Designing a lesson in science

IT IS SURELY a sign of our times that a public controversy in Australia has been triggered by the arrival of a DVD rather a person. The DVD in question is a documentary with an axe to grind, Unlocking the Mystery of Life, which has been produced by the "intelligent design" movement in the United States. It is intended for the general public and for distribution in schools, where it can be presented as an alternative to the Darwinian theory of evolution.

The distributors of this DVD in Australia are Christian lobby groups that are so keen to see the intelligent design idea adopted that they have sent thousands of copies to schools. This has provoked widespread comment in newspapers and on radio, and even elicited some brief remarks from the Federal Minister for Education.

So what exactly is "intelligent design"? The core of this concept is the claim that certain features of living organisms are so complex that they cannot have arisen by gradual evolution. Hence, it is argued that these features must be the work of some external intelligence, which planned and formed them to carry out their biological function. Michael Behe developed this argument in his book Darwin's Black Box (The Free Press, 1996), in which he drew attention to such "irreducible complexity" and concluded that it was impossible for these complex features to have been put together bit by bit during evolution.

The wider context of this idea was developed by William Dembski. The first sentence of his 1999 book,Intelligent Design (InterVarsity Press), says that the concept consists of three things: first, a "scientific research program" in pursuit of "intelligent causes"; second, "an intellectual movement" opposed to Darwinism and its materialistic leanings; and third, "a way of understanding divine action". It is clear from what Dembski says that this is a mixture of science and theology, motivated by an anti-Darwinian ideology. And it is also clear that those who promote the DVD in Australia are hoping that its anti-evolutionary message will help the cause of traditional religious belief.

Despite this clear religious connection, the DVD has been presented as offering a genuine scientific alternative to standard evolutionary theory. As such, it has been cautiously welcomed for use in science classrooms by some public figures. A number of prominent scientists have, however, expressed strong opposition to the presentation of intelligent design in science classes. In order to try to understand the root causes behind this clash, we need first of all to hear the concerns of professional scientists.


IT IS VITAL to the success of scientific research that it be carried out autonomously, independent of any external authority. This is seen most clearly when scientific research on matters of public concern is liable to be influenced by government or industry – if it is not clear that the research is autonomous, the results are tarnished by association and suspicion of bias. Obvious cases range from mad cow disease to global warming.

Historically, the most powerful of external authorities influencing science has been religion. Science has taken several hundred years to disentangle itself from this complex relationship and establish its independence. Having achieved separation, the last thing today's scientists need is for religion to return as an external influence in research and education.

The degree of concern is such that the international science journal Nature published two editorials on the topic in 2005, concerned primarily with the situation in the US. Taken together, their view was that the intelligent design movement is partly a "subterfuge", a device for introducing religion into science classes. And they considered that any such move "poses a threat to the very core of scientific reason". If this seems too strong, consider our likely response if science teachers were offered a DVD produced by a political party or an industry lobby group.

A further reason for concern is that intelligent design does not really qualify as a genuine scientific theory. To be taken seriously in science, a new idea must not only use scientific methods to gather data but also propose a testable alternative to current ideas. That is to say, a new theory should make predictions that can be tested by fresh observations or experiments, and so open up a new avenue of research. By these pragmatic standards, intelligent design does not qualify as science. The concept of a "designer", which is said to shape biological structures, is kept so vague that it is impossible to pin down. Nor has any positive research program emerged in the past ten years, only the negative one of looking for things that evolutionary biology has not explained yet.

This does not mean that scientists consider the Darwinian theory of evolution beyond criticism. A good example here is the theory that the mass extinction that saw off the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid impact. This decidedly non-Darwinian mechanism for influencing the history of life was proposed in a paper in Science in 1980. A lively controversy resulted and scientists soon checked the evidence at suitable sites around the world. The outcome of this search supported the theory and, even better, a likely candidate for the crater caused by the impact was found in the Gulf of Mexico. Consequently, the impact theory was generally accepted among scientists by the end of the twentieth century. This shows that scientific thinking on evolution can change quickly when a testable theory is confirmed.


INTELLIGENT DESIGN IS receiving public support, ranging from qualified approval to enthusiastic promotion, in Australia for reasons that have less to do with science and more to do with culture and politics. Our main heritage was once British and European culture, where the mainstream churches long ago accommodated evolution within their thinking. More recently we have experienced the growing impact of American culture on Australian society, especially in matters of religion. In the US, the controversy over evolution and creation has remained a sore point since the famous Scopes trial in 1925 when a high-school biology teacher was tried for unlawfully teaching the theory of evolution in Tennessee, where such teaching was banned. Although Scopes' conviction was set aside on a technicality, religious opposition to evolution continued right through the twentieth century and even increased. As Australian schools offer religious instruction, this has helped keep science and religion separate here, but Christian bookshops in Australia are well stocked with American publications, so popular religion in this country is fed an antievolutionary diet.

