‘Intelligent Design’

An Evolving Problem For America’s Public Schools

Although I do not personally re\xadmember the incident, I was born in the Harrisburg Gen\xaderal Hospital in Harrisburg, Pa. I spent the first five years of my life in that city and do vaguely remember visiting the state capitol pretty regularly. Primarily, I recall these visits because there was always a person dressed up like Mr. Peanut, the top-hat-wearing mascot of Planters Peanuts, walking around the grounds distributing small bags of nuts and scaring me.

Little did I know that I would be back at that same venue 50 years later announcing a lawsuit against a nearby school district. The issue: a decision by the Dover, Pa., school board to include “intelligent design,” the latest iteration of creationism, in its high school biology curriculum.

I joined Americans United Assistant Legal Director Richard Katskee, Witold Walczak, legal director of the Penn\xadsyl\xadvania affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, and several of our plaintiffs for a press conference in the rotunda of the Capitol. The event was packed, and, aside from the media, had attracted a small band of protestors. One protestor actually climbed up on the set of risers we had set up for our clients and the legal team. About halfway through the list of speakers, he began waving a sign reading: “ACLU Censors Truth.” I’d have to give him points for gall, if not scientific or constitutional accuracy.

Although I was sorry that the Dover school board forced us to challenge its decision, there was a small benefit to filing the lawsuit in December: It gave the news media, particularly the cable news shows, a church-state topic to discuss other than the “war on Christmas,” a topic that seemed to have become an obsession with the Fox News Channel.

Of course, for many of us the major challenge in the intelligent design debate is just separating religious from scientific issues. I always try to begin debates by saying that exciting questions like, “Does God exist?” and “Is there some overall divine purpose in the universe?” ought to be discussed as matters of theological and philosophical discourse. These questions, however, can and should be divorced from the issues the Religious Right constantly claims are in dispute, questions like, “Is the Earth 6,000 years old?” or “Do humans and chimpanzees have common ancestors?”

Having tried to establish this distinction, the debate on cable television and talk radio usually devolves into a shouting match where the Religious Right’s representative says evolution is “just a theory” by which he or she means it’s no better than a hunch or guess, or claims that life cannot be “random” (as if that meant something evil). In a pinch, they can always pull out this old chestnut: “Maybe you came from a monkey, but I didn’t!”

This is perplexing to deal with because I am not on these programs because I am a scientist. The person on the Religious Right isn’t there for his or her scientific knowledge either. How\xadever, I just can’t ignore the nonsensical assertions about science they are making and need to respond in some fashion.

I explain that “theories” are based on collections of facts that support an overarching principle and that scientific theories, even the “theory of gravity,” are continually being refined. I note that “randomness” in development can and does lead to dead ends but that it is also the way in which evolutionary progress occurs. And of course I decline to accept that my great-grandfather was Bonzo the chimp but do acknowledge that the very idea that Bonzo and I shared a common ancestor at some point in the distant past doesn’t bother me. (What Bonzo thinks about being related to me is for him to say.)

It is too bad that many Americans aren’t really committed to lifelong learning and are apparently willing to assume that whatever they didn’t learn when they left high school or college isn’t worth learning later. Unfortunately, in arenas like science (and economics and history) there are all kinds of genuinely exciting things that are being reported regularly in the media.

You don’t have to subscribe to scientific journals; just glance at the back pages of USA Today and you read regularly of new fossil discoveries that help to fill in the alleged “gaps” in the fossil record that anti-evolutionists are constantly chattering about. You could read the big cover story in National Geo\xadgraphic in November provocatively entitled, “Was Darwin Wrong?” and glance at the subhead to read the answer: “No. The Evidence for Evolution Is Over\xadwhelming.”

If we are going to help future generations learn, then I think it is incumbent on us to know enough ourselves not to “dumb down” education on any topic because of our own limitations even more so if we sit on a school board!

I hope this lawsuit helps to clarify the differing questions raised by science and religion. I hope it helps people in Dover and around the country learn something about the value (and limits) of what science can tell us now.

And one last thing since I suspect you are dying to know: No, Mr. Peanut was nowhere in sight that chilly December day.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.