Evolution in Action

The trials and tribulations of intelligent design

Irony of ironies, creationism has evolved. In a sense, it had to: In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that required the teaching of so-called creation science whenever a grade school or high school class covered the theory of evolution. That law was declared unconstitutional because creation science—the notion that the Bible’s version of the creation of the universe could be verified scientifically—was intended to advance a particular religion.

National Center for Science Education

SWEEPING THE NATION. Since 2001, anti-evolution activity—including proposed bills in state legislatures and debates in state and local boards of education—has taken place in at least 41 states (depicted in green). Map Resources/E. Roell

Since that landmark decision, called Edwards v. Aguillard, creationism has morphed into a philosophy dubbed intelligent design. That viewpoint holds, among other things, that organisms are too structurally and biochemically complex to have arisen only in accordance with natural forces. Intelligent design doesn’t identify who or what created the universe, Earth, and the creatures that live on it.

After more than a decade of making inroads to classrooms across the country, the intelligent-design philosophy recently suffered a setback in its first test in federal court. Last December, Judge John E. Jones III of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that intelligent design couldn’t be taught in the Dover (Pa.) Area School District because it “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

That loss won’t be appealed to the Supreme Court, however, in large part because eight of the members of the school board that had supported the teaching of intelligent design were swept out of office in an election last November. But that doesn’t mean that the debate is over. Skirmishes between proponents of intelligent design and pro-evolutionists are taking place across the country in arenas ranging from meetings of local school boards to state legislatures. Points of contention extend from specific curricula and textbooks to the definition of science itself.

Favorite target

Evolution is the biological process by which populations of organisms acquire new, advantageous traits, pass them on to subsequent generations, and sometimes create new species. Even though most biologists today consider Darwinian evolution so sound that they regard it as the unifying concept of their field, a large fraction of the U.S. population apparently doesn’t buy into the theory. In polls, about 40 percent maintain that living things have existed in their present forms since the beginning of time.

The theory of evolution has inspired opposition since it was first proposed by Charles Darwin in the late 1850s. Resistance to the concept has manifested itself in four waves, says Mark Terry, a science teacher at the Northwest School in Seattle, who spoke to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Mesa, Ariz., last October. The original wave of opposition was voiced by scholars in the 1860s. The second wave peaked in the 1920s with the Scopes trial (SN: 12/24&31/05, p. 408: Archival Science). A third push for creation science lost steam after the Edwards v. Aguillard decision in 1987.

Since the fourth and current wave, intelligent design, took hold in the early 1990s, its proponents have become increasingly vigorous, Terry says. Their strategy is to encourage—or force—schools to cast doubt on evolution and then offer intelligent design as an alternate theory of biological origins. Many proponents of intelligent design use the rallying cry, “Teach the controversy.”

From 2001 through 2003, anti-evolution activity was reported in 40 states, says Jay B. Labov, an adviser for education and communications for the National Academies of Science in Washington, D.C. Those flare-ups included legislation proposed in 14 states, proposals to state boards of education in 14 states, and action by local school boards in 35 states, he said last December at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

The tactics of such proposals, as well as of those put forward more recently, are varied. Some strategies favor the teaching of intelligent design. In New York, for example, a bill introduced into the state assembly in 2005 would require that students in public schools in grades from kindergarten through 12 receive instruction in both intelligent design and evolution. The proposal, which is still being considered, would also oblige local school boards to train teachers “to ensure that all aspects of the theories, along with any supporting data, are fully examined.”

Other proposals—either directly or indirectly—fling darts at evolution. A bill introduced into the state legislature in Missouri in 2004 would have required that teachers “help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist” when “controversial” topics such as evolution are taught. Another provision in the bill would have permitted teachers to present alternate views to evolution, even if they weren’t part of the official curriculum. That bill died in May 2004 when the legislative session ended.

In Cobb County, Ga., the school board 4 years ago placed stickers inside biology texts reading, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.” Parents successfully sued in U.S. District Court to have those stickers removed, but the school board quickly appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The three-judge panel that heard the appeal last December hasn’t yet rendered a verdict.

Another antievolution tactic is the verbal equivalent of the Cobb County sticker. It would have teachers read a disclaimer to students before any lessons that include discussion of evolution. Such a requirement sparked last autumn’s lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of 11 parents against the school board in Dover, Pa.

That trial, Tammy Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, lasted about 6 weeks. The judge gave the proponents of intelligent design time not only to argue details of the case but also to defend their philosophy. Those who opposed the teaching of intelligent design also had plenty of time for rebuttal, says Robert T. Pennock, a philosopher and biologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing and an expert witness in the case against intelligent design.

In what Pennock terms “a thorough and sweeping decision,” Judge Jones’ 139-page ruling declared that intelligent design is religious and isn’t science and that it is therefore unconstitutional for anyone to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Some of the most damning evidence presented at the trial included early drafts and the final version of Of Pandas and People (1993, Davis and Kenyon, Foundation for Thought & Ethics), a high school textbook that espouses the intelligent-design philosophy. Hundreds of references to “creationism” and “creator” found in those early drafts were replaced with “intelligent design” and “intelligent designer” in the published version of the book.

