Survival of the unfittest

A Pennsylvania judge has ruled that intelligent design is not fit for science classes. But I.D. remains rooted in U.S. schools, where science teachers are pressured to address God in the classroom.

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Survival of the unfittest

In a remarkably unequivocal decision Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that teaching intelligent design in public science classrooms in Dover, Pa., is prohibited by the constitutional separation of church and state. In the decision, Judge John E. Jones III declared that the school district’s claim that I.D. is a scientifically valid alternative to evolution is simply wrong. “Intelligent design is nothing less than the progeny of creationism,” he writes.

The judge’s ruling was not a surprise to those of us who had spent time at the trial, which had earned the nickname Monkey Trial II, a reference to the famous 1925 court case in which Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution. In the Harrisburg, Pa., courtroom, we could see from the first week that the trial was going badly for I.D. proponents. That the school board intended to promote their religious views was evident, as was the strong scientific consensus that the basic tenets of evolution were unimpeachable.

The much ballyhooed scientific defense of I.D. — the idea that some aspects of the natural world are best explained as designed by some unnamed intelligence rather than as the products of purely naturalistic processes — was also a dud. Then came an article in the Dec. 4 New York Times suggesting that I.D. may be losing some academic ground in the evangelical Christian colleges that were assumed to be its base.

Despite Jones’ ruling, the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based engine of the I.D. movement, is claiming victory. “Anyone who thinks a court ruling is going to kill off interest in intelligent design is living in another world,” says John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, in a press release. “Americans don’t like to be told there is some idea that they aren’t permitted to learn about. Banning intelligent design in Dover will likely only fan interest in the theory.”

Although it seems far-fetched to spin I.D.’s loss in Dover as a triumph, I.D. remains firmly rooted in mainstream culture. After all, 2005 was a banner year for the theory. Pope Benedict XVI embraced the “intelligent project” that he said underlies nature, and President Bush endorsed teaching I.D. alongside evolution. The Kansas School Board decided to alter its definition of science to accommodate I.D., and several school boards around the country promise to follow suit.



Perhaps Tuesday’s ruling will cause people to think differently about I.D., but polls taken earlier this year suggest that most Americans consider I.D. or some form of creationism a plausible alternative to evolution. A growing majority thinks it should be taught as an alternative to Darwin’s theory in public science classrooms.

Most significantly, given that I.D. has reached a tipping point in the United States, nearly every high school biology teacher, community college instructor and college professor is being forced to deal with it in one way or another. Some dismiss it outright, but others are striving to craft intelligent ways to incorporate it into their classrooms, including the controversial approach known as “teach the controversy.” As recently as 10 years ago, few could have guessed that science teachers would be wrestling with how to weave God into their curriculums. But thanks to the publicity surrounding I.D., many teachers say they don’t have much choice.

Intelligent design did not spread through culture on its scientific merits. It got a big push from religious and political advocates. Funded by millions of dollars from some of the same religious supporters that helped put President Bush in the White House (conservatives like Philip F. Anschutz, Richard Mellon Scaife, and Howard and Roberta Ahmanson), the Discovery Institute has pushed a fringe academic movement onto virtually all the front pages and TV sets in the country. The New York Times has reported that the institute has granted $3.6 million in fellowships to 50 researchers since 1996. Those investments produced 50 books on intelligent design, innumerable articles, and two I.D. documentaries that were broadcast on public television.

Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins has said that Darwin’s theory of evolution made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. Intelligent design, it seems, has made it possible for many fundamentalists to be intellectually satisfied creationists. Wesley Elsberry, a biologist at the National Center for Science Education, says millions of evangelical Christians craved a more science-like, sophisticated yet Bible-friendly theory to explain the diversity of life on earth.

“Discovery’s early documents say that they consider the Christian community to be their base,” Elsberry says. “They mean people who are in some sort of fundamentalist faith community, which takes a literal approach to Genesis. That’s by far their biggest public base and it was ready-made for I.D.,” says Elsberry.

In fact, I.D.’s advance has been one of the great coups of modern public relations, says Barbara Forrest, philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. She points out that plenty of bad science has been launched into the orbit of public consciousness — Ronald Reagan’s space-based missile system, for one — but intelligent design is different. “I.D. is not bad science,” she says. “It is non-science.” With her Southern accent, she pronounces it “nonsense.”

