So-called intelligent design is getting a lot of media attention in America at the moment. Its supporters are pushing hard to have it introduced into the science classes of the nation's public schools, there to be taught alongside evolutionary theory. ID supporters argue that students should be "taught the issues"--meaning they should be exposed to the various beliefs that Americans have about biological origins--and then allowed to decide for themselves.
The ID movement is having considerable success in its aims. Several school boards in states as different as Kansas and Pennsylvania have decided (or are in the process of deciding) that ID should be taught in biology classes. Very recently the movement has gained significant support, for President George W. Bush has agreed publicly that ID should be taught. It is no exaggeration to say that if President Bush gets to mold the Supreme Court to his own ends--and he is obviously trying just that right now--then by the end of the decade we might well see the court allowing ID into schools. Already three justices (Rehnquist, Thomas, and Scalia) have expressed support for such a move.Two questions should be asked. What is intelligent design? Should it be taught in schools? Answering the first, the claim is that in the history of life on this planet, at some point or points, an intelligence intervened to move things along. This was necessary, argue ID theorists, because life shows "irreducible complexity," and blind law--especially the Darwinian evolutionary theory that depends on natural selection--cannot explain such complexity. Only an intelligence is able to do this.Is ID a form of creationism, meaning a form of biblical literalism that takes the early chapters of Genesis as the basis for world history--six days of creation, six thousand years ago, universal flood, and so forth? Not in so many words at all.
A creationist's views encompass ID, but an ID supporter might not accept biblical literalism. In fact, although some ID supporters are literalists, most are not. The leaders of the movement--the retired lawyer Phillip Johnson, the biochemist Michael Behe, and the philosopher and mathematician William Dembski--all believe in a very old earth, and they all embrace some measure (for Behe, particularly, a large measure) of evolution. The point is that none of these people think that natural selection alone--or any natural-law-driven mechanism--can explain everything.Having made this distinction, however, I do think that ID and creationism have more than a few links. Supposedly, the ID people do not specify what kind of intelligence is involved in getting over the hump of irreducible complexity, but it is pretty clear in their writings that this intelligence is the Christian God. No one thinks that a super-bright grad student on Andromeda is running an experiment here on planet Earth, and that every now and then he or she jiggles things about a bit to see what will happen. Dembski, for one, has been explicit that he sees the designing intelligence as the Logos talked of at the beginning of Saint John's Gospel.

Why give evolution unique status in biology classes?


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  • I believe that there is an even greater tie between creationism and ID. Both groups worry about right living--"moral values," in today's jargon.
    Traditional creationists like Henry Morris and Duane T. Gish are explicit "premillennial Dispensationalists," meaning that they think that Jesus is going to return soon, lead the troops at the battle of Armageddon, and then rule the earth for a thousand years before the Last Judgment. This means that all human efforts at progress are pointless. Better to concentrate on personal purity and converting people, so that God will be pleased with you when he returns.Some ID folk (the philosopher of science, Paul Nelson, for example) share these eschatological views. Most do not. But they do seem to agree with the creationists that moral values are the real issue, and that evolution points to a different--a wrong--kind of future.Again and again, ID writings go off on moral crusades--moral crusades in the direction of traditional evangelical Christianity. Johnson particularly is always fulminating against modern society--divorce, single mothers, kids in jail, homosexuality, cross-dressing (a particular Johnson bugaboo), and more. Turn now to the second question. Should this sort of stuff be taught in schools? I do expect morality to be taught, or at least I expect the kids to leave school with a sense of moral values.
    I do not share all of the ID values--I think gays are just regular people--but I recognize that Americans have different values, and I can see that schools should try to reflect this a bit. I do not want everyone in Kansas to come out a bigot, but obviously teachers are going to reflect their societies. Overall, I want teachers to teach children the worth of every human being and the common decencies that go with that realization.I am quite happy with the teaching of ID in courses on religion--not theology, but comparative religion or world religion. In such classes, ID would not be taught as the truth, but as a system to which others subscribe. Personally, I think that we have a crying need for courses in comparative religion. I want to see various kinds of Christianity covered, but also other religions. In this day and age, I think every American child should have at least a nodding acquaintance with Islam, so that we can know what people in Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan truly believe. However, I argue strongly against teaching ID in biology classes in state-supported schools. If people want to do this in privately funded religious schools, well, that is one of the costs of democracy.
    But state schools are another matter. In 1981, I went down to the State of Arkansas as an expert witness (in the philosophy of science) to aid the ACLU in a successful attempt to beat back a creationism-friendly law. I would do the same today to beat back an ID-friendly law.