Because the Kitzmiller ruling won’t be appealed to the Supreme Court, its judicial precedent is binding only for the court district that contains Dover. Nevertheless, the ruling is influential because judges in other jurisdictions can refer to it when deciding similar cases, says Pennock.

Repercussions of the Kitzmiller decision quickly reached beyond the courts. In January, after being sued by a group of parents, a California school district canceled its plans for a month-long philosophy class that espoused intelligent design. Just last week, the Ohio Board of Education voted 11-4 to remove the requirement that high school biology classes “critically analyze” the theory of evolution. Board members and other people opposing that requirement argued that it could open the door to the discussion of intelligent design, thereby inviting lawsuits.

Matter of definition

Judge Jones isn’t the only person to decide that intelligent design doesn’t fit the definition of science. Some folks within the intelligent design movement would like to change that definition to accommodate their view.

Hence the debate last May before the Kansas State Board of Education. There, proponents of intelligent design proposed changing the definition of science from “seeking natural explanations for what we observe around us”—the current definition in the state’s science standards—to “continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.”

While that might seem to be just a more comprehensive definition of science, separation of the word natural from explanations opens the door to supernatural explanations, says Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.

Science restricts itself to looking for natural causes to explain observable phenomena, she notes. While researchers can control environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, and the concentrations of various chemicals when they conduct their experiments, there’s no way to consistently include or exclude the potential influence of an unseen, willful, and omnipotent being. “You can’t put God in a test tube,” says Scott.

“There’s a mythology that scientists reject intelligent design because it’s a religious view,” she says. “That’s not true. They reject it because it’s bad science.”

What’s next?

Although the federal court system has weighed in on intelligent design’s presence in the classroom and several state efforts to push the philosophy have stalled, efforts to advance it have by no means ended. Lawmakers in at least seven states are now or soon will be considering legislation that either directly or indirectly pertains to the teaching of evolution. The current proposals are less likely than earlier ones to specifically mention intelligent design.

For example, a proposal being considered by the Missouri legislature would require public school science teachers in grades 6 through 12 to “support the truthful identity of scientific information.” The topic of evolution gets special attention: “… if a theory or hypothesis of biological origins is taught, a critical analysis of such theory or hypothesis shall be taught in a substantive amount.”

Likewise, in Indiana, proposed legislation would prevent the state board of education from adopting a textbook if the book knowingly “contains information, descriptions, conclusions, or pictures that are false.” Rep. Bruce A. Borders, the state representative who introduced the bill, singled out evolution and its “lies” as targets of the bill. Such a proposal shifts the forum of debate into textbook-adoption committees, often a mix of scientists, teachers, parents, and other concerned citizens. In such a forum, arguments about the worthiness of specific scientific facts and theories could be driven by political agendas and could rage endlessly.

The language contained in most of these proposals are a deliberate move away from mention of intelligent design and other philosophies that depend on a creator, says the National Center for Science Education’s Scott. That “adaptive shift,” she notes, most likely came in response to the Kitzmiller decision’s finding that intelligent design can’t constitutionally enter a public classroom.

Scott speculates that future alternatives to evolution won’t use the words creation or design but will perhaps promote views that include “sudden emergence” or “abrupt appearance” of species.

Just as the Edwards v. Aguillard decision of 1987 squelched creation science, the Kitzmiller decision will exert a strong selective pressure on intelligent design, Scott predicts. Stay tuned.

Making Evolution Relevant

It’s not just a story of long ago and far away

Relating evolution to public health is one way to show how evolution significantly affects people today. The continual evolution of the influenza virus drives medicine’s need to develop a new vaccine each year. The appearance of bacterial strains that are resistant to many antibiotics provides another familiar and particularly pertinent example of evolution in action, says Carl T. Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It shows that evolution is not just some abstract idea about how humans got here,” he notes.

The development of antibiotic resistance among bacteria is a superb case study for students, Bergstrom told an audience at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Salt Lake City last October. Within a large population of bacteria, some microbes display much more resistance to drugs intended to kill them or inhibit their growth than do other individuals. That increased resistance is passed along to subsequent generations of the resistant bacteria. Because microbes with little or no resistance don’t thrive as well as their drug-defying kin do, over time most if not all members of the bacterial population end up with improved drug resistance.

Furthermore, because bacteria produce many generations in a short time span, the development of antibiotic resistance takes place quickly. Just 2 decades ago, the antibiotic vancomycin was virtually 100 percent effective against many species of bacteria, says Bergstrom. Less than a decade later, more than a quarter of the patients with infections that took them to intensive care units of U.S. hospitals carried bacterial strains that were resistant to vancomycin. The prevalence of resistance has continued to increase: Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta indicate that in 2004 about one-third of the infections examined in intensive care units were antibiotic-resistant.

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