Life by design: Debate heats up over new theory of how we got here

The Top Story by Chris Graham

The fact that President Bush thinks intelligent design should be taught in American public schools is more than enough for JoAnne Shirley.

“I absolutely hope that this becomes an issue here locally and statewide. Students need to be given a choice, as the president said,” said Shirley, a former public-school teacher and the state coordinator of the Virginia Weekday Religious Education program.

“Evolution is just a theory. There’s no proof that it took place the way it has been described. For students who believe this, this can lead to some uncomfortable choices,” Shirley told The Augusta Free Press.

“They can either not take classes that teach evolution, or they can subject themselves to having to learn and study and take tests on something that they don’t believe to be a valid way of looking at the world. This is a very, very difficult choice for students to have to make,” Shirley said.

 

The bully pulpit

“I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought,” the president told a group of Texas news reporters last week.

“You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas. The answer is yes,” Bush said.

The simple two-sentence answer could end up being the spark that gets the debate about intelligent design – the theory that life on Earth is too complex to have developed through random selection as is spelled out in evolution theory, with the implication that a higher power had to have been involved in creation – into the public forefront.

“What’s important here is the recognition that students should be made aware of the controversy involving the theory of evolution,” said Richard Thompson, the president of the Ann Arbor, Mich.,-based Thomas More Law Center, which is representing a Pennsylvania school district that is being sued for including a brief mention of the intelligent-design theory in its science curriculum.

“Even though it’s accepted by a majority of scientists today, there is a growing minority of scientists who believe that the theory of evolution cannot explain some of the complex biological systems that seem to be designed, in their view, because they are designed, that could not have occurred because of Darwin’s theory of natural selection acting on random mutations,” Thompson told the AFP.

“The president obviously is the leader of our nation, and when he speaks, there are a lot of people who will listen to his position that the theory of evolution should be taught in public schools with intelligent design alongside that theory of evolution,” Thompson said.

Critics skewer intelligent design as “junk science” akin to so-called creation science that attempts to meld the Book of Genesis to what is widely known about the natural world.

“What the president is doing here is essentially equating religion with science, which is not helpful at all in this debate,” said Jeremy Leaming of the Washington, D.C.,-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which is challenging the Dover, Pa., school division’s decision to include a discussion of intelligent-design theory in its science classes.

“The fact of the matter is that there is a place in public schools for the discussion of religion, but it’s not science class, because religion is not a science. Intelligent design is not a science. The overwhelming majority of scientists in this country do not recognize intelligent design as a science. At best, it is thinly disguised creationism,” Leaming told the AFP.

“For him to even suggest that intelligent design might be a science is just plain wrong. As it is wrong for him to suggest that evolution is just another theory that is open to debate,” Leaming said. “That’s what these groups who go around to school boards across the country trying to get them to include intelligent design in their science curriculums try to say, that evolution is a theory that hasn’t been proven, the same as intelligent design is a theory that hasn’t been proven.

“To put the two in the same category is ridiculous. Intelligent design has never been subjected to the rigors of scientific study,” Leaming said.

 

Inside intelligent design

That isn’t true at all, said William Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher who is a professor at the Center for Science and Technology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

“Critics want to characterize this as junk science or pseudoscience. The minute that they admit that it is science, that there is real science being done here, even if it’s bad science, it still, then, is on the table for discussion. They want to keep it off the table,” said Dembski, the author of No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence.“If you’re talking about junk science, you’re usually talking about things like astrology, for which there is really no evidence as to how star configurations affect human behaviors. There’s really no causal story to be told. If you’re talking the theory of flat earth, that’s something that’s eminently provable,” Dembski told the AFP.

“These ideas are facts on the table, and the facts are on the table because of advances in science, in molecular biology, in the last 30 years, especially, which are showing that we can’t adequately explain these events of immense complexity, especially at the molecular level in biology, apart from intelligence,” Dembski said.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Arlington-based First Amendment Center, said it is curious to him that the scientific community doesn’t seem to be interested in the slightest at offering a fair appraisal of the claims of intelligent-design advocates.