Intelligence design “is not just non-science — it’s anti-science,” says Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, who testified against I.D. at the Dover trial. It doesn’t merely defy the definition of “science,” which limits explanations to naturalistic causes, but also stops research in its tracks by attributing complex problems to supernatural causes.

Yet the I.D. movement has infiltrated the mainstream with “good slogans and sound bites,” Forrest says, adding that I.D. advocates’ “most intuitively compelling argument is their appeal to the American public and to parents to let their kids hear both sides of the debate. But it’s a bogus appeal: There’s nothing fair about trying to teach children something that isn’t true.”

West bristles at the idea that I.D.’s success is due to good P.R. “Darwinists like Forrest don’t seem to understand that by caricaturing I.D. they ultimately undercut their own efforts,” he says. “When students or scholars who have been exposed to Forrest’s straw-man version of I.D. actually read science journal articles or academic books by I.D. scholars, they suddenly discover for themselves that the evidence and arguments for I.D. are a lot more impressive and sophisticated than they’ve been led to believe. And once they start to engage the real issues raised by the scientific evidence, the spin and scare tactics pushed by Darwinian fundamentalists like Forrest don’t cut it.”

Whether I.D.’s scientific core is “impressive and sophisticated,” as West says, is debatable. Certainly Judge Jones didn’t think so. Still, biology teachers are being pressured to bring it into their classrooms. A recent study published in American Biology Teacher, for instance, shows a near doubling over the past decade of public-school teachers in Minnesota who report being pressured from students, parents or administrators to spend less time teaching evolution in their classes. The study also shows growing pressure to teach creationism as an alternative to evolution.

An increasing number of high school science teachers are happy to comply. Twenty percent of Minnesota science teachers and nearly 50 percent in Kansas have endorsed teaching some form of creationism alongside evolutionary theory.

“The real danger is not that teachers will start teaching creationism,” says geologist Warren Allmon, the director of the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, N.Y., which features an exhibit on evolution seen by thousands of school kids every year. “It’s that they will stop, or reduce, the teaching of evolution. Many now just assign [students to voluntarily read] the chapters on evolution and don’t cover it in class, in order to avoid controversy.”

Allmon’s museum has initiated a special training program to help museum docents answer the growing number of questions about creationism and intelligent design that come from visitors. “There has been a definite increase over the past two years,” he says, “though the questions are by no means all hostile ones coming from creationists. Even visitors who understand evolution are curious about what all the commotion over I.D. is about.” The museum docents explain to visitors that the theory of evolution neither confirms nor denies the existence of God and that such questions are simply not the bailiwick of biology.

Many high school biology teachers still object to even discussing I.D. in their classrooms, saying that although there are lively controversies within evolutionary biology (arguments, for example about the relative importance of natural selection, sexual selection and physiological selection, or about the mode and tempo of evolutionary change), they are not “weaknesses” but inevitable and welcome signs of a lively science. Teaching I.D. alongside evolution would give it more scientific credibility than it deserves, they say.

“Whenever you debate, you should really have one person representing I.D. on one side and 10,000 scientists on the other,” says Brown University biologist Miller. “That would give a fair representation of the division of opinion in the scientific community.”

But refusing to discuss it gives the wrong impression, too, making it appear that scientists are afraid of it, think it is irrelevant, or are just too arrogant to bother. “There is an intellectual curiosity on the part of kids I teach,” says Mark Stefanski, a high school science teacher at Marin Academy, a private school in San Rafael, Calif. “I don’t want to teach them creationism and I won’t. But they do want to know where all of this interest in intelligent design and creationism is coming from.”

College-level academics and research scientists face a more acute Catch-22. If they debate creationists and I.D. proponents in public, they lend credibility to the notion that there is a substantial debate going on within science, says Miller, one of the few prominent biologists who publicly debates intelligent-design advocates. His many debates and published point-and-counterpoints with I.D.’ers were cited as evidence of scientific controversy in Dover. “But if we don’t engage, it can mean ceding the public square to the other side, and that can be a huge mistake as well.”

