Origin of the Species? An Analysis of the Darwin v. Intelligent Design Debate

By Eric Adelsberger
La Salle University


The Situation

            Creationism and evolution have frequently competed – often bitterly – for time and space in science texts and classrooms since Charles Darwin, British scientist and naturalist, first proposed his theories of evolution and natural selection in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. For the last several decades, evolution has been the dominant theory throughout much of the United States. In fact, creationism was prohibited from being exclusively taught in public schools in a 1987 United States Supreme Court decision (Hanna, Nov. 9, 2005). However, proponents for a relatively new school of thought called intelligent design have recently made waves in school districts throughout the country.

Intelligent design posits that "life is too complex to have evolved through Darwinian evolution" and that a higher power – an intelligent designer – must be responsible for creation (Hagerty, Nov. 10, 2005). To avoid the snares of the separation of church and state that brought advocates of creationism to a halt in public schools, the intelligent being of the intelligent design premise noticeably avoids the appellation of "God." Intelligent design proponents claim that Darwin did not sufficiently account for "the specified complexity that exists in biological organisms," therefore alternatives to Darwinian evolution are necessary (Dembski, 2002). And so supporters of intelligent design are pushing for mandated inclusion of the idea in public schools, particularly in the science class.

            On Tuesday, November 8, the Board of Education for the state of Kansas decreed that Darwin's theory of evolution is incomplete and may even be faulty, and thus stated that alternative theories, particularly intelligent design, should be presented as part of high school science curriculums. The majority of the scientific community vehemently disagrees with the board's decision. Scientists the world around contend that theories that cannot be tested, like intelligent design, have no place in science classrooms. One should note that the goal of science is never to prove, but to disprove a given hypothesis. According to those in the scientific community, there is no way the premise of intelligent design can be scientifically proven or disproven; thus, scientists say, intelligent design should not be part of any science curriculum. In this sense, intelligent design is a type of pseudo-solution.

            Major court cases are in the midst of determining whether or not the claims of those in the scientific field are valid. A federal trial in Dover, Pennsylvania stands at the foreground of this debate. The Dover school board voted in October 2004 to include intelligent design as an alternative theory to evolution and natural selection (Raffaele, Nov. 9, 2005). But just over a year later, ironically on the same day the Kansas school board passed a resolution supporting the teaching of intelligent design, voters in Dover "ousted eight of the nine members of the school board" in that district (Worden, Nov. 10, 2005). But the replacement of the Dover board members has no immediate bearing on the policy, already passed by those ousted, to include intelligent design. It will be up to a federal judge, not the new board, to determine whether or not intelligent design will be taught in the district. The trial, which closed November 4, pitted lawyers representing eleven Dover parents against lawyers representing the Dover Area School Board (Worden, Nov. 5, 2005). Lawyers for the parents, plaintiffs in the case, alleged that the school board's decision to enact teaching of intelligent design was religiously motivated, thus violating the Supreme Court's 1987 decision as well as the First Amendment's separation of church and state. Judge John E. Jones III, presiding over the Dover case, should make his ruling by January (Raffaele, Nov. 9, 2005).

            The intelligent design debate not only rages in Dover, PA and Kansas, but also in Missouri, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Michigan, and Maryland, according to Tara Boyle and Vicki Farden in a November 15, 2005 National Public Radio report. In these states, lawmakers, school board members, and state boards of education have all gotten involved. The courts, in cases independent of the Dover trial, are also weighing in. This will be explored in greater detail later in the section titled "Changes Proposed."

Whom Does It Concern?

            The debate most directly and immediately concerns public school students and their parents, teachers and their administrators, and school boards; particularly in Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Missouri, where current court cases, school board decisions, and state legislations respectively are recently settled or still pending. The federal court case regarding the policies of Pennsylvania's Dover Area School District is currently the epicenter of the debate, as the ruling, when it comes, will affect policies throughout the entire country. Thus, potentially every public school student, parent, teacher, administrator, and school board member in every state may be affected.

