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Let 'intelligent design' and science rumble

October 02, 2005|Michael Balter | MICHAEL BALTER is a human evolution writer for Science. The views expressed above are his own.

Should "Intelligent DESIGN" be taught in school alongside the theory of evolution?

That's the question being tried in a federal court in Pennsylvania, where 11 parents have sued to block the teaching of intelligent design in Dover's high school. But it's the wrong question. A national debate over how best to explain the complexity of living organisms would better serve our children, and adults too.

Most scientists don't want any debate. Many view intelligent design as simply a new and more sophisticated attempt -- "the thinking man's creationism," as Science magazine put it -- to slip old-time religion into the classroom. They maintain that the theory of evolution, in particular natural selection, is so well supported by the evidence that it is the consensus scientific view. As such, it deserves a monopoly in school curricula.

Using complex statistics, intelligent-design theorists contend that natural selection fails to fully explain life's complexity, thus alternative explanations to evolution should be considered. As a rule, they don't speculate over who or what did the designing.

Intelligent-design proponents also argue that the scientific consensus on evolution is not rock solid. The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, whose Center for Science and Culture spearheads the intelligent-design campaign, has recruited more than 400 scientists to sign its "Scientific Dissent From Darwinism," which states in part: "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life."

Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Americans don't believe that the theory of evolution is the best explanation for our own origins. A November 2004 Gallup poll, for example, found that only 13% of respondents said they believed that God had no part in the evolution or creation of human beings, and 38% said they thought humans evolved from less-advanced forms but that God guided the process. About 45% said they believed that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 or so years. These results echoed similar Gallup polls dating to 1982.

This suggests that scientists have won few converts during at least the last two decades -- despite a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning the teaching of creationism in the classroom.

In large part, Americans' skepticism toward evolutionary theory reflects the continuing influence of religion. Yet it also implies that scientists have not been persuasive enough, even when buttressed by strong scientific evidence that natural selection alone can account for life's complexity.

Could it be that the theory of evolution's judicially sanctioned monopoly in the classroom has backfired?

For one thing, the monopoly strengthens claims by intelligent-design proponents that scientists don't want to be challenged. More important, it shields Darwinian theory from challenges that, when properly refuted, might win over adherents to evolutionary views.

Pro-evolution scientists have little to lose and everything to gain from a nationwide debate. Let's put the leading proponents of intelligent design and our sharpest evolutionary biologists on a national television panel and let them take their best shots. If biblical literalists want to join in, let them. Let's encourage teachers to stage debates in their classrooms or in assemblies. Students can be assigned to one or the other side, and guest speakers can be invited. Among other things, students would learn that science, when properly done, reaches conclusions via experimentation, evidence and argument, not through majority view.

Would this bring religion into the classroom? Religious faith and thinking are already in the classroom, as the opinion polls strongly suggest. And the courts should stay out of it because educators would not be required nor allowed to advocate a religious point of view.

The history of the theory of evolution is one of bitter debates between religion and science, and the debates continue today. In "On the Origin of Species," Charles Darwin refuted the arguments for intelligent design put forward by the 18th century English philosopher William Paley, who greatly influenced the evolutionary theorist until Darwin witnessed natural selection at work on the Galapagos Islands. Over the ensuing decades, Darwin's theories were rigorously tested and criticized before they won over the majority of scientists.

The best way to teach the theory of evolution is to teach this contentious history. The most effective way to convince students that the theory is correct is to confront, not avoid, continuing challenges to it.

Given the opportunity to debate, scientists should say: "Bring it on."

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