Group of students laboratory lab in science classroom
Group of students laboratory lab in science classroom

Intelligent Design, Freedom, and Education

Originally published at BreakPoint Worldview via the Wayback Machine

On June 13, 2001, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) proposed a two-sentence amendment to the White House-sponsored education bill that was under consideration in Congress. The amendment said simply that:

It is the sense of the Senate that

(1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and

(2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.

Senator Santorum explained that, as a “sense of the Senate” resolution, the amendment included no provisions for enforcement. It merely acknowledged the existence of controversies over scientific theories, especially biological evolution, and announced the Senate’s support of the seemingly unobjectionable principle that science education would be more effective if it prepared students to understand these controversies. Senator Santorum then yielded the floor to Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was taking the leading role on the bill for the Democrats. Senator Kennedy enthusiastically agreed with Senator Santorum, urging all senators to vote for the amendment because “we want children to be able to talk about different concepts and do it intelligently with the best information that is before them.” After additional supporting statements from other senators, the amendment passed the Senate by a huge bipartisan majority of 91-8 and, despite vehement objections from science education lobbyists, was eventually included in the conference committee report which the entire Congress approved when it passed the education bill.

The conference report is not itself part of the “No Child Left Behind” Act signed by the president, but it is the primary resource a court would consider when it has to ascertain the intent of the Congress in order to interpret words like science and education, which are in the act. Whether school districts are required to comply with the Santorum amendment will be uncertain until a court decides the point. My argument here is that the amendment states an excellent educational policy that school authorities and teachers ought to support whether or not it is a legal requirement.

Growing Skepticism

Readers may wonder why anybody would deny that a “good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science,” or to understand controversies about scientific theories, including evolution. The obvious answer is that some people in authority have been presenting philosophical or religious claims as if they had been validated by impartial scientific investigation, when this is not the case. Such people are threatened by the prospect that the public may learn to see through their pretense.

Darwinist science educators objected to the Santorum amendment on the ground that it singles out evolution as a subject of controversy. This objection ignored the first sentence of the amendment, which states a general principle that applies to science education in any subject. The second sentence is merely a specific example of this general principle. Evolution is especially controversial because many prominent Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson have frequently proclaimed evolution as a kind of materialist religion that substitutes biochemical processes and natural selection for God as our creator and draws agnostic religious conclusions from that premise. That a solid majority of Americans either doubts or flatly disbelieves the ambitious claims of Darwinism is a fact regularly reported in newspapers and confirmed by opinion polls. Science educators trained to believe in Darwinism may wish that the public were not so skeptical, but that is all the more reason why they should be addressing the controversy in the classroom. The educators can hardly hope to answer the public’s persistent doubts if they will not frankly acknowledge why the doubts persist and if they refuse to prepare their students to be informed participants in public discussions of evolution.

Of course the Darwinists would be eager to address the doubts if they thought they could answer them convincingly. The difficulty is that the public’s suspicions are soundly based upon fact, and therefore any discussion of the facts tends to breed more suspicion. In these circumstances Darwinist educators are afraid to go any deeper into the subject than to repeat the official story over and over with embellishing details, while doing all they can to discourage the students from finding out about the evidence that might inspire doubts in an inquiring mind.

Any honest classroom discussion of the subject will eventually have to admit that what the Darwinists call “evolution” can only be demonstrated at a relatively trivial level. Populations of bacteria do become resistant to antibiotics, for example, but this “micro-evolution” is a cyclical process that does not illustrate bacteria in the process of becoming something different, certainly not something more complex. The grand story of macro-evolution from single-celled organisms to complex plants and animals is purely speculative. Its elements cannot be demonstrated in the laboratory or observed in nature. If anyone believes that natural selection acting upon random mutations can produce new complex organs, then he or she holds this belief on the basis of faith rather than observation or experiment.

Darwinists like to claim that the fossil record supports their theory. Different kinds of fossils are found in rocks dated in different ages, but that is about all. There is no pattern of step-by-step changes connecting specific ancestors to specific descendants and no testable explanation of how the hypothetical transformations could have occurred.

As with other weaknesses in the Darwinian theory, Darwinists for a long time concealed the fossil problems from the public. The famous Darwinist Stephen Jay Gould even admitted that the failure of the fossil record to conform to Darwinian expectations is “the trade secret of paleontology” in a 1977 issue of the journal Natural History.