            Aside from those involved in public school academia, the scientific community is also concerned. New generations of scientists could potentially be taught differently than those currently in the field, thus leading to possible upheaval in the scientific community, particularly for biologists. The premise of science has never been to prove, but to disprove, theories. Scientists are still attempting to disprove Darwin, not prove him correct. If a biologist were to conclusively refute Darwin, his career would benefit significantly. Yet intelligent design is nearly impossible to disprove…or prove…and thus if it is allowed to be taught as part of a science curriculum, the principles upon which scientists operate would be drastically challenged. Thus, the controversy now casts doubt upon what science is, as the Kansas State Board of Education just recently "rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena" (Hanna, Nov. 9, 2005).

            Religious leaders and activists also have a concern in the issue, as many would like intelligent design to be taught; thus advancing a theory that is more faith than science based. For many in the religious establishment, this would be a welcome change in what seems to be a society driven by increasingly secular interests.

            On a much more expansive level, the thinking of man in general could be altered. Since the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the medieval Renaissance, humanity has shifted its focus and belief systems from divinely inspired to humanisticaly driven. An infusion of thought, no matter how subtle, alternative to pure scientific standards may result in a change of direction, albeit slight, for humanity's broadest, yet most fundamental, discourse.

Stakeholders Perceptions of the Situation

            The perceptions of stakeholders are varied. For example, Ron Danzey, chairman of the Bay District School Board in Panama City, Florida stated in an Associated Press article dated November 10, 2005 that he believes "the theory of evolution is wrong and intelligent design should be taught" in his district's classrooms. Still, in the same article, the superintendent of Danzey's district noted that Florida's state standards currently "do not mention intelligent design" nor are there plans to change these standards in the near future. It should be noted that Florida's standards do not mention evolution, either.

            But clearly not everyone supports intelligent design as Danzey does. This is evident in the fact that eight of the nine Dover, PA school board members, each supporting intelligent design, were voted off of the board in elections on November 8. Still, Kansas' Board of Education approved new science standards that "cast doubt on the theory of evolution" (Hanna, Nov. 9, 2005).

            Parents are split. Some, such as the ones who brought suit against the Dover school board and who later voted those board members out, are clearly opposed to the teaching of intelligent design in science classrooms; but that does not mean they are unilaterally opposed to its teaching. Dover parent Jill Reitner indicated that she believes in God, but does not believe intelligent design should be part of a science class. Instead, she says, she would prefer to see it as part of an elective class (Raffaele, Nov. 9, 2005). But Karen Adams, another Dover mother, is pushing for the teaching of intelligent design in science courses, as a way to present alternatives to evolution (Raffaele, Nov. 9, 2005).

            Scientists generally support evolution, while dissuading the teaching of intelligent design. This does not mean that every scientist, or even a majority, do not believe in intelligent design; most only believe that it has no place in a science classroom. Many scientists argue as Jill Reitner does, that intelligent design is acceptable in a philosophy or comparative religion course, but not in science.

            Yet there are vocal dissenters in the scientific community; those that contend that intelligent design does have a place in science curriculums. Biochemist Michael J. Behe of Lehigh University states that intelligent design does not endorse a single religion, nor does it mention God or even exclude evolution. He therefore wants it included in science courses only as an alternative to Darwin's suppositions (Philadelphia Inquirer editorial, November 7, 2005). Scott Minnich, a microbiology professor at the University of Idaho, concurs. He states that intelligent design is scientifically based and does not promote adherence to one particular religious belief, thereby avoiding conflict with the First Amendment (Raffaele, Nov. 4, 2005).

            But if scientists are not in unanimous agreement, neither are religious leaders. While lawyers from the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian legal group in Michigan have put their support behind the Dover school board and thus the teaching of intelligent design in science classes, others in the religious arena, such as the Rev. Warren Eshbach, contend that the science curriculum is no place for intelligent design (Worden, Nov. 5, 2005; Raffaele, Nov. 9, 2005). Eshbach is a spokesman for Dover CARES (Dover Citizens Actively Reviewing Educational Strategies), a group staunchly on the side of removing intelligent design from science classes.

            Even President Bush has weighed in on the issue, supporting the teaching of intelligent design together with Darwin's theories on evolution and natural selection (Hanna, Nov. 9, 2005). The American Civil Liberties Union has also gotten involved – as opponents of intelligent design's teaching.

