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Vol. LVII, No. 17
August 26, 2005

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What Scientists Should Know
Primer Offered on Creationism, 'Intelligent Design'

On the front page...

Perhaps there is a place for students to learn about creationism, but that place is not science class, according to Dr. Robert Pennock of Michigan State University, who himself offered a lesson, "What Scientists Need to Know About Intelligent Design Creationism," in a July 13 lecture sponsored by NIGMS. A professor of philosophy and science and technology studies, Pennock has spent more than 15 years following the creationism movement in the U.S. and has published two books on the topic. At NIH, he briefly reviewed the group's history and recent progress.


Pennock said intelligent design (ID) is a relatively new term coined by creationists who want their religious views taught in public schools as an alternative to evolutionary biology. He described an ID think tank founded in the late 1990s in Seattle under the name "Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture" as a part of the Discovery Institute. "They literally see evolution as attacking creation and Christianity."

A main tenet of ID is that some natural systems are so complex that only a transcendent intelligent being — presumably God — could have crafted them. The group's ultimate goal and its arguments are not new, he explained, but the new terminology makes people think it is a novel approach.

Calling creationism by a new name — "intelligent design" — does not change the fact that it is not a science, Pennock said, pointing out several potential pitfalls of equating ID with biology. He
Calling creationism by a new name — "intelligent design" — does not change the fact that it is not a science.
suggested that teaching ID alongside evolution would undermine U.S. science education, which already lags behind several other industrialized nations. "However, this is not a scientific controversy; it is part of the cultural wars," he said.

The new tack has drawn a lot of attention in the last few years. In at least eight states, Pennock reported, proposals to teach ID in addition to evolution in public schools reached legislative bodies. In Alabama and Georgia, evolution "disclaimer" stickers were placed in science textbooks. Last fall a Dover, Pa., school board mandated that "students be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution, including but not limited to intelligent design."

In the early 1980s, Pennock recalled, under the guise of "creation science," attempts were made in several states to require a "balanced treatment of creation science and evolution science" in the education system. "They left out any scriptural references," he explained. "The whole point of 'creation science' was to say that 'this is a science.' The idea was to get back into the schools a view that had been taken out, having [creation science] taught as an alternative model."

At that point, Pennock pointed out, several anti-evolution themes were emphasized by creationists: the insufficiency of mutation and natural selection; the idea that humans and apes are not related; an explanation of Earth's geology by catastrophism, or worldwide flood. It was clear, he said, that much of this was taken from the book of Genesis.

Pennock noted that the creationism movement has not been without its internal problems, which may have slowed the effort down before now. "Young earth creationists and old earth creationists dislike each other almost as much as they dislike evolutionists," Pennock said. "The new movement attempts to lay aside differences and unite under a big tent, unite against a common enemy."

One of the biggest hurdles scientists and science educators may have to overcome is terminology, Pennock pointed out. In general, he said, when people say "theory," they can mean viewpoint, opinion or even wild-haired notion. It's different for scientists. "We need to do a better job of teaching 'theory,'" Pennock suggested. "We need to be more careful about the terms we use. We have to change the connotation." In science, he stressed, a theory is "interlinked ideas supported by a bank of evidence." For example, Darwin's theory of evolution should not be seen as some guy's wild guess but as an informed principle backed by documented proof.

Another significant issue scientists will have to take into account is the public's religious views, which Pennock said ID organizations use against evolution. Although "historically there has been a range of ways to interpret scripture broadly to allow for evolution," he noted, "[ID proponents] intentionally set this up so that if you accept evolution — Darwinism — then you are by definition rejecting God. So one of the key things we're going to have to do is disabuse people of that notion. We have to say, 'No, there are plenty of ways to reconcile a religious view with a scientific view."

So what's wrong with allowing both evolution and intelligent design to be taught in classrooms? Why not "teach the controversy" as ID adherents suggest, and expose students to the wide variety of ideas?

Because, Pennock countered, so much of biology, medicine and other life sciences is based on Darwin's theory. ID changes "natural processes into supernatural intervention." Understanding how natural processes work and how researchers go about uncovering them is crucial to learning about science. ID proponents offer negative arguments against Darwinism, but no positive scientific evidence for intelligent design and so ID shouldn't be taught in science classes.

As for where learning about intelligent design should occur, Pennock made a suggestion: "For teaching private religious themes, there's no place like home."

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