“I’m not saying that intelligent design has or does not have validity. That’s a question that the scientific community will have to answer,” Haynes told the AFP. “What intelligent-design advocates, the scientists and lawyers who know what the arguments for intelligent design are, will tell you is that they are not being taken seriously by the larger scientific community.

“Intelligent design is not going to replace evolution. It does raise some important questions that need to be debated in the scientific community. Unfortunately, the scientific community doesn’t appear to be interested in taking this up at all. And that’s a shame,” Haynes said. “We need to get this issue past the political debate that it is now so that students and others can better understand this important discussion in contemporary science.

“I don’t think the scientific community is handling this well. It should be proactive in helping society address these issues. Instead, it has engaged in the equivalent of taking its ball and going home. I think this is a bad strategy that is only going to increase the frustration of those on both sides of this debate who would like to see this issue approached with scientific rigor,” Haynes said.

 

A substitute for creationism?

A point raised by ID detractors has to do with the idea that its loudest public advocates are those who have embraced intelligent design as a cousin of creationism.

“The problem in this debate is that most of the people in the discussion have no idea what they’re talking about. And it’s hard to have a legitimate debate about whether or not intelligent design qualifies as science when the majority of the people involved in the debate don’t know the first thing about what’s going on here. It’s really more of a political discussion than an education discussion or scientific discussion right now,” Haynes said.

“With all due respect to the president, I am absolutely 100 percent sure that he doesn’t know the science behind this discussion. And the people at the local levels across the country who are leading the movement don’t know. The majority of those people, the ground forces, are part of what I call the anything-but-evolution movement. They want to see creationism taught in schools, and they see intelligent design as the best thing to come along in their battle against evolution in years,” Haynes said.

Thompson said the argument that intelligent design is thinly veiled creationism is a misrepresentation of what intelligent design is really all about.

“Intelligent design looks at the same empirical data that the Darwin evolutionists look at, and they come to different conclusions,” Thompson said. “Creationists go to the Book of Genesis and develop a scientific theory that is consistent with the Book of Genesis. They will base upon their study of the history and genealogy on the Book of Genesis and posit that the Earth is anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 years old. They talk about the flood. They go from that point, and what they do is develop a scientific theory that matches the Book of Genesis.

“What intelligent-design theorists do is look at the scientific data – they do not look to the Bible or any other holy scripture – they look at the scientific data through the same lenses that the evolutionists look at them, and they come to a different conclusion,” Thompson said.

“There are credible scientists who honestly believe that the data reflects a design. But what they are careful to do when they are talking about design as a scientific theory is not get involved in the characteristics of the designing agent, whether it is a supernatural creator, or whether it is some matter-molecule that we have not yet discovered that has some sort of self-organizing capability,” Thompson said.

“What you have, really, is science versus science, different scientists looking at the same facts and coming to different conclusions. Creationism really has science versus the Book of Genesis,” Thompson said.

 

On the front lines

Jack Hinton, the president of the Staunton-Beverley Manor WRE group, said he hopes the intelligent-design debate will reach a new level in the aftermath of the president’s comments on the subject.

“The problem is that those who believe that evolution should be the only theory of how we got here that is taught in schools don’t want those questions raised. They know that they can’t prove anything to students based on the fossil record that can’t also be explained by intelligent design or even creationism,” Hinton told the AFP.

“The fact of the matter is that if you try to explain everything through evolution, you’re going to run into some dark alleys. And if you try to explain everything through intelligent design, you’re going to run into some dark alleys. And if you try to explain everything through creationism, you’re going to run into some dark alleys,” Hinton said.

“The whole purpose of public education is to educate students as to the different arguments out there and teach them how to decide for themselves how to sort through everything,” Hinton said.

Shirley said she doesn’t know “what made the president bring this issue up, but I’m excited that he did.”

“For him to say that students need to have a choice, that’s a great thing,” Shirley said. “I know that it’s an issue for high-school students in Christian groups who have to face this head on. I hope that the president’s words help take this discussion to the next level, to getting school boards to discussing the issue of giving students a choice.

“What needs to happen is more and more people need to go to their local school boards and say that this is something that they’re concerned about,” Shirley said.

“It’s in the hands of the people. If this is something that they want, they need to get the ball rolling,” Shirley said.



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