Evolutionary biologist and Eastern Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky once wrote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Indeed, the modern neo-Darwinian evolutionary synthesis is as essential to biology as Einsteinian relativity is to astrophysics, germ theory to modern medicine, plate tectonics to geology, and quantum theory to particle physics. However, there is ardent pushback against evolution in public schools. While evolution is indelibly ingrained into American public school curricula, faith-based organizations continue to combat it by proposing that alternate ‘theories’ be taught alongside evolution and abiogenesis. These ‘theories’ take two distinct forms: young-earth creationism and intelligent design.
While it may sound academically reasonable — or perhaps even shrewd — to weigh equiprobable ideas when regarding an area of uncertainty, neither creationism nor intelligent design should be subject to discussion in any American public science classroom inasmuch as they are not scientific theories and function only as reactionary attempts to make religious appeals in the classroom and spread uncertainty regarding the integrity of evolution. Since Darwin published his groundbreaking “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, religious fundamentalists have pushed to preserve their traditional creation stories. While the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard that teaching creation science in public schools was unconstitutional due to favoring a specific religion (1), there is still outrage and controversy concerning the instruction of evolution alone. Texas Representative Tom DeLay went so far as to blame disasters such as the 1999 Columbine, Colorado school shooting on “our school systems teaching the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud…” (Bowman). In 2005, 47 local school boards and 14 state legislatures throughout the United States considered teaching creationism or intelligent design (Bowman). While creationism has existed in a plethora of contrasting and contradicting forms since the inception of religion, the modern American creation science movement began as recently as 1961 with hydrologic engineer Henry M Morris, Biblical fundamentalist and coauthor of the seminal “The Genesis Flood.” His writings enthralled evangelicals throughout the United States by providing ostensibly scientific support for the inerrancy of the Bible. However, his work was severely criticized by the scientific community as a whole, creating a dichotomy between enthused religious fundamentalists and condemnatory academics. In order to accrete credibility, Morris convinced numerous young religious students to study geology.
While most of his charges abandoned their creationist beliefs after graduate geological training, a few endured with undefiled fundamentalism. It is not at all difficult to discern how so many of Morris’s pupils grew disenchanted and unsympathetic toward his cause; the creationist geologic timeline is famously eccentric. If one is to take seriously the creation account recorded in the Book of Genesis, he must believe, in discordance to scientific knowledge, that the Earth was created before the sun and stars; that land plants existed before the sun; that plants were the first life forms on Earth; that fish existed before insects; and that birds existed before land reptiles (Wise). Because of the all-encompassing errors propagated by young earth creationism, the original source of contention — common descent through natural selection — is expanded to include geochronology, astrophysics, cosmology, biochemistry, and paleontology.
Scientific accuracy set aside, how would one go about teaching a class in which every lesson is open to reinterpretation and alternate, often mutually exclusive, hypotheses? Furthermore, what would a standardized test for such a course entail? If an instructor is to remain constitutional, he must address creation accounts from all religions; in such a system, would science classes focus less on the natural laws and theories that govern our universe and more on the religiously-appealing errant variations thereof? Allowing creationism into public schools would not be merely allowing religion to overstep; it would be crippling science education throughout the nation. Given its famously brash and outrageous assertions, the modern incarnation of young earth creationism has thus far failed in its attempts to be integrated into public school curricula. However, its sleek, moderate, pseudoscientific younger sibling has been subject to careful consideration, and in several instances it has edged upon the cusp of victory. In stark contrast to its fundamentalist forerunner, the hypothesis of intelligent design presents comparatively mild, professedly scientific arguments. Its core tenant states that methodological naturalism — the tendency of complex structures and phenomena to arise from purely natural causes — should not bound scientific conclusion.
