Evolution and Intelligent Design in the Classroom

I said I was going to write on producing video next, but so much interesting stuff about the Evolution/Intelligent Design controversy in science teaching has crossed my radar screen recently that I just have to hit that first. (My wife says I’m guilty of bait-and-switch. Sigh.)

“The Connection” on NPR had a good segment the other day (which you can listen to online), featuring two biology teachers, one a proponent of teaching evolution only, and the other calling for adding Intelligent Design to the curriculum. Everyone agreed, at least, that you have to make clear what science can and cannot answer. One telephone caller, after noting her own belief in an intelligent designer, went on to say that the discussion of it belongs in the philosophy or religion class, not the science class.

That’s a position I used to hold, but I’m wavering. In one form or another, the belief in a guiding intelligence is a part of the national landscape (whether it’s creationism and biblical literalism, or so-called Intelligent Design theory, which claims to apply scientific inquiry to the question of whether evolution is a blind, random process or a guided process). I forget the numbers from the latest polls, but a huge majority of Americans believe in a creative intelligence behind it all. That’s not going to go away, and how we treat it affects how scientific inquiry is understood and perceived in the U.S. I don’t think we’re doing our young people any favors by teaching the theory of evolution without any reference to the other viewpoints.

My friend Rich says if he were a science teacher, he wouldn’t want to touch Intelligent Design—because, for one thing, you’d risk being seen as attacking people’s religious beliefs, and for another, you’d be implicitly legitimizing fake science, or at least empty science. (God of the Gaps: if you can’t explain the complexity, it must be the design-work of God.) I grant the danger. I haven’t seen anything convincing yet in the science writing of Intelligent Design proponents. (For a good read on this, look at http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html, where three proponents of Intelligent Design present their views, each responded to by a proponent of evolution. One of the respondents is Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist from Brown and author of Finding Darwin’s God, who notes his own philosophical belief in a designer, but finds no merit in the scientific claims of the ID writer.)

But the thing is: What a great opportunity to teach real scientific and critical thinking! Why can’t the question be raised? (Beyond the political agenda—more on that in a second.) Maybe, probably, it is outside the realm of what science can or cannot answer. But how will we know if we don’t ask the question? How can students understand the strengths and limitations of science if we rule one of the most interesting (and toughest) questions out of the arena? How can they learn to evaluate scientific claims if they don’t look at controversial claims as well as widely accepted claims? If there’s any value to the scientific claims of the ID people, let’s look for it. If there’s no value, let’s show students why.

Heretic! you say. How dare you insult my religion?! Wait a minute…who said anything about your religion? I’m not attacking your religion. I didn’t even mention it. We’re talking about scientific evidence or lack of evidence. Maybe science can’t show any evidence of God; that doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist, it just means we have no testable, repeatable scientific evidence. Or maybe we just haven’t found it yet. What would really be an insult would be to dismiss your claims of evidence without even discussing them.

Well, okay—maybe it’s not going to be that easy. But how easy is the present situation?

The real thorn here is the real or perceived hidden agenda. Is all this just a ruse to get religion—specifically, conservative Christian religion—into the schools? For some proponents, I’m sure it is. For others, I don’t know. It’s a real danger. The religious divide in America is threatening to tear this country apart. And I don’t mean the divide between Christians and those stinkin’ secular humanists—I mean the divide between those who want to impose their own particular brand of faith on the rest of us, and…well, the rest of us. And the rest of us includes Christians, Jews, Muslims…and yes, secular humanists.

Are we caving to the agenda if we talk about intelligent design (lower case) in the same classroom as evolution? Maybe. But if we bar the doors and hope they go away, aren’t we just deepening the divide? What are kids to think who believe in ID or creationism, but aren’t given the tools to examine for themselves whether it’s real science, or another kind of thinking camouflaged by the words of science?

It’s not an easy question. But if we don’t teach the thinking skills, we’re in trouble.

For more on this, read The Slate’s What Matters in Kansas: The evolution of creationism and Creation vs. Intelligent Design: Is There a Difference?

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  1. tsmacro
    | Reply

    Wow, yeah talk about your touchy subjects. The problem here of course is that the very mention of anything to do with religion in public schools just gets some people so defensive and riled they can’t think straight. On the other side you have those who believe the Bible is meant to be taken literally and anything that teaches anything not agreeing with it (or even appearing so) is blasephemy and it’s time to make a fuss. So the rest of us get caught in the middle of two very polarized groups who aren’t going to convince the other of anything anyway but they continue to shout (literally and figuritively) at each other. Since we do live in a country where the ideal is anyway that we don’t play favorites no matter what ones religion, creed, lack therof, race, etc., I don’t think we can introduce anything into the public classroom that includes religious belief that isn’t backed up by scientific evidence. Personally I think evolution is actually part of God’s plan and is also evidence of his and/or her’s sense of humor. Now if more people would approach Life the Universe and Everything with a sense of humor I think we’d all be a lot better off!

