What is it really about?

A high school student doing an article on evolution and Intelligent Design for her school newspaper asked me for a summary “in simple language of what the issue between intelligent design and evolution in Kansas really is.” This was a good but challenging suggestion.

In response I sent her the following:

The theory of evolution has met with resistance ever since it was proposed, even though the theory has become solidly accepted by the world’s scientific community as a fundamental, unifying concept in biology.

The main reason for this resistance is that the theory of evolution conflicts with some aspects of some people’s religious beliefs. Some people hold beliefs about the world that are just not supported by science, such as believing that the earth is only 6000 years old.

Others have a more philosophical objection that the theory of evolution denies the existence of God - that the theory of evolution is atheistic; and thus denies any purpose or source of morality for human beings. This belief about the nature of science is false: many people and many mainstream religions believe that evolution is not in conflict with their religious beliefs.

The Intelligent Design (ID) movement is the latest version of this anti-evolution perspective. Intelligent Design advocates claim that there is scientific evidence that the natural causes could not have produced all aspects of life, and that therefore an Intelligent Designer (which is clearly understand to be God despite their reluctance to say that sometimes) must have been involved.

However, Intelligent Design has had virtually no impact on science: it has made no testable hypotheses, proposed no empirical methodologies, and derived no data from its claims. The scientific community has found nothing valid about Intelligent Design at this point.

The real issue here is the nature of God. Those people who believe in God (primarily Christians in our society) and who also accept the theory of evolution believe that God is continually and pervasively present in the physical world, every moment, and that He works through natural causes in ways that are beyond our comprehension (and beyond scientific investigation.) For these people, God has guided the evolutionary process described by science just as God guides each of our lives in ways that are beyond our direct observation and comprehension.

Intelligent Design, however, seems to claim that most of the time natural causes act on their own; and that periodically God has intervened, in a way that science can detect, in order to produce some aspects of life.

More importantly, the Intelligent Design movement believes that those who believe in God and accept evolution are wrong. In fact, Intelligent Design founder Philip Johnson has said that such Christians “are worse than atheists because they hide their naturalism behind a veneer of religion.”

This is the philosophical background of the problem. Now let’s look at current political and educational issues.

The Intelligent Design movement has tried to influence various educational policies, including state science standards, in a number of states in the past five years. Here in Kansas we are now revising the state science standards. Also, we will have a majority of state Board members next year who support the ID cause. The concern is that these Board members will add Intelligent Design-influenced content to the standards.

Science standards are meant to summarize the basic essential knowledge that all schools should incorporate into their science curricula. These ID arguments have no place in the science standards for two reasons. First, they are not basic essential scientific knowledge - as noted above, they have made no impact on science, much less become established as core mainstream knowledge.

Secondly, the issues raised by ID are primarily religious, philosophical, and cultural. There are places in which this whole issue might be appropriately present in the high school curriculum, but not as science, and certainly not as fundamental science contained in the state standards.

It is common and appropriate for science teachers to discuss topics which relate science to larger issues, such as environmental issues, bioethics issues, and so on. A science teacher might take a small amount of time to discuss the general issue of resistance to evolution as a cultural issue, much as he or she might discuss other “current events” type issues.

There are, however, a number of reasons why this might be hard to expect. First, many science teachers lack the background to tackle this issue. Secondly, there is a lack of appropriate materials for a teacher to draw upon. More importantly, any materials that might try to discuss the topic in an evenhanded manner would undoubtedly arouse strong objections from someone. Furthermore, those who object to evolution would want their objections taught as science, not as an issue of religious or philosophical differences, and that would not be appropriate.

The sad truth is that because of the strong feelings of people who object to evolution (which is not surprising given the ways in which they see evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs), many teachers shy away from teaching evolution itself because of their apprehension about arousing student and parental objections. Given that environment, explicitly bringing up the issue of these objections as an element of larger cultural disagreements is probably not something many science teachers would want to do.

And last, in all cases a teacher would have to be careful about not crossing the line between teaching about different metaphysical or religious perspectives to teaching for a particular perspective. It would be wrong for a teacher to teach, even implicitly, that any one of these metaphyical perspectives is correct, be it young-earth creationism, Intelligent Design, theistic evolution, materialistic atheism, or whatever. Teaching the various ways that those perspectives see the nature and content of scientific knowledge, despite how useful it might be, would be a daunting task that most science teachers would probably want to avoid.

Science teachers want to teach science, and within science the theory of evolution is the accepted theory for how life evolved to its present state of diversity. It would be good for students to learn about some of the ways in which people reconcile (or fail to reconcile) this scientific knowledge with larger belief systems, but expecting science teachers to do this well would be asking a lot.

[Note: the last two paragraphs were edited at 7:00 pm, 10-10-04, to respond to suggestions made and/or confusions about what I meant as reflected in the first three comments below.]