Proponents of intelligent design wield this assertion to deduce the presence of a supernatural creator through supposed irreducible complexity and the apparent propitious fine-tuning of the universe for life. In the words of 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” (Beckwith). Intelligent design seeks to discover an example of such an organism, for which it has established three criteria: contingency, complexity, and specification. Contingency refers to the necessity of something as a result of natural law; the formation of salt is contingent upon the presence of both sodium and chloride, but the setting of silverware on a table is not similarly a requisite of physics. Complexity is taken as a measure of probability; the more complex a result, the less likely it is to occur by chance. Specification is the tendency of an organism or phenomena to express patterns, as if it were a machine (Beckwith).
While these criteria may seem to be well-founded assessments of irreducible complexity, they propagate conjecture at best. Contingency functions on the notion that free will exists, which is an issue at our intellectual frontiers. It is entirely possible that everything results from natural law.
In the case of apparently-arbitrary silverware placement, one’s decisions may be decided by brain chemistry, which in itself is subordinate to physics. It would not be audacious to suggest that while everything is the consequence of impliable natural laws at work, two minutely-varying possibilities may seem so inconsequential that they are granted the illusion of choice. Regardless of whether or not free will exists, it is irresponsible and hypocritical of intelligent design to base itself on the presumption that it does, especially given its sharp criticism of public schools for assuming that Darwinian evolution — a subject upon which there is almost infinitely greater consensus — is true. Furthermore, even granted that free will did exist, it would be an extensive jump of logic to apply the trait to a supernatural, non-material conscience for which there is no evidence. However, complexity speaks even less to the existence of a creator. Perhaps in a closed system with little time and resources, intricacy could act as a measure of probability. However, granted the sheer enormity of both time and space — especially when combined with the trial-and-error system of the survival of stable structures — one could argue that life is an inevitability.
Moreover, the unlikelihood of an event does not denote impossibility, nor does it speak to the intervention of an immaterial being. Specification is the ill-defined lackey of the triad, and is more indicative of an undiscovered natural law than the work of a greater being. The second great argument for intelligent design is the apparently fine-tuned hospitality of the universe for life (Beckwith).
This deduction is less of a rationalization and more of an anthropocentric conceit. The renowned astronomer Carl Sagan addressed such arguments in his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. With the skill of a seasoned cosmologist, Sagan argues:…even if the Universe were intentionally created to allow for the emergence of life or intelligence, other beings may exist on countless worlds. If so, it would be cold comfort to anthropocentrists that we inhabit one of the few universes that allow life and intelligence.
There is something stunningly narrow about how the Anthropic Principle is phrased. Yes, only certain laws and constants of nature are consistent with our kind of life. But essentially the same laws and constants are required to make a rock. So why not talk about a Universe designed so rocks could one day come to be, with strong and weak Lithic Principles? If stones could philosophize, I imagine Lithic Principles would be at the intellectual frontiers. (35).
Despite its urbane appearance and pretentious wording, intelligent design is not a science. Rather, it is the aggregate of wishful conjecture and unfounded speculation. Finally, while creationism and intelligent design differ in their teachings, they stand united in their ultimate goal. Impudently, both pseudosciences exist to slander and misinform the public about evolution. Despite their status as a miniscule scientific minority, the raucous bookends have managed to secure high public opinion and elicit doubt in the theory of evolution. They have both done remarkably well in this regard, as discussion of common descent even in conservative higher institutions of learning has become an undertaking of enormous controversy.
As Houghton College Professor of Biology Dr. Eli Knapp observed, “Dealing with the concept of evolution in print while employed at a Christian institution, especially early in one’s academic career, is a fool’s errand. The fallout could be heavy with a remarkably minor upside” (Knapp). While the dispute permeating collegiate classes certainly speaks volumes of creationist and intelligent design efforts, their combined magnum opus lies in a widespread populist movement to include ‘alternate theories’ in public school instruction. In one extraordinary case in Dover, Pennsylvania, intelligent design momentarily grasped success. The Dover Area School District had issued a requirement for all science teachers to read a statement explaining intelligent design whensoever evolution was discussed. The district had also included a stipulation that barred scientific classroom discussion of the origin of life, leaving the topic to “individual students and their families” (Mervis). A collection of science teachers protested by writing to Dover School Superintendent Richard Nilsen, stating that “Intelligent Design is not science.
