On Nov. 8, Kansas yet again inserted itself in the ongoing debate between intelligent design and evolution. By rewriting science definitions and requiring instructors to include critiques of evolution in the science curriculum, the Kansas Board of Education has drawn the wrath of science groups around the country.
Similarly in Oct. 2004, the school board in Dover, Penn. required students to hear a prepared statement about intelligent design before learning about evolution. Parents in that school district sued, claiming a violation of separation of church and state.
Both policies were designed to cast doubt about the accuracy of evolution in explaining the origins of life. Science groups have reacted with outrage, charging that attacks on evolution, and intelligent design in particular are motivated by religion, should not be taught in schools and are unscientific.
The first charge is disingenuous at best. Leonard Krishtalka, director of the University of Kansas’ biodiversity institute, has called intelligent design “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.” This charge has been widely quoted in newspapers and references to the Kansas Board members’ religious beliefs have been often alluded to.
Yet creationism and intelligent design are two widely different things. Creationism is based solely in the text of the Bible, taking as literal the account in genesis of God creating the world in six days. While creationism advocates will often try to cite scientific “facts” to back up their thesis, creationism specifically rejects evolution as a scientific theory (except as a modern phenomenon) as well as discounting geological, astronomical and other physical evidence for the age of the universe.
Intelligent design differs significantly from creationism in several key aspects. First, it has no basis in any specific religious tradition, unlike creationism’s reliance on the Bible.
Second, it does not reject scientific findings about the origins of species, the age of the universe or other discoveries of the natural sciences. Intelligent design is primarily a critique of the interpretation of the evidence derived from those sciences.
Intelligent designers claim that missing evidence in the fossil record and the natural complexity of living creatures cannot be accounted for by the theory of evolution alone. They claim that such complexity and missing evidence implies that the universe must have some supernatural designer that directs the development of organisms. This “designer” is non-denominational and its hands-off approach to directing the universe bears little resemblance to the God of the Bible, who is always involving himself in human affairs in one way or another.
Thus, the claims of scientists and anti-religion types that intelligent design is a violation of separation of church and state is inaccurate since intelligent design does not advocate a specific religious creed.
However, the argument that intelligent design is not science does have significant weight.
Because intelligent design is an interpretation of available scientific evidence, it does not have to adhere to the same rigorous standards that the regular sciences endure. It posits an argument that cannot be directly proven, the existence of a supernatural being. In this sense, it is invalid as a science; it is more akin to philosophy.
However, it is a critique of the prevailing theory of evolution that, despite its comprehensiveness and weight of evidence, still cannot explain all biological phenomenon. Whether this is because all the necessary evidence has not yet been found or does not exist is the main point of contention. It is important to remember that not all scientific phenomenon that we accept as fact has been definitively proven. Black holes for instance, were originally a mathematical abstraction contained in the physics equations developed by Einstein. We have yet to directly observe one, since no information can escape the gravitational pull of generated by a black hole. Yet scientists have amassed such a vast store of circumstantial evidence that no one doubts the existence of black holes. Such is currently the case with evolution, although that may change in the future.
This brings us to the question of whether intelligent design should be taught in schools. Since intelligent design deals with interpretation of scientific evidence, it should not be placed on the same level as sciences such as biology and geography. Such appeared to be the reasoning of the current Dover school board, which on Nov. 8 reversed the Oct. 2004 decision of the previous board and is offering intelligent design in an elective course, rather than in science classes.
Yet there is little harm in exposing students to the flaws and gaps in current scientific evidence, as the Kansas Board of Education has done. After all, scientific knowledge is not infallible and is constantly being revised. Exposing students to this reality is not harming their education; on the contrary, it establishes the necessary give and take involved in scientific discovery.
Yet, we should be cautious about how we present the conflict surrounding differing interpretations of scientific information. K-12 students do not have the knowledge and sophistication necessary to adequately choose between competing theories. Students should be presented with the prevailing theory, in this case evolution. The debates should be held where they belong: among the professors.
Sean Paroski can be reached at email@example.com