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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Even scientists who believe in intelligent design do not feel it is ready for prime time. Many would prefer to move forward gradually, building their case, in order to avoid a backlash. "It's premature for all kinds of reasons," says oceanographer Edward Peltzer, a senior researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. "The science is there, but the science textbooks are not. The teachers have to be trained. Its time will come. But its time is not now." The emphasis for now is on dissing Darwinism, which opens the door to other explanations without specifically invoking an intelligent creator. Many advocates of intelligent design complain that Darwinism has become a kind of faith in itself. "There's religion on both sides," insists David Keller, a chemistry professor at the University of New Mexico, who taught a seminar on problems with evolution at an anti-Darwin forum in Greenville, S.C., last week.


Many scientists have been reluctant to engage in a debate with advocates of intelligent design because to do so would legitimize the claim that there's a meaningful debate about evolution. "I'm concerned about implying that there is some sort of scientific argument going on. There's not," says noted British biologist Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, whose most recent book about evolution is The Ancestor's Tale. He and other scientists say advocates of intelligent design do not play by the rules of science. They do not publish papers in peer-reviewed journals, and their hypothesis cannot be tested by research and the study of evidence. Indeed, Behe concedes, "You can't prove intelligent design by an experiment." Dawkins compares the idea of teaching intelligent-design theory with teaching flat earthism-- perfectly fine in a history class but not in science. He says, "If you give the idea that there are two schools of thought within science--one that says the earth is round and one that says the earth is flat--you are misleading children."

But the strategy of disengagement may be backfiring on those who care about teaching evolution. When scientists and science teachers boycotted the discussion of biology standards at a Kansas school-board meeting last May, they left the floor wide open to critics of evolution, who won the day. "Are they wilting young maids that can't stand the heat of a hearing?" asks Washington attorney Edward Sisson, who was a co-counsel for the 23 academics who testified on the anti-Darwin side.

Scientists say it is, in fact, easy to gainsay the intelligent-design folks. Take Behe's argument about complexity, for example. "Evolution by natural selection is a brilliant answer to the riddle of complexity because it is not a theory of chance," explains Dawkins. "It is a theory of gradual, incremental change over millions of years, which starts with something very simple and works up along slow, gradual gradients to greater complexity. Not only is it a brilliant solution to the riddle of complexity; it is the only solution that has ever been proposed." To attribute nature's complexity to an intelligent designer merely removes the origin of complexity to the unseen designer. "Who designs the designer?" asks Dawkins.

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