Transcript-NPR Talk of the Nation / Science Friday

How evolution is taught in the classroom



Efforts to influence how evolution is taught in the classroom has been picking up steam lately. This month, the nation’s largest scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, passed a resolution urging policy-makers to oppose teaching what is called the ‘intelligent design’ theory within science classrooms. Rather, it urged educators to keep it separate and treat it the same way that creationism and other religious teachings are handled. Critics of intelligent design say it is just creationism in new clothing.

The science organization was acting in response to two recent challenges to the teaching of evolution in the classroom, one in Ohio and one in Georgia. In Ohio, new proposed guidelines for teaching evolution in science class don’t mention intelligent design specifically but call for science teachers to include lessons that, quote, “describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” In Georgia’s Cobb County, the school board decided in March that science textbooks used in middle and high schools must carry stickers saying that, quote, “evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.” The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in response.

This hour, a look at the new challenges to teaching evolution in the classroom. What should or shouldn’t be included in science curricula? If you’d like to get in on our conversation, our number is 1 (800) 989-8255, 1 (800) 989-TALK.

Let me introduce my guests. Kenneth Miller is a professor of biology at Brown University in Providence. He’s also the author of “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution,” published by Cliff Street Books, and the co-author of what many science teachers call the “Dragonfly Book.” It’s a widely used high school biology textbook. He joins us by phone from El Paso, Texas. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Miller.

Dr. KENNETH MILLER (Brown University): Thanks, Ira. Very happy to be here.

FLATOW: You’re welcome. Stephen Meyer is the director and a senior fellow at the Center for Science and Culture of the Discovery Institute. He’s also the co-author of the forthcoming book, “Darwinism, Design and Public Education,” to be published by Michigan State University Press. He joins us from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. STEPHEN MEYER (Center for Science and Culture): Oh, it’s nice to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: Is it Meyer (pronounced Myer) or Meyer (pronounced Mayer)?

Dr. MEYER: It’s Meyer (pronounced Myer), yes.

FLATOW: Meyer. I thought it was. OK.

Dr. MEYER: Except in Britain. There it’s Meyer (pronounced Mayer).

FLATOW: I’m showing my British roots, yeah.

Dr. MEYER: Yes, quite.

FLATOW: Lawrence Krauss is a professor of physics and professor of astronomy at Case Western Reserve University. He’s also the author of many popular science books, including, “Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond,” published by Little Brown & Company. He joins us by phone from Cleveland. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Krauss.

Dr. LAWRENCE KRAUSS (Case Western Reserve University): It’s great to be back.

FLATOW: Let’s talk about the Ohio revision in the proposed standards. Stephen, are you going to tell us about the history of that?

Dr. MEYER: Sure. We had a kind of spirited debate back in March before the board. Dr. Krauss and Dr. Miller debated a biology colleague of mine, Dr. Wells, and myself, and at that hearing, we proposed a compromise to the state board. There were many people in Ohio who were advocating that the theory of intelligent design be mandated as part of their state testing standards, and we at Discovery Institute are affiliated with a number of the scientists, such as Michael Behe and William Dembski, who are advocating the theory of intelligent design.

But we proposed that instead of asking the board to mandate that, that instead they consider looking at some of the scientific problems that exist with Darwinian theory and focus their attention for the purpose of their state testing standards on Darwinian evolution. We think that students should know about Darwinian evolution, they should know the evidential case for it, but they should also know some of the significant scientific difficulties that are now being discussed openly in the biological literature about the theory.

FLATOW: Larry Krauss, what’s wrong with that?

Dr. KRAUSS: Well, that’s not, of course, what was asked for. What was asked for was to teach the controversy. That was the soundbite that was used. And the point is there isn’t a controversy in the scientific literature at all about evolution. Evolution is the basis of modern biology as the AAAS indicated in their resolution. And, in fact, the board very clearly indicated their intent, that the intent in talking about this language was not to encourage people to include intelligent design. It’s language which is otherwise innocuous because scientists are continuing to critically investigate and analyze all theories, Newton’s laws and all sorts of other theories. It’s sad, unfortunately, that appears just in evolutionary science because it gives lobbying organizations, like the one that Steve Meyer is a member of, to the soundbite that they can use to try and indicate or suggest that it encourages this debate. In fact, what it’s meant to do is encourage students to think about science. And intelligent design, by all objective standards, has nothing to do with science.

FLATOW: Kenneth Miller, you want to ring in on this?

Dr. MILLER: Yeah. I think the easiest way to ring in on this is simply to point out the three critical elements of the resolution that the AAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest scientific organization in the world, announced yesterday. And I’ll just go through them very quickly because they’re very short. They wrote, ‘The intelligent design movement has failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support its claims. The intelligent design movement has not proposed a scientific means of testing its claims. And therefore, it is resolved that the lack of scientific warrant for so-called intelligent design theory makes it improper to include as a part of science education.’ And I think that that depicts the consensus within the scientific community very well.

FLATOW: Yet Stephen Meyer was saying that teachers should be teaching that there are flaws in the evolutionary theory here. Are there no flaws?

Dr. MEYER: Could I make that point?

FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.

Dr. MEYER: You know, Dr. Krauss says there is no controversy. Well,there are many controversies. There are controversies about the sufficiency of the Darwinian mechanism, natural selection, acting on random variation. I was reading a paper last night by a paleontologist from the Smithsonian named Doug Erwin, who was writing an evolutionary biology journal. As I’m pointing out, these problems are openly discussed in the scientific literature. And Dr. Erwin was making the point that it is difficult to envision how microevolutionary processes can be extrapolated to explain large-scale macromutational, macroevolutionary events, the origin of major body plans, such as emerged in what’s called the Cambrian explosion, the origin of new insects, the origin of the major plant groups. This is a problem that has been widely noted that there is not a sufficient mechanism to produce this new form.

