Did 'Intelligent Design' leave Dover out?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

With weary regularity, my 15-year-old son flips aside his pencil and, slumping in his chair, asks why a person with no intention of becoming a physicist or mathematician should be tortured with science and algebra. He doesn't yet see the value in learning the principles of logic, or the orderliness of the scientific method to test hypotheses.

I wipe my son's sweaty brow.

"It's so you don't grow up to be like the school board members in Dover, Pa.,'' I tell him.

Arguments opened recently in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, Pa., in a case that has the feel of a grainy black-and-white movie starring ladies with velvet pocketbooks and men in bowties. The court will decide whether the Dover school board can require biology teachers to present "alternative'' explanations for human creation besides evolution.

One of those explanations, the Dover school board stipulated in a 6-3 vote last year, should be a notion called intelligent design. Intelligent design is more or less Genesis, except the role of "God'' is played by an unnamed "intelligent being'' who has, as comedian Jon Stewart puts it, the skill set of somebody who can create the universe. (Intelligent design also leaves out the talking-serpent part of the story.)

It is clear to me that what is on display in Harrisburg is not evolution. What is on display is America's spectacular failure to produce citizens with the ability to reason. The fact is the tender-headed folks in Dover are hardly alone.

More than a century after Darwin's findings on natural selection, and after decades of corroborating evidence through fossils and genetics, 55 percent of the public believes that "God created humans in their current form,'' according to a New York Times/CBS poll last year. This majority chose that statement over even this one, which at least gave a nod to evolution: "Humans evolved from less advanced life forms, but God guided this process.'' (Just 27 percent opted for this one.)

Since 2001, 43 states have faced challenges to teaching evolution in public schools. In a widely covered case last year, six parents had to go to court to stop the school board in Cobb County, Ga., from slapping stickers on biology textbooks that warned students that evolution "is not a fact.''

So I should not be surprised that a real judge using actual taxpayer dollars is presiding over testimony about the validity of a scientific theory about which there is no legitimate dispute. But scientist Eugenie Scott certainly is not surprised. She is the executive director for the National Center for Science Education, based at UC Berkeley. I talked to her by phone from Harrisburg, where she is advising the lawyers for the 11 parents who brought suit against the Dover board.

She is more generous than I am. She doesn't categorize the people pushing to teach creationism in public schools as wing nuts or boobs. She does not make judgments about those who believe that an actual Adam was put to sleep by God so that his rib could be excised to create a mate named Eve who fell under the spell of a persuasive snake. Scott does not point out, as some might, that this story of creation is no more or less believable than, say, the Norse creation story about melting ice forming a giant called Ymir and a cow called Audhumia whose incessant licking melted more ice that created more gods whose sons came upon two logs that turned into the first humans.

"People don't show up here (at the courtroom) because they believe evolution is bad science,'' Scott said. "They show up because they believe that if they accept evolution, then they are abandoning their religious beliefs. They see it as an either/or proposition: Either evolution happened, or God loves you.''

But as many others have said, faith and science are not mutually exclusive. Plenty of the clergy accept evolution, and plenty of scientists believe in God. Most Catholics, for example, accept Darwin's theory, believing that God inserted a soul into humans somewhere along the evolutionary time line.

"I think the clergy can do a better job explaining that according to their theology, evolution is OK,'' she said.

Truly, how could it not be OK with their theology? Faith is one thing; to reject evolution in teaching biology is another - it would be as inane as rejecting quantum theory or the theory of relativity in teaching physics. It is discouraging to see, in a federal courtroom in the year 2005, that educated men and women can still be so much like the ancients who sat around the fire and explained the world around them through stories of gods and serpents and magical gardens. It makes me wonder.

For the Dover folks, the best evidence against human evolution might be themselves.

* Joan Ryan is a former columnist for the Pilot-Tribune.