Teaching the E-word
Exploring Evolution and Intelligent Design
by Bob Coulter
This month Im going to take a diversion from the more typical activity-focused Technology for Learning column, offering instead reflections on one of the most pressing issues in science education today. Web resources highlighted at the end can be used to deepen your understanding. This willingness to be well-informed about critical issues is an important element in maintaining an identity as a professional educator in a culture all too willing to demean what we do and reduce our practice to merely implementing legislated curriculum. Thoughtful use of Internet resources and print material can be an important component of your ongoing professional development. As the saying goes, If you dont read, you cant lead.
You may have guessed from the title that the issue under consideration is the currently raging debate between those who see evolution as the organizing principle of the life sciences, and those who advocate acknowledging supernatural influence as a driving force. Formerly organized as creationism or creation science, the more common framing now is intelligent design.
At the risk of over-generalizing, those who support evolution argue that a process of natural selection is at work, in which there is natural, random variation in key attributes such as size, color and strength within a given species. Those with variations better adapted for survival live long enough to reproduce. Thus, the genes of those better adapted are the ones that survive to the next generation while those less well adapted dont. In short, its a process of survival of the fittest.
Those who advocate for intelligent design typically argue that random variation and natural selection among the variations cannot explain the incredible complexity of most organisms. Hence, there must be a strategic intention at work beyond the process of natural selection described above. This intelligent design approach most often assumes the work of a deity exercising a super-natural influence, bypassing a purely natural approach. Over the past several years, advocates of this view of lifes origins have become increasingly vocal about having intelligent design taught in science classes as a valid alternative to evolution. Therein lies the controversy.
Untangling the knot
As you will note in reviewing the resources cited, advocates for intelligent design use a variety of arguments, but there are common threads that are worth considering. Among these are four inter-related issues considered briefly here.
THE ROLE OF DATA
In scientific investigation, the role of data is fundamental, since science depends on empirically verifiable data as the basis for all knowledge. Mere speculation is inadequate. Instead, data must be collected impartially using rigorous protocols, and explanations must be the best available that fit the data as it has been recorded. In this context, intelligent design cannot be sustained as a valid scientific explanation, since it is not empirically verifiable. Simply ascribing the unknown elements in the process to the work of an unreachable intelligent designer bypasses the fundamental requirement that data be verifiable.
The role of theory is often misunderstood in this debate, with a colloquial definition often allowed to substitute for a scientific one. In science, my personal beliefseven if they are based on careful observationcannot be considered a theory. Instead, a scientific theory is one well vetted by the mainstream scientific community, and one that has widespread acceptance. Thus, while I may have a theory about why my cat is acting in a particular way, this does not elevate the process to the level of a scientific theory. Advocates of intelligent design often conflate the two, stating that evolution is just a theory, implying that one idea is no better than another. Since they are equivalent, both should be taught in the interest of fairness. This premise can only be sustained with a faulty understanding of scientific theory.
THE ELEMENT OF CERTAINTY
The role of certainty is also a vital consideration, building on the discussion of data and theory. Note that the theory of evolution is the best empirically verifiable explanation of the data available right now. As a result, it is the accepted paradigm in the mainstream scientific community. However, science depends on a healthy dose of uncertainty. If another, competing explanation arises and survives a rigorous peer review process, the new theory can replace the old one. Comparatively recently, the theory of plate tectonics did just this, replacing older explanations that were previously held by the Earth science community. Quite often, proponents of intelligent design try to capitalize on this uncertainty, compounding the misuse of the term theory as a casual hunch. They argue that if science is inherently uncertain, and one idea is as good as another, then why trust evolution as the only answer?
RECOGNITION OF EXPERTISE
Like all fields, science operates as a community with individual and organizational expertise. Thus, luminary scientists win Nobel Prizes, and organizations like the National Academy of Sciences are relied upon to provide expertise and guidance in scientific matters. At both levels, it is the work of mainstream scientists who are bound by norms of professional practice (such as techniques for data collection and analysis, theory-building, and the like) who recognize the experts in a field. Since intelligent design is not recognized by mainstream science, proponents tend to congregate in alternative organizations and think tanks, such as the Discovery Institute and the Intelligent Design Network (see resources). Alternative groupings such as these are perfectly legitimate, but until the work of these organizations is accepted by mainstream science, pronouncements from organizations that do not follow the norms of mainstream science should not carry the same weight in public dialogue concerning scientific matters.
Lest we get too confused in the intricacies of the arguments on each side, it may be helpful to reconsider the issue at a higher level. Instead of debating the merits of evolution and intelligent design, a consideration of what science education is and should be brings clarity to the decisions before us. As analyzed briefly above, if we include intelligent design in the science curriculum, we are teaching a definition of science that is fundamentally at odds with the current practice of science. At its most basic, scientific knowledge by definition is testable and refutable by contrary data or a better, verifiable explanation. The supernatural, also by definition, cannot be reliably confirmed or refuted. Thus, its not science.
The fact that intelligent design does not constitute a science as the term is commonly understood, does not demean its potential value as a body of intellectual work. Whether it should be part of students overall educational experience is a matter for public debate. What is clear, however, is that since intelligent design is not a science, it does not belong in the science curriculum.
©Synergy Learning International, Inc., 2005, All Rights Reserved.
The Discovery Institute ( http://www.discovery.org) is often cited as a leading advocate of intelligent design. They publish a number of papers on their Web site in support of their positions.
Intelligent Design Network (http://www.intelligentdesignnetwork.org) provides an overview of the basis for intelligent design, updates on current events such as school standards debates, and links to purchasing audio-visual materials.
Wikipedia provides a general overview of intelligent design ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/intelligent _design) and evolution ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/evolution), including many links that enable you to pursue lines in the debate.
The National Center for Science Education ( http://www.natcenscied.org) provides resources to counter arguments made on behalf of intelligent design.
The National Science Teachers Association has issued a position paper on the teaching of evolution ( http://www.nsta.org/main/pdfs/positionstatement_evolution.pdf) that unequivocally rejects teaching intelligent design.
- Bob Coulter is director of Mapping the Environment, a program at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Litzsinger Road Ecology Center that supports teachers' efforts to enhance their science curriculum through the use of the Internet and geographic information system (GIS) software. Previously, Bob taught elementary grades for 12 years.