Intelligent Design and Informed Debate

The current frenzied attack on the teaching of evolution in public schools in school boards across the United States is to be welcomed.

By | February 28, 2005

The current frenzied attack on the teaching of evolution in public schools in school boards across the United States is to be welcomed.

There, I've said it. And no, I'm not a fundamental Christian, a creationist, or a right-wing ideologue. What I am is someone who sees an outstanding opportunity to exchange views with the naysayers, and a rare public examination of a set of ideas that are pretty much taken as Gospel – sorry for the blurring of metaphors, but it drives home my point – by us in the scientific community. Played the right way, everyone – yes, including scientists – should come out enriched by the interaction.

For those who haven't been following developments, here's a précis: Conservative forces, likely buoyed by the recent election, are applying pressure on the science education system to adopt the teaching of a theory called "Intelligent Design." The nub of intelligent design is that Earth and particularly the life on it are much too complex to have evolved; simply, it must be the work of an intelligent creator.

The squeeze is on in legislatures and school boards in at least 18 states, from Alabama to Alaska. The movement is even becoming a US export to the United Kingdom, according to a story on page 12 of this issue.

Opponents have two possible responses. The dominant one is something close to panic: fear that a generation will be brainwashed into accepting intelligent design and that science itself is under threat throughout the country. That response results in avoiding the topic altogether and refusing to debate. In fact, some scientists regret using words such as "design" in published studies, for fear it will be used by intelligent-design advocates (see p. 12).

The other response is to accept the challenge and rise to it, even to relish it. That's the approach I would urge, and here's why:

• It's rare to have a full-blooded public debate about the school curriculum. And one about the science curriculum is as rare as rocking-horse droppings. We should play it for all it's worth, bringing a clearer sense of evolution to a wide cross-section of the population.

• While some of the commentary, with headlines such as "Religious right fights science for the heart of America,"1 suggests that the heart of America is some kind of science utopia, this could hardly be further from the truth. With the exception of isolated pockets of excellence, the heart of America could do well with engaging a lot more with science, and this is a chance to make headway. Debates can be won as well as lost!

• At the level of the students who are, after all, the principles in all this, the study of different explanations for the diversity of life on Earth will make science class more compelling. Clyde Herreid talks on page 10, in this issue's Opinion, about the need for science teaching to connect to the first-hand experiences of students. The evolution-intelligent design debate will fire the interest of bright kids who will see through the paper-thin arguments being set out to discredit evolution.

There is one caveat, and it's a big one: The topics must be taught on a level playing field. Full information on evolution and on intelligent design must be supplied, and there must be no further pressure on curricula or teachers. Given this, I'm in little doubt that the open-minded students of the heart of America will see the strength of evolution as a theory.

In addition, scientists should go out of their way to support their local high-school science teachers to present the case for evolution. Scientists must propose their case to as wide an audience as possible. This includes commercial television news, a medium of which scientists have been skeptical.2 Let's get out there and argue!

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