More importantly, the intelligent-design movement is partly a response to the way evolution is commonly represented in public discourse. Popular science books on evolution are quite often written by authors who are openly hostile to religion. Some even take the opportunity to build a world view that denies the existence of God and casts doubt on the meaning and value of human life. The most famous proponent of this is Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, who insists that we are mere lumbering robots, programmed during evolution by our DNA, and have no ultimate purpose. Similarly, British environmentalist and writer George Monbiot recently reacted to the intelligent design debate by saying that Darwinian evolution shows we are merely incipient compost and our life has no purpose.

Insofar as intelligent design advocates are responding to such interpretations of evolution, they are giving voice to legitimate concerns. And it is important that we hear these concerns as part of the current debate in Australia because such sweeping philosophical claims, made in the name of evolutionary biology, should be troubling to all members of a civilised society, not just religious enthusiasts.

But rather than doubting the science, it needs to be emphasised that science cannot be used to decide answers to such profound questions as whether God exists or how we should view our fellow human beings. These matters are not part of science but come within the purview of philosophy and theology. Scientific theories do not have built-in "implications" for these fields of inquiry.

What is needed, then, is an inquiry to recognise science and religion as independent areas of human understanding. Of course, it is worth looking at the interaction between them, and this is a lively field of scholarly inquiry. But it needs to be done without one side simply trying to impose its point of view on the other.


UNFORTUNATELY, INTELLIGENT DESIGN does not have much relevance to this inquiry precisely because of the way it mixes up these areas by using the concept of "design". This concept actually goes back a long way, and by taking a brief look at its roots we can better understand its limitations in the present context.

The classic argument from design used the orderliness of the natural world, and especially of living organisms, as evidence for the existence of a divine creator. It did this by drawing a close analogy between the natural world and human artefacts such as statues or clocks. These artefacts are clearly the result of creative design and so, by analogy, are complex natural objects. This argument gained force as modern science began to reveal the close fit between an organism's structure and its way of life. Surely these intricate adaptations of living organisms must be due to divine design imposed on them when they were created rather than being produced by chance. This line of argument reached a peak during the eighteenth century and culminated in William Paley's Natural Theology, published in 1802.

All this made good sense in an eighteenth-century context when clockwork was leading-edge technology. It was then generally agreed that the Earth was only a few thousand years old and that not much had changed since the beginning of the world. Hence, the well-adapted species of animals and plants that we see around us must have been created at the beginning. These species could be thought of as being rather like clocks or watches that had been designed and manufactured by God when the world was created.

However, no sooner had Paley published his book than this argument began to fall apart. The new science of geology showed that the Earth had a vast history with a succession of distinct periods. During this history, a whole range of species, from mammoths to dinosaurs, had become extinct and been replaced by other species. This seemed to imply that a manufacturing God had to intervene in his own creation at frequent intervals to replace species that had gone out of date. And the very fact of extinction, which had been explicitly denied by Paley, implied a failure of design and benevolence. Then Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the theory of evolution, which showed how well-adapted species could arise through natural processes over time without any need for external design.

Thus the concept of design was so tied to the imagery of 18thcentury science and technology that it could not cope with the scientific discoveries of the next century. The key factor was that nineteenth-century science revealed a world that is not static but unfolds over vast periods of time through natural causes. This pattern applied to both the Earth and life and was extended to the cosmos as a whole in the twentieth century. In such an evolving world, the static concept of design and manufacturing fails as a way of picturing the relationship between a supernatural creator and a changing natural world. It is therefore unfortunate that the intelligent-design movement is still trying to apply this outmoded concept to those bits of the world that science has not explained yet.

The need for a fresh approach actually became clear as soon as Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, and some clergy promptly began work on this issue. Among them was Charles Kingsley, a clergyman with enough of a reputation in natural history for Darwin to have sent him a prepublication copy of The Origin. Kingsley and others were able to resolve the apparent conflict between creation and evolution because Christian theology had long insisted that divine creation is not confined to the beginning of things but also involves sustaining the world in existence. From this perspective, the natural causes and laws discovered by science can be seen as an expression of divine activity and not an alternative to it.

So it was possible for Kingsley and others to accept that each species had not been created separately by divine intervention but rather created by God working through the process of evolution. Writing to a colleague in 1863, Kingsley said that now scientists "have got rid of an interfering God ... they have to choose between the absolute empire of accident and a living, immanent, ever-working God". By working along these lines, theologians in the mainstream churches were soon able to incorporate evolution in an enlarged and refined understanding of creation. It is therefore possible, in the twenty-first century, to reconcile science and theology on the topic of evolution using well-established concepts.

From all this, we may reasonably conclude that the idea of intelligent design tends to undermine science and is no help to religion. While the DVD being circulated here might include up-to-date information, the case it makes is built on concepts that have long been rendered obsolete in both science and theology. It should also be borne in mind that the intelligent design movement is a piece of wedge politics in another country's deep cultural divide between religion and science.

Do we really want to import this sort of material to present to our students? Or are we capable of thinking for ourselves and developing a more nuanced approach that allows for mutual respect between science and religion in the public arena? 

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