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Evolution on Trial-Debating Design

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The Intelligent Design Versus Evolution Debate: An Overview
Neil Munro, "Evolution on Trial—Debating Design," National Journal, vol. 38, January 7, 2006. pp. 36-43. Copyright 2007 by National Journal Group Inc. Reprinted with permission from National Journal. All rights reserved. Neil Munro writes on issues of science and technology for the National Journal, a weekly magazine on politics and government.
The intelligent-design (ID) and evolution controversy is a debate between those who oppose scientific materialism, a belief system that ID advocates claim ignores moral concerns and religious values, and scientists defending years of scientific accomplishments. ID proponents claim that the theory of evolution does not explain complex processes and that public schools should teach that an intelligent designer could fill these gaps. Scientists argue that no scientific evidence supports the existence of an intelligent designer. Teaching ID, scientists fear, will confuse students because it erroneously paints science as anti-God and hostile to American values.

There's been a lot of media coverage recently [as of 2006] about "intelligent design" versus the arguments for or against Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. This coverage has often treated the dispute as a boxing match between religion and science, between faith and data, as if either were somehow capable of knocking out the other in six rounds. But the dispute is also part of an enduring political fight, in which the strongest partisans of rival philosophies argue that their beliefs are better for the country and for democracy.

The clash plays out in newspapers, in magazines, and on television—but in recent years, most sharply at the meetings of local school boards, where elected members set policies for grades K-12 science education. At those meetings, advocacy groups and allied parents present cacophonous arguments—some scientific, some political, some constitutional—to sway the curriculum decisions in their favor.

The ID Movement

Today's debates are fueled by the intelligent-design movement, whose core advocates and their allies argue that the variety and complexity of life on Earth is too sophisticated to have evolved randomly, and must have been guided by some form of unseen intelligent hand.

Intelligent-design advocates have a clear political goal, albeit one that is inextricably linked to their religious perspectives. That goal is to lessen the political clout of "scientific materialism," which is the idea that everything that needs explaining—including life, free will, and morality—can be explained solely by the predictable and pitiless interactions of matter as it seeks to organize and selfishly proliferate itself. In the starkest version of this view, long-standing notions of the human spirit and of divine intervention are merely outmoded attempts to impose order on a cold universe and to govern humanity's restless appetites. The intelligent-design camp asserts that pushing back materialism will open up more room for moral claims and religious arguments in the political arena.

To accomplish this goal, intelligent-design advocates are trying to undermine the main pillar of materialism: Darwin's theory of evolution, which was first published in 1859. Evolution is central to materialism because it offers a comprehensive explanation of how humanity emerged from lower creatures rather than from supernatural creation. This theory has provided the intellectual foundation for the assertion that the origins of life are material, not divine.

To undermine the authority of evolution, intelligent-design advocates publish what they say are scientific critiques of evolution, highlight what they call deleterious political consequences of the theory's ascendance, and press school boards to include criticisms of evolution in school curriculum.

Intelligent-design backers ... insist that their main target is not science per se, but rather the scientific arguments for evolution and the attendant notion of materialism.

Intelligent design's attack on materialism is a challenge to scientists because materialism is as central to science as clearly marked ballots are to election results. So scientists are fighting back, and contending that intelligent-design advocates are new-age "creationists" who are pitching a politically tailored pseudoscience that is, and should be, constitutionally barred from taxpayer-funded schools.

Science's Impact on Politics

It's hard to buck science. Scientific advances, almost anyone would agree, have had a vast and positive impact on society. Progress in science has helped treat disease, create products that make life easier and more enjoyable, and generate great wealth. In 1850 in America, 217 of every 1,000 infants died in their first year of life; in 2000, fewer than six babies in 1,000 died before their first birthday. Without that improvement in survival rate, parents would be burying roughly 800,000 of the 4 million infants born in the United States every year.

America's economic growth is also tied in no small part to advances in science and technology. In 1929, the U.S. gross domestic product was equivalent to $865 billion, measured in 2000 dollars. By 2005, GDP had multiplied fourteenfold, to $12 trillion, much to the delight of Americans, both religious and irreligious.

