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The Public Appeal of Intelligent Design

Sarah Friedensen

Sarah Friedensen (‘15) is from Raleigh, N.C. While currently undeclared, she plans on pursuing a major in Physics and a minor in Religion to allow her to combine her diverse academic interests, including science, history, literature and belief systems. It was this cross-section of interests that led her to choose the topic of Intelligent Design for her work in Dr. Cho’s Anthropology 102: Humankind Evolving. Outside of the classroom, Sarah enjoys reading, crocheting, playing bass and guitar, watching MST3K, and drawing.

Neo-Darwinian evolution is one of the most contested theories in biology, but the bulk of this debate takes place not in academia but in schools and legislatures. Here, the issues concern how evolution should be taught (if at all) and whether “competing theories of existence” should also appear in curricula. Rather than supporting theistic creation, many opponents of evolution now turn to the concept of an “Intelligent Designer” who created life and works through natural processes.1 Supporters present Intelligent Design as a scientific theory and assert it should be taught alongside classical evolution. The movement has strong grassroots support and considerable influence, but has been met with skepticism by the courts and by the scholarly community. Many conclude that Intelligent Design (ID) lacks scientific basis, and is close enough to its roots in creationist science to violate the Establishment Clause if taught on part with evolution.2 Still, teachers should not ignore the movement or its appeal. Instead, biology classes might include a unit on contemporary issues to explain the movement, identify its origins, and discern its effects on the scientific community and the culture at large.

The roots of the conflict over teaching evolutionary theory reach back to the “anti-evolution” regulations of the 1920s. These laws (such as Ark. Stat. Ann. §80-12627 and §80-1628) and Tennessee’s notorious “Monkey Law,” forbade teachers to imply that humankind might have evolved from another species.3 The ruling in Epperson v. Arkansas ensured that evolutionary theory could not be excluded from biology curricula because it conflicted with scriptural accounts of creation, but did not end attempts to weaken evolutionary theory’s presence. After Epperson v. Arkansas, creationists reformed their ideas to become “creation science,” which presented biblical creation “scientifically.”4 Creation science assumed a young earth and explained mass extinctions in terms of a “global hydraulic cataclysm.”5 Furthermore, creation scientists rejected evolution. Instead, they claimed God fashioned each animal according to fixed, immutable kinds. (Eugenie C. Scott and Nicholas J. Matzke,” Biological Design in Science Classrooms” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104(2007): 8672.)) Supporters of creation science advanced “equal time laws,” which stated that to be fair, biology teachers must teach creation sciences as robustly as they teach evolutionary theory.6  The courts did not agree: in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court held that “equal-time laws” clearly violated the Establishment Clause.

Despite its obvious basis in theism, as a scientific initiative, Intelligent Design cannot easily be ignored. The movement has significant grassroots support among Americans, while evolutionary theory does not.

Intelligent Design emerged after the decline of creation science and shares—superficially, at least—only one of creation science’s beliefs: that life did not emerge from random processes. Instead, proponents believe that an “Intelligent Designer” fashioned life and guided its development, perhaps for some teleological purpose.7 Like creation scientists, ID advocates present their ideas in a scientific context, but unlike creation scientists, their explanation are more rationally robust. Whereas creation scientists proposed scriptural explanations for evidence drawn from observation in pseudo-scientific language, ID proponents omit all mention of a deity from their explanations and try to develop rational bases and evidentiary support for their arguments.8

The first of two major arguments advanced by ID advocates is irreducible complexity: the idea that certain biological features are too complex to have evolved and therefore must have been designed.9 For Michael Behe, who invented this argument, one of the strongest examples of irreducible complexity is the mechanism for blood-clotting, which requires over twenty sequential chemical interactions. If any of these is interrupted, the entire sequence collapses10 Such a process could not develop through natural selection, Behe argues, because its parts cannot function alone. ID is the only other option.11dine2-218x300 The Public Appeal of Intelligent Design

The second line of argument comes from William Dembski. Dembski’s defense of ID rests on statistics and the design inference. He states that if a structure has a level of complexity that makes it extremely unlikely to have developed by chance (1 in 10 to the 150th power, his calculation of the total amount of chance in the universe), and if it conforms to an identifiable pattern, then the structure has “specified complexity” and must be designed.12

Perhaps not surprisingly, ID supporters have the same essential goal as the creation scientists: to establish ID as a mainstream alternative to neo-Darwinian evolution. This goal includes recognition by the scientific community as well as inclusion of ID in biology curricula.13 Unfortunately for ID advocates, ID does not qualify as scientific. The scientific method is empirical, which means that the hypothesis under consideration must be falsifiable. The existence of a supernatural Designer who created life does not fit this criterion. Furthermore, science operates deductively—scientists derive explanations from a set of evidence—by ID advocates begin with a conclusion and find support. The scientific community recognizes these issues as well as ID’s religious overtones, so ID has encountered hostility in academia. Significant flaws in Behe’s and Dembski’s arguments further weaken ID’s scientific validity. The argument Dembski makes for a design inference collapses under logical scrutiny, his statistical methods are questionable, and Behe’s examples of “irreducible complexity” now, in fact, appear to be reducible.14 The proteins make up a flagellum, for example, could have served other, unrelated functions before becoming a flagellum.15

