Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Ignorant by Design

October 4, 2005

Last week, the latest salvo in the culture war was fired – into a federal court in Harrisburg, PA. In a case that’s being called Scopes II, 11 outraged parents are suing the Dover Area School District for violating the separation of church and state by requiring instruction in intelligent design (ID) as a valid theory of life on Earth. Under the guise of “teaching the controversy,” the board has attempted to introduce into the high school science curriculum an idea that has no backing in the scientific community and has been discredited for nearly 150 years.

In the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court determined that requiring evolution be taught along side “creation science” was unconstitutional on its face; since ID is clearly only a new name for the same theory, I’m rather confused as to why the latest case has even gone to an actual trial. Sure, the ID movement has eliminated some of the more absurd (and, incidentally, now disproven) claims from its stance, such as the postulate that the mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary was caused by a huge flood or that the earth is only a few thousand years old, but at its heart this is still creationism.

For all the protestations to the contrary, there is no question that ID is being backed exclusively by the religious right. The law firm representing the Dover school district says its mission is to supply “legal representation without charge to defend and protect Christians and their religious beliefs in the public square.” Former schoolboard member William Buckingham, who started this push to teach the baseless rhetoric of creationism in biology courses, said point blank in a public meeting, “2,000 years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” In the midst of such commentary, it’s impossible to believe that those pushing this idea are doing so out of any legitimate concern for pluralism in education.

At the base of this whirlwind is a phrase familiar to Georgia residents who listened to endless reports about the Cobb county “warning” stickers early last year. “Evolution is a theory, not a fact” was part of the disclaimer read to biology students in Dover before the board simply mandated the teaching of creationism also. The time-tested and easy answer to that particular phrase is to point out that the theory of evolution is on equal footing with the theory of gravity. But, more to the point, if we’re so hot to see “alternate theories” being taught in schools, why aren’t we teaching the theory that diseases are caused by an imbalance in the humours of the body: earth, air, fire, and water? The answer is simple: because that theory is an absurd holdover that dates back thousands of years and was discredited by the theory of cellular pathology in 1858 (incidentally just one year before Darwin’s Origin of Species was published). In short, it’s just plain wrong, but when has that ever stopped a religious fanatic?

The ID camp’s sole argument for their stance is that the presence of a designer is implied by the complexity of organic life, but this is nothing more than the teleological argument for the existence of god, the fifth of Thomas Aquinas’ five “proofs.” The simplest disproof of this is the reductio ad absurdum: if the complexity of life requires a designer, then that designer must be at least equally complex and therefore also require a designer, leading to an infinite regress of designers designing designers designing designers. But all of this is philosophy, having nothing to do with hard science. ID is so imprecise in its assertions, it technically doesn’t even qualify as a theory at all. It is impossible to falsify, makes no testable predictions, and is based on no empirical evidence whatsoever.

In fact, the so-called “controversy” that IDers wish to see taught in public schools doesn’t even exist! No one in the sciences controverts the basic assertions of evolutionary theory; we see natural selection in action every flu season. The arguments concern punctuated equilibrium, group selection, the Cambrian explosion, and a whole host of other fascinating biohistorical phenomena completely unrelated to the validity of evolution as a theory in and of itself. This is just another case of lazy parents trying to legislate their duties into the public school system so they don’t have to be bothered with trifling matters like setting an example or spending time explaining their beliefs to their children. If you want your children to understand that you disagree with evolution, tell them, and stop shoving your ignorance down the public throat.

Unfortunately, I’m limited in my ability to point out the multitudinous fallacies of ID here. For those interested in a much more thorough treatment of the manufacturing of the “debate” between ID and Darwinism, the ties of ID to the Christian right, and the wealth of evidence that flatly contradicts the few scientific claims that ID has attempted to make, I highly recommend ecologist Jerry Coyne’s article “The Case Against Intelligent Design,” available at www.edge.org, as an excellent starting point. For a critique of the teleological argument as it pertains to evolution, I suggest Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker. Either will be infinitely more accurate than the outdated mythology on which the ID movement relies for its baseless assertions.

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