It is also well known among scientists that the illustrations of embryonic similarities used in many textbooks throughout the past century to prove evolution originate in fraudulent drawings and fail to depict the embryos accurately. Nonetheless the same illustrations continue to appear in textbooks and other literature aimed at the unsophisticated, because the Darwinists are reluctant to abandon an icon which has been a supporting pillar of their story since the days of Darwin himself.

Guide for Educators

When citizens tell me that they want to present a proposal to administrators or school boards asking for more unbiased teaching of evolution, I advise them to use the precise language of the Santorum amendment and not add anything to it. Well-meaning citizens sometimes think that this language does not go far enough, and so they insist on petitioning the authorities to give classroom time to some theory other than evolution. This is a mistake, because whatever they say just gives biased journalists something to ridicule and distort.

The Santorum amendment gives advocates for truth all we really need to get started, and its language is difficult to distort or ridicule because of the huge bipartisan majority that approved it in the Senate and because it appeals so directly to liberal values of freedom of thought in education and open public discussion of controversial subjects.

To see how much this language does for the cause of truth, start with the first sentence. The philosophical or religious concept that is constantly put forward in the name of science is naturalism. Philosophical naturalism, not scientific evidence, is the true basis of Darwinian belief. Naturalism is the doctrine that nature is all that exists, at least for purposes of scientific inquiry.

If naturalism is true, then nature had to do its own creating without help from God, and some evolutionary process at least roughly like the one first described by Darwin must have done the job regardless of the evidence. The Darwinist strategy is to identify naturalism with science by defining “science” as an activity inherently committed to explaining all phenomena on the basis of natural causes. When the first sentence of the Santorum amendment is brought into the picture, however, it becomes clear that naturalism is a philosophical claim made in the name of science, not a testable theory derived from data.

That brings us to the second sentence. The theory of evolution is controversial because a majority of Americans suspect what is in fact the case. When the theory is extended to macro-evolution, it is not derived from data, nor is it testable. Textbooks claim that the theory is supported by overwhelming evidence, but the standard textbook evidence has been thoroughly discredited by books like Icons of Evolution, by Jonathan Wells.

Parents who want to know how the textbook claims have been discredited should sit down with their children to watch the videotape Icons of Evolution. Try to get teachers, school administrators, and other influential citizens to watch it too, along with the companion video Unlocking the Mystery of Life. The evidence discrediting Darwinism is embarrassing to some educators, so be prepared for resistance if you ask them to make this evidence available to students or even to watch the video themselves. If the Santorum amendment is the guiding policy, however, teachers can hardly explain why the theory of evolution continues to be controversial without mentioning the existence of problems with the evidence. Once that subject is mentioned, a door has been opened, and it will be hard to shut it again.

Allowing the Questions

Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous Darwinist, has written that “biology is the study of complicated things that appear to have been designed.” Dawkins thinks that the design is only apparent and that natural selection, rather than God, did the designing. That is Dawkins’s philosophy, but it is only philosophy because he cannot prove his claim that natural selection has any substantial creative power.

Those of us who say that living things really are designed only need to point to the obvious appearance of design, which even Dawkins concedes. We know that in any fair and open-minded consideration, the Darwinian alternative to design will collapse of its own inadequacies. The Darwinists know that too, and that is why they fought so desperately against the Santorum amendment.

The public can be sure that we in the intelligent design movement are right, and the Darwinists are wrong, just by thinking about why the Darwinists are afraid to allow the real issues to be discussed even in the controlled environment of a science classroom. If the Darwinists had the evidence on their side, they would not be so fearful of what will happen if students learn to distinguish philosophical claims that are made in the name of science from testable theories. They would not fear allowing students to ask questions and become informed participants in public discussions regarding the theory of evolution. The party that has the evidence to back its case is never afraid of a fair hearing. That is why the Darwinists are afraid of freedom, and we are not.

Phillip E. Johnson

Former Program Advisor, Center for Science and Culture
Phillip E. Johnson taught law for more than thirty years at the University of California — Berkeley where he was professor emeritus until his passing in 2019. He was recognized as a leading spokesman for the intelligent design movement, and was the author of many books, including Darwin on Trial, Reason in the Balance and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds.