Note from the Editor:
I was tempted to call "Intelligent Thought" at Edge a "special edition", but there's nothing special about smart people thinking intelligently in support of science. In this regard, Edge is initiating an ongoing feature called "Intelligent Thought on Edge", that will give members of the Edge community an opportunity to present their writings on evolutionary science to each other and to our readers.
Efforts to educate children and the general public about biological evolution have long suffered a severe crisis of relevancy independent of religious influences, and this crisis continues unabated. Even for those who accept its veracity in this country and others, evolution is generally (and mistakenly) envisioned as a process of the past, encompassed by abstract concepts that have little bearing on humans, let alone the future of Earth's diversity. This failure of education, while complicated by a number of factors, is due in large part to a lengthy history of fragmentation and compartmentalization within academia that has left us with a void between two fundamental ideas: ecology and evolution.
VAGARIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
Is God is nothing more than an attempt to explain order and good fortune by those who do not understand the mathematics of chance, the principles of self-organizing systems, or the psychology of the human mind? When the study I just described was accepted for publication, I recall asking one of my collaborators, who is a deeply religious man, how he felt about having demonstrated that people can misattribute the products of their own minds to powerful external agents. He said, "I feel fine. After all, God doesn't want us to confuse our miracles with his."
That's fair enough. Science rules out the most cartoonish versions of God by debunking specific claims about ancient civilizations in North America or the creatio ex nihilo of human life. But it cannot tell us whether there is a force or entity or idea beyond our ken that deserves to be known as God. What we can say is that the universe is a complex place, that events within it often seem to turn out for the best, and that neither of these facts requires an explanation beyond our own skins.
OPIATES OF THE MIDDLE CLASSES
We humans are naturally gullible — disbelieving requires an extraordinary expenditure of energy. It is a limited resource. I suggest ranking the skepticism by its consequences on our lives. True, the dangers of organized religion used to be there — but they have been gradually replaced with considerably ruthless and unintrospective social-science ideology.
The very different uses of the word "theory" provide a field day for advocates of "intelligent design." By conflating a scientific theory with the colloquial use of the word, creationists instantly diminish the significance of science in general and evolution's supporting scientific evidence in particular. Admittedly, the debate is complicated by the less precise nature of evolutionary theory and our inability to perform experiments to test the progression of a particular species. Moreover, evolution is by no means a complete theory. We have yet to learn how the initial conditions for evolution came about — why we have 23 pairs of chromosomes and at which level evolution operates are only two of the things we don't understand. But such gaps should serve as incentives for questions and further scientific advances, not for abandoning the scientific enterprise.
This debate might be tamed if scientists clearly acknowledged both the successes and limitations of the current theory, so that the indisputable elements are clearly isolated. But skeptics have to acknowledge that the way to progress is by scientifically addressing the missing elements, not by ignoring evidence. The current controversy over what to teach is just embarrassing.
the theory of evolution does explain the evolution of complex biological
organisms and phenomena, and the argument from design, which dates
from the 18th century, has been decisively refuted. Rehashing the
refutation is not my goal. Those who reject evolution are usually
immune to such arguments.
CASE AGAINST INTELLIGENT DESIGN
In the end, many Americans may still reject evolution, finding the creationist alternative psychologically more comfortable. But emotion should be distinguished from thought, and a "comfort level" should not affect what is taught in the science classroom. As Judge Overton wrote in his magisterial decision striking down Arkansas Act 590, which mandated equal classroom time for "scientific creationism":
DESIGNED THE DESIGNER?
If I had the opportunity to meet the assumed designer, I'd ask what, to me, is the most important question of them all: ''Mr. Designer, who designed you?" If the designer answers that it doesn't know, that perhaps it was also designed, we fall into an endless regression, straight back to the problem of the first cause, the one that needs no cause. At this point the mask tumbles and we finally discover the true identity of the IDists' Designer. We should capitalize the word, as this is how we are taught to refer to God.
SIDE CAN BE WRONG
The seductive "let's teach the controversy" language still conveys the false, and highly pernicious, idea that there really are two sides. This would distract students from the genuinely important and interesting controversies that enliven evolutionary discourse. Worse, it would hand creationism the only victory it realistically aspires to. Without needing to make a single good point in any argument, it would have won the right for a form of supernaturalism to be recognised as an authentic part of science. And that would be the end of science education in America.
Science, then, may never replace religion in the lives of most people and in any society that hopes to survive for very long. But neither can religion replace science if humankind hopes to unlock nature's material secrets. And parodies of science, like the so-called "theory" of intelligent design, only cripple science education.
ME THE SCIENCE
there is no content, there is no "controversy'' to teach about in
biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course
on current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And
if so, how was it perpetrated?