Other people have been investigating not the minute, tiny changes that microevolution talks about, but the macroevolutionary mutation, big jump mutations. Last week in Science, an article discussing a conference on developmental biology quoted a developmental biologist, William Jeffrey, saying macroevolution is really at a dead end. He was talking in context about the attempt to solve a problem of the origin of new form by talking about big jump type of mutations as opposed to the small, minute microevolutionary mutations.

Either way, there’s a problem here, and people are discussing this openly. And what we’re asking for in Ohio is nothing more and nothing less than allowing the students of Ohio to know and the teachers to discuss openly these same difficulties that are being discussed openly in the scientific literature.

Dr. KRAUSS: Can I jump in for a second?


Dr. KRAUSS: First of all, what the curriculum is for is–teachers are free, in fact, to talk about whatever they want in a classroom. What the curriculum is for is to say: What are students required to learn? And the issues, of course, that Steve Meyer was just talking about could be talked about in the context of any science. People are looking at whether Newton’s one over r-squared force law works on large distances and in galaxies,for example. But we don’t suggest, in fact, and we don’t argue that Newton’s laws are fundamentally flawed and students shouldn’t learn them in physics class.

The point is that evolution is the basis of modern biology. There are certainly issues and important issues that remain to be resolved. But the fact that we don’t know everything is not an excuse to suggest that we don’t know anything, and groups such as Stephen Meyer’s–Phil Johnson, who’s been long an advocate of that organization, right after Ohio put this language in, which I agree sounds reasonable, to critically analyze aspects of evolutionary science, came out and said, ‘Ohio’s decisions allow for the ba–is a victory in the battle to free science classes from the grip of Charles Darwin.’ What these people have is an agenda, a religious agenda, and they couch it in what looks like scientific language, except they don’t have the courage to publish generally in the scientific literature. In 10 million articles in science journals over the past 12 years, the key words ‘intelligent design’ appeared only 88 times, and all but 11 of them were in engineering articles.

Dr. MEYER: Excuse me. That’s really a cheap debater’s trick. As we discussed at the Ohio board meeting, the theory of intelligent design, first of all, which is not the main issue here, is a new theory, and it is being advanced in the same way that new theories in the history of science have always been advanced, and that is by peer-reviewed books. And the two main and most important books that are seminal to the intelligent design movement, “The Design Inference” by William Dembski, published by Cambridge University Press, and Michael Behe’s book, “Darwin’s Black Box,” were both peer reviewed and that is one of the reasons there is interest in this new theory. But that’s not…

FLATOW: Dr. Meyer, you have me at a loss here, because I always thought that the way science was advanced was in peer-reviewed journals…

Dr. KRAUSS: Exactly.

FLATOW: …not in peer-reviewed books where you publish…

Dr. MEYER: Well, let me name some important peer-reviewed books that
started new scientific revolutions.

FLATOW: No, no. Wait. Well, I mean…

Dr. MILLER: But, Ira…

Dr. MEYER: But that’s not…

FLATOW: We’re talking about science today.

Dr. MILLER: Exactly. And, Ira, you’re quite right about that.

Dr. MEYER: Now wait a minute. I don’t concede that. I don’t concede that point.

Dr. MILLER: …(Unintelligible) interesting about what Dr. Meyer…

Dr. MEYER: In the history of science, if you look at the books that have been published that start seminal new theories, go back to “The Principia” with Newton or the “Starry Messenger” with Galileo or “The Origin of Species” with Charles Darwin.

Dr. MILLER: …(Unintelligible).

Mr. MEYER: Theories are advanced in books because books are a medium that allows enough space to create the whole superstructure for a theory.

Dr. MILLER: Dr. Meyer, I will take your point…

Dr. MEYER: Scientific journal articles…

Dr. MILLER: …I will take your point about the book, but I’ll point out something else to you. And that is that the way in which science advances is not by publishing a few books and then petitioning agencies of government to insert an idea into the curriculum that has not won scientific support. The way in which scientific ideas advance is in the free and open marketplace of ideas within the scientific community. And as Dr. Krauss pointed out, intelligent design…

Dr. MEYER: We completely agree with you, Ken. Yeah.

Dr. MILLER: Excuse me. Excuse me. As Dr. Krauss pointed out, intelligent design advocates have been notorious in the respect in the ways in which they have avoided informed scientific audiences, scientific meetings and scientific discussion. What they’ve tried to do instead is to run directly to the agencies of government, elected boards of education, state legislatures, to get their ideas written into curricula as a matter of law, and that simply isn’t the way that science advances.

Dr. MEYER: Well, we agree with you, Ken, and this is one of the reasons that we asked–certainly there were political supporters of design in Ohio who are getting the cart before the horse. That’s one of the reasons we took the theory off the table for the purposes of the state testing standards. We understand that this is a new theory. We think it’s unrealistic to think that teachers would be able to be informed enough to teach it well at this point, and so we said, ‘Look, the main focus,’ as you have said, ‘of biological research is evolutionary theory. Let’s look at that openly and in a critical manner.’

Dr. MILLER: I couldn’t agree more.

Dr. MEYER: And there…

Dr. MILLER: I think that’s fine.

Dr. MEYER: And that means then that some of the well-known evidential difficulties of the theory need to be part of the instruction, not a sanitized version for public consumption.

FLATOW: Are there not local boards in Ohio that are now putting it into their curriculum?

Dr. MILLER: Intelligent design?


Dr. MILLER: Yeah. As a result of this, one local board has indicated that they want to do this. In fact, there was a concerted effort from the Discovery Institute to influence people to say that this was a victory to insert such non-scientific ideas into the curriculum. And it…

Dr. MEYER: Certainly we didn’t say it was a non-scientific idea, Ken.

Dr. MILLER: Well, no, you didn’t. I did.

Dr. MEYER: We did not do that. You’re putting words in our mouth.

