Dover Design Debate Debacle

Dover, Pennsylvania.  Symbol of the defeat of Intelligence Design as scientific theory..... or a tragic setback for the advancement of scientific discourse?

Dover, Pennsylvania. Symbol of the defeat of Intelligent Design as scientific theory….. or a tragic setback for the advancement of scientific discourse? (photo credit: msnbc)

Should Intelligent Design be taught as science in the classroom?

It has been almost ten years since the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case in Dover, Pennsylvania. There a group of elected school board officials, spearheaded by some Christians favoring Young Earth Creationism, sought to have a particular biology textbook removed from the classroom. The biology textbook was co-authored by Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University, a practicing Catholic, and an outspoken advocate of what some call “theistic evolution.” Instead, a different textbook developed by the Discovery Institute, Of Pandas and People, would be used. The Discovery Institute is a think-tank that advocates Intelligent Design as opposed to Darwinian Evolution, among other important cultural and intellectual interests. A lawsuit ensued, and while it was not as big and spectacular as the famous 20th century Scopes Monkey Trial, the Dover case still became a media sensation. In the end, the court ruled that teaching Intelligent Design in a public school science class is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court reasoned that Intelligent Design (ID) is not science and therefore cannot be uncoupled from its Creationist, and therefore religious, antecedents.

It was a devastating blow to the movers and shakers behind Intelligent Design. I pretty much thought that the ID movement was dead in the water after that. However, the issues behind the controversy are still with us.

In a lecture  I attended a few months ago by  Terry Mortenson, an historian in geology working with Answers in Genesis,  Mortenson made his case for a Young Earth (somewhere between 6,000 to 10,000 years old) by appealing to some of the arguments used by Intelligent Design advocates.  However, when pressed further in the question and answer session, Mortenson distanced himself from the Intelligent Design movement at large by associating it with a non-biblical approach to human origins.   It seems as though the critics of Intelligent Design live on both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, the Bible clearly teaches that signs of God’s handiwork are evident in creation. Psalm 139:15 (ESV) declares,  “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”   But is it right to say that the Intelligent Design movement can give us a true knowledge of God separate from the Bible?  “No,” according to Terry Mortenson, who suggests that we must instead rely upon the study of Scripture for our understanding of God and not some vaguely defined notion of an “Intelligent Designer”.

A lot of this has got me thinking, so I thought I would step back a bit and put in a plug for a debate held at Wheaton College a few years ago on this topic: “Should Intelligent Design Be Taught As Science?” Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, pioneered much of the thought behind the modern Intelligent Design movement with his argument for “irreducible complexity”, made popular in his best selling book, Darwin’s Black Box.  Behe argues that if Darwinian evolution, with its materialist implications, can be taught as “science” in schools, then Intelligent Design should be taught as well.

On the other side of the debate is Stephen Barr, a physicist at the University of Delaware. Barr is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, where he argues for spelling intelligent design with a really small “i” and a really small “d”. Though not a biologist, Barr believes that evolutionary theory can and should be taught in schools today in a manner that is not philosophically tied to any one particular worldview. Furthermore, he argues in First Things that the Intelligent Design movement, instead of building bridges with atheists and agnostics for the sake of the Gospel, unfortunately creates more barriers.

The debate is a little over an hour long, but it covers the issues very well in a way that can make sense to the non-specialist. It is a friendly debate and has a little bit of humor along the way, particularly from Behe. If you have the time to watch it, let me know what you think.   Is Intelligent Design really about science and neutral concerning questions of faith, or is it something that a few critics claim is “Creationism-Lite”?

Additional Resources:

I pulled up a bunch of very helpful resources that help work through some of the issues involving Intelligent Design…

PBS did a Nova documentary on the Dover Intelligent Design trial a few years back. Whether you agree with PBS’ coverage on this issue or not, this program highlights the volatility that gripped our nation a decade ago.

A friend of Veracity, David Work, an Old Earth Creationist, has been posting a series of topics related to evolution on his own blog that my fellow cohort in blogging mischief, John Paine, referenced here on Veracity. If you go to David’s blog, start here and you’ll get oriented properly. What is interesting is that while David does not think that Intelligent Design is ready for “prime time” when it comes to teaching science in the schools, he has become less convinced that Darwinism really handles the data that well. Intelligent Design has something to offer.

As my fellow Veracity blogger of all-things-apologetic notes, much of the problem when discussing this topic is how we define “evolution”. As John Paine points out in an observation made by others, evolution is an accordion word that can be expanded and contracted to mean different things.

The University of California at Berkeley has a resource that tries to help people to correct misconceptions about evolution.  What I find helpful about the Berkeley web site is that, (1) Berkeley has a pretty high academic reputation and so would be reasonably authoritative, and (2) the handling of the topic lacks the vitriolic degradation of Christian faith found in many popular attempts to use evolution as a defense of atheism, along the lines of a Richard Dawkins.   As Michael Behe points out in the Wheaton debate, a lot of presentations of evolution inject a number of philosophically loaded terms, like undirected and purposeless and unguided, even in what Behe sees implicitly (or perhaps explicitly??) in Kenneth Miller’s Biology textbook used in hundreds and hundreds of schools across the country. However, it is vitally important to note that Miller is careful to qualify his approach in accordance with how he interprets Catholic doctrine.

Here is an example of an intentional use of these philosophically loaded terms: Atheist Jerry Coyne specifically brands evolution as an unguided and purposeless process as an inevitable consequential result of science, thus ruling out even any concept of theistic evolution, in contrast to a Eugenie Scott who I am assuming advocates the use of the language as found on the Berkeley website.  Furthermore, Coyne argues that Intelligent Design is nothing more than “theistic evolution” with a political, in-your-face agenda.  In contrast, both Behe and Barr in the debate agree that you can remove such unnecessarily philosophical terms without compromising the science.

Where do you see Intelligent Design standing in the Bible/Science debate…. and in the classroom?

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

One response to “Dover Design Debate Debacle

  • John Paine

    This is where we need people who think rationally to stand up, and those who don’t to sit down. Making ridiculous statements that fly in the face of the preponderance of science highlights a credibility problem. There are many logical, scientifically-based arguments that counter the full over-swing of Darwinism (given that certain evolutionary claims are obvious). Shouldn’t we spend a little time getting educated before jumping into these arguments? Dover is a classic case of a ready-fire-aim mentality.

    A large part of the problem is that uniformed biblicists (such as YECs) start out by saying we can’t trust science or scientists, and that their wooden views are correct. God just doesn’t operate that way. A better approach is one that finds honest accord between faith and science. That takes more homework, and evidently that extra effort–or the pressure of bovine doctrine–creates barriers for some people. I am thankful for ministries like Reasons To Believe that take these challenges to heart, and work so brilliantly at showcasing the amazing accord between faith and science–while holding to an inerrant and infallible view of Scripture.


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