Today, most people view scientists and their findings as authoritative. Indeed, many argue that religion's authority has been diminished, or at least put on the defensive, ever since the Scopes trial in 1925. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Tennessee, was prosecuted that year for teaching evolution. He was found guilty, but the state Supreme Court dismissed his case on a technicality, thus preventing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although the Scopes trial was a legal victory for the creationists of the day, it was a cultural defeat. The anti-Darwin campaign fizzled out, and religious conservatives retreated from national politics while urban technocrats, scientists, and university-trained experts increasingly gained economic, political, and cultural clout. Religious activists finally returned to politics in 1980, and they have since revived the conservative influence on politics and culture.

Evolution's Ill Effects

Creationists, as distinct from intelligent-design advocates, cite Bible passages about Adam and Eve, their descendants, and Noah's ark to explain the origins of humanity, to set the Earth's age between 6,000 and 10,000 years, and even to explain the death of the dinosaurs. In contrast, intelligent-design adherents accept the basic process of evolution, but say that the process had intelligent help along the way. And they try to use scientific arguments to make their case, in a tacit recognition of science's usefulness and enormous political clout.

Their principal argument is that nature's complexity, such as the anatomy of the human eye or the multistep chemical process that coagulates blood, cannot be fundamentally explained by material causes, random mutations, and the "survival of the fittest" doctrine, as evolution theory says. Intelligent-design advocates assert, for example, that the biology of blood clotting could not have evolved piece by piece, because it doesn't work unless all of the necessary mechanisms and proteins are present. These theorists say that something else is needed to explain the origin of mankind, biological complexity, and other "loose ends" of evolution, and that something else is "intelligent design."

Their claim is far-reaching, yet quite narrow. Intelligent-design proponents generally do not deny the geological evidence that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and they agree that creatures and plants evolve. On paper, most intelligent-design advocates don't argue that the intelligent designer is God, and they even leave open the possibility that the Earth could have been designed by aliens.

Moreover, advocates say that K-12 students should not be taught that an "intelligent designer" exists, but only that evolution's "loose ends" might be explained by the existence of an as-yet-undiscovered intelligent designer. That's the position of John West, the associate director of the wellspring for intelligent-design supporters, the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, based in Seattle. The center receives money from a variety of foundations, many of them allied with Christian conservatives.

Ideology or Science?

The intelligent-design camp says its pitch is scientific, although scientists widely disagree. Intelligent-design backers also insist that their main target is not science per se, but rather the scientific arguments for evolution and the attendant notion of materialism, which they see as more of a political movement, and a dangerous one at that. "Our biggest beef is that we don't think students are learning enough about" evolution, West said. "It is being taught like an ideology, not a scientific theory."

Intelligent-design supporters are presenting their case to a nation in which creationism is already a mainstream belief.

West argues that Darwin's emphasis on the material origins of humanity is perilous and dehumanizing. It was embraced, he says, by political advocates promoting fascism and communism in the early 20th century and was also important in the influence of Social Darwinism in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s....

John West and his followers fear that such notions will shape public attitudes and spill over into politics. "This [materialist] mind-set—that you can reduce everything to either a chemical reaction or to genes—is very dehumanizing," West said. "It does really conflict with the idea of human free will and free choice."

Intelligent Design's Political Progress

In their political campaign against the materialist view of humanity, West and his allies have a few advantages.

For one, voters do not have to choose between evolution or religious faith. They can freely support government-funded biomedical research and also choose to think of themselves as the holders of inalienable, self-evident political rights endowed by a creator. By downplaying possible inconsistencies, people can simultaneously get their therapies, distance society from a materialist nature, and champion a set of legal rights and moral rules to govern themselves and their fellow citizens. Lark Myers, a middle-aged shop owner in Dover, Pa., told the Washington Post [in 2005], for example, that "I definitely would prefer to believe that God created me, than that I'm 50th cousin to a silverback ape."