Dr. MILLER: Yeah. No, no, that’s right.

Dr. MEYER: But look, one thing we do affirm. We think that teachers do have the right to discuss with students alternative theories such as they exist within the scientific community.

Dr. MILLER: Absolutely.

Dr. MEYER: The scientific community is not just defined by the AAAS’s latest statement. It includes people like Michael Behe and William Dembski. And here’s an example that makes my point. A recent article by a biologist named Professor Schneider, who is writing in Nucleic Acid journal. He discusses Behe’s argument very clearly, and he says, ‘You know, Behe has some very good points here.’ He calls his objections to standard models valid. And then what he purports to do is to set out to answer Behe’s objections. Now suppose you’ve got a bright kid cruising the Web, maybe he’s a staunch Darwinist, maybe he’s an intelligent design zealot–either way, he gets ahold of this paper and he brings it into his classroom, and he says, ‘Look, here’s an interesting scientific paper responding to Michael Behe. Can we talk about that?’ What’s the teacher supposed to say?

Dr. MILLER: You’re allowed to talk about it now. The curriculum does not forbid you…

Dr. KRAUSS: Of course you can talk about it.

Dr. MEYER: Well, that’s the point. That’s the point that the board made in allowing a local option for this. That’s…

Dr. KRAUSS: No. But it’s true in all of science. What the science curriculum provides is what students should know to be educated citizens, and teachers are free, of course, to discuss extra things. But, you know, take an example in physics.

FLATOW: Wait, wait, wait.

Dr. KRAUSS: There are many modern…

FLATOW: Well, I’m going to have to hold you. Larry…

Dr. KRAUSS: Sorry.

FLATOW: I’m going to have to hold you…

Dr. KRAUSS: Yeah.

FLATOW: …because we’re going to have to take a break.


FLATOW: And you’ll get the floor when we come back.


FLATOW: So stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break. I’m Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


We’re talking this hour about teaching evolution and alternative ideas about the origin of life in science classes. Now joining us by phone to tell us how the Ohio Board of Education came to this decision is Deborah Owens-Fink. She’s a board member of the Ohio Board of Education and re-elected–Is that right?

Professor DEBORAH OWENS-FINK (University of Akron, Ohio Board of
Education): That is correct, for a four-year term.

FLATOW: And assistant professor of marketing and international business at the University of Akron. Thanks for being with us, Ms. Fink. Why did the board take the position it did in the Ohio school system?

Prof. OWENS-FINK: I think that one of the things that we recognize with this issue is we go along a standards-based movement in terms of what we are going to put in our curriculum, that part of that process is engaging the public, engaging scientists, engaging members of the scientific community, but also these need to be Ohio standards. We received over 20,000 comments with respect to the teaching of evolution in state schools. With respect to that, there was also a Plain Dealer poll suggesting that only 8 percent of Ohioans wanted the Ohio standard to teach only evolution; another percent, 8 percent, said teach only intelligent design. The vast majority, 82 percent, said teach either both or teach the evidence both for and against evolution, but not necessarily intelligent design.

FLATOW: Did they say to teach it in the science class?

Prof. OWENS-FINK: That question was asked in the poll, basically from the perspective of where it was taught. I don’t really think that that is the issue. The issue when we look at integrated curriculum, I am not an advocate of saying, ‘This can be discussed in this classroom. We walk across the hall, and we’re not going to discuss it in this classroom.’ I think that we draw those distinct boundaries perhaps as instructors, but I’m not sure in the students’ mind, that’s really irrelevant.

FLATOW: Were science teachers in the schools happy with that decision about the possibility of teaching in their science classes?

Prof. OWENS-FINK: We have not polled them, so I wouldn’t really have the answer to that.

FLATOW: So you don’t know whether the public really wanted it in the science classes or not and you don’t know whether they were happy with–the science teachers were happy…

Prof. OWENS-FINK: Actually, the question was posed as follow. The Ohio Board of Education is debating new academic standards for public school science classes, including what to teach students. Which position do you support? So when the question was posed to the public, it was posed within the framework, ‘Would this be taught in science classes?’ So from the public’s perception, they were very comfortable with teaching both within the science classrooms.

FLATOW: That means any alternate theory about evolution could be taught in the classroom?

Prof. OWENS-FINK: The question was posed with respect to intelligent design and controversies within evolution.

FLATOW: So that if people said, ‘Well, you know, there are aliens that came down and, you know, created life on Earth,’ that would be taught also?

Prof. OWENS-FINK: When we talk about an intelligent designer, no one is speculating at this point what that intelligent designer was. Obviously, there are some people that think it was a deity of some type, but then there are other people–believe it or not, some scientists–that actually–you know, Hoyle, for example, that does not rule out that theory that you just mentioned. So the question–but let’s also go back to what the board decided. The board listened to literally 10 months of public input, very patiently, from both sides of this issue. We had the debate that you’re very aware of with actually the members that you have on your show today that 1,500 people came to listen to. The fact that this is
even being debated on NPR today shows that why shouldn’t students also hear about this kind of debate that we heard in Veterans Memorial back in the…

FLATOW: But we’re not doing a science class now.

Prof. OWENS-FINK: You know, when we talk about the evidence for and against evolution within the scientific domain, that is what the board passed. We also, though, did not preclude if individual districts wanted to also look at alternative theories.

FLATOW: And so this is just a proposal. This has to be passed, finalized, correct?

Prof. OWENS-FINK: It was voted on unanimously by the board last month, we have been listening to public testimony again this month, and we will be voting on it in its final format in December.

FLATOW: And do you think that we’ll have the same vote basically?

Prof. OWENS-FINK: Yes, I do.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. OWENS-FINK: Thank you.

FLATOW: Deborah Owens-Fink, who is on the Ohio Board of Education. She’s an elected member of the board and assistant professor of marketing and international business at the University of Akron.

