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November 16, 2005

Don’t know much biology

While political pundits across the country were yammering on about the ramifications of last week’s elections in Virginia, New Jersey and California, the most important referendum of all went virtually unnoticed. And why not? It happened in the small, south-central Pennsylvania town of Dover.

By any measure, Dover is a pretty conservative place. Seventy percent of its voters chose Bush in 2004, and, presumably, that is why the local school board has been overwhelmingly Republican. At least, before Nov. 8.

Dover is one of the battlegrounds in the American culture wars. Its school board voted to mandate mention of the concept of Intelligent Design as an alternative to the theory of evolution in its biology classes. The ACLU, on behalf of some parents, filed a legal challenge to that action, and a trial on the question recently concluded, with a ruling expected in January.

Others decided not to wait on the judge. A slate of Democrats opposed all the Republicans on the school board, and last Tuesday the conservative community ousted all eight Republicans, including the six who voted for Intelligent Design. Hallelujah for intelligent voters!

The Intelligent Design movement is a rather thinly disguised effort to inject religion into public schools. Cleverly framed, it contends that there are holes in the theory of evolution — introduced about 150 years ago by Charles Darwin and accepted by the vast majority of scientists since then — that can only be explained by the existence of a higher power. In other words, it postulates that the only explanation for holes in a scientific theory are unscientific.

Televangelist Pat Robertson essentially admitted the real agenda behind the ID movement when he said, in reaction to the Dover election results, “... I’d like to say to the good city of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected him from your city.”

The most interesting aspect of the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution argument is the media coverage thereof. The news media try to be fair and balanced, but too often they impose balance at the expense of accuracy. Many on-air discussions of the issue feature one spokesperson for each side, thereby creating the impression that there is equal weight on each side of the controversy. Unfortunately, that is not an accurate portrayal of reality.

According to one estimate, about 700 scientists support the concept of intelligent design, most of whom are affiliated with the Discovery Institute, a Christian think-tank based in Seattle. That is less than 1 percent of all American scientists, which means that more than 99 percent of scientists support evolution. When the Kansas state school board was debating the inclusion of Intelligent Design in its biology curriculum, 38 Nobel laureates signed a statement explaining that ID was not acceptable science. None endorsed the ID proposal.

Intelligent Design is a philosophical theory, not a scientific one. Its proponents argue that because they believe something different than the overwhelming majority of scientists, their view is entitled to be discussed in schools.

If that is the standard, why don’t we teach the belief held by hundreds of millions of Chinese? They believe that a cosmic egg floated within the timeless void, containing the opposing forces of yin and yang. After eons of incubation, the first being, Pan-gu, emerged. The heavy parts (yin) of the egg drifted downwards, forming the earth. The lighter parts (yang) rose to form the sky. Pan-gu, fearing the parts might re-form, stood upon the earth and held up the sky. He grew 10 feet per day for 18,000 years, until the sky was 30,000 miles high. His work completed, he died. His parts transformed into elements of the universe, whether animals, weather phenomena or celestial bodies.

That myth is just as scientifically testable as the Intelligent Design daydream (ID should not be called a “theory,” because scientific theories already have been tested and challenged).

As one writer put it, “The explanations offered by ID are not really explanations at all. They’re more like last resorts.” Or as Florida International University law professor Stanley Fish wrote in the current edition of Harper’s, “... members (of the religious right pushing Intelligent Design) now recite the mantras of ‘teach the controversy’ or ‘keep the debate open’ whenever they find it convenient. They do so not out of a commitment to scrupulous scholarship, but in an effort to accomplish through misdirection and displacement what they cannot accomplish through evidence and argument.”

Clearly (probably not the right word), not everything in the universe can be completely explained by science. For example, I have never heard how biology resolves why we laugh and love. But before science teachers provide that explanation to America’s school children, I want them to be able to do more than throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know. Must be God!”

Contact the writer at jyarmuth@aol.com