The second part of ID advocates’ goal (to have ID presented in biology curricula as an alternative to neo-Darwinian evolution) is as objectionable on constitutional grounds as is the first on scientific grounds. While no complaint involving ID has yet been made to the Supreme Court, lower court rulings, as well as examples from ID literature, show that teaching ID as an alternative to evolution violates the Establishment Clause. Some of the most convincing evidence  indicating a connection between ID and religion comes from Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. This case arose when the Dover area school district introduced into its curriculum, Of Pandas and People, a biology textbook supporting ID. The plaintiffs argued that use of the textbook in public schools violated the Establishment Clause because ID effectively was no different from creation science.16During the trial, plaintiffs presented successive drafts of Of Pandas and People in which “intelligent design” and “intelligent agency” replaced “creation” and “intelligent Creator” in otherwise identical paragraphs. This revision occurred in 1987, the same year as Edwards v. Aguillard17 Unsurprisingly, in light of this evidence, the judge agreed with the plaintiffs that ID endorsed religion and could not be taught in public schools.18

Other evidence of the intimate connection between ID and religion can be found in the “Wedge Document,” a fundraising proposal drafted by the Center for Science, an arm of the Discovery Institute, a Christian think-tank devoted to reinstating “traditional Western principles” and “[supporting] the theistic foundations of the West.”19 The Wedge Document outlined a strategy for overthrowing materialism and replacing it “with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.20 The argument that ID has no ties with religion is unlikely when one considers that both Behe and Dembski hold Discovery Institute senior fellowships. In light of this evidence, one cannot reasonably claim ID theory serves merely a secular purpose.

Despite its obvious basis in theism, as a scientific initiative, ID cannot easily be ignored. The movement has significant grassroots support among Americans, while evolutionary theory does not.((Allan Mazur, “Believers and Disbelievers in Evolution” Politics and  the Life Sciences. 23(2004): 55.)) Academia’s attempts to disregard ID in hopes that it would wither without recognition have failed. This is due in large part to the fact that the majority of Americans believe in some form of special creation, while only about sixteen percent believe evolution is the only reason for life’s existence.21 However, science functions as America’s dominant paradigm, and many believe that if an idea is not scientifically proven, it is untrue. This belief leads to the expectation that all ideas, even those resting on faith, can be scientifically verified. Design theory appears to scientifically establish faith, catalyzing its popularity.

ID’s widespread appeal lends it significant influence on public education. Members of state legislatures, school boards, and the public have pushed laws and resolutions that tacitly allow the inclusion of ID in science curricula, and recently some states have revised their definition of science so that it is no longer limited to “natural” explanations.22 Furthermore, religious parents and students sometimes complain to school administrators that teaching evolution violates their religious freedom because it contradicts their core beliefs. Teachers unfamiliar with this line of argument, or who simply wish to avoid controversy, may avoid the subject of evolution entirely, thus denying students knowledge of the foundations of modern biology.23

Another, more insidious, argument for including ID is that educators should, in the spirit of fairness, “teach the controversy,” rather than dogmatically professor Darwinian principles.24 Those who make this claim imply that failure to examine the “evidence against evolution” denies students comprehensive knowledge of the issue.25 This argument resonates with many members of the public, even though no scientific data that call into question the principles of evolution actually exist.

However, the claims that teaching evolution violates the Free Exercise clause, and that the failure to tech the “weaknesses of evolution” means that students hear only a portion of the scientific debate. Nowhere in legal precedent dine2-218x300 The Public Appeal of Intelligent Designdoes no have the right to hear offensive ideas, and (perhaps more importantly) no evidence challenging evolution actually exists. Even if these claims were valid, the close association of ID with religion and its departure from science should disqualify it from being included in public school curricula. Constitutionally, ID cannot be taught as an alternative to evolutionary theory.

Still, ID remains a compelling idea for many Americans, and attempts to ignore it have not diminished its attraction to school boards or legislatures. Because of its appeal, if teachers omitted all reference to ID, they would misrepresent the cultural context of biology. Instead, curricular could well include a “Contemporary Issues in Life Sciences” unit in which students critically examine challenges to mainstream biology. Such a unit would, in fact, “teach the controversy;” it would present ID’s roots, ideas, and effects, comparing these to the principles underlying neo-Darwinian evolution. The unit might explain that while ID is not a scientific theory, its principles are acceptable as a system of belief. To accomplish this, teachers could define science as an empirical form of knowledge, explaining that it is not the only method for generating explanations. While such an approach does not endorse ID, locating it as a competing theory avoids constitutional entanglements and, importantly, allows the public school curriculum more adequately to reflect the public dynamics of belief.