Second, intelligent-design supporters are presenting their case to a nation in which creationism is already a mainstream belief. In a November 2004 poll of 885 Americans, of whom 795 were registered voters, 55 percent said they believe God created man and woman in their present form, and 27 percent said God guided the evolutionary process. Only 13 percent—barely one in eight—agreed with the statement, "Humans evolved, God did not guide the process," according to the poll, which was conducted for CBS News and the New York Times.

Practically all leading scientists oppose the intelligent-design argument, root and branch.

The same poll, however, suggests that most Americans are willing to play both sides of the fence: Only 37 percent of respondents—18 percent less than the number who identified themselves as creationists—said they wanted schools to teach creationism in place of evolution, while 65 percent said that schools should teach both creationism and evolution....

Mixed Success

Overall, the intelligent-design crowd has had uneven success. They haven't dented scientists' support of evolution, and they haven't yet, as they have promised, carried out peer-reviewed scientific experiments to prove their case. And so far [as of January 2006], no court that has considered a case involving intelligent design has approved teaching the idea in K-12 classes.

Scientists assert that apart from the deleterious effects of intelligent design on classroom teaching, and on the scientific community itself, the theory is, well, bunk.

Nonetheless, intelligent-design advocates have made great progress in winning over like-minded social conservatives, in presenting their case to the public, in getting their ideas recognized by a few school boards, and in garnering support from leading political and religious figures. [In July 2005], the New York Times ran an op-ed article by Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, who reasserted the claim that faith is compatible with evolution and with intelligent design. "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense—an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection—is not," he wrote. "Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science."

In August [2005], President [George W.] Bush declared that local school boards should decided how to deal with the intelligent-design claim and that "part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought." Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., echoed the president's call for diversity in education when be said in August that teachers "should lay out areas in which the evidence supports evolution and the areas in the evidence that do not," although he also said, "I'm not comfortable with intelligent design being taught [as recognized truth] in the science classroom."

The Scientists' Response

Practically all leading scientists oppose the intelligent-design argument, root and branch. And it is hard to overstate how strongly they hold to their own argument that acceptance of intelligent design could undermine generations of accomplishment achieved by the scientific method of rigorous testing and retesting of hypotheses. This doesn't mean that scientists reject God or religion. "The intelligent-design movement has the potential to drive a wedge between people in the United States—and especially young people in schools—and the whole idea of science ... by portraying science as anti-God, hostile to American values, and close-minded on evolution," said Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and a practicing Catholic who actively campaigns against intelligent design. If that happens, "science as a career, and science as a way of thinking, and America's unique hospitality to science ... will all be put in jeopardy." But expecting people who have spent their lifetimes finding out how the world works to accept an untested hypothesis brought forward by a conservative think tank and its allies, and to support its dissemination in the nation's schools, is implausible.

Politicians are already trying to drive a wedge between scientists and public policy, Miller said.... "I think it is happening on a significant scale right now," Miller said.

The worries about intelligent design go far beyond its possible impact on classrooms. Scientists and many other university-educated professionals see intelligent design as an atavistic attack on modernity itself, and on their place in society. Ian Lance Taylor, a software expert, author, and atheist, says, "Political victories by creationists are scary.... When they succeed in legislating the teaching of science through the ballot box, we take a big step toward the establishment of an anti-rational state religion."

Most important, scientists assert that apart from the deleterious effects of intelligent design on classroom teaching, and on the scientific community itself, the theory is, well, bunk.

Numerous highly qualified scientists, often aided by professional associations and publications, offer coherent, evidence-backed explanations of how evolution's "loose ends" can be tied up. For example, scientists argue, organs that appear irreducibly complex—such as the human eye, with its interdependent lens and optical nerve—evolved from simpler light-sensing organs, and gradually discarded superfluous cells and features, just as an arch in a cathedral now stands without the scaffolding that made its construction possible. Similarly, blood coagulation, they say, can be shown to have evolved in steps, as nature mixed and matched proteins and processes already used for other biological purposes.

And scientists note that nothing has seriously challenged the evolution theory—no discovery, for example, of a fossilized cave dweller in the fossilized guts of a T-rex dinosaur; no discovery of a deity's signature in animal viscera.

