01 April 2014

In early January, US District Judge John Jones III is expected to deliver his decision in a lawsuit filed by eleven parents, with the help of the ACLU, against the school board of Dover, a sleepy Pennsylvania town outside the capital, Harrisburg. His decision could establish the basis for how American public school students are taught the origins of life for years to come.



A majority of members of the Dover school board last year voted to mandate a brief disclaimer before pupils are taught about evolution: “Because Darwin’s theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is being discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence.” The decision of these eight members, each an advocate of the idea of “intelligent design” (ID) and each voted out of office in November, unleashed a firestorm of controversy that quickly spread across the country. And no matter how the judge decides the flames are sure to grow.



The Dover parents sued the school board for mandating the teaching of a religious doctrine, and are challenging the promotion of ID in public schools as unconstitutional according to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Judge Jones may be able to lightly sidestep the broader issue of whether ID can be taught in schools by ruling that as the Dover board’s disclaimer did not overtly mention the Bible or a divinity, it did not violate the constitution.



Advocates of ID argue that they simply want public schools to give students a more balanced view of evolution. President Bush agrees; in August 2005 he endorsed teaching intelligent design alongside evolution: “Both sides ought to be properly taught, so people can understand what the debate is about”.



But within the scientific world, there is remarkably little debate. The debate to which the president refers lies almost entirely within the shape-shifting world of American culture. And to the detriment of more pressing national issues more numerous to count, it is there where the debate will have to be settled.



Emerging after 1987, after the Supreme Court declared the teaching of creationism in public schools unconstitutional in Edwards v. Aguillard, and championed by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think-tank, intelligent design offers an alternative explanation for the evolution of life. Intelligent design invokes a complex designer to explain biological diversity, insisting that life in all its complexity could not have arisen without the help of an intelligent and guiding hand.



Intelligent design therefore implies that “God did it”, though advocates are careful not to mention the divine in name. Supporters are quick to point out that ID is not a form of creationism, as is often claimed by its detractors. Creationism applies to the view that life began on Earth sometime around 6000 years ago, and was completed in its present form over six literal days. Supporters of ID accept that the earth is billions of years old. While acknowledging that species can change, they argue that an entirely undirected process of natural selection simply cannot account for the extraordinary complexity and diversity of life on our planet.



As a theological idea, ID is exciting. How wondrous to think of nature as divinely inspired, guided and updated. To study nature is therefore to study the mind of God. Who among us believing in the divine could with certainty refute this as possibility?



Nevertheless, while the belief that natural selection is shaped by the active management of an intelligent and heavenly hand is a perfectly legitimate statement of faith, it is only an idea. ID is not a scientific theory, for there are no set of facts that would disprove it. It cannot even be called a hypothesis since it cannot be tested. It is and can only remain exclusively a matter of faith.



And yet supporters continue to present ID as a scientific theory, a legitimate rival of Darwinian evolution. These anti-Darwinists seized upon Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in the 1987 case: “Christian fundamentalists”, he said, “are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools”. That implication, that “gaps” exist in our modern scientific understanding of evolution and such gaps are easily plugged by God’s fingers, lies at the heart of the ID movement, which has as its motto “Teach the controversy”.



Through the tactic of demanding that public high school students be taught “the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory”, supporters of ID foster what is in fact an illusion that evolution is a controversial theory among scientists. It is not. Evolution is widely regarded as one of the most powerful and best supported theories in all of science. It is, as declared by the National Academy of Sciences, “the central unifying concept of biology”.



After the President’s comments in August, the White House felt it necessary to issue a clarification. Presidential science advisor John Marburg told the NY Times that ID “is not a scientific concept”, and that “evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology”. Though it clearly clashes with the religious beliefs that many people hold, evolution is an elegant theory that has stood the test of time.



Evolution postulates that complex life arises from simple life. Despite more than a century of looking, no one has found any geological evidence proving otherwise, no evidence that the further one went back in time, the more complex life was, or that unrelated species appeared as if from nowhere. Science accepts evolution by natural selection as the logical conclusion of 150 years of countless experiments, observations, and geological discoveries.



Evolution is evident not only in the fossil record but also in the letters of the genetic code shared in varying degrees by all species. In my field of medicine, evolution is at work everyday, when bacteria become more resistant to antibiotics, when cancer cells develop immunity to chemotherapeutic agents, and when viruses mutate to become stronger or more contagious. Look no further than avian flu for an example of evolution at work.



Much confusion among the public lies with the use of the word “theory”. Critics of evolution constantly repeat that evolution is “a theory, not a fact”. In common everyday language, “theory” is often synonymous with “hunch”, or “educated guess”. But in science we say theory to mean a strong, evidenced-based explanation that brings together many facts and observations in order to make testable predictions. That doesn’t mean that scientific theories are unassailable, but to qualify as theories they must be testable by further research and the study of evidence. The idea of intelligent design is untestable, and as such is not a scientific theory.



Alternative theories should, and in fact often do get equal time in science classrooms and research laboratories around the world every day. Teaching a theory does not force a student to accept it as truth. Teaching a theory protects the student from ignorance, educating him should he aspire to devise ways to test its validity. Science, in fact, hopes that he does, for that is precisely how mankind increases its knowledge of the natural world.



Science begins not with faith, but with observation then experimentation and reasoning. Science is not whatever someone claims it to be. It is not based on anyone’s beliefs or authority. Its tools will never prove or disprove God’s existence. For that matter, science cannot even disprove the idea of intelligent design. Science is, and only is, an explanation that best fits the data we currently have.



The theory of evolution explains life on earth as it exists, with all its wonders, quirks and tragedies. Are there gaps? Few, but yes. But there are gaps in science everywhere. Are we to fill them all with God? The idea of intelligent design reminds me of a cartoon I once saw, in which a mathematician, struggling to complete a proof, fills in the gap with the words “and then a miracle occurs”.



Not only is ID poor science, it is poor theology. It reduces God to a magic word to use whenever we are stymied by a lack of information. It renders God as being everything we cannot explain. If we do not understand a natural process, it must be God’s work.



A majority of men and women in the sciences – be they educators, researchers, or physicians – believe in a divinity. Belief in evolution can be entirely compatible with belief in God. After all, the mechanisms of creation described in Genesis 1 and 2 are left unspecified. Isn’t it possible to believe that God could make life any way he wanted to? Who’s to say that evolution isn’t the method an omnipotent God has intelligently designed to implement his elegant plan for creation?



If supporters of ID were fighting to include teaching the idea of intelligent design in comparative religion or social sciences classrooms, few would resist. Such classrooms are an excellent venue for exploring alternative versions of the origins of life. But science and faith cannot be taught alongside each other. They are different modes of knowing, different sources of wisdom. Science and faith are not in competition. Let us not teach our children that they are.