  2. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Amen, brother.

  3. Rich
    | Reply

    Scientific thinking will always demolish religious-based beliefs when the battle is fought on science’s turf. But if a public school teaches thinking skills to a student who believes in ID or creationism, and he ends up not believing in them, will his parents be grateful to the school for the services it has rendered?

    Of course this assumes there’s nothing much to ID. If there is, science has a lot of rethinking to do.

    I went through a phase when I read a lot of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit scientist who attempted to reconcile evolution with a kind of mystical Catholicism. Have you run into his stuff? His writings got him into a certain amount of trouble back with the Vatican in the 50’s, I think. I can’t imagine how much trouble he’d get into in today’s Church.

  4. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Scientific thinking will always demolish religious-based beliefs when the battle is fought on science’s turf.

    Well, it all depends on the question, doesn’t it? If the religion is trying to say something like the Earth is 6000 years old, yeah. But most of the time, the scientific answer is, “That question is outside of science’s domain.” The ID debate seems to fall somewhere in the middle.

    But if a public school teaches thinking skills to a student who believes in ID or creationism, and he ends up not believing in them, will his parents be grateful to the school…

    Will they be any more grateful to the school that dismisses their beliefs with a wave of the hand? Is it better for students not to learn critical thinking, or to distinguish good science from bad? (I’m not saying, by the way, that all ID science is bad. I have suspicions, but I haven’t studied it in enough detail to make a statement like that.)

    I read a lot of Teilhard de Chardin…

    I’ve been meaning to read him ever since some readers of mine, years ago, told me that my fiction made them think of his work. Never got to it, though. You have anything you want to lend me?

  5. Norton
    | Reply

    I think it is important to note that high school science (and most of undergraduate science) rarely teaches about the process of science. It usually presents the results of scientific research that has been published and evaluated by the scientific community. Publishing and evaluating scientific claims is not easy, and I would argue that that is the main skill taught to PhDs. If we are going to start presenting dubious scientific claims to high school students, we would also need to modify the curriculum to spend considerably more time talking about the philosophy of science and how different claims are evaluated. Without that discussion, presenting dubious claims alongside established scientific results gives the impression that both claims are equally valid science. Of course adding that unit would come at the cost of what is currently being taught.

  6. Harry
    | Reply

    The problem with teaching intelligent design is that it undermines everything that comes after the basic theory of evolution. This is a point that no one seems to understand or point out: if god is the reason why life came to exist and is the reason why organisms changed then all the discussion of why some organisms survived and others perished, why organisms developed lungs or other features are all answered by the same statement: god wanted it that way. Why do fish have backbones? God wanted it that way. Why are giraffes tall, to reach leaves? Maybe but really because god wanted it that way. There is nothing to study! Biology is just a catalog of god’s creatures then, and you cannot study any developmental biology at all. Instead of studying nature you are studying god. This is the realm of theology and theologians, not science and scientists. The same argument can be applied to some other branches of science as well. With astronomy are we studying the processes that have occured since the universe came into being or are we looking at how god chose to construct it? If the latter, then there is no reason to study astronomy. Why study physics, chemistry, geology? Well, in those cases there are practical applications so it is useful to understand physics for airplanes and TV sets, chemistry for batteries and oil, geology for oil and minerals. For those the question of why god did what he did is immaterial; but for pure research without applied results being possible, why bother? Of course biology has applications in medicine but one has to wonder why god wants to make us sick if he made disease after all…

    In centuries past, scientific thought was considered very dangerous to religion so its practitioners were labelled as heretics. Today the reverse is happening with relgion becoming dangerous to scientific thought.

    It is all connected to the stem cell research and genetic engineering. Should we tamper with god’s creatures? Are we allowed? Other research is similarly affected.

    I agree with Norton. School curricula varies GREATLY from region to region but here at least in southwestern Ontario, Canada when I was in high school they didn’t want you to have an original thoughts. Some exceptional teachers would encourage and allow such discussions but the official curriculum never demanded it. You were no more supposed to question evolution than gravity or history. The arts are much more forgiving at this time, but strangely less so in university it. Even bachelor/undergraduate university doesn’t want a lot of independent thought. This is VERY WRONG in my opinion.

    The most important part of education is to teach students how to learn, both from teachers and on their own, how to think critically, how to judge a source of information (good source or poor source), etc. With the internet as such a ‘source’ and highly editorialized traditional media these days it is VERY important that people learn how to decide if they are reading/hearing a good source of information or a bad one. Sadly, most people don’t have this ability and don’t care.