“The important thing,” Miller says, “is always to make the distinction between the very real debate that is going on over science education and the non-debate among scientists about the validity of evolution on the whole. There is not a single scientific organization of any size anywhere in the world that has endorsed the point of view that these folks want to elevate to the level of science.”

Teachers are addressing intelligent design in their classrooms in a variety of ways. Carol Dixon, a high school biology teacher in Castro Valley, a suburb east of San Francisco, tells her students that any discussion of religious subjects must be kept out of the science classroom because the First Amendment’s establishment clause, protecting the separation of church and state, requires it.

“If my students ask about intelligent design or creationism, or ask me about my own religious views, I simply tell them that it’s not an appropriate subject for science class,” she says. “If I were required to teach about creationism or intelligent design, I’d have some serious problems. I’m just not trained to teach religion. And I don’t want to.”

Melissa Kindelspire, another high school biology teacher in Castro Valley, doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to teaching evolution. “The theory of evolution via natural selection is the thing that ties everything else we are learning in my classroom together. If and when there are other [non-evolution-based] scientific theories that are accepted by scientists, I will introduce them,” she says. But in her opinion, I.D. doesn’t come close to fitting that bill.

Kindelspire says that she has heard from some students and parents who are troubled by her straightforward defense of evolution. But when parents give her brochures about creationism, she simply thanks them and puts the brochures aside. However, one recent incident did make her a little uneasy. She was told that the science department, and her name specifically, came up at a local church in a sermon about “evil influences on the parishioners’ children’s souls.”

Other teachers, such as Dawn Wendzel and Julie Olson, who teach seventh-grade science in Gull Lake Middle School, near Kalamazoo, Mich., have simply woven I.D. into their curriculum. The two teachers, both evangelical Christians, presented I.D. as an alternative to evolution and had their students write papers comparing and evaluating the two views. Complaints from parents brought their practice to a halt. But Gull Lake school administrators have decided to make I.D. the subject of an elective social study class available to high school students.

The Discovery Institute advocates “teaching the controversy” about evolution, an approach that casts doubt on the biological validity of natural selection and gives credence to I.D. The term was coined about 20 years ago by Gerald Graff, an English professor at the University of Chicago, to describe a method of exploring cultural disagreements over whether, say, Huck Finn is a racist, rather than simply teaching one side or the other of a conflict.

Graff, a self-described “secular left-liberal” says he first felt as if his “pocket had been picked when the intelligent design crowd appropriated my slogan.” But recently, in an essay in Inside Higher Ed, Graff suggests there may be a silver lining to the I.D.-evolution debate.

“I can at least imagine a classroom debate between creationism and evolution that might be just the thing to wake up the many students who now snooze through science courses,” Graff writes. “Such students might come away from such a debate with a sharper understanding of the grounds on which established science rests, something that even science majors and advanced graduate students now don’t often get from conventional science instruction.”

Some teachers, such as Susan Sperling, an anthropology and interdisciplinary studies professor at Chabot College in Hayward, Calif., have adopted a version of this process. She is trying to teach the controversy without granting undue legitimacy to I.D. as science. This semester, Sperling, a Berkeley-trained physical anthropologist, is holding a course in which her students learn about evolutionary biology by reading Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”

In connection with the course, Sperling organized a series of three public lectures about creationism, I.D. and evolution. “I thought it would be good to have students and others in our community provided with a forum for looking at intelligent design in its larger cultural context,” Sperling says, “and to be able to see the debate from different sides.”

I decided to attend the lectures for myself. I wanted to see how the largely working-class, middle-American students at Chabot would respond to the different lecturers: Elsberry, an evolutionary biologist; Ken Malloy, a young-earth creationist and author; and Philip Johnson, a retired UC-Berkeley law professor who is considered the father of I.D.

Elsberry launched the series to a standing-room-only crowd, with a detailed review of the history of evolutionary theory from pre-Darwin days until now. It was thorough and fair and totally lacking in hype or flair. As one who has long studied evolution and natural history, I managed to follow along. But judging by the drooping heads and the dozen or so empty seats when the lights came up, I’m not sure how many of the Chabot students did.

