2016-07-27
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.

    Why do I say this? Why should my beliefs--my evolutionary beliefs--be given unique status in biology classes? First, because teaching an essentially religious theory like ID--outside of the "comparative religions" scenario I've described--is illegal. ID is religion carefully disguised as science to get around the Constitution--that is why ID supporters rarely talk explicitly of God--but it is religion nevertheless. If the Supreme Court rules otherwise, then that will not be the first time that the Supreme Court has been wrong.

    The case against "teaching the issues"
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  • More importantly, ID should not be taught because it is not fruitful as science. Saying that the designer did something is what the philosopher Alvin Plantinga has labeled a "science stopper." If you say that someone intervened, then you are stuck about what to do next. The successful scientist, including the scientist who spends all day Sunday on his or her knees in church praying, is a methodological atheist. Science works by assuming blind law and then going out to find it. Putting matters bluntly, today's biologists argue that Darwinian evolutionary theory works; it is well tested; and although there are controversies (for instance, over the paleontological theory of punctuated equilibrium promoted by the late Stephen Jay Gould), the theory is accepted. On the other hand, ID theory adds nothing to our store of knowledge. It is promoted only because people have religious beliefs they hold dear, and that is simply not the basis for good science.
    But what about the argument that students should be allowed to decide for themselves? Put both Darwinism and ID on the exam, and do not penalize a student for opting for one over the other? With all due respect to the president, that is nonsense. Good education is not a matter of indifferently offering to students a range of options--a kind of intellectual smorgasbord--and then letting them choose. Good education is teaching the best that you have, together with the critical skills to take inquiry further--perhaps indeed overturning everything that we hold dear. If I heard that my university's med students had to take time out from surgery or pharmacology in order to learn the principles of faith healing or witch-doctoring, because some people believe in them, I would be appalled--and so would you.

    So, I say: ID is religion. It is Creationism Lite. Teach students about it in comparative religion courses, along with Christian ideas and the ideas of other faiths. But keep it out of biology classes. It has no proper place in them.

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