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Three Questions for America

In recent years a few religious scientists have claimed a refutation of the main tenets of Darwinian evolution that does not rely on biblical authority or the biblical young-Earth account of creation. This refutation purports only to show that an “intelligent design” rather than the unguided processes of random variation and natural selection that Darwin postulated must be responsible for creating life and human beings. The thesis has quickly gained enormous attention and notoriety. Several states have considered requiring teachers to describe the intelligent design theory as an available alternative to standard evolutionary theory in public high school biology classes. A Pennsylvania school board adopted that requirement a few years ago, and though a federal judge then struck the proposal down as an unconstitutional imposition of Christian doctrine in public schools,1 other public bodies in other states are still pursuing similar programs. President Bush recently appeared to endorse these campaigns: he said that “I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught.”2 The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, who is said to covet the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2008, agreed. He said that teaching intelligent design theory along with evolution, as competing scientific explanations of the creation of human life, was fair because it “doesn’t force any particular theory on anyone.”3

If there is any scientific evidence against evolution, then of course students should be taught what it is. But the intelligent design movement has discovered no such scientific evidence at all. We must distinguish the following three claims. (1) Scientists have not yet shown to all their satisfaction how the Darwinian processes of random mutation and natural selection explain every feature of the development of plant and animal life on our planet; some features remain areas of speculation and controversy among them. (2) There is now good scientific evidence that these features cannot be explained within the general Darwinian structure; a successful explanation will therefore require abandoning that structure altogether. (3) This evidence also at least suggests that an intelligent designer created life and designed the processes of development that have produced human beings.

The first of these claims is both correct and unsurprising. The details of evolutionary theory, like the phenomena it tries to explain, are enormously complex. Eminent biologists disagree in heated arguments about, for example, whether some features of developed life are best explained as accidents or byproducts of no survival value in themselves. Evolutionary biologists face other challenges and disagree in how best to meet them.

The second of the three claims is false. It does not follow from the fact that evolutionary scientists have not yet found or agreed on a solution to some puzzle that their methods have been shown to be defective, any more than it follows from historical controversies or unproved mathematical conjectures that the methods of historians or mathematicians must be abandoned. Scientists have so far found no reason to doubt that the evolutionary puzzles can be solved within the general apparatus of neo-Darwinian theory that supplements Darwin with the dramatic recent discoveries of genetic biology. None of the rival solutions that scientists offer to the puzzles of evolution calls that general apparatus into question. The proponents of intelligent design theory claim in their lectures, popular writing, and television appearances that the irreducible complexity of certain forms of life proves that Darwin’s theory must be rejected root and branch. No element of certain even primitive forms of life could be removed, they say, without making it impossible for that form of life to survive. But their arguments are very bad, a judgment confirmed by their failure so far to expose these arguments to professional review by submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals.4 It is no explanation of this failure to suppose that the scientific establishment would reject even well-reasoned articles that challenged Darwin. On the contrary, a scientifically sound general attack on evolution would be very exciting news indeed: a Nobel Prize might be around the corner.

The third claim would be false even if the second claim were true. The proponents of intelligent design do not state explicitly that the designer must be a god—they try to avoid overtly religious claims in hopes that the constitutional bar to religious instruction in public schools would not prevent their theory being taught there—but that is the clear and unacceptable implication of their argument. If the failure to find a natural physical or biological explanation of some physical or biological phenomenon were taken to be evidence of intervention by a god who intended to bring about that phenomenon, science would disappear.

Science depends on the possibility of verification or falsification through positive evidence. There might conceivably be evidence that a superhuman power exists and has caused an otherwise inexplicable event. But the mere absence of a more conventional scientific explanation is in itself no such evidence. If it were, then we could postulate divine intervention in pursuit of some divine plan to explain anything we could not otherwise explain. Doctors have established a strong correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, but they do not yet know the mechanisms through which one causes the other. Why should we not then say that an explanation is nevertheless at hand: that God punishes selected cigarette smokers in that way? Indeed, divine intervention would then be available even as a rival to a fully adequate conventional explanation. Why should we prefer a climatologist’s account of global warming, which suggests that the process will continue unless and until people reduce the level of their carbon pollution of the atmosphere, to the rival account that a god is warming the planet for his own purposes and will cool it again when he wishes?

Very few socially conservative Americans would vote for a school board that allowed teachers to explain anything they wished by citing a supernatural intelligence at work. The intelligent design theory appeals to some of them because it uses the idea of such an intelligence only to confirm the plausibility of the specific miraculous claims that are described in the Bible. But science can provide no reason for restricting appeals to supernatural intelligence to those that confirm the claims of a particular religious tradition. Only faith can do that, and faiths differ dramatically. So once appeals to a supernatural intelligence are recognized as competitive with scientific explanations, the damage to reason cannot be limited or controlled.

