SCIENCE: The case for intelligent design in the classroom
Special to World Peace Herald
Published October 13, 2005
A controversial theory called `intelligent design` has been very much in the news lately, especially in the United States.
In August, a journalist asked President George W. Bush about the growing debate over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design: `What are your personal views on that, and do you think both should be taught in public schools?` President Bush answered that the decision should be made by local school districts, but he added, `I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought... You`re asking me whether or not people should be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.`
A U.S. federal judge is now being asked to decide whether a local school board acted unconstitutionally when it adopted a policy mandating that science students be told about intelligent design. In 2004, the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board decided that students studying Darwinian evolution should be informed that there is a competing theory called intelligent design (ID). Students are not required to learn anything about ID; they are simply told that there is a book about it in the school library, and they are encouraged to keep an open mind.
This was too much for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which brought suit to have the Dover policy declared unconstitutional. Some people are now comparing the 2005 Dover trial to the 1925 Scopes trial, in which the ACLU defended a teacher named John Scopes who had been accused of violating a state law prohibiting public schools from teaching that humans are descended from lower forms of life. But there is a huge difference between the two: In 1925 the ACLU went to court to permit the teaching of Darwinian evolution; now, the ACLU is suing to prohibit the teaching of anything but Darwinian evolution.
At the heart of the controversy is the theory of intelligent design (ID). What is it, and why is it stirring up so much trouble?
ID maintains that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided natural processes.
Three things are noteworthy about this description of ID. First, design is inferred from evidence in nature, not deduced from scripture or religious doctrines. All of us make design inferences every day. ID attempts to formulate our everyday logic in terms rigorous enough to warrant inferences from the evidence in nature. This is clearly not the same as biblical creationism.
Second, ID does not claim that every detail in the world is designed. There is still room for chance and necessity. Furthermore, ID does not claim that design must be optimal; something may be designed even if it is flawed. Nor does ID purport to explain everything in the history of life.
Third, ID does not tell us the identity of the designer. Although most proponents of ID believe that the designer is the God of the Bible, they acknowledge that this belief goes beyond the evidence from nature.
Why is there a controversy between intelligent design theory and Darwinism? Darwin called his theory `descent with modification,` and he argued that all living things are descendants of one or a few ancestral forms, and that the principal means of modification was natural selection acting on random variations. Darwin was convinced that this excluded design from living things. He wrote: `There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.` According to a modern textbook (Douglas Futuyma`s Evolutionary Biology, 1998), the implications of Darwin`s theory are that `biological phenomena, including those seemingly designed, can be explained by purely material causes,` and `no evidence of purpose or goals can be found in the living world, other than in human actions.`
According to Darwinism, living things may seem to be designed, but that design is just an illusion. In contrast, ID maintains that at least some design is real -- and that we can infer this from the evidence.
Some of the best-known evidence and arguments for ID come from the work of Lehigh University biochemist Michael J. Behe. In his 1996 book `Darwin`s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,` Behe quotes Charles Darwin himself: `If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.`
Behe then asks: `What type of biological system could not be formed by `numerous, successive, slight modifications`?` And he answers: `Well, for starters, a system that is irreducibly complex. By irreducibly complex, I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.`
As the title of Behe`s book indicates, the inner workings of the cell were a mystery (a `black box`) for Darwin. Modern biochemistry, however, has uncovered many irreducibly complex systems inside living cells. According to Behe, not only do these pose a problem for Darwin`s theory, but they also point to design: `Inferring that biochemical systems were designed by an intelligent agent is a humdrum process that requires no new principles of logic or science. It comes simply from the hard work that biochemistry has done over the past forty years, combined with a consideration of the way in which we reach conclusions of design every day.`
Behe describes several examples of irreducible complexity, including the bacterial flagellum and the human blood-clotting cascade. The bacterial flagellum uses a microscopic electric motor to drive a whip-like propeller at speeds up to 100,000 rpm. Several dozen interacting parts are involved, and the removal of any one of them causes the motor to cease functioning. The blood-clotting cascade uses many interacting enzymes to insure that blood will clot when it is necessary to stop bleeding from a wound, but not at other times. The absence of any one enzyme leads to serious disease or death -- as in hemophilia. According to Behe, these irreducibly complex features could not have originated through natural selection, but are best explained by intelligent design.
Critics of ID disagree. For example, Brown University biologist Kenneth R. Miller argues that an apparatus used by bacteria to secrete toxins could have functioned as an intermediate on the way to forming a bacterial flagellum. Behe and University of Idaho microbiologist Scott Minnich disagree with Miller, pointing out that the secretory apparatus probably originated after the bacterial flagellum. University of California at San Diego biologist Russell F. Doolittle has argued that the blood-clotting cascade is not irreducibly complex. According to Behe, however, Doolittle`s criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the data. So scientists are actively debating the evidence for ID.
Some critics of intelligent design claim that it is not scientific because it is not testable and thus cannot be falsified. But since Miller and Doolittle (among others) claim that ID has been tested and proven false, this is clearly wrong. A theory cannot be both untestable and tested, both unfalsifiable and falsified.
Other critics of intelligent design claim that the designer had to be supernatural, therefore ID is inherently religious rather than scientific. But some ID proponents maintain that the designer does not have to be supernatural. And even if the designer were supernatural, ID in this respect would be no more religious than Darwinism; both have implications for theism. According to Richard Dawkins, by showing that design is an illusion Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist; on the other hand, by showing that design is real ID makes it possible for some people to be intellectually fulfilled theists. If the former is scientific, why isn`t the latter?
So the controversy is scientific at one level, because it involves testing theories against the evidence. But at another level the controversy is also religious, because both Darwinism and ID can have implications for religion. It is this second level that provoked the ACLU to oppose ID in the Dover case.
Yet it makes no more sense to prohibit the teaching of ID because of its religious implications than to prohibit the teaching of Darwinism because of its anti-religious implications. A better way to deal with the controversy in public schools has already been proposed by the U.S. Congress in a report accompanying the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001:
`A quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.`
Jonathan Wells has a Yale Ph.D. in theology and a Berkeley Ph.D. in biology. He is the author of `Icons of Evolution: Why much of what we teach about evolution is wrong` (Regnery, 2000) and he is currently a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.