Jul 28th 2005 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition
It's subtler than creationism, and may be coming soon to a classroom near you
SOMETIME within the next few months, the Kansas Board of Education will decide whether to allow a form of creationism to be taught in the state's schools. It seems likely to do so. The proposed curriculum changes have been given preliminary approval by the board and were written after hearings dominated by anti-evolutionists.
The changes, which affect the standards used in statewide science tests, include adding the word “may” to the assertion that “gradual changes...over many generations may have resulted in variations among populations and species.” They would tell students that “in many cases the fossil record is not consistent with gradual, unbroken sequences postulated by biological evolution.” And they would call the notion that one species evolved from another “controversial...based on inferences from indirect or circumstantial evidence.”
None of these propositions is false. But the cumulative effect, as some members of the board themselves approvingly noted, would be to encourage teachers to discuss alternatives to evolution—a theory one member, Connie Morris, has dismissed as “a fairy tale”.
Kansas is one of many states where teaching evolution is under attack. In Georgia's Cobb County, for instance, the local school district stuck labels on textbooks saying “Evolution is a theory, not a fact”. It was told to remove them by a district judge. Georgia's state superintendent of schools proposed removing the E-word altogether from the biology curriculum, though she later backed down.
In Pennsylvania, the state House of Representatives is discussing a bill to introduce an alternative to evolutionary theory into the public-school code, while Dover, Pennsylvania, has become the first district in the country to adopt the following guideline: “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” This being America, a trial is due to begin in September to decide whether that guideline contravenes the first amendment, which bans state sponsorship of religion. In all, disputes involving evolution are bubbling in around 20 of the 50 states.
It is tempting to see this as one more example of the surging influence of the religious right. But that is only partly true. The battles over evolution are being fought in secondary schools; there is no argument at universities, where evolutionary science is uncontroversial.
Nor are there signs of any recent increase in popular opposition to teaching evolution. In 1999, the Kansas guidelines were even less scientific than they could soon become; back then they omitted all reference to evolution, the age of the earth or anything inconsistent with old-fashioned creationism. They changed because creationists were removed from the Board of Education in elections in 2000. A new board rewrote the guidelines to bring them into line with accepted science, but that board was in turn removed in 2004, bringing back an anti-evolutionist majority, along with pressure to change the guidelines again.
The implication is that anti-evolution in America is a persistent rather than a resurgent phenomenon. It ebbs and flows. The reason for its increase now has less to do with any fundamentalist backlash than with the lobbying power of proponents of a theory of evolution called “intelligent design”.
Intelligent design derives from an early-19th-century explanation of the natural world given by an English clergyman, William Paley. Paley was the populariser of the famous watchmaker analogy. If you found a watch in a field, he wrote in 1802, you would infer that so fine and intricate a mechanism could not have been produced by unplanned, unguided natural forces; it could have been made only by an intelligent being. This view—that the complexity of an organism is evidence for the existence of God—prevailed until 1859, when Charles Darwin's “Origin of Species” showed how natural selection could indeed “explain so many classes of facts” (as Darwin put it).
Proponents of intelligent design are renewing Paley's argument with a new gloss from molecular biology. Darwin himself acknowledged that “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” Intelligent designers claim that living things are full of such examples at the molecular level. Blood clotting is one: ten proteins have to work together in sequence for the process to occur. So-called eukaryotic cells, which digest nutrients or excrete waste, are another: these cells contain an elaborate “traffic system” which directs proteins to the right compartments.
In both cases, argues Michael Behe, whose book “Darwin's Black Box” is one of the bibles of intelligent design, you have complex systems that will work only if all the components operate at once. He argues that you could not get such a thing from “successive, slight modifications”. Hence the molecular machines inside living beings are evidence of an intelligent designer—God.
Intelligent design asks interesting questions about evolution, but since all its answers are usually “God”, scientists have rejected it. As the National Academy of Sciences has said, intelligent design “and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life” are not science because their claims cannot be tested by experiment and propose no new hypotheses of their own. (Instead, intelligent designers poke holes in evolutionary theory.)
In addition, biologists point out that the intelligent designers' favourite examples of “irreducible complexity” often prove not to be. Some organisms, for example, use only six proteins to clot blood—irreducibility reduced. In other cases, single parts of a complex mechanism turn out to have useful functions of their own, meaning that the complex mechanism could have been produced by step-by-step evolution. When the Discovery Institute, a promoter of intelligent design, came up with a list of 370 people with science degrees who backed their ideas, the National Centre for Science Education responded with almost 600 scientists called Steve or Stephanie who rejected them.
But if intelligent design has few friends among scientists, it has won a significant following among the general public. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, evolution itself seems to stick in the craw of anyone with strong beliefs, not just those who are religious. Stalin's Soviet Union rejected evolution, for example, on the ground that only economic conditions could be said to determine human behaviour. The Nation of Islam, an American Muslim group, also rejects it.
Religious conservatives have a special reason for disliking natural selection. There may be nothing necessarily anti-Christian about Darwin's theory (which was hailed by Charles Kingsley, a contemporary clergyman, as evidence of the majesty of God), but if God has a plan for the world and everyone in it, as most American Protestants and President George Bush say they believe, then it is much easier to imagine evolution occurring under divine guidance than as a result of random mutations and the survival of the fittest. By providing an explanation consistent with those beliefs, intelligent design has proved tempting to conservative Christians everywhere, not just in America.
In early July, Christoph Schönborn, the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, rejected “the supposed acceptance—or at least acquiescence—of the Roman Catholic Church” in “neo-Darwinian dogma”. He conceded that “evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true”, but argued that “evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense—an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection—is not.” The Catholic Church has long turned its back on a literal reading of the Book of Genesis. It does not seem to be doing the same with intelligent design.
Second, though there has been no big increase in opposition to evolution, there is enough to be going on with without it. Two-thirds of Americans think humans were directly created by God (as opposed to 22% who think people “evolved from an earlier species”). Half do not think apes and men had a common ancestor.
With its claims (however spurious) of scientific respectability, intelligent design promises to reconcile mass anti-evolutionism with science. Strict creationism has been long discredited and, since the Supreme Court decision of Edwards v Aguillard (1987), may not be taught in state schools. But intelligent design is a different matter. Its proponents accept that the earth is billions of years old. They agree that gene mutation and natural selection occur within species, though not necessarily between species. They concede that scientific method, not biblical authority, is the arbiter of truth. Proponents do not even demand that intelligent design should replace evolution in the classroom, merely that schools should “teach the controversy” (which they themselves have created). In short, religious Americans who find evolution distasteful are jumping at the chance to teach an alternative that claims to be science.
Whichever way the argument over intelligent design is finally resolved, it is likely to damage science teaching. This is not because bad science standards will necessarily be adopted but because—as Diane Ravitch of the Brookings Institution showed in “The Language Police” in 2003—the biggest threat to high standards is the unwillingness of state Boards of Education to offend any sort of pressure group, whether right or left. Instead, they avoid controversial topics altogether. In 2000, a survey by the Fordham Foundation found that only ten states taught evolution fully, six did so skimpily and in 13 the treatment was considered useless or absent. (Kansas received an F minus, and “disgraceful”.) These failings shame American evolution teaching, and the manufactured controversy over intelligent design will do nothing to make them better.