19 October 2005


It used to be called “creation science.” But in 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the concept wasn't science, and therefore couldn't be taught in the country's public schools, at least not in science class.

So the parents, the school board trustees and the clergy who want American children exposed to the Old Testament alternative to what has been described as “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” regrouped. It didn't take them long to embrace an idea far more dangerous than biological evolution. They call it “intelligent design.” And now they're using to betray those very same children.

That's the short history of the intelligent design, or ID, movement. The short description of the idea itself, as the students of Asheville Christian Academy, a private religious school half an hour north of my neck of western North Carolina, recently learned during a two-week section on the subject, is similarly straightforward. According to ID, there are some bits and pieces of the biosphere that are far too complex to be explained by the process of natural selection, the mechanism behind Darwinian evolution; ipso facto, something—or someone—intelligent must have created them.

The idea is so simple, in fact, I wonder how the academy's teachers managed to find enough material to fill two weeks of classes. That's the problem with ID. It's just too simple. It has no theoretical structure. It makes no predictions. It can't be tested. It calls for a halt to the intellectual investigative process.

In other words, it's not science. Not by any definition, Christian or secular.

Even the movement's most prominent supporter with genuine scientific credentials finds himself on the extreme outskirts of respectability. That would be Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, who testified Monday in a Pennsylvania lawsuit trial in support of the right of a public school board to include a single paragraph on ID in its science curriculum. He has so annoyed his fellow faculty members that they've issued a public reminder that they “are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory.”

So why are the students of Asheville Christian Academy learning about intelligent design?

For one thing, because they can. The constitutional ban on religion in the public classroom does not extend to private chools. Nor should it. Christian families have the right to have their children instructed in any way they see fit. And Christian-school teachers have the right to teach whatever the parents will allow.

But that doesn't let the parents or the teachers off the hook. It may be legal to teach privately schooled students about intelligent design, but it's not ethical. Not if we are interested in preparing our children for the possibility of a career in science.

Some, including Behe, argue that ID is not creationism, that the concept doesn't necessarily address the nature of the intelligent designer, only that something, or someone aliens? must have created as final products some of biological structures that seem to defy evolutionary origins.

But the truth is the intelligent design movement is intimately tied to creationism. The book that the Dover school board recommends as a text on ID, Of Pandas and People, was originally published as Creation Biology in 1983. But after the Supreme Court ruling four years later, it reappeared with the new name, with references to “creationism” simply replaced by “intelligent design.”

And then there's now famous “wedge strategy” document from the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that has been the prime mover behind ID. The goal of the movement, says the strategy paper, is “to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

But even if ID wasn't a surrogate for creationism, it still suffers from a complete lack of scientific merit. A century ago, long before the latest term cropped up, similar arguments revolved around the seemingly irreducibly complex eye. Surely, said those opposed to Darwin's then-still-new idea of evolution, the eye is proof of evolution's failings. Take away the lens, or the iris, or the pupil, or the optic nerve, and it's useless. So it couldn't have evolved.

Except that it did, repeatedly. Scientists now believe it may have evolved at least half a dozen times in different types of animals. In fact, an organism can lose the lens, the pupil, the iris and the optic nerve, leaving little more than a dark spot that casts a shadow. But that's still enough to provide a microscopic, single-celled organism with an evolutionary advantage over other microscopic, single-celled organisms with no eye at all.

Behe and his acolytes make the same argument about the flagellum, the little whip of a motor that moves sperm and other cells. Scientists haven't yet figured out exactly how it evolved. But they're working on it. And they're making progress. Intelligent design would have us give up at the slightest suggestion of a problem, and be content with “God/ET/what-have-you must have made it that way.”

That's not science. And we owe it to our children, whether we're raising them as Christians, Muslims, Jews, or atheists, not to pretend otherwise. Not if we really care about them.


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