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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
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.
|Calling creationism by a new name — "intelligent design" — does not change the fact that it is not a science.
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
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
As for where learning about intelligent design should occur, Pennock
made a suggestion: "For teaching private religious themes, there's
no place like home."