Let me bring back my other guests. Stephen Meyer is the director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute. Kenneth Miller is professor of biology at Brown University in Providence. Lawrence Krauss is profess of physics and a professor of astronomy at Case Western Reserve University.

Larry, I interrupted you before the break.

Dr. KRAUSS: Well, yes.

FLATOW: I’ll give you the first shot at reacting to Ms. Fink.

Dr. KRAUSS: Yeah. OK. Thanks. Well, the point is Ms. Fink is absolutely right that evolution pushes many popular buttons, and it’s clearly, due to the strong efforts of various lobbying groups, become an issue of social controversy. But the point is it isn’t an issue of controversy in the scientific community, and it’s not the job of the Science Standards Committee to react to public reaction, but it’s their job to promote scientific literacy.


Dr. KRAUSS: And, you know, for example, in that…


Dr. KRAUSS: …same poll that she referred to, almost 40 percent of Ohioans said that they felt the Earth was 10,000 years old or less. There’s lots of public polls. Fifty-two percent of Americans don’t know the Earth orbits the sun. It takes a year to do it. If we’re going to respond to—what we’re responding to, in fact, is largely scientific ignorance among the public and it’s the job to improve the public’s knowledge of science, not to respond to their ignorance.

FLATOW: Well, let me bring up a point that I think was a good one made by Stephen Meyer and Ms. Fink and actually answers your point here. I mean, if people have heard so much about this controversy and if they hear about it in their homes, with their friends, with their relatives and just on the street, where would be a better place than in a science class to look at the controversy and say, ‘You know, this may be an interesting theory, but it’s not science’…

Dr. KRAUSS: Well…

FLATOW: …and explain why it’s not in science class?

Prof. KRAUSS: Ira, if I may, let me answer that one.


Prof. KRAUSS: Because the number 84 percent here is interesting. Deborah Owens thinks that when questions were put to voters in Ohio or to citizens in Ohio in a poll, teach one, teach the other or teach both, 84 percent of the people said teach both. Now I suspect that that number comes from a very simple source and that is the sort of broad sense in the American public that you want to hear both sides of anything. In other words, it’s not an endorsement of one view or another.

And there was a more significant and a much more interesting poll that was carried out in September by the University of Cincinnati’s Public Opinion Laboratory. And what they did was they asked members of the public in Ohio the following question: Do you happen to know anything about the concept of intelligent design? And of the people asked, 84 percent said no, didn’t know anything about it. Only 14 percent said yes. And what that means in a sense is the 84 percent in Deborah Owens-Fink’s poll are responding to this general idea, ‘Oh, there’s two sides, let’s hear both sides of the issue.’

Dr. MILLER: And Lawrence Krauss has made an excellent and important point, and that is that by adopting a curriculum that says, ‘Let’s tell students about cell biology, let’s tell students about biochemistry, let’s tell students about astronomy and also about evolution,’ there’s nothing in adopting a curriculum that prevents teachers from bringing controversies about anything. And one of the important controversies in physics right now—students don’t always hear about this–is that physics lacks a satisfactory formulaic law of friction. And there’s enormous controversy in the friction field among material physicists. Should students know that? Sure. Does that upset the basic principles of physics? Absolutely not.

And when, for example, Dr. Meyer started to quote from three or four papers that he said pointed out the controversy in evolution, what he did, very interestingly, for your audience on SCIENCE FRIDAY, was to adopt a tactic that he also used in front of the Ohio Board of Education. And he said he held in his hand a bibliography of 40 peer review articles that he said questioned aspects or key tenets of Darwinian theory that is part of the growing dissenting opinion that forms the controversy. Well, when people got their hands on these articles, it turns out none of them included research by proponents of intelligent design theory; none of them included discussion of design vs. apparent design; and there wasn’t a single article that challenged the basic elements of evolutionary theory.

Dr. MEYER: Wait a second.

Prof. KRAUSS: I suspect when I…

Dr. MEYER: We didn’t claim to the contrary.

Prof. KRAUSS: Let me finish my sentence. When…

Dr. MEYER: We didn’t claim to the contrary.

FLATOW: Stephen, let him…

Prof. KRAUSS: …I suspect …(unintelligible) go back to the library…

Dr. MEYER: …(Unintelligible).

FLATOW: Stephen, let him finish, then you can respond.

Prof. KRAUSS: Just let me finish the sentence. I suspect very much when I get a chance to go back to the library at my university and I pull out the three articles that you quoted today, we’re going to find exactly the same thing. Within evolution, as with any other scientific field, there’s enormous controversy, debate, it’s free, it’s open, it’s exciting, but not a single one of those articles would actually support intelligent design or challenge the basic elements of evolutionary theory.

FLATOW: All right, Stephen Meyer.

Dr. MEYER: Well, first of all, we made very clear when we presented the annotated bibliography that this is, exactly as you said, critiqued key tenets of the theory. And the problem with the Darwinian mechanism has been duly noted since the 1960s and it is a very grave problem, the Cambrian Explosion.

Prof. KRAUSS: There is not a problem with the mechanism.

Dr. MEYER: Yes, there is a problem with the mechanism.

Prof. KRAUSS: It’s a problem with how the mechanism works.

Dr. MEYER: No, it’s a problem with as to whether or not it’s sufficient to produce the form and function that we see in biological systems. A minute ago, we had a point where we were almost converging on a consensus, that people ought to be free to be able to discuss difficulties with the theory. And, indeed, by the way, we accept the principle that this is a way of teaching all theories. I used this as an example when I was in Ohio, the idea that if there’s a debate in a history class and you’re learning about the New Deal, you should not teach only the Republican or the Democratic view of that, but you should teach the controversy about that. That applies to all science…

Prof. KRAUSS: So would you support…

Dr. MEYER: But let…

Prof. KRAUSS: …changing that language and taking out evolution and just putting it in a location in a science standard where, say, students should be encouraged to examine how scientists are critically examining all scientific theories?

