'Intelligent design' theory definitely belongs in biology class--as a history lesson in the evolution of thought.
October 3, 2005
I don’t believe that the universe was intelligently designed. I don't think that "intelligent design" is a scientific theory: It appeals to the supernatural and cannot be empirically tested. I think its proponents have religious motivations for trying to insert it into the curriculum.
But I also believe it should be taught in high school biology classes.
The federal court case that began this week originated in York County, Pa., where my kids go to the public schools. The school board of the Dover district mandated that a four-paragraph statement be read in high school biology classes, setting out intelligent design as an alternative to evolution for explaining the current configuration of organisms. Several Dover parents brought suit to prevent that statement from being read.
The issue is symptomatic of the continuing divisions in American culture, as severe now as when the Scopes Monkey Trial was raging in 1925. It tracks fairly closely the conflict between red states and blue states, the religious and the secular, Republicans and Democrats, and so on.
And though Pennsylvania is nominally blue, this county in the middle-south of the state is rock-ribbed red and Christian to the hilt.
To understand what the Dover school board was trying to accomplish, consider how you would feel if your children, in the course of a compulsory education, were taught doctrines that contradicted your most cherished beliefs that blandly invalidated your worldview without discussion. Think about being heavily taxed to destroy your own belief system. That's how the people in this community feel.
The clash between evolution and intelligent design is not a clash between two rival scientific theories. It is the latest moment in the most profound intellectual dilemma of the West: the disagreement between reason and faith, Athens and Jerusalem, science and Scripture.
Neither reason nor faith can establish itself as the exclusively desirable strategy for generating beliefs. If the question is who has the science, the answer is obvious: Charles Darwin. In fact, as far as the use of reason goes, intelligent design has been as completely destroyed as any view ever has been: The great British philosopher David Hume achieved its utter devastation in "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" in the 18th century. Its current proponents have done nothing substantial to advance the argument.
But Hume was the first to admit that all of his arguments left faith untouched.
Science classes typically make use of history and social context in order to, among other things, display the importance of science to human development and to make students understand science as a compelling human concern. For example, there is no reason, in an astronomy course, not to talk about the fact that Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church. If you don't put Galileo's theories in the context of the philosophical, religious and scientific beliefs of his era, and discuss Galileo's effects on the generations that followed, you cannot understand his achievement at all.
There is every reason, in giving a basic characterization of scientific method, to contrast it to medieval alchemy or astrology and so on. Whatever science may be, it is also a series of developments in human history; otherwise it cannot be understood and need not be.
The theory of evolution is a scientific development, but it is also a profound transformation of the way we understand ourselves. You cannot grasp Darwin's achievement without understanding what people believed before Darwin and how they have responded to his theories The alternative views are intrinsic to the meaning of the science, and the science is intrinsic to the question of what sorts of things we human beings are.
Taking 30 seconds to read an innocuous statement indicating that we are not unanimous is inadequate to present the genuine and profound debate about these matters. But it's a start. And if my kids come home asking the questions such a statement raises, I will regard that as a victory for their education in the sciences.
Crispin Sartwell teaches political science at Dickinson College. He is the author of "End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History" (SUNY, 2000)
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