Ohio School Board Debates Teaching ‘Intelligent Design’

Stakes were high Monday at a meeting of an Ohio Board of Education panel. Up for discussion: whether high school biology students should be told about potential problems with Darwinism and evidence that life on Earth was planned.
About 1,500 parents, teachers and students showed up for the meeting, which was moved to an auditorium to accommodate the crowd. They listened to the pros and cons of a concept known as intelligent design, which says there’s evidence that some form of intelligence purposely designed nature.

The board must revamp the state science curriculum by December, and some Ohioans want it to include intelligent design, or ID, alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in curriculum guidelines for statewide testing.

Stephen Meyer of Seattle’s Discovery Institute, the leading ID think tank, told the board that rather than making ID part of the curriculum it should merely encourage teachers to cover the disagreements about Darwinism.

“We just want the discussion opened up, because we feel the evidence is running strongly in our favor,” Meyer said after the hearing.

Whatever the board decides, the Ohio discussion has brought new attention to the fledgling ID movement, a small academic faction but one that flexes considerable brainpower.

Proponents say evolution is typically taught to mean life emerged on Earth spontaneously, and that only undirected natural selection produced the varied life forms. But, they contend, the best evidence indicates that scenario is fantastically unlikely.

Intelligent design arguments touch on everything from the fine-tuned structure of the universe described by modern physics to the information encoded in DNA to make their point.

But “intelligent design isn’t science,” the board was told by Lawrence Krauss, physics chairman at Case Western Reserve University.

Another opponent, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, warns ID would bring religion into biology classes, even though advocates scrupulously avoid naming the intelligence they see behind the universe.

“Look, it’s God, not a little green man,” Scott says. “We know that.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press signaled ID’s growing importance in January, issuing an 805-page anthology titled “Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics.”

That book title depicts ID as a variant of creationism, which reads Genesis literally and says the Earth was formed thousands of years ago rather than billions, and that all species appeared immediately and a flood engulfed the globe.

Yet ID actually insists on none of that. And while creationists are mostly conservative Protestants, ID theorists come from a wider range of faiths and some are nonreligious.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled creationism is too biblical for public schools, and ID proponents sought to distinguish themselves from that label in a long Utah Law Journal article arguing that ID is fit for public schools. University of Wisconsin historian Ronald L. Numbers, an ID opponent and author of “The Creationists,” agrees the creationist label is inaccurate when it comes to the ID movement. But, he adds, it’s “the easiest way to discredit intelligent design.”

Most ID thinkers cluster around the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, founded in 1996, and the Access Research Network, established at Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1990.

But similar ideas came as early as 1983 from eminent British physicist Sir Fred Hoyle, who was not conventionally religious.

Hoyle wrote that a blindfolded person working the Rubik’s Cube puzzle at one move per second would need 1,350 billion years to align the 54 squares. He calculated similar odds that even one protein formed on Earth through blind chance.

Since that’s hundreds of times the age of the planet, he said, the odds against this happening with all the proteins in nature are “almost unimaginably vast.”

That sort of argument is escalated by mathematician-philosopher William A. Dembski of Baylor University, a Roman Catholic turned Protestant, who began doubting Darwinism in the late 1980s.

His January book “No Free Lunch” (Rowman & Littlefield) employs ample doses of symbolic logic to argue that intelligent design is legitimate science, because biologists can reliably detect the effects of design and distinguish these from random results, just as archeologists or crime scene investigators do.

The book is too new for scholarly critiques, but Wesley Elsberry of Texas A&M University says Dembski’s previous work has failed to rule out Darwin’s natural selection as the cause behind what might appear to be design.

Another leading ID theorist is Lehigh University microbiologist Michael J. Behe. His “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution” (1996) examines intricate processes such as blood clotting and the motion of the bacterial flagellum.

Darwinism cannot explain such things, he argues, because interrelated parts that are useless by themselves must appear and function together. He calls this “irreducible complexity.”

ID differs not only from creationism but a third option, theistic evolution, which says God employed the Darwinian process. Behe says that concept is “no threat to Christian beliefs” and he once agreed with it, but it isn’t supported by the biological evidence.

Like Behe, Brown University biologist Kenneth R. Miller is a churchgoing Roman Catholic who believes in “a reality that transcends the material.”

But Miller, who testified Monday, also is a Darwinist who calls Behe’s approach “factually wrong” because supposedly useless “bits and pieces” of biology can have other uses. ID is a collection of “half-truths that don’t amount to a coherent theory,” Miller says.

Miller also raises a theological objection. If God purposely designed 30 horse species that later disappeared, he asserts, then God’s primary attribute is incompetence. “He can’t make it right the first time. I don’t think the Almighty works that way.”

Though opponents like Scott contend that ID is too inherently religious for science classes, Alvin Plantinga, a noted Protestant philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, turns the tables. Plantinga says evolution is presented with built-in godless assumptions so it’s unfair for public schools “to teach one set of religious beliefs as opposed to another.”

Behe says “the problem is not religious people trying to push design, but scientific people pushing their heads into the sand to avoid design because it has religious implications.”