Teaching of intelligent design belongs in civics class, not biology

Thursday, August 11, 2005

President Bush now has endorsed teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in American high school biology classes. And David Limbaugh's Aug. 6 column ("Intelligent design: What's all the fuss about?") endorsed the ID-versus-evolution controversy as a "fair fight."

I'll argue for doing both of these, but not the way they would. Instead, they should teach about the fight in classes on politics, not science.

Here's why:

Intelligent design is not a valid and tested scientific theory. Darwinian evolution is. It's 146 years old now and thriving. It's the foundational theory of the innumerable books and articles and research being done in biological science, including medical research. To teach a rival theory in science class there has to be a body of rival scientific evidence to teach. ID has not reached anywhere near that point.

Its parent institution, the Discovery Institute, doesn't sponsor a corps of field scientists busily testing ID claims, so it cannot publish scientific journals and books despite having an abundance of money, ID supporters and public audience. It only has anti-evolution Ph.D.s publishing anti-evolution pieces in conservative presses.

Science is what scientists do. That's why the president's own science adviser publicly acknowledged that ID is not science.

And that's why the ID creators at the Discovery Institute have not advocated that legislators require teaching ID alongside evolution in public schools. No, instead they're urged by Discovery to "teach the controversy." But there is no scientific controversy. There is only a political controversy. The place to teach that is civics or political history, not in biology, geology or astronomy classes.

Limbaugh's column would have you believe that ID is "fundamentally science-based" and that it bears no relation to faith-based Biblical creationism. This is half-true in a certain peculiar way. For instance, young-earth creationists say the earth is 6,000-plus years of age, that all species of life were created in one special act and no more since, and that a worldwide flood inundated all earth to the high mountaintops. That's all amenable to scientific investigation to determine if these claims are valid. ID proclamations rhetorically do away with all that. It doesn't say anything that is open to scientific investigation and truth-finding.

Thus true-believing creationists grumble privately that ID commits heresy against biblically proclaimed truth. But creationism cannot get past courtroom defenses of separation of church and state. So ID comes along to proclaim itself authentic science without revealed truths. It's the political flavor du jour for religious conservatives seeking to impose anti-evolution teaching into public schools.

Scientists take firm exception to this. They should. Scientists want their science taught -- including its core theories such as Darwinian evolution in biology, the Big Bang in astronomy and plate tectonics in geology. They shun disproven and discarded theories. They can and do teach about truly scientific controversy, such as slow evolution versus fast-paced punctuated equilibrium evolution. That's science at work. ID is not a party to that debate.

So let's teach the controversy where it belongs: in classes about politics, about what people believe and about history. And let the science teachers teach science.

Russell D. Renka of Cape Girardeau is a professor of political science at Southeast Missouri State University.

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