when Charles Darwin said his theory of evolution had disproved design in nature. He declared that natural causes could explain life. Although the world looked designed, he said, it actually was produced by the blind action of the environment on random variations in organisms.
A century and a half later, Darwin's stance continues to be official among U.S. science organizations and in biology textbooks. Advocacy for design is taken as not only an attack on Darwinian evolution, but on science itself.
Design was not the war cry back in the 1980s, when Christian conservatives tried to mandate a Bible-oriented "creation science" in schools. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled it an unconstitutional intrusion of religion, but added that a "variety of scientific theories about the origins" of life could be taught.
More recently, design theory has presented itself as part of that scientific variety. Evolutionists have called it a revived creationism, a Trojan horse trying to sneak inside the gates of the science classroom.
Despite the heated rhetoric, both the evolutionist (E) and intelligent design (ID) sides have sophisticated arguments, which are worth a brief rehearsal:
E: Science only looks at natural causes, such as laws and chance. Purpose and design are religious concepts.
ID: Science also looks for rational explanations, and one is that information and complexity in nature require intelligence, a source of design and purpose. We don't have to ask whether this intelligence is God or some other law or power.
E. But virtually all scientists reject design. Science is not a democracy, so its authoritative statements must be taught.
ID: Dissent and criticism is good for science and a liberal education. Some dissenting scientists find design to be a rational explanation for complex molecular machinery, the rise of biology from physics, the DNA code and human consciousness.
E. Such attempts to criticize Darwinism and inject design are purely political, since it is the voting power of religious activists and not scientific journals that pushes design theory.
ID: Politics is a fact of life, especially in a taxpayer's democracy. Papers by design theorists have been barred from science journals intentionally.
The political battles over design began a few years ago in Washington D.C. and Ohio, where some lawmakers wanted students to learn problems with evolution and hear design alternatives.
In 2002, the Ohio school board held the first public hearings pitting two intelligent design theorists against two evolutionists. The Kansas school board attempted the same public debate this year, but evolutionists refused to attend, sending a lawyer instead.
The design strategy shifted during the Ohio debate. Rather than require that students learn a design alternative, its advocates said, students should simply hear criticism of Darwinism. This was the "teach the controversy" approach.
Official science organizations insisted there is no controversy to be taught. But soon enough, they had to face embarrassing new revelations aired by design advocates that two classic textbook examples of evolution--peppered moths and embryos--bordered on fraud. The moth photographs were simulated and the science linked to them was dubious. And even scientists conceded that the nineteenth-century embryo drawings were doctored so that their similarity of shape supported the idea of common descent.
The textbook flaws have riveted school boards and given the "teach the controversy" argument steam in several states. Only one county school board (in Pennsylvania), however, has mandated that intelligent design be added to courses on biological evolution.
Both sides have had an image problem that is hard to shake. Some Bible believers who fought for creation science have become self-appointed foot soldiers of intelligent design advocacy, and this has muddied the scientific credentials the movement professes. In turn, the science organizations have looked smug and authoritarian in their demand for public deference.
Now, Bush and the Vatican have been drawn into this whirlwind with their own dilemmas. Although Bush advocates local control, he is also father of the federal education standards, which include orthodox evolution. The federal standards have come into conflict with some local school boards.
When Cardinal Christopher Schonborn, the archbishop of Vienna, declared publicly that the church teaches there is design in nature, he seemed to reverse the pro-evolution stance of a famed 1996 papal declaration that evolution was "more than a hypothesis."
The Catholic Church holds that "by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world," the cardinal said in the New York Times on July 7. Evolutionary common ancestry "might be true," he said, but random and unguided evolution is not. "Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science."
While the church does not claim scientific credentials, the cardinal's statement is significant because so many evolutionists had relied on the 1996 declaration to say orthodox Darwinism had no conflict with religion--there was "no controversy" here either.
In the face of Cardinal Schonborn's obvious desire for controversy, three top U.S. biologists active in fighting the intelligent design movement have written to Pope Benedict XVI to urge affirmation of the pro-evolution stance. It is crucial that the church "not build a new divide, long ago eradicated, between the scientific method and religious belief," wrote the biologists, two of them of Catholic backgrounds.
While Bush's comment hopes to isolate the dust-up at the local level, Schonborn is hoping to widen the debate, especially in Europe. The church builds its arguments about morality, gender, and life issues on the idea of natural law. Natural law, a divine universal order known by reason, is jettisoned by neo-Darwinism but finds support in design theory.
In thoughtful books and academic forums, a respectful debate on design in science had gotten underway. But in political arenas, it invariably generates more heat than light. Meanwhile, teachers and students typically work this out gingerly behind closed doors in the classroom.