Monday, September 26, 2005

Calling Clarence Darrow

Since the absurdity that is the "Intelligent Design" crusade currently targeting the Dover School District of my home state is on the front page of The NYTimes, and also since I'm not feeling so well, this seemed as good a time as any to re-visit the post I put up last November about this issue. As the Times article says:
"What happens here could influence communities across the country that are considering whether to teach intelligent design in the public schools, and the case, regardless of the verdict, could end up before the Supreme Court."
ID posits, not a "scientific theory", but a philosophical and theological question: was life created by an animating force with self-awareness and intent? And because this is a question for clerics and philosophers, it simply doesn't belong in a science classroom. Fini.

Set the Wayback Machine to November 21, 2004---

South of Harrisburg, Pennsylvanians in the Dover Area School District have adopted a familiar tack: bringing religion into the classroom. (Said The Philadelphia Inquirer-link elapsed):

“The rural, 3,600-student school district, 20 miles south of Harrisburg, is the first in the nation to require the teaching of "intelligent design," a theory that holds that the complexity of the natural world offers overwhelming evidence of a supernatural force at work.”
Not Christianity, per se, but the concept that a deity, not random chance or evolution as understood by scientists, is responsible for the progression of life as it exists. But there is no question that the people who pushed this agenda are Christian fundamentalists who believe in creationism and see this as a way to begin the introduction of that more blatant concept into the school.

"‘The only thing we want to do is provide a balanced playing field for the students, as opposed to just hearing about the theory of evolution,’ said school board member William Buckingham, a self-described creationist.”
Of course, since the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that teaching creationism was unconstitutional, the fundies have been not only fighting that decision, but coming up with something a little slicker to slip in, in its stead. In the meantime, that leaves the teachers, who of course would be the last people anyone would consult, confused and worried about what the outcome may be:

“The high school's three biology teachers, meanwhile, are wondering just what they are supposed to teach. They say they had no input into the new curriculum and worry that they could be sued.”
For those not familiar with it, “Intelligent Design” ostensibly stands alone as simply an idea that a god or supernatural being has set the forces of the universe into motion. But there is no question that it puts theology into the classroom, not as an idea to be studied critically, but as an alternate view of how the world was formed.

Writings of Fellows from The Discovery Institute, which underwrites ID research, reveal a politically conservative agenda focused on supporting right-wing Republicans and their policies, and a careful monitoring of creationism legal fights across the nation. Millionaire Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, deeply involved with the
Christian Reconstructionists, poured millions of dollars into supporting the Institute in his attempts to discredit evolution theory. Concerned Women for America gleefully cites the Institute as an ally in its fight to eliminate evolutionary teaching on a webpage dripping with fundamentalist bile.

I don’t have the expertise nor the desire to get into an argument defending evolution here. I’ll leave that to the incomparable Stephen Jay Gould, God rest his soul, who tried endlessly to make people understand that just because evolution was a”theory” did not mean it was untrue or based on error. As he said in Hens’ Teeth and Horses’ Toes, Further Reflections in Natural History:

“Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.”
Funny, though, I’ve never heard anyone adequately explain how accepting the ideas of evolution renders belief in a purposeful creator untenable. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. In the meantime, for a good read on the anti-ID arguments, The Skeptic’s Dictionary has a worthwhile page.

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