Arm Wrestling with Darwin

Unless your head has been super-glued inside a science book, you have observed the furious debate between proponents of intelligent design (ID) and supporters of evolution; a debate that has bounced from courtrooms into opinion pages around the country. Pointing to the complexity of life on earth, IDers posit the existence of an intelligent designer and reject the notion that all can be explained by evolutionary theory.

The issue has become a political tractor with conservatives and liberals attempting to bulldoze their opponents. Conservatives hope to acquire the seal of authenticity for their theory of ID, an accolade that only “fact-based” and “respectable” science can provide; while the liberals want to protect their turf from what they see as a religious crusade into the “objective” halls of learning.

The controversy has emerged in Georgia, Kansas, Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri and South Carolina, as well as Pennsylvania where a judge recently ruled that reading a single sentence about intelligent design in biology class would violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. In California, the El Tejon Unified School District permanently cancelled a philosophy class about intelligent design after Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit.

Religion was once the supreme authority on all matters, but when the Enlightenment’s onslaught of secular ideas swept over the European continent, it carried away the minds—and sometimes the hearts—of many who had been devout.

Seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza rebelled against traditional Judaism and Christianity, replacing them to a great extent with the rational and scientifically based metaphysic of determinism. This metaphysic argues in favor of a mechanistic, causal universe and is bolstered by scientific findings, including later Darwinian theory.

In keeping with the prior rebellion against religion, today there is arguably a rebellion against the new leader called “science.” Kings risk being toppled from their thrones, and ID has emerged as a weapon to be used against this final arbiter of “truth.”

Why are IDers making their move now? First, it could be said that science has ventured into “disquieting” areas of study, such as cloning, transgenetic engineering, cross-species transplants and stem cell research. There may be an urge to rein it in with philosophical or theological “wisdom.” As Albert Einstein, a pantheist and disciple of Spinoza, said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Teaching is never value-free, and an omission can convey a powerful message. When students fail to discuss the ethics of scientific actions and outcomes, they often end up like my former, high school classmates: giggling and hurling dissection specimens across the room, a behavior that conveys lack of respect for the animals who died and inability to comprehend that dissection is considered by many to be ethically impermissible in the first place.

Secondly, science has faltered recently, leaving it vulnerable to attack by those who hope to depose it. Scientific fraud has leapfrogged to the public’s attention with confessions by Korean researcher Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, who admitted fabricating cloning studies for the past two years. Esteemed scientific journals published his concocted data, and his peers did not question his work. One journal editor recently stated that scientific error and dupery occur from time to time, even at leading American universities, a statement that taints the image of science as trusted authority.

Thirdly, IDers may feel that any disagreement among prominent scientists opens the hatch to alternative theories. The discovery of “spooky” quantum mechanics occurred in conjunction with a pervasive disillusionment with science and its fundamental tenet: causality. While some quantum physicists, such as Einstein, support a deterministic hidden variable theory, others, such as Werner Heisenberg and Max Born, defend a framework based on the uncertainty principle. If it is acceptable to teach opposing theories in quantum mechanics, then why not let ID arm wrestle with Darwin?

Because words such as “spookiness,” “magic” and “trickery” are associated with the quantum world, one could argue that mystical, veiled or opaque theories, such as ID, befit the scientific realm. If quantum strangeness can be taught, why must intelligent design be expelled?

Lastly, postmodernism--which rejects any form of absolute truth, even in science--has permeated modern society, and conservative IDers are embracing it. This is ironic because the “right” has traditionally embraced the objective and absolute while the “left” has endorsed the subjective and contextual.

In describing postmodernism, Richard Rorty says, “truth is made rather than found,” and Jean-Francois Lyotard emphasizes the importance of avoiding totalizing grand narratives and maintaining an infinite number of perspectives. Darwinian theory is nothing if not a totalizing grand narrative.

Should ID be allowed to “act up” in science class? Most people might say yes. According to a 2005 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll on evolution, 84 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form or helped guide their development, while a mere 12 percent say God had no part in the process.

The bouncers in the “12 percent club” guard the door from party crashers. They look at “fake” ID, saying it is creationism incognito and that it lacks “real science” credentials. They announce to the crowd, “If you think it qualifies, you’ve had one too many drinks.”

They are correct in that intelligent design fails Karl Popper’s falsifiability test; it cannot be proved wrong. ID is philosophy, not science. But does this mean it should be denied entry?

I am convinced by the evidence of natural selection and treasure Darwin’s theory because it promotes an interconnectedness of all living things, but I hold that the intense battle to keep ID out of the classroom is misguided. The shrill, political feud between conservatives and liberals has spiraled away from protecting students and the Constitution into a rendition of Hannity and Colmes.

Do we lack confidence in our children to evaluate, to separate evidence from fiction, to interpret for themselves? Sweeping ID under the rug makes for a huge lump that curious teenagers will investigate.

What is the resistance to cross-disciplinary study or “big picture” teaching in which related fields, such as history, philosophy and biology, are integrated? Math partners with chemistry; philosophy and ethics could collaborate with all branches of science. Compartmentalized study may lead to a lack of synthesis, thus an absence of learning in general.

Why is postmodernism a no-no in science, but a welcome visitor in other disciplines? No area of study should lose the doubt and humility that a postmodern filter provides. Theories from the past have been toppled, and some that are accepted today will be mocked tomorrow.

Fighting may be inappropriate in school, but arm wrestling, well, isn’t that a fundamental freedom? Now let’s roll up our sleeves and let the theorizing begin.


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