Keeping Intelligent Design Out of Science Classrooms


Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch are two of the leaders in the movement to keep the science in science classrooms in American public schools. Both Scott and Branch hold administrative position at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and they've displayed great commitment to maintaining the scientific integrity of American primary and secondary education. Of recent note is their new book Not in Our Classrooms, which offers an introduction to modern creationism and science education in the United States.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, provides a forward, which is followed by Scott's brief history of intelligent design and creationism. Other chapters include a treatment of "critical analysis" (the newest creationist tactic to undermine science education), a look at intelligent design from a theological perspective, an examination of the legality of teaching intelligent design, and an explanation of how science educators can and should teach evolution. The book closes with a sort-of field guide to defending science education by Branch. If the first five chapters act as a primer for the uninitiated, Branch's chapter provides marching orders for those people interested in maintaining a separation of church and state.

The science (or lack thereof) of intelligent design should be old-hat to readers of evolgen. Or, rather, the science of evolutionary biology should be quite familiar. But the theological and legal aspects may be outside of our areas of expertise ("us" being scientists). With that in mind, I will take a closer look at Martinez Hewlett's and Ted Peters's chapter on "Theology, Religion, and Intelligent Design" and Jay D. Wexler's chapter entitled "From the Classroom: Intelligent Design and the Constitution."

Hewlett is a professor emeritus in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the Univesity of Arizona, although he draws more on his theological background (as an adjunct professor at both the Dominican School of Philosophy and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California) in the chapter he co-wrote with Peters. Peters is a theologian through and through -- an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church and professor of theology and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and at the same Berkeley based theological union as Hewlett. In their treatment of intelligent design, I find them far too sympathetic to ID, reluctant to criticize the creationism as an attempt to undermine science education.

Particular telling is their repeated use of the term "Darwinist" rather than evolutionary biologist or, simply, biologist. One gets the impression that, by Darwinist, Hewlett and Peters mean one who takes the biology of evolution and constructs a materialistic, atheistic worldview. At least that's what they mean sometimes. But they don't explicitly state what it means to be a Darwinist and what Darwinism is. Instead, the term is thrown around much like one sees in creationist writings. This leads the reader to question on which side of the issue Hewlett and Peters reside. A much better treatment of the theology of ID would not use creationist catch phrases, key words, and talking points.

That's not to say that Hewlett and Peters are creationists, but their stance throughout the chapter is not quite as hard line as one expects when combating creationism in the public sphere. They offer the fairly typical criticisms of Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, and William Dembski. For example, they point out how Johnson conflates science as a method of studying the world with scientism as a metaphysical philosophy. But they also advocate a theistic evolutionary viewpoint that, because there is no evidence for God in the macro- and micro-scopic worlds, God may act at the quantum level. This is a God-of-the-gaps position on par with that of Behe et al.

But, as an evolution biologist, my biggest criticism of their writing is the prevalent use of the term "Darwinism". Even when they're advocating good science by writing, "We believe the Darwinian model with its recent updates in evolutionary biology should be made the standard," one wonders why it is referred to as a "Darwinian model". Are they speaking of all of evolutionary biology or merely natural selection? Creationists, including IDists, are also attacking the idea of common descent. Shouldn't we defend all of evolution, not merely the Darwinian model?

And, even though Hewlett and Peters close their chapter with the following paragraph, one still feels a bit tentative both gaining insights into the theology of ID and using their chapter as a guide for combating ID.

"The Darwinian model may not be the whole truth, to be sure. No scientific theory can count as apodictic truth. Yet there is enough truth in evolutionary theory to spawn progressive research and advance the study of medicine and related disciplines. This makes it the best science available today. We believe it is our ethical responsibility to provide young people in classrooms with the best science available, and today that's the Darwinian model of evolutionary biology."

Still, by the end of the chapter, one is unclear what the authors mean by the "Darwinian model". For natural selection is not the one and only model for explaining evolution. We still debate the influence of stochastic processes, but with an undefined and common creationist term, we're unsure what Hewlett and Peters are advocating and whether they think that science may prove God's existence at a future date.

If the chapter on theology offers little other than frustrations to an evolutionary biologist, Jay Wexler's chapter on the constitutionality of intelligent design makes up for it by clarifying a few points for those of us with a limited knowledge of the American legal system. Wexler is a member of the Boston University School of Law Faculty and has written extensively on law and religion. His training included a clerkship under Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a champion of civil liberties.

Wexler begins by laying the foundation of the legal precedents establishing the separation of church and state: the Establishment Claus and the Free Exercise Clause, both from the First Amendment to the Constitution. He explains how Supreme Court decisions, such as Lemon v. Kurtzman, Epperson v. Arkansas, and Edwards v. Aguilard have defended both the separation of church and state and the teaching of accurate science in public schools. This book is also one of the first to touch on the implication of the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision, which is dealt with outside of Wexler's chapter as well.

There are a couple of points in Wexler's chapter of particular interest to me. First, Wexler makes the point that a law cannot be found to be unconstitutional simply because those in favor of it advocate it for religious reasons (pointing out that both abolitionists and civil rights activists were openly religious). Rather, unconstitutionality arises when the primary purpose of a law is to produce government endorsement or suppression of a religious belief.

Secondly, Wexler explains why the teaching of intelligent design is not a free speech issue. Public school teachers cannot be prevented from advocating the inclusion of intelligent design in the public school curriculum or speaking out in favor of intelligent design, but they cannot teach intelligent design in a science classroom if such action has been ruled unconstitutional. Additionally, teachers cannot speak from a position as a teacher in favor of intelligent design if it is a district, statewide, or national policy that intelligent design is not allowed in science classrooms. The courts have ruled that government supervisors can control the official statements of their subordinates so that the subordinates do not take advantage of their position of authority to undermine government policy. Their constitutional right to free speech does not include things said as a representative of the government.

Wexler closes by explain that he does not advocate a pedagogical approach that limits teachers to the same district wide script. Teachers should be allowed room to explore various strategies to ensure their students learn the necessary material, and they should not be prevented from dealing with controversial topics. But there is no legal precedent guarantying teachers the right to cover topics that the community opposes. I find this particular detail difficult to wrap my head around, as issues that stray from those dealt with in the constitution (non-church-state issues, for example) are up to the community. If a topic lacks community support, a teacher does not have the right to teach it in public school, even if it is not controversial outside the community of interest or is greatly supported in a professional community.

Despite its shortcomings when dealing with the philosophy and theology of intelligent design, Not in Our Classrooms is a good primer to the legal and scientific issues of the creationism. It is especially relevant to those people with a cursory or minimal understanding of the science, pedagogy, or legal aspects of teaching evolution. And Glenn Branch's closing chapter offers excellent suggestions for anyone interested become involved in the movement to defend science education.


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Thank you for the detailed review.