The Evolution Wars
August 7, 2005
Sometime in the late fall, unless a federal court intervenes, ninth-graders at the public high school in rural Dover, Pa., will witness an unusual scene in biology class. The superintendent of schools, Richard Nilsen, will enter the classroom to read a three-paragraph statement mandated by the local school board as a cautionary preamble to the study of evolution. It reads, in part:
Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence ... Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view ... As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.
After that one-minute reading, the superintendent will probably depart without any discussion, and a lesson in evolutionary biology will begin.
That kind of scene, brief and benign though it might seem, strikes horror into the hearts of scientists and science teachers across the U.S., not to mention plenty of civil libertarians. Darwin's venerable theory is widely regarded as one of the best-supported ideas in science, the only explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, grounded in decades of study and objective evidence. But Dover's disclaimer on Darwin would appear to get a passing grade from the man who considers himself America's education President. In a question-and-answer session with Texas newspaper reporters at the White House last week, George W. Bush weighed in on the issue. He expressed support for the idea of combining lessons in evolution with a discussion of "intelligent design"--the proposition that some aspects of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause or agent, as opposed to natural selection. It is a subtler way of finding God's fingerprints in nature than traditional creationism. "Both sides ought to be properly taught," said the President, who appeared to choose his words with care, "so people can understand what the debate is about ... I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought."
On its surface, the President's position seems supremely fair-minded: What could possibly be wrong with presenting more than one point of view on a topic that divides so many Americans? But to biologists, it smacks of faith-based science. And that is provocative not only because it rekindles a turf battle that goes all the way back to the Middle Ages but also because it comes at a time when U.S. science is perceived as being under fresh assault politically and competitively. Just last week, developments ranging from flaws in the space program to South Korea's rapid advances in the field of cloning were cited as examples that the U.S. is losing its edge. Bush's comments on intelligent design were the No. 1 topic for bloggers for days afterward. "It sends a signal to other countries because they're rushing to gain scientific and technological leadership while we're getting distracted with a pseudoscience issue," warned Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the 55,000-member National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va. "If I were China, I'd be happy."
As far as many Americans are concerned, however, the President was probably preaching to the choir. In a Harris poll conducted in June, 55% of 1,000 adults surveyed said children should be taught creationism and intelligent design along with evolution in public schools. The same poll found that 54% did not believe humans had developed from an earlier species--up from 45% with that view in 1994--although other polls have not detected this rise.
Around the U.S., the prevalence of such beliefs and the growing organization and clout of the intelligent-design movement are beginning to alter the way that most fundamental tenets of biology are presented in public schools. New laws that in some sense challenge the teaching of evolution are pending or have been considered in 20 states, including such traditionally liberal bastions as Michigan and New York. This week in Kansas, a conservative-leaning state board of education is expected to accept a draft of new science standards that emphasize the theoretical nature of evolution and require students to learn about "significant debates" about the theory. The proposed rules, which won't be put to a final vote until fall, would also alter the state's basic definition of science. While current Kansas standards describe science as "the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world," the rewritten definition leaves the door open, critics say, for the supernatural as well.
A SUBTLER ASSAULT
Darwin's theory has been a hard sell to Americans ever since it was unveiled nearly 150 years ago in The Origin of Species. The intelligent-design movement is just the latest and most sophisticated attempt to discredit the famous theory, which many Americans believe leaves insufficient room for the influence of God. Early efforts to thwart Darwin were pretty crude. Tennessee famously banned the teaching of evolution and convicted schoolteacher John Scopes of violating that ban in the "monkey trial" of 1925. At the time, two other states--Florida and Oklahoma--had laws that interfered with teaching evolution. When such laws were struck down by a Supreme Court decision in 1968, some states shifted gears and instead required that "creation science" be taught alongside evolution. Supreme Court rulings in 1982 and 1987 put an end to that. Offering creationism in public schools, even as a side dish to evolution, the high court held, violated the First Amendment's separation of church and state.
