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Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Me

Originally published at Washington Post

I was one of those blissfully nerdy kids who fell in love with dinosaurs in the fourth grade and never outgrew it. In adulthood, people like me go to natural history museums, see Steven Spielberg movies and read the essays of the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. That is usually enough to keep us happy.

But a couple of weeks ago I saw a chance to take my amateurish grasp of the history of life a bit further. I persuaded the editor of The Post’s editorial pages to publish an op-ed piece of mine called “Who’s Afraid of Intelligent Design?

My inspiration was a front-page story by The Post’s Chicago bureau chief, Peter Slevin. He described the Intelligent Design movement, a group of apparently serious scientists who are doing research on what they see as flaws in standard evolutionary theory. They appear to think that some organisms are too complex to have been the result of random chance and natural selection, and they think they can prove it. I was surprised to learn that unlike the Creationists, the Bible fundamentalists who accept Genesis literally, the Intelligent Design (ID) folks agree with Darwin that the story of life is hundreds of millions of years long, and that chimpanzees and humans share an ancestor a few million years back. It is the earliest parts of the story, particularly the notion that life could emerge from non-living chemicals on an early, sterile earth, that the Intelligent Design folk think are on particularly shaky ground.

As I read Slevin’s story I thought: what an exciting science lesson! The ID researchers seemed to be grasping at gaps in the fossil record, rather than seeing the irresistible Darwinist logic of what scientists have discovered. But comparing their arguments to Darwin’s was, I thought, a wonderful way to teach Darwin. I could not understand why important educators and scientists were spending money on lawyers to keep ID out of the classroom. In my op-ed I said we ought to let ID be explained to students so that they could understand how it defied the scientific method, just as the flaws of perpetual motion theory, I said, should be a part of a physics course and the fallacies of the Steady-State theory should be part of an astronomy course.

For me and many other students, biology as it is usually taught, one complicated fact or term after another, is deadly dull. Introducing a little debate would excite teenagers, just as the attacks on conventional wisdom launched by my favorite high school history teacher, Al Ladendorff, always got me walking fast to that class so I wouldn’t miss anything.

Well, the minute the op-ed appeared the e-mails started popping up on my computer, right under the coconut ape with a ball and bat that sits atop my IBM. At last count there were about 400 of them. Most said they had the unfortunate duty to tell me that I was an idiot.

Daniel Kohn of Mountain View, Calif., said he was “extremely disheartened by the ignorance you displayed in your commentary on Intelligent Design.” Christian Iffrig of Arlington said, “Like most imbecilic do-gooders, you think it’s about creating a forum for intellectual discussion — give and take. You think they’d accord the same respect for diverse opinions? They have no such intentions.”

Some readers were kinder, but equally convinced that I did not see the ramifications of what I was saying. Anthony Joern, professor of biology at Kansas State University, asked about “that poor high school teacher who must deal with the religious parents of the students who were subjected to such a debate. What happens if you do present a fair debate and religion loses? What does the teacher do in Kansas when the parents clamor for revenge?”

Elizabeth Lutwak said, “I would like to agree with your approach. I think many science teachers and their students could handle, and would benefit, from such a debate. Yet the ulterior motives of these groups scare me. They are already scaring a fair number of science teachers into not teaching evolution at all, making the material a mere reading assignment.”

Jim Wilson of Louisville, Ky., said, “If I’m reading correctly then in order to make classrooms more ‘fun’ we should consider junk science or introduce false information. No we shouldn’t. Would you encourage denying the Holocaust and giving that argument any credence just because it would get the students more involved? Just because you personally were bored by biology, I don’t think we should ‘jazz’ it up to make it fun.”

“Your central point is cute and democratic,” said Scott Hayes, “but not particularly useful to a science teacher who is struggling to help overcome amazing data which suggests that more than half the people in this country believe that human beings walked the planet when dinosaurs were alive.”

I anticipated those reactions. I surveyed many of the best biology teachers I knew before I wrote the piece. Not one of them thought my idea would work. I mentioned two of them in the op-ed. Based on that very negative reaction, I assumed that if the idea had any merit at all, it would only be in some future age, when our big-brained, metal-bodied descendants would celebrate my meager effort as an interesting example of early 21st century off-color humor. Or something like that.

But instead, I was stunned to discover that many e-mailers (a generous estimate would be about 30 percent) agreed with me, and they had had the same idea long before I did. “I, like you, am a strong believer in Darwinism and, also like you, think that critical debate should be injected into the classroom whenever possible,” said Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss, a Washington, D.C., senior research analyst who just earned a doctorate in political science.

Brian Arneson, who works in the Chemical Education Group at the University of Texas, said, “Our entire school curriculum is devoid of intelligent debate, especially in science. Our students lack the basic ideas of what makes a credible claim and how to defend their position with experimentally derived evidence.”

“You are right,” said Norman Ravitch of Savannah, Ga. “Nothing is taught in a more boring fashion than science. All is memorization. What you suggest, reading different theories, I did in college on my own in a biology class and it was wonderful.”

So I felt better. There were so many e-mails that I was forced to respond to each with very terse comments, but I was grateful for each one. I don’t think I will be making any more attempts to offer my ill-informed views on evolution, but there is something I am curious about.

I have received very few e-mails from actual high school biology teachers who have ever tried introducing the debate to their classes. I suspect some are doing this quietly to avoid the kind of religious eruption that readers told me was inevitable.

Is there anyone out there trusting their high school students to handle these contradictions and using them to better explain how science works? Tell me about it. I still have a lot to learn.