The one voice lost among the din seems to be that of the students themselves. While some, like a group of nearly twenty in Dover, protest intelligent design's inclusion in science classes, others support it. Yet most of the attention is focused on the lawmakers, board members, parents, teachers, and administrators; not those who ultimately are being taught the nation's science curriculums, regardless of content.

Why It Concerns Stakeholders

            The primary concern seems to boil down to faith versus science. Even though the proponents of intelligent design claim the premise to be valid scientific theory and consequently deny any religious motivations, the concept of a higher power or being – an intelligent designer – is close enough to the notion of God that religious and faith communities around the country tend to strongly support the movement to include intelligent design in the classroom. This is exactly what most scientists seek to counter. They hold that science should remain a domain of observation and reason exclusively; not faith. As Kenneth R. Miller states in his refutation of Michael J. Behe and other backers of intelligent design, if they wish to "suggest that the intricacies of nature, life, and the universe reveal a world of meaning and purpose consistent with a divine intelligence," than their position is "philosophical, not scientific" (Miller, 2002).

It is a war of ideologies. Scientists fear that the scientific method – the basis of their work, which stems from the examination of observable phenomena – is drastically weakened by theories such as intelligent design. The scientific method dictates that a scientist observes physical evidence, reasons a plausible explanation (hypothesis), and then conducts reproducible experiments to disprove his hypothesis. If the hypothesis cannot be disproven after repeated experiments and testing, then it is accepted as theory. The key is that there must be a way to potentially disprove a hypothesis (i.e. prove it false) before it can be accepted. Scientists claim that there is no known method for disproving intelligent design, that it is a matter of faith alone, and so therefore it should not be taught under the banner of science.

Scientists do not "believe." They observe, they hypothesize, they test, they theorize. There is no way to observe intelligent design, say most scientists, and so it cannot be included in science courses. Still, intelligent design proponents contend that Darwin is not law, and so alternative theories need consideration. Then again, say scientists, gravity is not a law either, only a theory. But they point out that few people would be willing to bet that a piano hanging over one's head will not fall when the rope is cut. Such scientific logic is exactly why intelligent design supporters, like those in the Kansas State Board of Education, are giving a new definition to science, in order to accommodate inclusion of intelligent design. And that redefining is exactly what has scientists so worried.

Changes Proposed

            Many states have already modified curriculums one way or another. As noted by Boyle and Farden in their NPR report, the following modifications have recently been made, some favoring evolution, others intelligent design:

Those favoring intelligent design:

-       Kansas' state school board has backed acceptance of intelligent design, the first state to do so statewide

-       A Georgia school district has proposed that science texts be labeled with stickers stating that "evolution is ‘a theory, not a fact'" (a truism and something any scientist will readily admit, as noted in the previous section). The 11th District Court of Appeals will hear a case in December regarding whether or not it is constitutional for the district to place these stickers on its texts

-       lawmakers in Missouri's House of Representatives are currently reviewing a bill requiring a "‘critical' look at evolution"

-       Representatives in Michigan's House proposed a bill in September 2005 that would not limit science classes to evolution only (previous Michigan legislation specifically "attempting to include the theory of intelligent design in state science standards" was rejected in 2004)

-       Ohio's State Board of Education "voted in favor of a curriculum that emphasizes the ‘debate' over evolution" in 2002

-       Alabama's Board of Education voted on November 10, 2005 to continue inclusion of a disclaimer in biology textbooks "describing evolution as a ‘controversial theory'"

Those favoring evolution:

-       a school board in Arkansas voted to remove stickers similar to those in Georgia on its texts in July 2005, after receiving significant pressure from the ACLU

-       In February 2005, Cecil County, MD school officials reaffirmed their districts commitment to the exclusive teaching of evolution

The change itself is simple; the ramifications are far more complicated. Either intelligent design will be permitted in science classrooms or it will not. The outcome rests largely in the hands of Federal Judge John E. Jones III, as he prepares to give his decision in the Dover case. Despite all the other changes being made on state and district levels, this decision stands to have the furthest reaching consequences, and will presumably trump all other decisions.

Can and Will Anything Be Done?                             

