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Stop whining about intelligent design

Scientists should stop whining about threats to the teaching of evolution and spend more time discussing values, writes NBC chief science correspondent Robert Bazell in his column, "Second Opinion."
/ Source: NBC News

Scientists should stop whining about threats to the teaching of evolution and spend more time discussing values. The thought occurred to me recently when I was attending my son’s medical school commencement. 

Following the well-trod path of a graduation speech, the dean, a highly regarded physician and scientist, told the new MDs they would face many challenges. These included, he said, a world where science endured constant assault as evidenced by the recent attempts to bring "intelligent design" into the curricula of Dover, Pa., and other high school districts.

Young physicians will indeed have a tough time of it. 

For example, what are the life-saving limits of expensive high-technology treatments? When have they accepted too many promotional gifts from pharmaceutical companies? Should an experiment be done on humans just because researchers have the tools to try it?

Teaching evolution properly in secondary school will have little impact on these difficult issues.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe evolution itself and Darwin’s concept of natural selection as its driver are both as true as anything in our understanding of the natural world.

Calling evolution a “theory” makes it no less correct than theories of gravity or electromagnetism. Intelligent design and its predecessors, creation science and creationism, insiduously attempt to undermine science with arguments that can sound scientific but are not.

There is a history to this. Darwin himself understood well the theological implications of his findings, long before he published "The Origin of Species" in 1859. As soon as the book appeared, debates about its clear conflict with the Genesis account of creation erupted.

'Survival of the fittest'
But it took one very popular American, William Jennings Bryan, who lived from 1860 to 1925, to elevate the teaching of evolution in schools to the major status it still occupies in our culture wars.

Called “The Great Commoner,” Bryan ran for president three times and came close to winning. Today, he would be branded a liberal or even dangerous radical. He fought for the rights of the dirt farmers in his home state of Nebraska against the trusts that controlled the railroads. He opposed armed intervention by the United States and resigned as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State when the U.S. entered the First World War.

Above all, Bryan was a religious man — a fundamentalist Christian as were most of his millions of ardent supporters. 

Bryan knew that the notion of “survival of the fittest”, or natural selection, had been used by German generals, many of whom had been academic scientists and doctors, to justify their increasing desire to dominate Europe. (Hitler would later rely on it as rationale for his racial horrors.)

Bryan knew that most Americans, then as now, relied on religious beliefs for many of their values. He shrewdly understood how most would respond to the question: “Do you believe in the Good Book or that man descended from monkeys?”

Bryan’s campaign of course led to the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial where he assisted the prosecution.

A key point to remember is that Bryan’s side won. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution (the conviction was later overturned on a technicality). More important for the legacy of the cause, many newspaper accounts, especially from big cities of the north, portrayed Bryan and his followers as a bunch of illiterate yokels who had been utterly defeated. 

The famous Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken called Bryan, who died a week after the trial, “a tin pot pope in the Coca-Cola belt.”

Such venom did not persuade Bryan’s followers to give up the cause. Quite the opposite.

Serious medicine can't ignore evolution
State anti-evolution statues proliferated after the Scopes trial until a 1969 Supreme Court decision held them unconstitutional because they served a religious purpose.

Evolution’s opponents returned with creation science. Several states and school districts mandated it to be taught at least along with evolution as an alternative explanation for the origin and variety of life. In 1986 the Supreme Court held it to be a thinly-disguised religious interpretation. 

Now we have intelligent design, the well-funded doctrine that holds that some things in nature are so complex they can be explained only by some designer. ID’s backers insist they offer a genuine scientific alternative to Darwinism. 

Federal district Judge John Johns III in his decision last December about the Dover school board said intelligent design, too, is religious belief masquerading as science. Many scientists have been gloating in the wake of Judge Jones’ decision, but that will serve their purpose no better than did the ridicule of Bryan and his followers more than 80 years ago.

This debate is not about to end.

Science is something very specific. It is a means of understanding the world around us by posing hypotheses that can be tested with experiments or observations. But science can never help us make moral or value judgments like those the new physicians will face.

Serious efforts in biology and medicine can no more ignore evolution than airplane designers can ignore gravity.

It is hard to believe that — whatever the outcome in the many evolution battles — we will stop worrying that the H5N1 bird flu virus might evolve into something easily transmissible among humans.

It is far more difficult to know what moral values should guide our decisions, and perhaps we should put more effort into helping students grasp that reality.