An event of national significance took place Nov. 4 at Washburn University. Scientists, philosophers, lawyers and educators met to discuss one of the most controversial topics in America today — how state-supported schools should teach Darwinian evolution.
The event was remarkable because — despite a highly charged atmosphere dominated by media misrepresentations and dire warnings from the academic community — opposing views in the controversy were given equal time in an academic forum. This was largely the achievement of Washburn University President Jerry Farley, Topeka trial lawyer Pedro Luis Irigonegaray and Washburn University staff member Bob Stoller, all of whom are committed to free speech under the First Amendment. Most people might be surprised to learn that open discussions on this topic are rare in American educational institutions. On Nov. 4, Washburn University showed how it can be done.
The roundtable discussion was hard-hitting, but civil. One party maintained that evolution is so well-established that it may be called a scientific fact, and that its critics are biblical fundamentalists who want to replace empirical science with religious dogma. Another party maintained that Darwin’s theory is really an anti-religious philosophy masquerading as science, and that the evidence is more consistent with the scientific theory of intelligent design.
The defenders of Darwinian evolution argued that their view is the consensus of the scientific community, and claimed that there is no substantial evidence against it. They criticized the Kansas State Board of Education for ignoring the recommendation of its own 27-member committee by adopting science standards that did not include macroevolution — the theory that all living things originated through the Darwinian process of random variations and natural selection. They also maintained that intelligent design is a religious “Trojan horse” that would open the door to all sorts of bizarre beliefs.
The advocates of intelligent design countered that the biological evidence presents serious problems for macroevolution. For example, all the major types of animals appeared at the same time in the fossil record, with no evidence of common ancestry — a pattern inconsistent with Darwin’s theory.
They also argued that complex organs that cannot function without all their parts provide evidence for intelligent design. Speculations about the nature of the designer, however, go beyond the realm of science, and defenders of intelligent design insisted they are not proposing to teach religion in the science classroom.
Finally, Darwin’s theory has religious implications. The textbook used to teach evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas claims that “biological phenomena, including those seemingly designed, can be explained by purely material causes, rather than by divine creation.” Since Darwin’s theory has as many religious implications as the theory of intelligent design, it is not possible to demarcate the two on the grounds that one is science and the other is religion.
Everyone agreed that the First Amendment prohibits the state from establishing one religious viewpoint to the exclusion of others, and that it guarantees freedom of speech.
The Darwinians argued that the “establishment clause” rules out intelligent design as an alternative theory of origins because of its religious implications. But the intelligent design advocates argued that the privileged status of Darwinism in state-supported schools, together with its anti-religious implications, make it an established religion. Furthermore, since both Darwinism and intelligent design have religious implications, the “free speech clause” makes the exclusion of intelligent design a form of unconstitutional “viewpoint discrimination.” The only proper course is to “teach the controversy” by exposing students to both sides.
By the end of the evening, it was clear that the controversy was not about defending empirical science from biblical fundamentalism. Scientifically, what little evidence was presented challenged Darwinian evolution and favored intelligent design; philosophically, Darwinian evolution was shown to have as many implications for religion as intelligent design; and legally, teaching Darwinism while excluding other views in state-supported schools could not be justified on First Amendment grounds.
Ignoring these considerations, a panelist who had the last word concluded that Darwinian evolution deserves its privileged status because it is the consensus of biologists. This struck many people in the audience as odd, because I was the only biologist on the panel, and I had argued that the evidence does not support Darwin’s theory. (The scientist on the pro-Darwin side was a psychologist.)
I later learned that Washburn University biologists had been invited to participate, but declined because they didn’t want to provide a platform for creationism. They thereby reflected a nationwide tendency among Darwinians to demonize their critics rather than deal with the issues.
They also made it clear that a “consensus” exists only because Darwinians refuse to tolerate any dissent.
As the Washburn roundtable discussion showed, however, the strategy of sweeping the controversy under the rug is not working. The public clearly saw that there are important unanswered questions here. First, is the biological evidence more consistent with Darwinian evolution or intelligent design? If the latter, is it proper for Darwinians to decide the matter in their favor by redefining “science” to exclude design? Second, does Darwinian evolution have religious implications? If so, are state-supported institutions acting unconstitutionally when they teach Darwinism to the exclusion of other views? These are serious questions for empirical science and constitutional government. Pretending they do not exist will not make them go away.
The Washburn University roundtable discussion can serve as an example for all American high schools and colleges. Students should be taught the controversy and encouraged to discuss the issues. No dogma, scientific or religious, belongs in a science classroom. Instead of being indoctrinated in Darwinism, as they are now, students should be provided with the resources to think critically about it. The result will be better scientists and better citizens.
Jonathan Wells is a post-doctoral biologist in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow in the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, Discovery Institute, Seattle.