“Intelligent Design in Public Schools,” Part 2

Science and Religion: One Planet, Many Possibilities

When part 1 of “Intelligent Design in Public Schools” ended, I was in the middle of summarizing my essay of the same title that was published in Whitney A. Bauman and Lucas F. Johnston’s collection Science and Religion: One Planet, Many Possibilities (Routledge 2014). Where was I? Well, I was contending that “intelligent design,” like creation science before it, promotes what have been dubbed the three pillars of creationism: the claims that evolution is a theory in crisis, that it is antireligious, immoral, and antisocial, and that fairness requires that alternatives to or criticisms of evolution be taught in the public schools. With regard to the third pillar, I thought that it was necessary to select two instances to discuss, reflecting the strategic shift of the “intelligent design” movement from calling for “intelligent design” to be taught alongside evolution to calling only for “teaching the controversy” (and the like).

Although it’s sometimes claimed that the shift took place in the wake of the Kitzmiller decision in 2005, I think that the proponents of “intelligent design” saw the writing on the wall well before that. In “Intelligent Design in the Public Schools,” therefore, I suggested that the shift took place around 2002, when Stephen C. Meyer, the director of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, offered to the Ohio state board of education, then enduring lobbying to include “intelligent design” in the state science standards, a compromise: the insistence to include “intelligent design” would be dropped if the standards allowed individual teachers to teach “the scientific controversy about Darwinism.” (Three years previously, however, Meyer had been arguing in a Foundation for Thought and Ethics guidebook that local school boards “have the authority to permit, and encourage, teaching about design theory as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.”)

By now, all of the background was in place to allow a return to the Kitzmiller trial, with which the essay began. “In Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2004,” I wrote, “creationist members of the school board attempted to encourage the use of Of Pandas and People, just as the FTE’s guidebook suggested. The resultant trial was disastrous for the intelligent design movement.” And its effects were felt nationally: it is increasingly rare for anyone to propose a formal policy that would require or even allow the teaching of “intelligent design” in the public schools; South Dakota’s Senate Bill 112 from 2014 was a rara avis unable to take flight. Instead, the third wave of antievolution activity, in which evolution is belittled (as “controversial” or as “just a theory”), is ascendant. But still, I warned, “intelligent design” in the public schools is not going to disappear overnight, with one in eight high school biology teachers presenting creationism as scientifically credible.

Thus the content of the essay. After I submitted it, I received two requests from the editors Bauman and Johnston. First, they wanted me to break the essay into sections, each with a header. Without having received or thought to ask for any guidance on the matter, I had written the essay continuously, without any headers to break the flow or provide any signposts. It wasn’t especially hard to break the essay into sections, but—never great with titles—I wasn’t looking forward to devising the headers. The first was initially going to be something dull like “Intelligent Design and the Waves of Antievolution,” but it occurred to me that “Intelligent Design among the Waves” had a goofy malapropistic charm to it, suggesting that "intelligent design" was, Atlantis-like, in danger of sinking. That in turn provoked the headers “Intelligent Design Blossoms into a Wedge,” “Pillars in the Big Tent,” and (less interestingly) “Kitzmiller and the Beginning of the End.”

The second request from Bauman and Johnston after I submitted the essay was less taxing. All they wanted was for me to write a handful of discussion questions to append to it. That was marvelous, actually: it gave me a chance to raise a lot of topics, and cite a lot of literature, that I didn’t have a chance to raise and cite in the body of the essay. I’ll reproduce the questions (but not the citations to the literature) here:

  1. Unmentioned in the article are the responses to intelligent design from people of faith who accept evolution. What concerns might they have about the intelligent design movement’s claims to scientific credibility and to representation in the classroom? What concerns might they have about the public perception of their faith as incompatible with science?
  1. The article focuses on intelligent design as a manifestation of American antievolutionism and on its influence on American public education. To what extent is intelligent design likely to be manifest and influential elsewhere in the world? Is it, as a minimal form of creationism, poised to flourish in foreign cultural climates to which traditional American forms of creationism are not adapted? Or is it too narrowly adapted to the niche created by current American constitutional law to appeal to creationists outside the United States?
  1. To what extent is intelligent design a distinctive product of the American antievolutionist movement in particular, and to what extent is it shaped by currents in American intellectual history since the Civil War, the concerns of English natural theology in the Augustan Age, the development of biblical interpretation in the West in the wake of the Scientific Revolution, and a foundational struggle among rival philosophical factions in antiquity?
  1. Controversies over the teaching of intelligent design are most common in public high schools, but they have occurred in academia, too—and indeed such controversies were highlighted in the intelligent-design-promoting film Expelled. How do the educational and political issues differ between these two venues? What role is played by academic freedom?
  1. The third pillar of creationism—that it is only fair to acknowledge the supposed scientific controversy over evolution—is constantly retooled. How do the slogans used to promote it—“teaching the controversy”; “teaching the strengths and weaknesses”; “critical analysis”; “academic freedom”; etc.—fare when they themselves are subjected to critical analysis?

Any of those, I thought, might make a decent topic for a term paper for someone taking a science-and-religion course in which “intelligent design” was covered. And, although I haven’t read the whole book through, I think that Science and Religion: One Planet, Many Possibilities might make a dandy reader for such a course, so if you’re in the market, I urge you to check it out.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.

We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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