Evolution, Intelligent Design, and the Battle for the American Intellect

Dr. Robert Sprackland
 


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Have you ever read a book by George Orwell entitled “1984"? He wrote his pessimistic view of the future in 1948. This is the book that gave us Big Brother, the idea of constant surveillance, and a model society based on strict conformity. Among the tools developed to promote conformity, Orwell’s society invented Newspeak, where words are redefined to meet the draconian social order.

In Newspeak we learn that “war is peace, " “love is hate, " and other definitional reversals that send chills down the spine of anyone who understands the implications. The actual 1984 has come and gone, but many of Orwell’s predictions are with us, especially newspeak. We are no longer fired but downsized, wars produce collateral damage instead of civilian casualties, and religion is science.

Did that last one get past you? If not, you may be in a minority, because American school boards have been and remain under pressure to insert religious instruction into the science curriculum as science.

In recent months the question of how schools should treat the revisionist “Intelligent Design" (ID) doctrine, a claim by a very vocal group of extreme fundamentalist Christians that science classes should present the Genesis story of the creation of life and its diversity on an equal footing with scientific theories. The story has been featured in practically every medium available, from the august pages of Science magazine to a front-page series in the New York Times, and everything in between, including Time, Newsweek, American Scholar, Natural History, the American School Board Journal, and on and on. The quantity, length, and emotional outpouring of the coverage rivals that given to the Abu Ghraib and Swift Boat issues of 2004. Even in religious circles there are opposite camps, the Archbishop of Vienna supporting the intelligent design doctrine (New York Times, 7 July 2005), while Vatican chief astronomer Father George Coyne defending Darwinism (The Tablet, 5 August 2005). Finally, no less a scientific non-expert as President Bush went on record saying he though ID should be taught in schools.

The issue of whether or not to teach biblical creationism (under the new name “Intelligent Design") and to “warn" students that evolutionary theory is a weak idea from the fringes of scientific respectability is once again in the courts. Pennsylvania’s Dover Area School District has been sued by eight families who oppose any passing off of religion as science and requiring teachers to misrepresent science in their classrooms.

Why doesn’t ID deserve equal time as the alternative scientific theory to biological evolution? In simplest terms, because ID is not science, nor is it based upon science. ID is based on literal interpretation of bible stories, with no testable hypotheses, no explanation that meets the meaning of “scientific", and no possibility of changing its views in the face of contradictory evidence. In short, Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory or claim, and is thus ineligible to be presented as science. ID is based on some people observing complexity in nature and, because they cannot understand what is happening or how it came to be, believe God must have done it. I haven’t a clue how my car engine works, but I am also pretty sure that God did not make it! Imagine what John Paul Jones would have thought if he could have seen a nuclear aircraft carrier…

The few Ph. D. scientists who support the idea are chemists, engineers, and physicists, not biologists. The few biologists who support the idea are mainly biochemists, again with limited experience of whole organism biology. Their take on the complexities of evolution are as limited as car mechanic’s knowledge of pharmacy.

Real science is the practice of observing and explaining nature without resorting to the supernatural. Just because we don’t know how something works doesn’t mean God did it. In fact, as soon as we credit God (or angels, leprechauns, demons, whatever) with something we have stopped doing science.

As for the core of the issue, let me—an evolutionary biologist—make one thing perfectly clear: Evolution is a fact. It is on an absolute par with the orbit and shape of the earth, the behavior of electrons to produce electricity, and the constancy of the speed of light. To deny biological evolution is no different than denying those other facts—though some people do still believe that the earth doesn’t move and is flat and the speed of light is variable.

The theory of evolution by means of natural selection is a scientific explanation of how (not if) evolution happens. The holes in the theory are minor, and deal with questions about whether organisms evolve quickly or slowly, in rapid steps or gradual transitions, or whether the host or its parasites is the major force for change. So far, the theory of evolution is so well supported that it has no scientifically valid competition.

Science teachers should be able to hit ID head on, by saying up front “Intelligent Design is one of thousands of religion-based explanations for the origin and diversity of life, but like those others it is not a scientific explanation because…"

Alternately, for those who delight in the peripheral issues, perhaps scientists and non-fundamentalists could start demanding that ID/Creationists must subject their beliefs to the scientific method, to provide “equal time" in church. Perhaps we should insist upon having a notice stamped inside Bibles that reads: caution: these accounts represent only a few of several thousand religious viewpoints, any of which might be true or all of which might be false. " It might be interesting to see what real physicists, biologists, and chemists have to say about the burning bush, immaculate conception, and transmutation of water into wine. What might we learn by shedding some light on the parting of the sea, walking on water, and the nature of demons? More important, what might we learn about ourselves?

Dr. Sprackland is an evolutionary zoologist and herpetologist, and director of the Virtual Museum of Natural History at http://www.curator.org . His article on venoms, “Toxic Treasures, " was the cover story in the October 2005 Natural History magazine. His article on “Origins" for the November 2005 American School Board Journal, covered details of the Evolution/intelligent design issue.

Virtual Museum of Natural History at http://www.curator.org

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