I am not denying the truth of any theological hypothesis: I am not denying that those many millions of people who believe that a god created the universe or life or human beings are right. But their belief, even if it is in some way warranted, does not provide a scientific explanation of those events. This distinction is not merely semantic. I am not quibbling about the meaning of “science.” If we are to protect dignity by protecting people’s responsibility for their own personal values, then we must build our compulsory education and our collective endorsements of truth around the distinction between faith and reason. We need a defensible conception of science not only for the intensely practical reason that we must prepare our children and youth to advance knowledge and to compete in the world’s economy but also in order to protect the personal responsibility of our citizens each for his own religious faith. We need an account of science, in our public philosophy of government, that does not make its authority depend on commitment to any set of religious or ethical values. So Senator Frist made a serious mistake when he said that describing intelligent design only as a scientific alternative to evolution doesn’t “force any particular theory on anyone.” In fact it damages young students, practically and politically, by using the state’s authority to force on them a false and disabling view of what science is.

When President Bush said that intelligent design should be taught in the schools, his science adviser, John Marburger, said that Darwinian theory is “the cornerstone of modern biology,” and that Bush meant only that “students should be taught that some people have suggested that Intelligent Design is a viable alternative theory.”5 If so, we should welcome Bush’s suggestion, but not for courses in science. Instead we urgently need to make a Contemporary Politics course in which such claims can be discussed part of every high school curriculum.

I do not mean civics lessons in which students are taught the structure of our government or history courses in which America’s story is recounted. I mean courses that take up issues that are among the most contentious political controversies of the day, including, for example, the case for and against abortion; affirmative action in public education; the role of money in politics; the fairness of the tax system; and the role of civil liberties in shaping and limiting antiterrorist activities. The dominant pedagogical aim must be to instill some sense of the complexity of these issues, some understanding of positions different from those the students are likely to find at home or among friends, and some idea of what a conscientious and respectful argument over these issues might be like. The dominant pedagogical strategy should be an attempt to locate these controversies in different interpretations of principles the students might be expected themselves to accept: for example, the principles of human dignity that I believe are embodied in the Constitution and are now common ground in America.6

The courses might well include an examination of classics of Western political philosophy from both the conservative and liberal traditions so that students could gain some understanding of the ideas of Aquinas, Locke, Kant, Rawls, and Hayek, for example, drawing on secondary sources and explanatory texts if necessary. The materials and teaching must be geared to the abilities of high school students, of course, but I believe that we are more likely to underestimate than overestimate those abilities. People who can master the intricacies of peer-to-peer file sharing through the Internet should have no trouble with the Categorical Imperative; indeed some study of the latter might help them in deciding whether the former is fair.

Contemporary Politics courses would be extremely challenging and difficult to teach, particularly unless and before some broad consensus had developed among teachers and in schools of education about how they should be taught. Teachers would have to steer between anodyne banality and indoctrination and they would have to recognize that the first of these failures is as much to be avoided as the second. But think how much it would improve our politics if students leaving high school had some understanding of the reasons why a deeply devout person might nevertheless prefer a tolerant secular state to a tolerant religious state, or why an atheist might think that public celebrations of religion were appropriate in a nation the vast majority of whose members were religious. Or if those students had been asked to consider what differences were morally permissible in a state’s treatment of citizens and aliens who are arrested as terrorist suspects. Or if they had actually read and debated the opinions of Justice Margaret Marshall and Chief Judge Judith Kaye in the Massachusetts and New York gay marriage cases and, if they disagreed with those opinions, had been challenged to say why. Or if they had been invited to consider what made a theory scientific and whether the intelligent design theory of creation met whatever standard for classification as science they considered appropriate.

  1. 1

    Tammy Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al., United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Judge John E. Jones III Memorandum Opinion, December 20, 2005.

  2. 2

    Elisabeth Bumiller, “Bush Remarks Roil Debate on Teaching of Evolution,” The New York Times, August 3, 2005.

  3. 3

    David Stout, “Frist Urges 2 Teachings on Life Origin,” The New York Times, August 20, 2005.

  4. 4

    See Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. For a very clear statement of the scientific errors in the intelligent design argument, see Philip M. Boffey, “The Evolution Wars, Revisited,” The New York Times, January 18, 2006.

  5. 5

    Bumiller, “Bush Remarks Roil Debate on Teaching of Evolution.”

  6. 6

    I describe the principles of dignity in my forthcoming book Is Democracy Possible Here?, to be published by Princeton University Press. This essay draws on parts of the book.

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