Dr. MEYER: Exactly. I…

Prof. KRAUSS: Which would be a very good place to put it and not have it in evolution.

Dr. MEYER: I think…

Prof. KRAUSS: Would you support that?

Dr. MEYER: I think there is a very important reason to stipulate that evolution theory be included within that policy, which is actually what was done in Georgia, apart from the sticker issue, and that is that teachers do not have the freedom that you just asserted they have a minute ago. Let me tell you a story. Here in Washington state, there was a teacher in Bellingham named–Burlington…

Prof. KRAUSS: Roger DeHart.

Dr. MEYER: …named Roger DeHart. He brought into his classroom an article by Stephen Jay Gould explaining that the famous Haeckle embryos were misdrawn, that they’re not accurate, that the earliest stages of embryological development are not profoundly similar in these different classes of organisms and that this is not a piece of supporting evidence for Darwinian theory. He was told he could not bring that article into the classroom, and there was a lot of rumbling about potential lawsuits and the like.

A lot of teachers are very afraid to bring the same kind of critical and open approach to this subject that they would to any other subject. And I think it was very wise, therefore, for the board to stipulate that evolution be included in that designation as something that could be critically analyzed.

Additionally, both…

Prof. KRAUSS: It wasn’t included. It was only there. It’s only there.

Dr. MEYER: That’s right. It was stipulated. Additionally I think both of my worthy opponents here are underestimating the extent to which there is scientific dissent about this theory. It wasn’t just that Deb Owens and the Ohio Board got 20,000 letters from ordinary people. They also received testimony from Ohio scientists who are skeptical of evolutionary theory.

Fifty-five of them have now signed a statement expressing…

FLATOW: When you say they’re skeptical, you say they don’t believe in it or they believe that there are problems that need to be worked out?

Dr. MEYER: Both. That is…

FLATOW: They don’t believe at all in evolutionary theory?

Dr. MEYER: …one or the other.

Prof. KRAUSS: No, it certainly …(unintelligible), Ira.

Dr. MEYER: Some scientists have–May I answer the question here? Some scientists have adopted the posture that there are difficulties with particular tenets. For example, the theory of universal common descent or the idea that mutation selection is sufficient to produce things like molecular machines. Others think that the way of evidence has gotten to the point that they’re skeptical of the theory wholesale. Either way, there is a controversy, and there have been public statements signed by scientists, 50 in Ohio, a hundred nationwide, 30-some in Georgia, expressing their skepticism about key tenets of the theory.

Prof. KRAUSS: And …(unintelligible) 40,000 people.

Dr. MEYER: That is part of the scientific community.

FLATOW: What was that?

Prof. KRAUSS: I mean, the point is you can always find a dozen people here, a handful of people there. The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the largest association of science in the world with almost 40,000 members. And it’s worldwide. And they don’t view there is a controversy. The National Academy of Sciences has come out and said there isn’t a controversy. I mean, you can always–if you’re looking for fringe elements, you can always find them. And you can argue, as Stephen Meyers and other people have done very effectively because they have convinced, I believe, the public that there is a controversy. But they do it by picking and choosing and not getting involved in open and free debate in scientific organizations. I mean, Dembski is a member of AAAS and could freely to go that meeting.

But recently I got an e-mail from Wes Elsberry, who’s a PhD candidate in wildlife and fisheries sciences at Texas A&M who’s been on several panels on naturalism, theism and scientific enterprise, who tried to attend a meeting on research and progress in intelligent design, tried to register for that, and everything right up through until he got a call from the organizer and said, ‘No, no, it was a closed conference. They didn’t want people who disagreed to be part of the conference.’ And that’s not science. That’s not the way science is done.

Dr. MEYER: Yeah, the…

FLATOW: All right. Well, let me–I have to remind everybody that I’m Ira

Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

OK. Who is it?

Prof. KRAUSS: Ira…

Dr. MEYER: I was being attacked. Can I jump back in here?

Prof. KRAUSS: Stephen, you’re not being attacked. This is a discussion.

Dr. MEYER: Oh, I enjoy it, guys. This is…

FLATOW: Well, can I get a phone call? How about some phone calls because there are a lot of interesting people you’d probably want to talk to.

Dr. MEYER: Can I make one quick point, Ira?

FLATOW: Could you do it quickly?

Dr. MEYER: Very quickly. Very quickly.

FLATOW: I know ‘quick’ is a relative term here. Is relativity OK to talk about?

Dr. MEYER: Yeah. Relativity is cool.

FLATOW: That’s kosher? All right.

Dr. MEYER: I think probably Krauss and I both agree about relatively.

FLATOW: Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but go ahead.

Dr. MEYER: OK. Look, you know, next year there’s two major books coming out, university presses. Michigan State University Press has got a book coming out. The peer review is in the book, the case for and again Darwinism and for design are made with critics giving it their best shot. Cambridge University Press has a book debating design. Ken and I are both in that book.

FLATOW: So in the book, are there experiments that are in the book that will tell us how to prove whether there’s God or not?

Dr. MEYER: No, that’s not the nature of this thing. That’s not the nature of this thing.

FLATOW: Well, of course, that’s how you want to frame it. But I’m asking…

Dr. MEYER: No, no, no, no, no.

FLATOW: …you, intelligent design says there’s an intelligent designer. Maybe ‘God’ is the wrong term for it. I’ll use it because of a lack–a Martian or some other intelligent designer. Is there is a set of experiments in any of those books by any of the folks who will tell us to prove one way or the other, do these experiments, and we’ll have evidence, like we would in a peer reviewed paper, to show that there is an intelligent designer somehow?

Dr. MEYER: Yeah, there’s an evidential case …(unintelligible).

FLATOW: No, no. I said are there experiment–I’m not retrospective…

Dr. MEYER: Well, this discipline is retrospective. Darwin didn’t do experiments. He made observations…

FLATOW: And his observations made predictions about…

Dr. MEYER: This is historical science.

