Last week, Salon ran an interesting feature on the march of intelligent design into a Pennsylvania school district. The decision caused the resignation of half the school board and the resulting lawsuit threatens to bankrupt the school system. Intelligent design is retooled creationism that posits not that God created man, but that some intelligent force (God, Cthulu, space aliens) was the impetus behind creation, and never mind evolution.
On Thursday, a federal judge ordered disclaimers removed from Georgia biology textbooks that stated that “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.” The judge found that this violated the separation of church and state, and ordered the stickers removed immediately.
In fact, evolution is a theory. But by singling out evolution, by positing that its status as a theory somehow invalidates or negates its value as science, creationists introduce doubt and ignorance into science classes. This doubt offers a chance for religious interpretations to be inserted into the curriculum. Writing in November 2004 National Geographic, David Quammen’s Was Darwin Wrong lambasts such unscientific thinking:
Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life’s work of Charles Darwin, is a theory. It’s a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth’s living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it’s “just” a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is “just” a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct, involving electrons, which are tiny units of charged mass that no one has ever seen. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That’s what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. They embrace such an explanation confidently but provisionally-taking it as their best available view of reality, at least until some severely conflicting data or some better explanation might come along.
Creationists are forcing this issue of invalidating evolution by framing it as an example of democracy. If justly elected school boards decide to teach intelligent design in their schools, this is an example of America’s democratic values at work. Creationists argue that it is only democratic to teach both sides of the issue. But public desires do not determine the physical facts of the world, not matter what the current administration insists. Science is not a democracy. Theories that are erroneous are laid aside, and better hypotheses are developed to explain the natural world.
Why struggle so hard against giving intelligent design a fair hearing in schools? Why? For the last 500 years science has struggled against ignorance and fear draped in the robes of religious piety. Copernicus was vilified,Galileo suffered the torture of the Inquisition before he recanted, and Bruno, who refused to recant his claim that the universe was infinite and possibly contained other inhabited worlds, was burned at the stake in 1600. These people suffered and died to break the stranglehold of ignorance the Church used to keep the faithful compliant and under control. Every step toward teaching intelligent design as science mocks everything that we have accomplished as a species in the last 500 years. The way lies forward, only fear and ignorance hold us back.