how biology teachers can respond to intelligent design

By Alison Campbell 17/03/2010

Creationism is a recurring issue for teachers of biology. It can come in many forms (eg young-Earth creationism, old-Earth creationism, & so on) but – despite what many ‘IDers’ would say – its most recent incarnation is as intelligent Design ‘theory’, or IDT. (I use the quote marks advisedly; Intelligent Design doesn’t offer any evidence that can be explained by a coherent scientific theory, instead preferring to generate a false dichotomy between IDT and evolution: if evolution is wrong about ‘x’, then IDT is correct.) While IDT received a resounding defeat in the Dover trial of 2005, it continues to be promoted around the world as a ‘scientific’ alternative to evolution.

Anyway, a colleague has just sent me Jim Mackenzie’s paper, How biology teachers can respond to Intelligent Design, which I thought I’d talk about here. As Mackenzie says, a significant number of authors have already argued convincingly that IDT is bankrupt as far as scientific theories are concerned. He proposes several strategies that science teachers can use in dealing with attempts to introduce IDT into their classrooms, and comments that it’s possible to use these with younger children. I think this is particularly useful given that the 2010 NZ science curriculum makes evolution an organising theme for biology (aka the ‘Living World’) from the earliest years of primary schooling. Mackenzie’s strategies are drawn from a case dating back more than 20 years, from an attempt to mandate the teaching of creation ‘science’ – surely an oxymoron – in Arkansas schools. I found this a little surprising given the more recent Dover case, but then it is all creationism under the skin, despite attempts by various ID proponents to claim otherwise.

Just as in Dover, the Arkansas attempt to insert creationism into school curricula claimed that there was strong scientific evidence in support of doing so. The case went to court. In his decision, Judge Overton noted that teachers given the job of producing a curriculum for teaching biology from a creation ‘science’ viewpoint could not find any scientific articles in its support. Not one. There was simply no creationism research available to make this a viable alternative to evolution.

Mackenzie suggests that teachers wishing to show that ID is outside science should use a ‘wide’ definition of science. He argues that definitions of science allowing only ‘natural’ (as opposed to supernatural) explanations are too narrow & risk being accused of excluding ‘too much’. He then goes on to state that this definition is ‘inoperative [in any case] because once an explanation comes to be incorporated into science it is seen as natural and matrialist, even if had previously seemed not to be’, & gives Newton’s theory of gravity as an example. Gravitational theory was originally viewed as magical or occult, but because it allowed accurate predications, was eventually accepted. Well & good, but the suggestion that if scientists accepted IDT as scientific, its arguments might be accepted as Newton’s were seems to me to be drawing a long bow. There are many reasons why scientists have already rejected IDT as non-scientific, as Mackenzie himself admits. It is, however, useful to emphasise, as he does, that even when the bar of what is considered ‘science’ is set very low, IDT fails to clear it. There is still no ID research published in scientific journals that clearly presents evidence in support of ID (attempting to show that evolution can’t explain something, & claiming that as evidence ‘for’ ID, doesn’t count.)

The second strategy is to make it clear that religion is not the enemy of science. Part of the reason for excludng creationism from US schools lies in the constitutional separation of religion and the State. Show a particular standpoint is religious & it can’t be taught in schools in the USA. That’s not the case in many other places, & here in NZ it’s possible to present religious instruction in state schools, provided parents have the opportunity to opt out. The problem here, as recent mailouts to science departments have shown, begins when attempts are made to present a particular religous viewpoint in the guise of science. (I thought the Ministry of Education’s response to this was a bit of a cop-out: saying that parents can withdraw their children from religous education ignores the fact that this stuff was being sent to science teachers with the obvious hope that it would be incorporated into science classes.)

Nonetheless this is a key point – there’s nothing to be gained, if the question of creationism is raised in a science class, in ridiculing religion. Religious beliefs are often strongly held & denigrating them won’t do anything to convince a student (or their parents) of the validity of evolution & is more likely to set them at loggerheads with the teacher. A more useful strategy might be to point out that major religious leaders – including the last Pope – have indicated that there is no conflict between faith and science on this matter.

Mackenzie’s third key statement is that ‘science teachers should trust their own expertise’ – and this means bringing that expertise to the fore. We’re all aware (or we should be!) that in science theories are constantly being tested, added to, modified. There’s much about the current state of evolutionary biology that Charles Darwin would never have recognised: Mendelian genetics, the concept of genetic drift, punctuated equilibrium, horizontal gene transfer… All these new ideas have been tested empirically & subsequently become an established part of evolutionary biology (& after that, they make it into the textbooks). There’s a very strong case to be made for us to talk about all this with our students, rather than treating it all as a fait accompli. As Mackenzie says, ‘[t]here may always be new ideas, new evidence, and every scientific conclusion is open to revision.’ How better to give students an understanding of this key aspect of the nature of science?

And finally, he suggests that ‘alternative theories should not be excluded.’ Well, I’m fine with that, as far as it goes – & as long as we are talking about ‘theory’ in the scientific sense. But what Mackenzie really means is that, faced with a request to include ID in the classroom, teachers should respond that they would intend to look at a wider range of alternative perspectives . This of course assumes that teachers are aware of that range, and are confident in their ability to explain why they do not constitute a scientific explanation for life’s diversity. And that there is actually time in the full-on classroom day to do this approach justice.

J.Mackenzie (2010) How biology teachers can respond to Intelligent Design. Cambridge Journal of Evolution 40(1): 53-67. DOI: 10.1080/03057640903567039