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The evolution wars
Scripps Howard News Service


November 13, 2005

Progress in Dover, Pa. Setbacks in Kansas. So it goes in the evolution wars.

The Dover Area School District has been in the news lately, because a group of parents sued the district over the inclusion of intelligent design in the science curriculum. The case is Kitzmiller v. DASD, and it's been extensively covered, from the pro-evolution side, by the blog If you want to read how it looks from the other side, try, a blog sponsored by the pro-ID Discovery institute.

Testimony wrapped up in the Dover case Nov. 4, and a ruling is expected by the end of the year.

But that's not the news; the news is that Dover school district voters turfed out eight ID supporters on Election Day, and replaced them with eight new members who can tell the difference between science and religion. What effect this will have on the lawsuit is uncertain, but it does show that some voters, at least, are uncomfortable with having their district known as the poster child for scientific backwardness.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, the state Board of Education voted 6-4 to alter the state's science standards to make it easier to introduce ideas such as intelligent design into science classes, where - in the opinion of almost all scientists - they do not belong.

Kansas has to-and-fro'd on this before. In 1999, the state board all but removed any mention of evolution from the standards. The following year voters replaced several board members who had supported the change, and the new board changed them back, more or less. Perhaps the same thing will happen next year, when four of the six people who voted for this change will be up for re-election.

ID supporters, and the Discovery Institute in particular, insist for public consumption that religion plays no role in their support for intelligent design. The Dover trial testimony rather conclusively demolishes that claim, it seems to me, although of course supporters believe exactly the opposite is true. But the institute rather undercuts its own position with e-mails like the one they sent out Wednesday, hailing Pope Benedict XVI's defense of God's role in creation.

The pope said, according to the institute, "Through sacred Scripture, the Lord awakens the reason that sleeps, and tells us that in the beginning is the creative word, the creative reason, that has created everything, that has created this intelligent project of the cosmos."

That's a perfectly respectable belief, and many people, including many scientists, share it. But it isn't a scientific belief. It tells you nothing about what the intelligent designer actually did that resulted in us; was it the first living thing? The first cell with a nucleus? The first vertebrate, the first mammal, the first primate, the first human? If the designer intervened at one or more points, what would the evidence look like?

That is, what would it take to turn ID into a real theory, that described the world as it is, explained the world as it is and made predictions about it that could be checked? It needn't be perfect; scientific theories aren't, as the new Kansas standards correctly assert. But what scientists mean when they acknowledge flaws in a theory is just that parts of it still need work, not that the flaws are fatal.

If someone holds a worldview that is essentially religious, and in a form that puts much emphasis on doctrinal purity (not every religious person does) then even small differences seem to be evidence of catastrophic failure. The early Christian church was convulsed by disputes over such now-esoteric distinctions as the one between "homoousian" and "homoiousian," and the distinction between Shiites and Sunnis convulses Islam still. Equally small differences between biologists over the mechanisms of evolution are likewise taken as evidence of catastrophic failure in a scientific theory, when in fact they're the normal and healthy way that science makes progress.

At the blog, Razib writes that most people don't know much about evolution, and really don't care much about it either. Belief in creationism, or in evolution, is more of a "cultural badge," to signal what kind of person you believe yourself to be.

"What you see in places like Dover and Kansas," Razib says, "are periodic swings in political motivation on a topic which isn't really very important to most people." Creationism in the schools (the term is deliberately used interchangeably with ID) "moves a small minority to drastic action only when there is a clear and present danger."

The voters in Dover were moved to take action. And the danger in Kansas is clear and present.


Contact Linda Seebach at Rocky Mountain News,

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