The Evolution Wars

When Bush joined the fray last week, the question grew hotter: Is intelligent design a real science? And should it be taught in schools?

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Sometime in the late fall, unless a federal court intervenes, ninth-graders at the public high school in rural Dover, Pa., will witness an unusual scene in biology class. The superintendent of schools, Richard Nilsen, will enter the classroom to read a three-paragraph statement mandated by the local school board as a cautionary preamble to the study of evolution. It reads, in part:

Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence ... Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view ... As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.

After that one-minute reading, the superintendent will probably depart without any discussion, and a lesson in evolutionary biology will begin.

That kind of scene, brief and benign though it might seem, strikes horror into the hearts of scientists and science teachers across the U.S., not to mention plenty of civil libertarians. Darwin's venerable theory is widely regarded as one of the best-supported ideas in science, the only explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, grounded in decades of study and objective evidence. But Dover's disclaimer on Darwin would appear to get a passing grade from the man who considers himself America's education President. In a question-and-answer session with Texas newspaper reporters at the White House last week, George W. Bush weighed in on the issue. He expressed support for the idea of combining lessons in evolution with a discussion of "intelligent design"--the proposition that some aspects of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause or agent, as opposed to natural selection. It is a subtler way of finding God's fingerprints in nature than traditional creationism. "Both sides ought to be properly taught," said the President, who appeared to choose his words with care, "so people can understand what the debate is about ... I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought."

On its surface, the President's position seems supremely fair-minded: What could possibly be wrong with presenting more than one point of view on a topic that divides so many Americans? But to biologists, it smacks of faith-based science. And that is provocative not only because it rekindles a turf battle that goes all the way back to the Middle Ages but also because it comes at a time when U.S. science is perceived as being under fresh assault politically and competitively. Just last week, developments ranging from flaws in the space program to South Korea's rapid advances in the field of cloning were cited as examples that the U.S. is losing its edge. Bush's comments on intelligent design were the No. 1 topic for bloggers for days afterward. "It sends a signal to other countries because they're rushing to gain scientific and technological leadership while we're getting distracted with a pseudoscience issue," warned Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the 55,000-member National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va. "If I were China, I'd be happy."

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