The Intelligent Approach: Teach the Strengths and Weaknesses of Evolution

The debate over how to teach evolution continues to escalate in Utah and around the country. Some insist that only Darwinism be taught in the science classroom while others are bent on including the Biblical account alongside modern evolutionary theory. One is a dogmatic approach to science education while the other enshrines a particular religious text in the public class room. What’s needed is a third way, one less about competing dogmas and more about critical thinking skills. 

Perhaps in search of such an alternative, Sen. Chris Buttars recently proposed that Utah public schools teach evolution, but also teach something he calls divine design.

In choosing the name, Buttars seems to be capitalizing on the growing popularity of the theory of intelligent design, which he notes “doesn’t preach religion.” He explained that he was trying to avoid controversy “by avoiding the term creationism altogether.”

But it is unclear what “divine design” means to Sen. Buttars, or what exactly he wants taught in the biology classroom. The phrase is a cipher. 

On the other hand, the leading proponents for the theory of intelligent design are crystal clear about what their theory is. They argue that an intelligent cause is the best explanation for certain things in nature, and have developed the theory in numerous books and articles. They’re equally clear about what they think should be taught in the science classroom, and it isn’t religion. In fact, it isn’t even intelligent design.  

Rather, they favor an education policy in which biology students are taught more about evolution, not less. Schools should not be required to teach alternative theories. Instead, they should teach the evidence both for and against modern evolutionary theory. 

And this approach is catching on. In 2002 Ohio adopted science standards requiring that students be able to “describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” Following that the state adopted a model lesson plan called “Critical Analysis of Evolution” that outlines for teachers how to incorporate evidence both for and against Darwinian evolution.

The state of Kansas is poised to adopt similar science standards. Neither state’s guidelines cover the subject of intelligent design.

Teaching the evidence both for and against Darwinian evolution is clearly allowed under the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court stated in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) that criticism of evolutionary theory may be a required part of curricula: “We do not imply that a legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught.”

A curriculum that provides students with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories (rather than teaching an alternative theory, such as intelligent design) represents a common ground approach that all reasonable citizens can agree on.  

In looking at how to teach evolution, school boards and administrators need to bear in mind that science curricula should focus on scientific evidence, not on claims that rest on religious beliefs.

At the same time, a science curriculum that exposes students to scientific controversies engages student interest and encourages them to do what scientists must do—deliberate about how best to interpret evidence.

Now some insist there is no scientific controversy surrounding Darwinism, but this is simply an intimidation tactic. The majority of evolutionary biologists accept the theory, but according to a poll conducted by the Louis Finkelstein Institute, 60 percent of U.S. medical doctors reject it. Some 400 Ph.D. scientists do as well. There is a real scientific controversy, and students are not well served when we pretend otherwise. 

As Darwin wrote in the Origin of Species, “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” The question is Darwinism. The answer is to teach the controversy.

Jonathan Witt

Executive Editor, Discovery Institute Press and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Witt, PhD, is Executive Editor of Discovery Institute Press and a senior fellow and senior project manager with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. His latest book is Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design (DI Press, 2018) written with Finnish bioengineer Matti Leisola. Witt has also authored co-authored Intelligent Design Uncensored, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, and The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. Witt is the lead writer and associate producer for Poverty, Inc., winner of the $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award and recipient of over 50 international film festival honors.