Moreover, scientists say, intelligent design doesn't even reach the level of a conventional scientific theory, because it fails to describe experiments that would materially prove or disprove its claims. For example, intelligent-design advocates have yet to devise an experiment to show that an intelligent designer does or does not exist. "Whether there is an intelligent designer is not an empirically testable question," Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told National Journal.

The Classroom Fight

One of the tactics the scientific community is using to fight off intelligent design is to define science in the law, and especially in state education law, which governs teaching and curricula in the public schools. Scientists want to bar the door to admitting intelligent design as any part of science education. Intelligent-design proponents are "trying to redefine what science is" by allowing supernatural explanations for natural things, Leshner said. "We can't allow that."

Kansas has been one of the primary battlefields in these definitional struggles. In the Sunflower State [of Kansas], where intelligent-design advocates won, then lost, and then won seats on the State Board of Education, science advocates persuaded the board in 2001 to declare, "Science is restricted to explaining only the natural world, using only natural causes ... because science currently has no tools to test explanations using nonnatural (such as supernatural) causes."

The National Academies, the federally chartered private membership bodies that advise the government on scientific issues, and the National Science Teachers Association [NSTA] are in a battle right now with state officials over the writing of the Kansas Science Education Standards [KSES], which guide the teaching of science in the state's schools. In an October 27 [2005] statement, and in letters to Kansas officials, the academies and the NSTA refused to give copyright permission for officials to use portions of the National Science Education Standards (published by the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academies) or Pathways to Science Standards (published by the NSTA) in the Kansas standards.

Although the latest Kansas standards (which are still [as of 2006] in draft form) are more to the liking of the Academies and the NSTA than the 1999 standards were, the two organizations say the new standards still tilt too much toward intelligent design. [In February 2007, the school board adopted science standards that reflect mainstream scientific views of evolution.]

Leading scientists ... argue that science should be separated from politics and religion.

"While there is much in the Kansas Science Education Standards that is outstanding and could serve as a model for other states, our primary concern is that the draft KSES inappropriately singles out evolution as a controversial theory despite the strength of the scientific evidence supporting evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth and its acceptance by an overwhelming majority of scientists," the two organizations wrote in their statement. "The use of the word controversial to suggest that there are flaws in evolution is confusing to students and the public and is entirely misleading. While there may be disagreements among scientists about the exact processes, the theory of evolution has withstood the test of time and new evidence from many scientific disciplines only further supports this robust scientific theory."

Steven Schafersman is president of Texas Citizens for Science, a group that helped to defeat an effort in 2003 to downplay evolution in Texas schoolbooks. Summarizing the efforts of scientists in state capitals around the country, he said, "We want the scientific methods and scientific instruction to be controlled by science."

The Economic Argument

Science groups, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies, know that the purity of the scientific enterprise is not a big vote-getter. So they're also citing a variety of practical and economic benefits that could be jeopardized by the embrace of intelligent design.

America's high-tech economy, for example, relies on a steady influx of scientifically literate graduates. "The biotech industries need biologically literate customers, workforces, and policy environments, and that's not what they're going to get," if intelligent design gets into the schools, said Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, based in Oakland, Calif. Schafersman, citing Texas as an example, says that the "business community gets behind us [because] they want good science [and] good technology taught in schools [and] reality-based thinking, not faith-based thinking."

It was this economic argument that helped win the day recently [as of January 2006] in the intelligent-design controversy in Dover, Pa. Voters there threw out seven of the eight school board members who had voted to require the teaching of intelligent design in high school. They replaced them with an entirely new slate of candidates who argued that a good science education was necessary to prepare Dover students for success in college and in the workplace.

The Philosophical Argument

Most scientists say that they are not anti-religious and that the vast majority of their colleagues are in the moderate center when it comes to questions of a deity.

The fossil record offers overwhelming evidence for evolution, but no evidence that a God doesn't exist, scientists say. This "middle ground is the one that is embraced by the majority of the scientific community," said Brown University's Miller. Evolution "tells us that we are part of the same process that produced every living thing on Earth; [but] what one makes of that information from a philosophical or theological view depends on a person's philosophical outlook on life."

