The hotly worded federal court decision spanking a Pennsylvania school board for raising doubts about evolution sparked the usual fulminations by evolution advocates and its discontents.
That’s unfortunate. In reality, the actions of the Dover school board and the court decision are both regrettable.
The trial record, at least as summarized in the decision of federal District Court Judge John E. Jones III, clearly indicates that a majority of the board wanted to require the teaching of creationism as an alternative to evolution in science classes. The muddled First Amendment jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court makes intentions, rather than just acts, legally relevant.
What the Dover school board actually did, however, fell far short of such a mandate. Instead, it simply required the recitation of a statement about the limitations of evolution as a theory, the identification of intelligent design as an alternative, and the citation of a book, Of Pandas and People, as explicating the alternative.
Importantly, there was no requirement that intelligent design be taught. In fact, evolution was to remain what was taught and tested in science courses.
The statement about the limitations of evolution was overbroad. But there’s hardly a true threat of the establishment of religion in what the board actually did. The board was duly turned out by voters, which would seem a sounder remedy than stretching First Amendment prohibitions beyond recognition.
Jones, of course, decided otherwise. In the course of a desultory opinion, he found that there was no difference between creationism and intelligent design. Moreover, based upon the extensive expertise he professes to have acquired in the course of a six-week trial, he defined science and determined that the scientific claims of intelligent design were invalid, neither of which are exactly legal questions best decided by a single lawyer.
Jones actually ruled on the nature of theology as well. He determined that evolution “in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.” That’s not necessarily so. Much of evolutionary teaching contends that life on Earth is the accidental and unplanned result of exclusively natural processes. That precludes life on Earth being the willed outcome of a Creator.
Although both intelligent design and creationism posit the existence of a Creator, their scientific and public policy positions are radically different. Creationism holds that God created the Earth and life on it pretty much as it presently exists only about 6,000 years ago.
Intelligent design accepts that the Earth and life are billions of years old, and that life has evolved through adaptation, mutation and natural selection. It even accepts some degree of common ancestry among species.
It simply finds the claim that all life evolved from a single organism not to best fit the available evidence.
Far from wanting to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools, the ID movement advocates that it be taught. Moreover, it does not support the mandatory teaching of intelligent design as an alternative. Instead, it wants a more circumspect presentation of evolutionary theory as well as acknowledgement of its scientific critiques.
Those critiques, such as that some of life exhibits irreducible complexity that cannot be explained by evolution, are fiercely rebutted by evolutionists. But the notion of circumspection shouldn’t be controversial.
It is estimated that far fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of living organisms become fossilized. Evolutionists have sharp disputes among themselves about the particulars of even the humanoid branch of the tree of life, much less the continuum going back billions of years to the purported single organism that started it all.
Scientific speculation about that single organism, or how inanimateness sprang to life, is in its infancy. In the 1950s, a couple of scientists caused a stir by creating amino acids by electrifying a chemical mix thought to represent the Earth’s early composition.
Of course, there is a long and unclear pathway between amino acids and sentient, reproducing organisms. Moreover, scientists now believe that Earth’s early chemistry was different from that replicated in the 1950s and not conducive to the creation of amino acids through an electrical charge.
Perhaps one day scientists will create life in a lab and fossils, despite their paucity, will reveal a fuller and less contentious tree of life.
At present, however, what is unknown about the history of life remains vast and important.
Surely there’s a way for that reality to be reflected in classrooms without violating the integrity of scientific inquiry or the freedom of conscience for believers and non-believers alike.
Robert Robb is a columnist with the Arizona Republic. Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.