IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Evolution, ‘intelligent design’ share desk space

The school board in the town of Dover, in central Pennsylvania, has voted to make the theory of evolution share a seat with another theory: God probably designed us
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

"God or Darwin?"

Lark Myers, a blond, 45-year-old gift shop owner, frames the question and answers it. "I definitely would prefer to believe that God created me than that I'm 50th cousin to a silverback ape," she said. "What's wrong with wanting our children to hear about all the holes in the theory of evolution?"

Charles Darwin, squeeze over. The school board in this small town in central Pennsylvania has voted to make the theory of evolution share a seat with another theory: God probably designed us.

If it survives a legal test, this school district of about 2,800 students could become the first in the nation to require that high school science teachers at least mention the "intelligent design" theory. This theory holds that human biology and evolution is so complex as to require the creative hand of an intelligent force.

"The school board has taken the measured step of making students aware that there are other viewpoints on the evolution of species," said Richard Thompson, of the Thomas More Law Center, which represents the board and describes its overall mission as defending "the religious freedom of Christians."

Board members have been less guarded, and their comments go well beyond intelligent design theory. William Buckingham, the board's curriculum chairman, explained at a meeting last June that Jesus died on the cross and "someone has to take a stand" for him. Other board members say they believe that God created Earth and mankind sometime in the past ten thousand years or so.

"If the Bible is right, God created us," said John Rowand, an Assemblies of God pastor and a newly appointed school board member. "If God did it, it's history and it's also science."

This strikes some parents and teachers, not to mention most evolutionary biologists, as loopy science. Eleven parents have joined the American Civil Liberties Union and filed suit in federal court in Harrisburg seeking to block mention of intelligent design in high school biology, arguing it is religious belief dressed in the cloth of science.

"It's not science; it's a theocratic idea," Bryan Rehm, a former science teacher in Dover and a father of four. "We don't have enough time for science in the classroom as it is — this is just inappropriate."

A growing battle
This is a battle fought in many corners of the nation. In Charles County, school board members recently suggested discarding biology textbooks "biased towards evolution." In Cobb County, in suburban Atlanta, the local school board ordered that stickers be placed inside the front cover of science textbooks stating: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact." State education boards in Ohio and Kansas have wrestled with this issue, as well.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to settle this question, ruling that Louisiana could not make creationism a part of the science curriculum. The state, Justice William J. Brennan wrote, cannot "restructure the science curriculum to conform with a particular religious viewpoint." (Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, arguing that creationism could be "valuable scientific data that has been censored from the classrooms by an embarrassed scientific establishment.")

Of late, conservative school boards have launched a counteroffensive, often marching under the banner of intelligent design. This theory has lingered on the margins of mainstream scientific discourse with just enough intellectual heft to force its way into some discussions of evolutionary theory.

Essentially intelligent design posits that the human cell, among other organisms, is too finely tuned to have developed by chance. "The human cell is irreducibly complex — what we find in the cell is stuff that looks strongly like it was designed by an intelligence," said Michael J. Behe, a biology professor at Lehigh University and leading advocate of intelligent design.

Behe acknowledges this theory might lead one to postulate the existence of a supernatural force, such as God. But he said this is unknown and rejects those who would portray him as a creationist. "Our starting point is from science, not from Scripture," Behe said.

Few biologists buy that. There is, they say, a central evolutionary theory embraced by mainstream scientists worldwide: That life on Earth has evolved over billions of years and in fits and starts from one-celled organisms to modern humans. That this theory is pockmarked with unexplained gaps, and subject to debate, is how science is crafted.

"People have an impatience about science," said Kenneth R. Miller, a Brown University biologist and author of the biology textbook used in Dover. "They think it's this practical process that explains how everything works, but that's the least interesting part.

"We understand a lot of the mechanisms of evolution but it's what we don't understand that makes it exciting."

The town at the center
Even today many residents are not sure how Dover, a former farm hamlet become a bedroom community for York and Harrisburg, came to occupy the ramparts in a century-long war over Darwin's theories.

In the 18th century, an erudite French shopkeeper settled in this valley and gave the name Voltaire to his village. German and English settlers, a local history notes, soon discovered that Voltaire was "a French atheist" and "a disbeliever in revealed theology" and changed the town's name.

Dover's modern politics are resolutely Republican — President Bush polled 65 percent of the vote here — and its cultural values are Christian, with an evangelical tinge. To drive its rolling back roads is to count dozens of churches, from Lutheran to United Church of Christ, Baptist, Pentecostal and Assemblies of God.

Many here speak of a personal relationship with Christ and of their antipathy to evolutionary theory (A Gallup poll found that 35 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution). Steve Farrell, a friendly man and owner of a landscaping business, talked of Darwin and God in the Giant shopping center parking lot.

"We are teaching our children a theory that most of us don't believe in." He shook his head. "I don't think God creates everything on a day-to-day basis, like the color of the sky. But I do believe that he created Adam and Eve — instantly."

Back in the town center, Norma Botterbusch talks in her jewelry store, which has been a fixture here for 40 years. "We are a very lenient town," she said. "But why should a minority get to file a lawsuit and dictate school policy? Most of our kids already know who created them."

The evolution revolution in Dover began as a dispute about property taxes. The previous school board spent too much money and a conservative group defeated them. Last June, board member Buckingham criticized a new biology textbook as "laced with Darwinism." He added, according to the ACLU's lawsuit, that "our country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such."

Neither Buckingham nor the board president nor the school superintendent responded to requests for interviews.

In October, the Dover school board passed this motion: "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught."

Several board members resigned in protest. When the remaining board members choose replacements, they subjected certain candidates to withering questions. "I was asked if I was a liberal or conservative, and if I was a child abuser," recalled Rehm, who was known as an outspoken opponent of intelligent design.

In the end, the York Daily Record reported that the board picked a fundamentalist preacher, a home-schooler who does not send his kids to public school for religious reasons, and two more who in effect pledged to support the board.

Dover's evolution policy has left many teachers deeply uncomfortable. One science teacher noted that he avoids talking about the origins of life. "We don't do the monkeys-to-man controversy," he said. "It's just not worth the trouble."

The Discovery Institute in Seattle, which is regarded as a leader in intelligent design theory, also opposes the Dover school board's policy in part because it seems to take three steps into old-fashioned creationism. "This theory needs to be debated in the scientific sphere," said Paul West, a senior fellow. "It's much too soon to require anyone to teach it in high school."

Miller, the Brown University biologist and textbook author, hopes the day that it is taught in high school never arrives. "It's very clear that intelligent design has become a stalking-horse," Miller said. "If these school boards had their druthers, they would teach Noah's flood and the 6,000-year-old design of Earth.

"My fear is that they are making real headway in the popular imagination."