But some anti-Darwinists seized upon Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion in the 1987 case. Christian fundamentalists, he wrote, "are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools." That line of argument--an emphasis on weaknesses and gaps in evolution--is at the heart of the intelligent-design movement, which has as its motto "Teach the controversy." "You have to hand it to the creationists. They have evolved," jokes Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., which monitors attacks on the teaching of evolution.
HOLES IN DARWIN?
Since the 1987 decision, a devoted band of mostly religious Christians, including hundreds of scientists, engineers, theologians and philosophers, has written papers and books, contributed to symposiums on the perceived problems with Darwin's theory. The headquarters for such thinking is the Center for Science and Culture at a nonpartisan but generally conservative think tank called the Discovery Institute, founded in Seattle in 1990.
What exactly is their critique of Darwin? Much of it revolves around the appealing idea that living things are simply too exquisitely complex to have evolved by a combination of chance mutations and natural selection. The dean of that school of thought is Lehigh University biologist and Discovery Institute senior fellow Michael Behe, author of the 1996 book Darwin's Black Box, a seminal work on intelligent design. Behe's main argument points to the fact that living organisms contain such ingenious structures as the eye and systems like the mechanism for clotting blood, which involves at least 20 interacting proteins. He calls such phenomena "irreducibly complex" because removing or altering any part invalidates the whole. Behe claims they could not have arisen through the gradual fits and starts of evolution, which, he says, "has been oversold to the public." Although his writing is couched in the language of science, Behe, a practicing Catholic who home schools his nine children, believes the hand of the designer is self-evident. "That's why most people disbelieve Darwinian evolution," he says. "People go out and look at the trees and say, 'Nah.'"
Other arguments in this new brand of anti-Darwinism focus on missing pieces in the fossil record, particularly the Cambrian period, when there was an explosion of novel species. Still other advocates, including mathematician, philosopher and theologian William Dembski, who is heading up a new center for intelligent design at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, use the mathematics of probability to try to show that chance mutations and natural selection cannot account for nature's complexity. In contrast to earlier opponents to Darwin, many proponents of intelligent design accept some role for evolution--heresy to some creationists. They are also careful not to bring God into the discussion (another sore point for hard-line creationists), preferring to keep primarily to the language of science. This may also help them avoid the legal and political pitfalls of teaching creationism.
The Discovery Institute and its scientists have been actively involved in many of the recent skirmishes over evolution at local school-board meetings and in state legislatures. In Ohio, for instance, the institute sent representatives to the state board of education meetings last year to push for science standards that would support teaching critiques of evolution. "All we're advocating for is that if a teacher wants to bring up the scientific debate over design, they should be allowed to do that," says institute spokesman John West. In fact, Ohio modified its standards to say that evolution should be critically analyzed, which West regards as a victory.
Statewide curriculum standards for science are a relatively new target for Darwin doubters, one that has a broader impact than local school-board decisions. In addition, by working at the state level, intelligent-design advocates can largely avoid dealing with unpolished local activists who make rash religious statements that don't hold up in court. (Supporters of the Darwin disclaimer in Dover, Pa., have publicly proclaimed the country a Christian nation, a point cited in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit.) It has been only since the late 1980s and early '90s that most states have created science-curriculum standards as part of a national movement to bring more accountability to education. "Savvy creationists are focusing their efforts on this relatively new arena," says Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education. "The decision-making bodies involved in approving state science standards tend to be small, not particularly knowledgeable and, above all, elected, so it's a good opportunity for political pressure to be applied."
In Kansas, conservative members of the state school board, like Connie Morris, who represents the sparsely populated western half of Kansas, have repeatedly injected scientifically abstruse, jargon-heavy documents from the Discovery Institute into the debate about teaching evolution, making the discussion tough for the average citizen to follow. "Personally, I believe in the Genesis account of God's creation," says Morris. "But as a policymaker looking at science standards, I rely mostly on research and expert documentation."