Prof. KRAUSS: Exactly, Ira.

FLATOW: …the future. And that’s what science is. Science…

Dr. MEYER: No, he…

Prof. KRAUSS: That’s right.

FLATOW: …makes predictions about the future that you can test.

Dr. MEYER: No, historic…

FLATOW: Do you–I’m asking you a question. You can say, you know, disagree with me, but you’re…

Dr. MEYER: You think you’re onto something, but you’re not. You don’t understand the nature of the beast.

FLATOW: There are a lot of better debaters than me who’ve tried this. I don’t think I’m onto anything. I’m just asking you a simple question.

Dr. MEYER: There is a mode of testing theories that are historical, and that is you test them by comparing their explanatory power against their competitors. You don’t do experiments about things that happened four billion years ago.

Prof. KRAUSS: No, no, sorry, that’s not true. I do cosmology. It’s historical. We make predictions based on what happened in the early universe about what the abundance of helium and lithium in the universe should be, and then we go out and measure it and the prediction’s either right or wrong. We make predictions about…

Dr. MEYER: Right. You can make predictions about what you are likely to find. But you don’t make predictions about the future in an historical science.

Prof. KRAUSS: You make–sure, the future are the observations you

Dr. MEYER: There are predictions–I mean, Darwinism makes predict–Darwinism makes predictions…

Prof. MILLER: The gentleman simply stated the problem with intelligent design is that by saying, quote, “the designer did it,” unquote, you can explain anything.

Prof. KRAUSS: Absolutely.

Dr. MEYER: You can do the same thing by saying ‘natural selection dunnit.’

Prof. MILLER: Therefore, a theory that explains anything explains nothing.

Dr. MEYER: It’s absolutely …(unintelligible).

Prof. MILLER: Oh, no. Natural selection makes testable predictions which can be verified and are every day in the scientific literature.

Prof. KRAUSS: In fact, during our debate, people said, ‘What does intelligent design propose? What history of life does it propose?’ And all they kept doing was saying, ‘Well, there are problems with evolution.’ There was no–it presents no framework for students to try and understand or increase their knowledge or for scientists to do the same. It presents no coherent framework for experimentation and observation and testing. And as a result, it’s really vacuous.

FLATOW: All right. We’re going to take…

Dr. MEYER: We make an evidential case that is testable in the section of the book debating design that’s coming out with Cambridge Press.

FLATOW: So why don’t you publish the work in a journal?

Dr. MEYER: Isn’t Cambridge Press a good enough publication?

FLATOW: No, no, in a peer review journal like–do the research, publish
your findings in a peer review journal?

Dr. MEYER: They are being published in peer review journals, but the
journals are being started by advocates of the theory.

FLATOW: Gotcha.

Dr. MEYER: Just as there are advocates of molecular evolution.

FLATOW: All right. We’ve got to take a break.

Dr. MEYER: And all that’s coming.

FLATOW: See, you wanted to listen to me instead of the phone calls, you got screaming. So stay with us while we all calm down. We’ll be back in just a few moments.

I’m Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.


FLATOW: You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow. A brief program note: Next week on “Talk of the Nation” on Monday, Neal Conan will broadcast from Los Angeles at NPR’s new West Coast production center out there in LA. They’re going to be exploring the hot-button issues that are shaping the West. That’s next Monday on “Talk of the Nation.”

We’re talking this hour about our own hot-button issue–that is, teaching evolution–with my guests, Stephen Meyer, the director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute; Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown University; and Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics and a professor of astronomy at Case Western Reserve University. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255.

Let’s do some ying and yang on the telephone here. Let’s to go Michael
in Savannah, Georgia.

Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): How are you this afternoon, Ira?

FLATOW: Go ahead.

MICHAEL: I’m a Catholic priest. I recently read Dr. Miller’s book “Finding Darwin’s God” and I e-mailed him and thanked him. It’s an exceptionally fine presentation of the idea of Darwinian evolution and theology. My greatest concern is that intelligent design is merely a repackaging of creationism as a means to do an end run around the separation of church and state. Intelligent design is ultimately a theistic idea that its proponents want to have inserted into science curricula because they do not agree with the Darwinian theory of evolution. It’s not a theory on its own, intelligent design, it’s simply a repackaging that makes the whole idea of theism palatable to school boards who are very much afraid of entering the church-state division.

FLATOW: As a priest, you have no problem with the theory of evolution?

MICHAEL: None whatsoever. I firmly believe that God created the world, and that the method he chose to do that is evolution. It’s a creating event in the past and an ongoing creating event at this time.

Prof. MILLER: And the pope happens to agree with you on that. That has
come out.

MICHAEL: Well, he does. I think it was 1994 in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Holy Father said that this is a theory that, obviously, has the weight of science behind it. The other problem is that people toss the word ‘theory’ around as if it makes it somehow less meaningful. That’s not the case at all. You know, the National Academy describes a theory as a well-substantiated explanation, not just some idea that someone has proposed.

But the greatest problem I have is the idea that the proponents of creationism are using deception to influence school boards so that they can teach a theistic view of the origins of species in public school, high school.

FLATOW: Stephen Meyer, are you feeling under attack on this one?

Dr. MEYER: No, I appreciate his concern, actually. This is, in fact, one of the reasons that we wanted to make clear we were not lobbying to have intelligent designed mandated in Ohio. We want time and space to develop a research program. Larry Krauss called–or mentioned–I didn’t mean to say he called us a name. He implied a minute ago that we were a lobbying organization. Yeah, we have public policy concerns. We want to see academic freedom advanced. But we support a lot of research, including experimental research. And I think that–so I acknowledge the caller’s concern.