It is not biology. It is not an accepted scientific theory” (Mervis). They also contended that the statement would coerce them to “knowingly and intentionally misrepresent subject matter or curriculum” (Mervis).
Fortunately, a federal district court ruled that the requirement was illegal due to violating science by invoking the supernatural. Additionally, the court stated that the central tenant of intelligent design employs “a flawed and illogical contrived dualism, and it has been deemed unscientific by the scientific community” (Herman). The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Board of Directors responded to the case by encouraging policy-makers, scientists, and the general public to resist the movement to teach intelligent design in science classrooms. “The intelligent design movement has an interesting philosophical and theological concept, and some people have strong feelings about it,” stated Peter H.
Raven, chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors, “Unfortunately, it’s being put forth as a scientifically based alternative to the theory of biological evolution. Intelligent design theory has so far not been supported by peer-reviewed, published evidence” (“Board Opposes Intelligent Design Theory”). Additionally, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner remarked, “The quality of U.S. science education and our international competitiveness are at stake here… We live in an era where science and technology are central to every issue facing our society — individual and national security, health care, economic prosperity, employment opportunities. Children who lack an appropriate grounding in science and mathematics, and who can’t discriminate what is and isn’t evidence, are doomed to lag behind their better-educated counterparts.
America’s science classrooms are certainly no place to mix church and state” (“Board Opposes Intelligent Design Theory”). However earnestly the American scientific community strides against the advances of intelligent design and creationism, it is alone in doing so. Both movements are unique to America, and are not remnants of an age-old dispute between science and religion, but rather distinct products of post-World War II America (Dixon). If the subjects were indeed scientific, they would be independently developed and supported universally; the idea that America alone is privy to physical revelations and scientific insights that have thus far eluded other nations — or that the rest of the world chooses to cravenly refrain from discussing this supposedly pressing intellectual issue — is laughably absurd. The reason that creation science has been exported to other countries (Dixon) as opposed to cultivated without aid is because creationism and intelligent design are not scientific at all, rather, they are reactionary defense mechanisms. One study undertaken by the National Science Teachers Foundation found that identity-protective cognition — the tendency of an individual to interpret evidence in a manner that aligns with his or her immediate social group to safeguard a sense of belonging — often intervenes in student acceptance of naturalistic evolution (Walker).
Indeed, the trend continues in other highly-religious populations; one study produced by the Federal University of Uberlândia in Santa Mônica, Brazil, found that most biology students sampled “paradoxically did not believe in naturalistic evolution (55.6%), a high proportion given their presumed contact with the theory” (Cardoso and Uiara). The study hypothesized that religion may be to blame, as it “incorporates divine influence into students’ opinions long before they have any contact with evolutionary theory” (Cardoso and Uiara). Another study by the University of Bath in England found qualitative evidence from sampled school children that “suggested not that what is taught, but who evolution is taught by, is more important for acceptance” (Mead). The work of legitimate, independent, peer-reviewed scientific studies reveals the acceptance of Darwinian evolution to be subject less to education and more to social ties to religious conservatism.
Considering that creationism and intelligent design are most prevalent throughout conservative religious communities, it is not an intolerable jump of logic to conclude that communities of evolution-averse religious conservatives developed the two movements as methods of justifying and rendering reasonable their identity-protective prejudices. By and by, creationism and intelligent design are poorly-disguised, entirely erroneous, vain attempts at science. They are needlessly expanded upon emotional defense mechanisms requiring the suspension of critical faculties and at most insipid levels of curiosity. The coddling of religious sensibilities should not have a place within any American public science classroom.