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Radical Role Reversal in Evolution Debate

Eighty years ago in Dayton, Tennessee, the ACLU went to court to defend the right of John Scopes to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution. Last week, the ACLU went to court in Pennsylvania to prevent students in the Dover School District from learning about an alternative theory known as intelligent design.

The Dover lawsuit demonstrates the radical role reversal that has taken place in the evolution debate. While defenders of evolution used to champion free speech and academic freedom, increasingly they are turning to lawsuits and even intimidation to shut down discussion.

In the Dover case, the school board merely required the reading of a statement to students notifying them that some scientists disagree with Darwin’s theory and support ID — the idea that some things in nature are best explained as the product of an intelligent cause rather than an unguided process like natural selection. Students in Dover are informed that if they want more information, they can consult a library book.

As modest as Dover’s policy is, I oppose such efforts to require intelligent design because they politicize what should be a scientific debate and make it harder for intelligent design to gain a fair hearing among scholars. But that doesn’t mean that teachers or students who wish to discuss intelligent design voluntarily should be banned by the government from doing so. Yet that’s precisely the position taken by the ACLU, which is attempting to use its Dover suit to censor even voluntary discussions about intelligent design in science classes.

So much for free speech.

The ACLU claims that the real issue is church and state, but that’s a red herring. Intelligent design is based on science, not religion. We know from our own experience that intelligent causes (like the human mind) are capable of creating things exhibiting highly-ordered complexity. We also know from experimental evidence that natural selection acting on random genetic mutations doesn’t seem capable of generating things like the amazingly intricate molecular machines inside the cell. Based on these two insights, a number of scientists have concluded that intelligent design better explains certain things in the living world than does chance and necessity.

Proponents of intelligent design include university professors of biology, biochemistry, physics, mathematics and related disciplines, and they are offering testable arguments in peer-reviewed science journals and academic books.

Critics nevertheless insist that intelligent design must be religion because it is supported by many scientists who believe in God. Well, most Americans believe in God. So what? Many leading supporters of Darwin’s theory are avowed atheists. Does that automatically place Darwinian theory outside the scope of genuine science? Of course not.

Whatever the metaphysical implications of Darwin’s theory, the empirical evidence and arguments underlying the theory certainly can be discussed in science classrooms without violating the Constitution. The same is true of ID.

Unfortunately, the Dover lawsuit is part of a growing effort by supporters of Darwin’s theory to try to suppress criticism of their theory by force, rather than free debate.

At George Mason University in Virginia, biology professor Caroline Crocker lost her job earlier this year after teaching about intelligent design in her classes.

At Iowa State University, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez — whose research has been featured in Scientific American — is under attack by colleagues for supporting intelligent design.

At the Smithsonian Institution, evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg faced retaliation and harassment by Smithsonian executives after accepting for publication in a biology journal an article favoring intelligent design. Federal investigators concluded that the Smithsonian’s ultimate goal was to force Sternberg to quit.

Biology professor P.Z. Myers at the University of Minnesota, meanwhile, has called for “the public firing and humiliation of some teachers” who express doubts about Darwin.

In the new battle over evolution, it’s the evolutionists who are the real threat to free inquiry. Let’s hope that the federal courts have enough sense not to be roped into their campaign of intolerance.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.