Bibliography

Antolin, Michael F. and Joan M. Herbers. “Perspective: Evolution’s Struggle for Existence in America’s Public Schools.” Evolution 55(2001): 2379-2388.

Ayala, Francisco J. “Science, Evolution, and Creationism.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105(2008): 3-4.

Behe, Michael J. “Self-Organization and Irreducibly Complex Systems: A Reply to Shanks and Joplin.” Philosophy of Science 67(2000): 155-162.

Boudry, Maarten, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman. “Irreducible Incoherence and Intelligent Design: A Look into the Conceptual Toolbox of Pseudoscience.” The Quarterly Review of Biology 85(2010): 473-482.

Byrne, Patrick H. “Lonergan, Evolutionary Science, and Intelligent Design.” Revista Portuguesa de Fiolosofia 63(2007): 893-918.

Dawes, Gregory W. “What Is Wrong with Intelligent Design?” International Journal for Philosophy and Religion 61(2007): 69-81.

Discovery Institute. “About Discovery.” Discovery Institute.  http://www.discovery.org/about.php.

Edwards V. Aguillard. 482 US 578, 107. Supreme Court of the US. 1987. Supreme Court Cases. Westlaw Campus Research.

Epperson v. Arkansas. 393 US 97, 89. Supreme Court of the US. 1968. Supreme Court Cases. Westlaw Campus Research.

Kitzmiller v. Dover. 400 F.Supp.2d 707. United States District Court, MD. Pennsylvania. 2005. All Federal Cases. Westlaw Campus Research.

Mazur, Allan. “Believers and Disbelievers in Evolution.” Politics and the Life Sciences 23(2004): 55-61.

Moore, Randy, Murray Jensen, and Jay Hatch. “Twenty Questions: What Have the Courts Said about the Teaching of Evolution and Creationism in Public Schools?” Bioscience 53(2003): 766-771.

Perkins, Sid. “Evolution in Action.” Science News 169(2006): 120-121.

Scott, Eugenie C. and Nicholas J. Matzke. “Biological Design in Science Classrooms.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104(2007): 8669-8676.

Williams, Robert Charles. “Scientific Creationism: An Exegesis for a Religious Doctrine.” American Anthropologist 85(1983): 92-102.

 

 

 

 

  1. Francisco J. Ayala, “Science, Evolution and Creationism,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105 (2008): 3. []
  2. The Establishment Clause is the first of several First Amendment provisions stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” []
  3. Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 US 97, 89. Supreme Court of the US. 1968. Supreme Court Cases. Westlaw Campus Research. []
  4. Robert Charles Williams, “Scientific Creationism: An Exegesis for a Religious Doctrine,” American Anthropologist 85(1983): 96. []
  5. Williams, “Scientific Creationism,” 97. []
  6. Edwards v. Aguillard. 482 US 578, 107. Supreme Court of the US. 1987. Supreme Court Cases. Westlaw Campus Research. []
  7. Michael F. Antolin and Joan M. Herbers. “Perspective: Evolution’s Struggle for Existence in America’s Public Schools,” Evolution 55(2001): 2383. []
  8. Sid Perkins,” “Evolution in Action” Science News 169 (2006): 120. []
  9. Patrick H. Byrne, “Lonergan, Evolutionary Science, and Intelligent Design” Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 63(2007: 896. []
  10. Michael J. Behe. “Self-Organization and Irreducibly Complex Systems: A Reply to Shanks and Joplin” Philosophy of Science 67(2000): 158. []
  11. Byrne, “Lonegran,” 896. []
  12. Gregory W. Dawes, “What Is Wrong with Intelligent Design?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 61(2007): 75. []
  13. Sid Perkins, “Evolution in Action” Science News 169(2006): 120. []
  14. Dawes, “What is Wrong,” 74. []
  15. Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman, “Irreducible Incoherence and Intelligent Design: A Look into the Conceptual Toolbox of Pseudoscience” The Quarterly Review of Biology 85(2010): 475. []
  16. Kitzmiller v. Dover. 400 F. Supp. 2d 707. United States District Court, MD. Pennsylvania. 2005. All Federal Cases. Westlaw Campus Research. []
  17. Kitzmiller v. Dover, 15. []
  18. Kitzmiller v. Dover, 55. []
  19. Discovery Institute, “About Discovery” Discovery Institute. http://www.discovery.org/about.php []
  20. Discovery Institute. The “Wedge Document”: So What?” Seattle, WA: The Discovery Institute, 14. []
  21. Mazur, “Believers and Disbelievers,” 55. []
  22. Perkins, “Evolution in Action,” 120. []
  23. Randy Moore, Murray Jensen, and Jay Hatch. “Twenty Questions: What Have the Courts Said about the Teaching of Evolution and Creationism in Public Schools?” Bioscience 53(2003): 769. []
  24. Antolin and Herbes, “Perspective,” 2382. []
  25. Edwards v. Aguillard, 29. []
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