The problem is twofold: the legal debate and the ideological debate. The legal debate is this: is intelligent design's assertion that life was created by an intelligent designer akin to saying life was created by a divine being – a deity – and thus violate the separation of church and state? Judge Jones of the Dover trial is set to rule on this soon. The ideological debate is equally complicated, as it seeks to define science and differentiate it from faith. Intelligent design advocates state that their theory is good science; that it is solely concerned with explaining that which Darwin does not, namely, as Behe states, the "amazing complexity that exists at the molecular level" of life and the complexity of biological systems that are unlikely to have been "produced by numerous, successive, slight modifications" [evolution] (Behe, 2002). But scientists argue that this is a matter of faith, because intelligent design does not stem from an observable and testable phenomena, as science and the scientific method require. An intelligent designer cannot be disproven. If something cannot be disproven, it cannot be turned into a hypothesis and potentially, after repeated testing, a theory. In the language of our class, it is the difference between knowledge claims (evolution) and belief claims (intelligent design). And so many scientists claim intelligent design is unscientific.

Clearly something will be done about this. Judge Jones will present his ruling. This will dictate the measures school boards can pass. Whatever side his ruling favors, the legal battle will surely continue as the losing side will undoubtedly appeal (Worden, Nov. 5, 2005). And the ideological battle will also continue to rage, as a legal ruling will not automatically quench the fires of the losing side's firmly held attitudes and theories. But in the meantime, Judge Jones' ruling will chart a course for scientific public education unparalleled since the Supreme Court's 1987 decision to forbid the exclusive teaching of Biblical creationism. But even before the decision in the Dover trial is announced, states, school districts, administrators, teachers, parents, and students will wrestle with two fundamental questions: what does a public school have the authority to teach and, perhaps more fundamentally, what is considered science?

This debate, however, is flawed. Intelligent design seeks to explain how life and the universe began. Its focus is on the origin of existence through the work of a higher power. Darwin, on the other hand, was concerned with how life changed after it already had begun. Thus, what has been lost in the argument is the logical fallacy inherent in the position of those supporting intelligent design. They want to include intelligent design as an alternative theory to Darwin, but one theory can only be an alternative to another when each begins at the same starting point.

Those Who Will Gain and Those Who Will Lose from the Change(s)

            If the teaching of intelligent design is forbidden on the basis of the separation of church and state, then clearly the proponents of the theory and many in the religious establishment will be the big losers. Consequently, biologists and those in favor of strict separation of church and state will gain. Conversely, if intelligent design is considered a valid scientific theory and not a religious supposition, then the big losers would be the majority of the scientific community. Science teachers, too, will come out short, as a majority of them do not favor mandated inclusion of intelligent design.

            Parents, administrators, and school board members can not be said to gain or lose, since there is such a great divide of the positions within each of these groups. The biggest losers, however, at least while the conflict rages and during its aftermath, are the students. They are caught up in a legal and ideological war that tears at their communities and adds conflict, uncertainty, and strife into their school environments – environments that should be safe havens. Students can potentially lose faith in the very adults who are charged with their formation and care, as these adults vehemently and contentiously wrestle over this issue. It may also be that students lose interest in science in particular, if not academics in general, as they may begin to perceive these fields as arenas for jargon, division, and agendas rather than learning and betterment. There is a risk that students may become jaded to the classroom or perhaps even openly hostile to it. It is, therefore, the students – whose voices have been heard least in this debate – who should receive the most careful concern and attention as this period of educational history unfolds.


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Behe, Michael J. (2002, April) The Challenge of Irreducible Complexity. Natural History

Boyle, Tara & Farden, Vicki. (2005, November 15) Teaching Evolution: A State-by-State Debate. National Public Radio. NPR.org. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4630737

Dembski, William (2002, April) A. Detecting Design in the Natural Sciences: Intelligence leaves behind a characteristic signature. Natural History.

Editorial. (2005, November 7) Intelligent Design Flunking Science. The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Hagerty, Barbara Bradley. (2005, November 10) Intelligent Design and Academic Freedom. All Things Considered. National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5007508

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Raffaele, Martha. (2005, November 9) Dover Says No to Intelligent Design: Voters Ousted 8 School Board Incumbents Who Wanted the Concept Introduced in the Science Curriculum. Associated Press.

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Worden, Amy. (2005, November 5) Testimony Finishes in Intelligent Design Case. The Philadelphia Inquirer.