Oddly enough, the President's remarks last week promoting intelligent design made Morris and many other Darwin doubters uncomfortable because they have a different timetable in mind. "His support is appreciated, but I plan to move forward on attempting to get criticism of Darwinian evolution in the science standards, not intelligent design," says Morris. Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a leading voice on the religious right, seemed to be reading from the same script. "What we should be teaching are the problems and holes in the theory of evolution," he said in an interview with National Public Radio a few days after Bush made his comments. Santorum also said, "As far as intelligent design is concerned, I really don't believe it has risen to the level of a scientific theory at this point that we would want to teach it alongside of evolution." The Senator tried to get a teach-the-controversy addendum into the 2001 No Child Left Behind bill.
Even scientists who believe in intelligent design do not feel it is ready for prime time. Many would prefer to move forward gradually, building their case, in order to avoid a backlash. "It's premature for all kinds of reasons," says oceanographer Edward Peltzer, a senior researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. "The science is there, but the science textbooks are not. The teachers have to be trained. Its time will come. But its time is not now." The emphasis for now is on dissing Darwinism, which opens the door to other explanations without specifically invoking an intelligent creator. Many advocates of intelligent design complain that Darwinism has become a kind of faith in itself. "There's religion on both sides," insists David Keller, a chemistry professor at the University of New Mexico, who taught a seminar on problems with evolution at an anti-Darwin forum in Greenville, S.C., last week.
BIOLOGISTS ASK, WHAT HOLES?
Many scientists have been reluctant to engage in a debate with advocates of intelligent design because to do so would legitimize the claim that there's a meaningful debate about evolution. "I'm concerned about implying that there is some sort of scientific argument going on. There's not," says noted British biologist Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, whose most recent book about evolution is The Ancestor's Tale. He and other scientists say advocates of intelligent design do not play by the rules of science. They do not publish papers in peer-reviewed journals, and their hypothesis cannot be tested by research and the study of evidence. Indeed, Behe concedes, "You can't prove intelligent design by an experiment." Dawkins compares the idea of teaching intelligent-design theory with teaching flat earthism-- perfectly fine in a history class but not in science. He says, "If you give the idea that there are two schools of thought within science--one that says the earth is round and one that says the earth is flat--you are misleading children."
But the strategy of disengagement may be backfiring on those who care about teaching evolution. When scientists and science teachers boycotted the discussion of biology standards at a Kansas school-board meeting last May, they left the floor wide open to critics of evolution, who won the day. "Are they wilting young maids that can't stand the heat of a hearing?" asks Washington attorney Edward Sisson, who was a co-counsel for the 23 academics who testified on the anti-Darwin side.
Scientists say it is, in fact, easy to gainsay the intelligent-design folks. Take Behe's argument about complexity, for example. "Evolution by natural selection is a brilliant answer to the riddle of complexity because it is not a theory of chance," explains Dawkins. "It is a theory of gradual, incremental change over millions of years, which starts with something very simple and works up along slow, gradual gradients to greater complexity. Not only is it a brilliant solution to the riddle of complexity; it is the only solution that has ever been proposed." To attribute nature's complexity to an intelligent designer merely removes the origin of complexity to the unseen designer. "Who designs the designer?" asks Dawkins.
As for gaps in the fossil record, Dawkins says, that is like detectives complaining that they can't account for every minute of a crime--a very ancient one--based on what they found at the scene. "You have to make inferences from footprints and other types of evidence." As it happens, he notes, there is a huge amount of evidence of evolution not only in the fossil record but also in the letters of the genetic code shared in varying degrees by all species. "The pattern," says Dawkins, "is precisely what you would expect if evolution would happen." Dawkins insists that critics of Darwin are wrong to say that evolution has become an article of faith among scientists. He cites biologist J.B.S. Haldane who, when asked what would disprove evolution, replied, fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era, a period more than 540 million years ago, when life on Earth seems to have consisted largely of bacteria, algae and plankton. "Creationists are fond of saying that there are very few fossils in the Precambrian, but why would there be?" asks Dawkins. "However, if there was a single hippo or rabbit in the Precambrian, that would completely blow evolution out of the water. None have ever been found."
