A Newsletter of Scientific Literacy. November 2005

evolution and intelligent design

HAWKHILL SCIENCE NEWSLETTER Prepare yourself. This first Newsletter of 2005/2006 school year is going to raise some hackles and probably lose us some customers. Nevertheless, it is time some one spoke up.

The controversy about teaching evolution grows hotter every week. My own view is that yes, we should teach both evolution and intelligent design (creationism lite). And then in our classrooms we should carefully explain to students why one theory is science and the other is not science. Why one theory is a useful guide to understanding and successfully living in and with nature and the other is useless for these purposes.

what is a theory? A scientific theory is a way of explaining nature that is testable. Intelligent design is impossible to refute because it is impossible to test. A scientific theory (like evolution, or for that matter the atomic structure of matter, the laws of energy, the genetic code of life) is based on evidence and reason. No scientific theory is absolutely true. Future evidence may sometimes change the theory or even substitute a completely new theory to explain the recently discovered evidence.

Intelligent design on the other hand (even though some supporters deny it) is based on faith, on divine revelation. New evidence will not cause believers to change their minds.

the Bible and the Koran In practice I realize it is not that simple. I realize that many people in this country and the world, parents and teachers alike, are radical Christians (or radical Muslims) who claim revelation in the Bible (or in the Koran) is the only sure road to truth about nature as well as most important questions of life and death.

Alas, the problem is that the world has endured far too many centuries of bloody conflict between peoples who were certain their revelation was the true one, the only true one. If scientific literacy is to mean anything at all, it has to take a stand on the side of reason and evidence and demand their primacy in science, in education and in democratic debates. The current controversy about evolution in the public schools is one such important debate.

Does this mean religion is useless? No. Many moral issues and many profound insights into life have their origins in religious faiths. Democracy itself owes a debt to Christianity for championing the “inalienable right” of all individuals to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Both Christian and Muslim religions have promoted loving your neighbor and helping the poor, the handicapped, the downtrodden. And all religions give meaning and comfort to men and women who would otherwise live lives as Thoreau put it “of quiet desperation.”

Unfortunately other religion-based ideas have not been so desirable. Particularly damaging has been the firm idea that one and only one religion is the true religion, one’s own faith the only true faith. Following from this conviction comes only too often the certainty that God is on their side in debates about public policy and therefore arguments from evidence and reason are irrelevant if not sacrilegious.

the radical religious right As educators dedicated to both science and democracy we must take a stand against the radical religious right on this issue. The sad truth is that this powerful minority has never accepted either science or democracy except in an emaciated form. Science to the radical religious right is ok so long as it sticks to useful facts and value-neutral technology. Serious ground-breaking research into fields like evolution, stem cells, cloning, genetic engineering, geology, cosmology, anthropology, or many areas of psychology however is not ok. Democracy itself is only reluctantly accepted so long as it is based on and ever moving toward more restrictive laws based on theological concepts.

the radical secular left To be fair the secular far-left in this country and in Europe today is also challenging science, education, and democracy, though from a different base. Instead of using the Bible or the Koran as their revelation they use a kind of awkward marriage of Karl Marx and Rachel Carson. Radical leftists for instance are not satisfied with efforts to promote equal opportunity and rational environmental decisions that take account of real costs as well as potential benefits. They are not satisfied with schools promoting tolerance and understanding of other cultures. They agree with Osama Bin Laden that the west is the guilty one, having perpetrated most of the most terrible of crimes against humanity.

These radical leftists denounce corporations and capitalism, demand an end to globalization, seek to cripple business and industry in order to ensure environmental safety and redistribution of wealth; try to handcuff science and education in order to ensure equal outcomes and environmental purity. And in science itself they strongly and vociferously oppose nuclear power, cloning, genetic engineering, chemicals, rational decisions about energy and food production, and yes, the theory of evolution. (Green guru Jeremy Rifkin has a whole book railing against Darwin.)

Note that as in so many political conflicts of the past century the far right and the far left are not so far apart. It is the dynamic progressive center that is endangered and needs all the help it can get. .

the scientific democratic center One of the wisest of our fellow citizens, the late physicist Richard Feynman, summed up a case for the dynamic progressive center of liberal democracy, democratic education and scientific literacy when he called for “a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought.” “I feel a responsibility,” Feynman wrote, “to proclaim the value of this freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings. If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation. I want to demand this freedom for future generations.” Teachers of science and social studies are on the front line of these critically important 21st century issues. Future generations will not forgive us if we procrastinate or surrender to far-right or to far-left. The center must hold.

Editor: Bill Stonebarger
Hawkhill Associates, Inc.
125 East Gilman St.
Madison, WI 53703