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Intelligent Design: “A Different Idea” Best Kept Out of the Classroom

Knight Ridder news service reports that President Bush, speaking to a small group of reporters on August 2, 2005, told them that schools should teach intelligent design alongside evolution in science classes. He justified his position by saying that “people ought to be exposed to different ideas.”

This might not make much sense to you if you haven’t already heard of intelligent design. Intelligent design is a theory which holds that all forms of life on the planet were designed by an intelligent designer rather than differentiating from common ancestors through millions of years of selection and adaptation.

Who is this “intelligent designer,” you might ask? Well, that’s a good question. Let’s have a look at the people who support intelligent design and make a few reasonable inferences

If the intelligent design movement were mainly populated by Raelians, for instance, we might be able to infer that the intended identity of the “intelligent designer” is, in fact, a race of outer space aliens. However, it is not. The intelligent design movement is mainly populated by fundamentalist Christians.

The New Yorker reports that “the movement is loosely allied with, and heavily funded by, various conservative Christian groups,” and that “these [intelligent design] claims have been championed by a tireless group of writers, most of them associated with the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that sponsors projects in science, religion, and national defense, among other areas.”

The Center for Science and Culture was originally founded in 1996 under a similar name, “The Center for Renewal of Science and Culture” (CSC). “Renewal” was dropped sometime between October of 2001 and August of 2002, however, as part of the group’s evolving effort to paint itself as being primarily scientific rather than religious.

In 1999, someone obtained a strategy paper from the CSC and published it anonymously on the internet. The document outlined the CSC’s strategy for converting “materialistic” science into an extension of Christian dogma. Here is an excerpt:

The social consequences of materialism have been devastating. As symptoms, those consequences are certainly worth treating. However, we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. The very beginning of this strategy, the “thin edge of the wedge,” was Phillip Johnson’s critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial, and continued in Reason in the Balance and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. Michael Behe’s highly successful Darwin’s Black Box followed Johnson’s work. We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.

Based on this information, one could reasonably assume that the “intelligent designer” is intended to be the Christian God, and that “intelligent design” is nothing more than an attempt to find a way around the belated 1987 Supreme Court ruling which declared unconstitutional the laws forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools (Edwards v. Aguillard).

The main objection on the part of scientists to intelligent design is not only that it is championed by people with a clear religious agenda, but it is that ID proponents have not published a single article backing up their version of events with evidence–rather, ID advocates restrict their efforts almost exclusively to arguing over the adequacy of Darwinism. Indeed, as Barbara Forrest has noted,

[E]ven ID proponents with legitimate science credentials have never produced one iota of original scientific data to support these claims. Biochemist Michael Behe never invokes ID in any of his professional publications. He surely would do this if he really believed that ID is a genuine scientific theory. In his role as an ID proponent, he claims that biological structures such as bacterial flagella are “irreducibly complex,” meaning that their parts could not have been assembled over time by natural selection and that the absence of one part would by definition make the entire structure nonfunctional. Yet he admits that his definition of irreducible complexity is flawed and has not so far produced a promised revision of it.

And as H. Allen Orr writes in his excellent article in The New Yorker, “Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science.”

Though people often picture science as a collection of clever theories, scientists are generally staunch pragmatists: to scientists, a good theory is one that inspires new experiments and provides unexpected insights into familiar phenomena. By this standard, Darwinism is one of the best theories in the history of science: it has produced countless important experiments (let’s re-create a natural species in the lab–yes, that’s been done) and sudden insight into once puzzling patterns (that’s why there are no native land mammals on oceanic islands). In the nearly ten years since the publication of Behe’s book, by contrast, I.D. has inspired no nontrivial experiments and has provided no surprising insights into biology.

Which brings me back to Bush and his statement that “people ought to be exposed to different ideas.” This is no justification for teaching intelligent design, which is essentially little more than speculation, alongside the observable, reproducible fact of evolution.

Just because you want to expose people to new ideas, it doesn’t mean that you have to introduce those ideas in science class. Maybe I want kids to read the Epic of Gilgamesh. But there is no compelling reason for me to have them read it in biology class. Similarly, just because you want kids to learn creation stories, it doesn’t mean you should teach those stories alongside actual scientific theories. Maybe I want people to learn the Iroquois creation myth, which holds that the world was created on the back of a giant turtle. That doesn’t mean that I should have teachers present it as an alternative to planetary formation.

Should people be exposed to different ideas? Of course. But if those ideas aren’t scientific ideas supported by a wealth of scientific evidence, then they really don’t have a place being taught in science classrooms, particularly as alternatives to established scientific theories. Even an elementary school kid could tell you that.