At one point, as Elsberry was zipping through his talk about the synthesis of species, the young woman next to me muttered “Jesus” in exasperation before abandoning her frantic effort to take notes. For the rest of the talk, she just sat there, eyes half shut, letting the names, facts and figures wash over her like a foreign language.

Elsberry’s commitment to detail and lack of rhetorical flourish sent Sperling into a bit of a panic. “Dr. Elsberry is a wonderful and meticulous scientist, but I don’t think he really could see how little of what he was saying his audience even understood,” she said after his lecture. “And now, to be brutally honest, I’m worried that I may be undermining my own science teaching.” In other words, she was afraid the next speakers, the anti-evolutionists, might win the day.

I could see what an uphill climb it is for biologists trying to compete for the hearts and minds of Americans that are undereducated in the sciences, especially in evolutionary biology. Evolutionary theory isn’t Einsteinian relativity, but it is counterintuitive in many ways and a detailed explanation is needed for it to make much sense, while the essential I.D. argument has a strong intuitive appeal: Life is too complex and meaningful to be accidental.

Yet some Chabot faculty members were just happy to see students and the community showing up for a public science lecture at all. “I could never draw this kind of crowd with a straightforward lecture on astronomy,” Scott Hildreth, a lecturer in astrophysics at Chabot, told me. “This is a great forum in which to teach students about the meaning of science, where its limits are, and what it’s all about.”

A week later, Malloy, the young-earth preacher, was before the same audience explaining his literal interpretation of Genesis: Earth is about 6,000 years old, Noah’s Ark was real (it has been found in Turkey, proven authentic beyond a shadow of doubt, he says), and rescued not only two of every currently living species, but two of every species that had ever lived, including Tyrannosaurus rex. He explained that T. rex had had to be brought aboard as babies, due to space constraints. “I use the words ‘evolutionist’ and ‘atheist’ interchangeably,” he said. He dismisses carbon and other dating techniques of fossils as simply inaccurate. It was almost surreal, an evolutionist’s nightmare, seeing a fundamentalist creationist standing in a college lab teaching a biology lecture right out of the Bible.

The lab full of students sat up straight and paid attention during Malloy’s talk. For one thing, unlike Elsberry’s lecture, it allowed them to easily follow his drift, even if, as Sperling pointed out afterward, “he might as well have been a tribesman telling creation stories from the highlands of New Guinea.”

“Even though he said his claims were true, there wasn’t any mistaking them for science,” says Chabot freshman Christopher Jacob. “It was just interesting to see how different someone’s view of the world could be.”

The next lecture, by Johnson, would be more problematic for the 18-year-old Jacob, who afterward said he was thinking of studying biology to protect science from “political attacks like this.”

Johnson’s 1993 book, “Darwin on Trial,” the publication of which marks the birth of I.D., is a rhetorically powerful critique of evolutionary biology that avoids saying much about God or the Bible. In his lecture at Chabot, Johnson argued that the evidence for I.D. is strong, that evolution is full of logical and evidentiary gaps. “Science should follow the evidence wherever it leads, not draw some arbitrary line at the appearance of design,” he said. “To say, ‘Despite the evidence [for design], we won’t look there’ is very unscientific.”

Although Johnson is recovering from a stroke that impaired his speech, he had no problem holding the Chabot College audience’s attention. Even Sperling, a trained evolutionist, was compelled by some of Johnson’s arguments, saying they caused her to “think hard and long about how the boundaries of science get drawn.”

Now that the lecture series is over, Sperling says she is convinced “that the evidence, power and logic of evolution speak for themselves. As an evolutionist and teacher, I’m not in the business of compelling anyone’s opinion. There are good reasons that evolution is the organizing theory of modern biology, and my students can see that and think critically and intelligently about what they are hearing.”

Time will tell whether I.D. continues to thrive in the nation’s public schools. In the meantime, John Hoopes, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas, has designed his own intelligent approach to teaching I.D. Next fall, he will hold a class titled “Archaeological Myths and Realities.” It will cover UFOs, crop circles, ESP and intelligent design.

Gordy Slack is the author of "The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA." He is currently writing a book about epilepsy.

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