    What high school has a philosophy class? Where? I want my children to go there. A philosophy course I took from Eduardo Wilner on the philosophy of science was one of the best courses I ever took during my undergraduate years. For a while no one got it at all, then he had us prove that astrology is not a good predictive system — he said the course was over if we couldn’t do that. It is much harder than you think. It also leads to wonderful discussions on how you can know what you know, and in fact how you can know if you can know anything, for sure. Why trust this scientific theory, but not this other one? What makes one theory stronger than another? Why are some studies stronger than others?

    Evolution and astronomy are weaker than applied physics and chemisty because you cannot go back in time to watch or, even better, tinker with evolution or with the formation of stars and galaxies. The progression of forms you can create in the lab are not accepted as proof of evolution because they happen in days or weeks, not millions of years and no fruit fly will evolve into a talking creature before your eyes. You CAN, however, do very convincing experiements with applied physics and chemistry.

    Do you believe in electrons? Can you see them? Are they tiny little balls spinning around larger but still small balls that are nucleii of atoms? Or are they charged clouds? If the latter, how do they have spin? With theoretical physics and chemistry it becomes more difficult. You cannot see electrons, the act like wave/particle dualities, etc. But you can see their effect! Your monitor or TV wouldn’t work without them being shot out of a ‘gun’ onto the phosphor screen. Does that allow you to believe in electrons more than gluons and quarks? Yes, it does allow more belief until we have gluon food processors and quark teleporters.

    So as you can see, all science is not as good as the rest of it. Some is easier to believe than others. Evolution is one of the hard ones. But high school doesn’t tech you what is easy science to understand and what is hard to prove. To suddenly start doing that with evolution seems to imply that there is more to it than is immediately obvious.


  7. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Norton and Harry raise important points about the teaching of science, which I will address in a new blog entry (when I have a little more time). Here I’m just going to note a point where Harry and I disagree:

    The problem with teaching intelligent design is that it undermines everything that comes after the basic theory of evolution…if god is the reason why life came to exist and is the reason why organisms changed then all the discussion of why some organisms survived and others perished, why organisms developed lungs or other features are all answered by the same statement: god wanted it that way…There is nothing to study!

    I don’t see it that way at all. (And by the way, I wasn’t advocating teaching intelligent design, but raising the question and looking at whether science has credible information on the subject.) We have the same universe to study and understand, and it’s just as interesting whether you think God created it or random forces did. Granted, there are many interpretations of how and where God might have intervened–from setting the whole thing spinning and stepping back to see what happens, to tweaking every significant event. You assume that everyone who believes in God must therefore believe that God micromanaged evolution (if they believe in evolution). But the field of view is not nearly so narrow, from where I stand. If it were, people I know who are both working scientists and believers in God would have to find another line of work. None of them, so far as I know, let their religious views affect their interpretation of science data.

    In the matter of stem cell research and genetic engineering (among others), there are ethical issues as well as scientific ones, and yes, religion has things to say about that. And should, as it’s a part of our communal system of ethics. (Note, I said “things to say,” not “veto power.”)

  8. Harry
    | Reply

    You’re right that christians accepting of evolution in some form run the full spectrum from “god started it and provides the spark for life” to “got started it and gave a helping hand here and there along the way” up to “god decided how evolution worked every step of the way.”

    Similarily, about the universe christians who believe in a long time span (old earth as opposed to young 6000 year old earth) with a big bang or similar start run the spectrum from “god started it, set up the parameters so the universe would last more than a nanosecond and would be fit for life and let it run after that” to “god started it and nudged things along the way” to “god is responsible for putting every little thing in its place”.

    ID is not in the low form of the examples I mention above; I’d say they are at least 2/3 of the way along to the fully micromanaged universe. Note however that I don’t believe many christian scientists follow ID, just some of them. My comments above were aimed at IDers, not people who in general believe in both evolution and god.

    ID says there is evidence of design in both the universe and in life. Again, I say this belittles the science of discovering why organisms survived, and why changes occured. If all the ‘hard’ changes or those which appear to form some pattern required a divine hand then why study them as a process that can occur on its own? Instead, ID suggests, “…investigating intelligent causes and that challenges naturalistic explanations of origins which currently drive science education and research.” It says they, “…promote the scientific evidence of intelligent design because proper consideration of that evidence is necessary to achieve not only scientific objectivity but also constitutional neutrality.” They seem to think they are neutral but I argue that they are biased from the outset and beg their own question of how the universe and life originated. Their a priori assumptions mean like the natural selection followers they claim to oppose saying they won’t accept anything else, they too will only accept that an intelligent designer took part and that is all they will look for. Overall, this is not different from even the less politicized sciences, unfortunately.