I would say there’s some very specific differences between the theory of intelligent design and scientific creationism or biblical creationism, and they come under two headings. One, content, and second, methodology. The case that he and Dembski and I and others have made for design is based on evidence. We’re not basing our models on biblical teaching. We’re making an inference from biological evidence, not a deduction from religious authority. Secondly, in content, if you look at the creationist literature, you’ll find that they assert a number of things like a very young Earth and the like that simply play no role in the theory of intelligent design.

The theory of intelligent design was launched–I think the starting point was a book in 1984 called “The Mystery of Life’s Origin.” And it really has not been primarily designed to create a subterfuge in order to get into the public schools. That’s not our main agenda.

Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah, I have to say, having listened to everything Dr.Meyer just said, that the people behind intelligent design in Ohio would be the first people to disagree with him. An organization called Science Excellence for All Ohioans, on their own Web site in Ohio…

Prof. MILLER: Exactly.

Prof. KRAUSS: …put up a definition of intelligent design, and in that definition–this wasn’t a peripheral comment; this was the definition–they said, ‘Design theory is compatible with belief in God and the Bible.’ Then they also said that naturalistic evolution is consistent with atheism. So my concern–it’s the same as Michael’s, or Father Michael, our last caller, is that by putting this dichotomy in the minds of students, we will convince students that if they wish to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution, they must abandon God. And as a Christian and as a person of faith and as a scientist, I find that very disturbing. And unfortunately, I think that’s where intelligent design is going to get us.

Prof. MILLER: And that is where a lot of students–when you ask people about teaching both sides, a lot of students–I’ve gone to speak to groups of students at fundamentalist colleges and their fear is that to believe in evolution, you can’t believe in God. And there are many examples to the contrary of that and there’s nothing–and so the point is that there is a separation of church and state, and science and religion. And science is based on evidence, testing, prediction. And a belief in God is based on faith. And the two are forever separate. And it demeans both religion to try and pretend to be science, and it certainly demeans science to pretend to be religion.

FLATOW: All right.

Dr. MEYER: You know, Ken Miller wrote a book, “Finding Darwin’s God,” in which he asserted that Darwinian evolution was compatible with religious belief. That’s all that people in Ohio said, that intelligent design is compatible. To be compatible is not to be the same thing as…

Prof. KRAUSS: But see, they also said that evolution was not compatible. And that was my point, was by putting…

Dr. MEYER: Well, I think there is some…

Prof. KRAUSS: …a dichotomy about God into the science classroom, you do a disservice to both science education and religion.

Prof. MILLER: Absolutely.

Prof. KRAUSS: And, unfortunately, that’s what you guys have been pushing

Prof. MILLER: Yeah, I mean…

Dr. MEYER: Well, no, it isn’t.

Prof. MILLER: …(unintelligible)…

Dr. MEYER: You guys are defining science as coextensive with the theory of evolution. We want to say, you know–and what you’re presenting are a lot of fears and consequentialist arguments. It really is time to put the focus on the merits and on the evidence itself.

Prof. MILLER: Absolutely.

Dr. MEYER: There is a significant evidential challenge to Darwinism. It doesn’t go away by saying that people who challenge it are religiously motivated. That doesn’t make the challenge go away.

Prof. MILLER: It certainly not …(unintelligible) the literature or the…

Dr. MEYER: It doesn’t do any benefit to science education to deny the existence of that challenge and present a sanitized version of the theory simply because you’re afraid of what fundamentalists in Georgia might do.

FLATOW: But do you think that science can prove that there is an intelligent designer?

Dr. MEYER: I think that design is detectable through scientific means. That’s the focus of Bill Dembski’s book. It’s a work of statistics.

FLATOW: Design of anything?

Dr. MEYER: Intelligence. You can detect an intelligent cause by certain key signatures that the intelligent cause leaves behind. We use methods like this in cryptography, archaeology.

Prof. MILLER: And would you suggest that…

Dr. MEYER: And one of the key indicators of intelligence is the presence of information, and that happens to be also one of the key things that the Darwinian mechanism at both the biological evolution level and the chemical evolution level is having a difficult time explaining.

FLATOW: So if you found odd-looking things–pebbles in a stream, for

Dr. MEYER: Well, take something like the Rosetta stone.

FLATOW: …you could not explain that away, you would say that it’s evidence of an intelligent design? I mean…

Prof. MILLER: Well, what about a snowflake?

Dr. MEYER: OK. You may have seen the movie “Contact,” Ira. You know, and in
the movie “Contact”…

FLATOW: Well, that’s a movie.

Dr. MEYER: Yeah, sure, it’s a movie.

FLATOW: It’s a work of fiction.

Dr. MEYER: It’s a work of fiction. But the research methodology that’s described in the movie is also the basis of the SETI program which is searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. They’re looking for encoded information in radio signals. If you’re an archaeologist and you look at the Rosetta stone and you analyze the etchings and you realize, ‘This is a language,’ you know, made by intelligent…

FLATOW: Yeah, made by people.

Dr. MEYER: You infer intelligence.


Dr. MEYER: So we’re not saying–we’re saying you can detect intelligence scientifically. The second order question of who the intelligence is, is something that is left for philosophers to discuss.

Prof. MILLER: I absolutely agree with you in one sense. If I looked up in the sky and saw stars lined up saying, ‘I am here,’ I would firmly believe it was unlikely that that happened without some design. But I haven’t seen it, and I certainly don’t want to teach students that such a thing exists. And while it may be possible at some point to find evidence, on the basis of what we now know and on the basis of all of the literature in scientific journals, evolution is the basis of biology. And there’s no evidence for intelligent design.

And it’s certainly worth–I certainly think it’s worth people like yourself and others who believe that there may be some evidence to look for it and then publish it in scientific journals that are subject to peer review and after many, many, many tests, maybe eventually it’ll get into the high school classroom. But it’s ridiculous to start talking about things at the edge of biology in the high school classroom. You just don’t have time. You want to teach the basis of modern biology just like you want to teach the basis of modern physics. And I applaud efforts by people like yourself, if you honestly believe there’s a scientific basis, to go out and do science and subject yourself to the same scientific criticism that any of the rest of us do every single day.