Mathematical arguments against evolution are equally misguided, says Martin Nowak, a Harvard professor of mathematics and evolutionary biology. "You cannot calculate the probability that an eye came about," he says. "We don't have the information to make this calculation." Nowak, who describes himself as a person of faith, sees no contradiction between Darwin's theory and belief in God. "Science does not produce any evidence against God," he observes. "Science and religion ask different questions."
WHAT SHALL BE TAUGHT?
But for those who read Genesis literally and believe that God created the world along with all creatures big and small in just six days, there's no reconciling faith with Darwinism. And polls indicate that approximately 45% of Americans believe that. It's no wonder that almost one-third of the 1,050 teachers who responded to a National Science Teachers Association online survey in March said they had felt pressured by parents and students to include lessons on intelligent design, creationism or other nonscientific alternatives to evolution in their science classes; 30% noted that they felt pressured to omit evolution or evolution-related topics from their curriculum.
But some science teachers voluntarily take alternative theories to class. Eric Schweain has been teaching high school biology in St. Louis, Mo., for a decade. Although he follows the district's policy of teaching Darwin's theory, he also talks about intelligent design, an idea he personally favors. "I teach according to fossil evidence, though I make sure to tell students that it's important to talk to family and friends and, if you go to a church, talk to your clergy."
The standards movement in education has, overall, strengthened the teaching of evolution, even as it has presented a new target for anti-Darwinists. In 2000, 10 states had no mention of evolution in their curriculum standards. Now only Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma--states with long creationist traditions--make this omission. In June, Alaska's state board of education was pressured by scientists, teachers and concerned citizens to add evolution to science standards that had avoided the topic. Other states, most notably Kansas and New Mexico, have wobbled on whether to teach evolution, deleting and then restoring it to state standards depending on who was elected to the school board. The Kansas reinstatement occurred after the state was given an F- in a 2000 report by the Fordham Foundation, titled "Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States." Only 24 states earned an A or B for teaching the topic well. Kansas' flunking grade was based on the fact that, at the time, it had not only cut Darwin from the curriculum but had also deleted all references to the age of the earth and universe. Now evolution is back in the Kansas curriculum, but a new, more conservative board is seeking a teach-the-controversy requirement.
The new, presumably Constitution-proof way of providing coverage for communities that wish to teach ideas like intelligent design is to employ such earnest language as "critical inquiry" (in New Mexico), "strengths and weaknesses" of theories (Texas), and "critical analysis" (Ohio). It's difficult to argue against such benign language, but hard-core defenders of Darwin are wary. "The intelligent-design people are trying to mislead people into thinking that the reference to science as an ongoing critical inquiry permits them to teach I.D. crap in the schools," says David Thomas, president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason. On the other hand, tinkering in that way with the standards won't necessarily weaken instruction on evolution. "Where you have strong science programs now, they'll ignore the [state] standards," says Bill Wagnon, a professor of history at Washburn University who represents Topeka on the Kansas school board.
The new school year is certain to bring more battles over teaching evolution, not only in Kansas and Pennsylvania but also in the many states that are preparing new standards-based tests in science. By raising the profile of intelligent design, the President has doubtless emboldened those who differ with Darwin and furthered one goal of that movement: he has taught all of us the controversy.
--With reporting by Melissa August/ Washington, Jeremy Caplan/ New York, Jeff Chu and Constance E. Richards/ Greenville, Rita Healy/ Denver, Christopher Maag/ Cleveland, Bud Norman/ Wichita, Adam Pitluk/ Dallas, Jeffrey Ressner/ Los Angeles and Sean Scully/ Philadelphia
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