    When I was a young child I thought of science as unbiased, relying on mostly serendipitous discoveries but nothing could be farther from the truth. There are accidental discoveries but they mostly occur while people are working on projects for which they have applied for research grants whereby they provide expected conclusions and applications. I know as I’ve submitted some of those applications during my graduate work, which require you to play a good game of buzzword bingo to get funding. Science is usually the survival of the fittest research proposal which is too bad. Professors only stay in tenure if they publish, they only publish if they are granted the right to do so by the review boards and only get funding from proposals.


  9. Rich
    | Reply

    I don’t have any Teilhard books anymore, alas.

    As I recall, what he tried to do was synthesize an evolutionary idea of progress with the Christian idea of progress, with Jesus as the end point of both. Kind of mushy, I think, but perhaps rather exciting for the person looking to reconcile science and religion.

    This reminds me of a real scientific controversy within evolutionary theory–whether there is such a thing as “progress” within evolution. Wasn’t Stephen Jay Gould one of the ones who argued that there isn’t? That the “progress” we infer in looking at the development of humans from the primeval ooze is just a historical accident? (Maybe a byproduct of the anthropic cosmological principle!) That there is nothing in the principles of natural selection that says that organisms need to get more complex, develop brains capable of rational thought (and of worshipping God)… Teilhard wouldn’t have been happy with that argument.

  10. Harry
    | Reply

    Rich, in terms of both numbers of individuals and raw biomass vertebrates are FAR, far, far outnumbered by insects which are far outnumbered by single-celled organisms. In the Amazon, ants alone outweigh all other animals.

    Evolution does not require progress, either as a whole or in the case of an individual species. It simply says there will be natural selection for features. Ecological niches exist where species survive nearly unchanged for very long periods of time; some anti-evolution proponents say those creatures prove evolution does not occur but the development or lack thereof in one species does not make or break evolution as a whole. Algae, protozoans and social insects have something that works, so why mess around with it? Some species reproduce asexually until they are stressed, when they use sexual reproduction to shake things up; they only evolve when they need to. Some don’t even do that, apparently. Dandilions, for example, do not need pollination of any kind (even self pollination) to produce seed and they do well enough, except against RoundUp where the ability to change would be handy…


  11. Norton
    | Reply

    Harry, I actually took a philosophy elective in high school (Granada Hills High School in LA) and was first exposed to ID there. I think that was an excellent venue for the discussion.

  12. Norton
    | Reply

    Harry, I actually took a philosophy elective in high school (Granada Hills High School in LA) and was first exposed to ID there. I think that was an excellent venue for the discussion.

  13. tsmacro
    | Reply

    My memory of high school when it came to teaching and classes is there were very few where they actually wanted you think. It was mostly here’s the facts, now regurgitate them back to me, ok now fill in the appropriate dot with a number two pencil on your multiple-choice test. I certainly don’t remember any philosophy classes being offered. About the best thing they had was a creative writing class with a teacher that actually cared. Unfortunately those were way to few and far between. I didn’t get to take any philosophy until I went to college, where I did take a Philosophy of Religion class, very interesting stuff and one of the only college text books I actually kept instead of selling back at the end of the semester.

  14. Robert E.
    | Reply

    Well now, for me the basic issue is not whether ID should be TAUGHT in science classrooms, but how it should be ADDRESSED when it will inevitably be brought up by at least one student. I would love to see findings of a well done survey of K-12 science teachers that learns from them how they do ADDRESS the issue, and how they deal with kids who might insist on the christian fundamentalist line.

  15. Michael
    | Reply

    Mr Carver,

    An interesting and open discussion, Thank you. In my internet discussions and readings I have never yet seen ID critiqued scientifically. That is, it is consistently opposed on the basis of its conclusions, not its method. This is unscientific as well as intellectually bankrupt.

    I think there should be no question that the scientific method is barred from asking. Likewise, there should be no argument that is barred from scientific scrutiny. My understanding of the ID guys is that while they may have personal motives for asking the question, they (as distinct from creationsits etc) seek to use legitimate and rigorous scientific tools to answer the question. I understand that they welcome the interaction over the proper method and the proper conlcusions.

    Nonetheless, some of your commenters are probably right, High School might not be the best forum for this discussion. I was very disappointed to discover that my undergratuate science studies were more about rote learning of current scientific dogma than learning to ask and answer questions.

    Does anybody recommend a text or site that critiques the method of ID rather than the conclusion?

    Michael Hutton
    Ariah Park NSW

  16. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Hi Michael — I'm glad you found this discussion and found it interesting enough to dust it off. 🙂 I don't know of any texts, though Ken Miller's book Finding Darwin's God, which I started but got waylaid from before I finished it, probably has some good discussion of it. And the website I linked above, in the original post, has Point/Counterpoint by ID guys and evolution guys, with the latter critiquing specific ID assertions on the basis of scientific principles.

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