Leading scientists also argue that science should be separated from politics and religion. "We're the fact people," Leshner said. For example, in debates on the legalization of marijuana and the drug's possible medical benefits for cancer and AIDS patients, "I have no problem telling scientists to stick to facts," Leshner said, because what ought to be done about marijuana "is not a science question." Policy in this instance, he continued, "is made on facts and values."

Intelligent-design advocates see a partial victory in this "stick-to-the-facts" argument cited by scientists. They believe that such a stance is building a wall, albeit a low and weak one perhaps, between the materialist facts of science and its role in politics and policy.

But the pro-evolution side is as much of a Big Tent as the creationism/intelligent-design side is. And the scientists have their diehard activists, too....

In such a big tent, there are bound to be internal disputes and arguments. Some scientists, for example, are informally prodding their more assertive colleagues—such as the outspoken Richard Dawkins, a widely published, U.K.-based proponent of natural evolution—to tone down statements that might cause voters to worry that science is intruding too much into politics and culture, or dictating how controversies should be decided. "It doesn't help that they hear about Richard Dawkins going about saying that people who believe in religion are mistaken or evil," said Michael Ruse, a philosophy professor at Florida State University (Tallahassee) who has written extensively on the history and philosophy of Darwinism....

The political and legal arguments over evolution and intelligent design may be around for a long time, both sides agree, because they are about fundamental questions.

This professional pressure is modest, however, because scientists remain loath to curb other scientists. "Science is like the Catholic Church; it is a very disciplined organization," Ruse said. But, "to a great extent, people would be uncomfortable trying to rein [Dawkins] in."

Still, the informal pressure is having some impact on scientists, Branch said. "I think they're improving, [and] Dawkins has been taking pains" not to offend, he said. "A modicum of caution in not overstating views in dealing with the public is useful."

The Courts

The Supreme Court has enormous power to shape this political fight, and advocates for evolution worry that the Court will step back from its 1968 and 1987 anti-creationism decisions. "All [President George W.] Bush needs to get is one or two votes on his side, and before long, we'll find the justices saying that if people want 'balanced treatment' on intelligent design [in K-12 classrooms], they can have it," Ruse said.

To head this off, "we have to say, 'You can't do [intelligent design in schools], ... on the grounds that this is a particular form of American Protestant religion,'" Ruse said. The Court should bar schools from teaching that a God exists, he said, just as it should bar scientific claims that God does not exist....

There's no telling how the Supreme Court's decisions may evolve. For example, the Court ruled 5-4 in June [2005] that the display of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse was unconstitutional because any such display must have a secular purpose that is "genuine, not a sham, and not merely secondary to a religious objective." This case, McCreary County, Kentucky v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, seems to raise the bar that the Court set in the 1987 creationism decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, which said that curricula must have "a clear secular purpose."

The Court's emphasis on a primary secular purpose ensures that intelligent-design advocates may lose ground whenever they cite religious motivations for their campaign.

But if the high court adopts a hands-off position on intelligent design and lets locals decide what to teach, then the debate at school boards and in state legislatures could expand and intensify.

Scientists and their political allies would lose their judicial trump card and be pitched into a vast number of local political fights, in a nation where creationism is a mainstream notion. Those circumstances "would be much more difficult" than fighting a few courtroom arguments, Schafersman said. "We would have to appeal to common sense."

The political and legal arguments over evolution and intelligent design may be around for a long time, both sides agree, because they are about fundamental questions. The activists on both sides of this dispute, according to Ruse, embody "rival religious responses to a crisis of faith—rival stories of origins, rival judgments about the meaning of human life, rival sets of moral dictates, and above all, ... rival eschatologies," or theories about humanity's ultimate destiny.

This argument will go on and on because the meaning of life cannot be decided for everyone by a group of scientists, by a black-robed judge, or even by a panel of nine justices. As the Supreme Court itself wrote in its famous 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision on abortion, "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

Source Citation:

Neil Munro. "The Intelligent Design Versus Evolution Debate: An Overview." At Issue: Intelligent Design vs. Evolution. Ed. Louise Gerdes. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. Hopewell Valley Central High School. 24 Sep. 2009

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