Design vs. Darwin

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Seventy-seven years after the John Scopes “Monkey” trial and three years after the state of Kansas voted to exclude evolution from its science standards, a theory known as Intelligent Design is clamoring for recognition in Ohio.

Supporters of the theory are arguing that Ohio’s science education standards should include language saying that Darwin’s theory remains unproven and is challenged by other theories, including Intelligent Design. The state’s draft of standards, which were submitted for review today, contain the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution but no opposing theories. 

“There’s no reason why the controversy over evolution should not be presented to students,” said Robert Lattimer, a minority supporter of Intelligent Design within the science writing team.

Defenders of the science standards as they are now written counter that Intelligent Design has no scientific backing and should not be included.

The Ohio debate has reignited challenges to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was last disputed by Kansas educators. It has also become one of the first public platforms to feature the arguments of Intelligent Design, a theory which critics have called a “subtle” approach to insert religious belief into science instruction. 

Theory: Intricacy Suggests Intellect

The Intelligent Design theory was launched in 1991 when Phillip Johnson, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, published his book Darwin on Trial. The idea proposes that the intricate complexity of plants and animals is evidence that life could only be the work of an intelligent designer, not evolution. The theory stops short of declaring what or who the intelligent designer might be.

“It’s like finding a radio and thinking it was simple and then opening it up and realizing it has many, many different parts,” said Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University and author of another book about Intelligent Design, Darwin’s Black Box. “By its intricacy you know it had to be put together by intellect.”

Lattimer estimates there are six to 10 members of Ohio’s 40-member science writing team who would be willing to include language about the evolution controversy and competing theories. More significantly, he is hoping that members of the state’s Board of Education will vote to dismiss the standards written by their appointed writing team and vote in favor of including a clause.

Scott Charlton, a science teacher at Ohio’s Lebanon High School and a member of the standards writing team, is wary the debate will cast Ohio in an embarrassing light. 

“I have great concern that we will be a worse joke than Kansas,” Charlton said, referring to the controversy over evolution in Kansas three years ago that led the Kansas board to drop evolution from its science standards. In the next election, voters ousted three conservatives who supported the measure and the board eventually restored evolution to the state’s science standards. 

David Haury, a professor of science education at The Ohio State University, adds that science is made up of theories and so it is unfair to single out the theory of evolution as unproven.

“There are no proven theories in science,” he said. “If we point out that evolution is unproven, we’ll need to point out that the theory of gravity is also unproven. And evolution is a much stronger theory than the theory of gravity. Evolution is the scientific view that needs to be presented.” 

Federal Mandate?

The push to incorporate Intelligent Design language into Ohio’s standards has been partly fueled by a Seattle-based group called the Discovery Institute. The institute, which identifies itself a think tank for Intelligent Design, has been active in generating media and public attention to the theory and to the controversy in Ohio. It is funded in part by Christian foundations.

Most recently the institute publicized the arguments of two Ohio representatives who claim that a federal law passed last January under President George W. Bush calls for academic standards that include arguments both for and against evolution. Ohio is the first state to issue new science standards since the president’s “No Child Left Behind” bill was signed. 

But Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University who has participated in hearings in Ohio about the controversy, dismisses the lawmakers’ claim. He points out there is nothing within the actual law regarding evolution. Instead, the reference to the evolution controversy is limited to language inside a report by a joint conference committee about the bill.

“They’re playing very fast and loose with the facts,” said Miller.

Regardless of technicalities in the bill’s language, the back and forth alone suggests that Ohio politicians may be poised to take up the science standards issue if the state’s board does not vote to include new language. 

Unlike past movements to include the biblical theory of creation in school’s science plans, proponents of Intelligent Design deny their agenda is a religious one. Behe explains the theory points out weaknesses in Darwin’s theory of evolution and tries to present the “best explanation of how the world got here.” The fact that the theory’s explanation is mystical, says Behe, is beside the point. 

A ‘Clever’ Mandate

Recently 52 Ohio scientists, mostly professors from The Ohio State University, signed a petition in support of standards that would include arguments both for and against evolution. 

“The petition was partly a reaction to the claims people were making that there weren’t any serious scientists who support Intelligent Design,” said Robert DiSilvestro, a professor of human nutrition at The Ohio State University who signed the petition.

More than 2,700 Ohio citizens, including other scientists, have signed a petition sponsored by Ohio Citizens for Science, which urges science standards not include alternative ideas to evolution. Patricia Princehouse, a philosophy professor at Case Western Reserve University and founder of the group, suggested some of the scientists who signed the Intelligent Design petition may have been misled.

“The people pushing the agenda in Kansas learned a lot,” said Steven Rissing, a biology professor who teaches evolution at The Ohio State University in Columbus. “This approach is more subtle than creation and, frankly, more clever.”

DiSilvestro says he and his colleagues were well aware of the Intelligent Design reference.

“All we’re saying is teachers should be encouraged to point out difficulties with the theory of evolution,” he said.

Ohio’s Board of Education plans to add any revisions to the science standards in June and must approve it by the end of the year. Bills pending in the state’s House and Senate would require the state legislature to approve the standards as well.