FLATOW: Let me go to the phones. 1 (800) 989-8255. Tracy in Charlotte.
Hi, Tracy. Tracy, pick up your phone there.

TRACY (Caller): Hi.


TRACY: I just want to make a comment. It seems to me that when scientists agree upon a theory, they sometimes present it as a fact. And I think evolution is a theory. I think it’s irresponsible science and irresponsible education to present theory as a fact. And I think open discourse is good education.

Prof. MILLER: I agree with you completely that an open discourse is great education. But this is a very important point. When scientists talk about a theory, it has a different meaning than it does in sort of the popular language. A scientific theory like Newton’s laws or like evolution is something that has been subjected–it’s not hypothesis, it’s something that’s been subjected to testing again and again and again and again and has satisfied those tests. Now that doesn’t mean at some point in the future, it won’t have to be modified. Science can never prove anything to be absolutely right. It can only prove things to be wrong. But a scientific theory and the kind of things we teach in the science classrooms in high school are those theories that have satisfied the test of experiment over and over and over again. And that’s what we mean when we talk about a scientific theory. And that’s what we mean when we talk about Newton’s laws, which explain the motions of baseballs and cannonballs and will from not just then but now and forever, no matter what we learn at the fringe of physics. And that’s also the case for evolution, which has been the basis of modern biology and modern biology could not be done without the context of evolutionary theory, just as modern physics could not be done without Newton’s laws.

Prof. MILLER: Tracy, are you still there?

Dr. MEYER: I’d like to agree with something.

FLATOW: Let me–I have to jump in and remind everybody that I’m Ira Flatow and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY–I want to pay our bills–from NPR News.

Dr. MEYER: And it’s your show.

Prof. MILLER: Ira.

FLATOW: I didn’t want to go there, but since you did–go ahead.

Prof. MILLER: Ira, with respect to what Tracy just said, she said we should teach evolution as a theory. I wholeheartedly and completely agree. But the important point–and I’ll put it as a biologist; Larry put it as a physicist–is that evolution is a theory just like the cell theory or the germ theory of a disease. And every one of those is subject to critical examination and testing by science, just like evolution. Neither more, nor less.

Prof. KRAUSS: Absolutely.

Dr. MEYER: Yeah. And I agree substantially with this, with one caveat. I think it’s important–a lot of people think that theory means something that makes a scientific idea inherently weak. No, evolution is a theory. The question is whether it’s a good theory or a bad theory and whether it explains the things it sets out to explain. And the key thing it needs to explain is the origin of biological form. And what we’re finding in the literature within the field is there are significant doubts about whether or not the mechanism of natural selection acting on random variation can produce things like the new animal forms that arise in the Cambrian Explosion. That is something I think my opponents are underestimating as far as the significance of the dissenting opinion.

Prof. MILLER: No, we’re not underestimating. You’re just phrasing it so carefully. You’re saying random mutation and natural selection. But there are many other forces that clearly act in evolution, including gene duplication, sexual recombination, lateral gene transfer and a whole host. And the papers that you cite…

Dr. MEYER: I’m well aware of those, Ken, but…

Prof. MILLER: …(unintelligible) evolution deal with exactly those points.

Prof. KRAUSS: And you’re absolutely right…

Dr. MEYER: Even acknowledging those, there is a significant problem with creating new body plans. You acknowledged this much in our debate in Ohio.

Prof. MILLER: There are significant problem with many things in biology. There’s even a problem in terms of …(unintelligible).

Dr. MEYER: But that’s what the theory was supposed to explain.

FLATOW: Stephen, let him finish. Let him finish.

Dr. MEYER: Sorry.

Prof. MILLER: There’s even a problem in terms of how the body plan develops. For example, let’s suppose you were challenging the idea that DNA is the genetic material and I said, ‘No, I’m pretty sure that it is,’and so is the consensus of the scientific community. You would then say,’OK, give me a detailed account of how DNA makes a finger, for example.’ And the answer, as any developmental biologist would tell you is we don’t have the answer to that yet. That means that in effect the development of a finger is a problem for developmental biology. Does that mean we need to invoke outside supernatural agency to say that the body parts develop during embryology, not from DNA but by an outside agency? I don’t think so. But that is exactly what intelligent design seeks to do with respect to evolution.

Dr. MEYER: No, that’s not what we’re arguing. What we’re arguing in the public schools…

FLATOW: You’ve got 15 seconds, Stephen.

Dr. MEYER: What we’re saying is if you don’t know how a body plan develops, please tell students that. If you don’t know how life originated from simple chemicals, tell them that. Don’t bluff.

Prof. MILLER: And there’s a lot we don’t know. But the point is there’s a lot we do know, and that’s the key thing. Just the fact we don’t know things doesn’t mean what we know is wrong.

FLATOW: Gentlemen, a brief snapshot and debate that I’m sure we’re going to be continuing on for who knows till when. Thank you all. Stephen Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute; Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown University in Providence; Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics and professor of astronomy at Case Western Reserve University. Thanks again for joining us today.

Prof. MILLER: Thank you, Ira.

Dr. MEYER: Thanks, guys.

Prof. KRAUSS: Thanks.

FLATOW: Earlier we spoke to Deborah Owens-Fink, a member of the Ohio State Board of Education.


FLATOW: If you have questions, you can write us to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY, 1221 Sixth Avenue 36th Floor, New York, New York 10020. Or why don’t you surf over to our Web site. You know, we have lots of links up there that have to do with SCIENCE FRIDAY. There are also archived versions of past programs. And if you have more links about evolution and the debate we had today, you can always surf over there and also leave us e-mail at that site should you care to.

Have a great weekend. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.