Words by Alexander Thomson
The creationist lawsuit intended to reverse the Kansas State Board of Education’s 2013 adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards failed—again—on April 19th, when the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s earlier dismissal of the case in COPE et al. v. Kansas State Board of Education et al. In a skirmish over evolution so anachronistic and primitive that it should be a national embarrassment, the COPE (Citizens for Objective Public Education—a creationist organization formed in 2012) sued the Board of Education for deciding to finally incorporate the teaching of evolution into public school curriculums as a scientific fact. (This decision was a reversal of the school board’s earlier 2005 decision to teach skepticism about the theory of evolution and offer the so-called “theory” of “intelligent design” as an alternative.) COPE’s lawsuit was issued on the grounds that by teaching evolution as fact, the state thereby “establish[es] and endorse[s] a non-theistic worldview.” This position is absurd, not even because the evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution is overwhelming, and not even because intelligent design is almost universally dismissed by the modern scientific community, but because the debate over evolution is completely superfluous—Darwinism is not necessarily an enemy of faith.
To be abundantly clear: although intelligent design may be interesting as a theology, “Intelligent Design Theory” is not a scientific theory; it is a self-enclosed tautology with no explanatory scope except to say that because there are some gaps in our understanding of the mechanisms behind evolution, those gaps should be filled with a creator God (euphemistically termed a “designer”). Proponents of intelligent design criticize the theory of evolution for being a “mindless, unguided process,” which is akin to criticizing the theory of gravity for being the “mindless, unguided process” by which the planets revolve around the sun. Intelligent design as a theory has been wholly and repeatedly discredited by the scientific community, which, regardless of any supposed conspiracies, is in broad consensus about the validity of the theory of evolution. Even Francis Collins (the famed geneticist—and devout Christian—who headed up the Human Genome Project and mapped the extraordinary complexity of human DNA), writes an admirably terse chapter in his book, The Language of God, calling for evolution-deniers to give it up—common ancestry is a veritable fact of science. Intelligent design is nothing more than an attempt by Christian fundamentalists to smuggle tarted-up creationism into public schools by masquerading it as science; despite its clever name, it clearly lies in the domain of religion—not science.
Anti-evolutionists think they are indicting the theory of evolution when they refer to it as “just a theory,” but they neglect to understand that the scientific usage of the word “theory” is much different than its colloquial usage. A scientific theory does not lie somewhere on a spectrum between guess and law. This is key: no amount of scientific evidence transforms a theory into a law. (Laws are reserved for mathematical descriptions like Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which corresponds to the overarching theory of gravity.) Rather, a scientific theory is an explanation that draws together a vast amount of observations and facts about the world. Scientific theories have explanatory scope and power, they are testable, and most importantly: they make predictions. But they are also falsifiable—an essential component of a scientific theory. (Intelligent design exhibits none of these characteristics.) Therefore, scientists are not being arrogant or presumptuous when they refer to the theory of evolution as a fact; indeed, common ancestry has, since the 19th century, been elaborately and painstakingly demonstrated to be the story of our origin. And although scientists may still argue over the mechanisms behind evolution, the theory that all of life originated from a common ancestor about four billion years ago is the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community.
Those who attempt to discredit the theory of evolution would not think themselves equipped to question the theory of gravity, or the germ theory of disease, or cell theory. Few would ever think to say, “Ah, gravity. It’s just a theory. I’ll believe it when I see it.” Yet when the subject of biological evolution arises, the average fundamentalist with a high-school-level understanding of biology suddenly fancies him or herself equipped to “disprove” evolution with cute pieces of casuistry and specious bits of sophistry. And there is a curious conundrum in many objections to evolution: the infamous Ken Ham, the unapologetically senseless curator of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, repeats ad nauseam in his objections to biological evolution the phrase (directed at his opponents), “You weren’t there.” Okay Mr. Ham, where were you at the beginning of the universe? Where were you at the resurrection? If witnessing something is the requisite proof for believing in it, then by your own logic, belief in God becomes the pinnacle of irrationality. Yet Ham’s fallacious line of reasoning is perpetuated by many anti-evolutionists in various forms, including when critics of evolution demand to see large-scale macroevolutionary changes (a process which occurs over millions of years) occur before their eyes. One cannot help but note that this implacable insistence on a visual aid is somewhat unexpected coming from those who pride themselves on being people of faith.
But intelligent design is not just bad science; it is bad theology. Since Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species, theologians have, although tentatively at first, accepted and incorporated the newfound scientific data into their teachings on Genesis. Today, many prominent theologians accept the theory of evolution (N.T. Wright, Rowan Williams, Alistair McGrath, and John Polkinghorne are a few examples). The Catholic Church has even made the acceptance of evolution an official stance. And why should they not? A literalist interpretation of the book of Genesis is by no means necessitated by the language; indeed, non-literalist interpretations preceded insight from Darwin, and were quite common. Unless one restricts him or herself to the belief that the earth is literally six thousand years old and that the creation narrative took place in seven literal days (substantial biblical scholarship details why this need not be the case), denying evolution is completely unwarranted. Why could God not have fashioned the rich diversity of life on earth (including man) from a single fecund molecule? What could be more elegant? The idea is certainly is not precluded by either science or theology, anyway.
Which brings me to my main point: that fundamentalist religious communities are shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to evolution. If the theory of evolution is supported by a massive preponderance of evidence, and it does not conflict with any religious dogma, why deny it? When religious communities do so, they needlessly adopt a staunchly anti-scientific, anti-intellectual stance, and they bring the fervid wrath of secularists down upon themselves. But more severely, religious fundamentalists who adopt intelligent design confine their God to an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance, making Him especially vulnerable to scientific progress. Unless churches wish to see their congregations decline at an even more rapid pace, and unless churchgoers wish to continue being pegged by atheists as ignorami, it might do for them to join the rest of us, here in the 21st century. Because, after all, this is not a fundamental issue, and the Kansas State Board of Education has finally grasped this. The teaching of evolution in public schools is not indicative of some cynical plot by secularists to take over the world. This phony debate is, however, symptomatic of a society which continuously lags behind other industrialized countries in science and math education—and that is actually something worth getting angry about.