Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Intelligent Design: Science or Religion?

Intelligent Design: Science or Religion? Critical Perspectives
Robert M Baird and Stuart E Rosenbaum, editors
Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 2007. 338 pages
Reviewed by
Taner Edis

Our public debates over "intelligent
design" (ID) creationism
tend to center on theological and
political convictions, though ostensibly
they are about natural science.
After all, "intelligent design" is
bad science, or "dead science" as
Philip Kitcher puts it, so the scientific
community treats it as a nuisance.
A handful of scientists have exposed the
weaknesses of ID in some technical detail, but everyone
knows the real action takes place outside of science.

In this environment,
Intelligent Design, a collection
edited by Robert Baird and
Stuart Rosenbaum, provides a very
useful introduction to the most
popular arguments made by public
defenders of evolution. Some of
the contributors address scientific
questions, but they never get overly
technical, and they always keep
the public discussion in mind. And
the bulk of the essays address
questions about "intelligent
design" and the science classroom,
including the burning question for
most Americans: whether evolution
is compatible with religion.
Since the evolution wars in the
United States are really political
contests between traditionalist and
modernist forms of religion,
Intelligent Design voices a liberal,
modernist theological point of
view, according to which science
and religion, when understood
correctly, occupy separate spheres
and are therefore compatible. Also,
importantly, the book focuses
almost entirely on the question of
ID in biology, including writers
such as Owen Gingerich who otherwise
defend a watered-down
form of ID in the context of physical cosmology.

That much does not distinguish
this book from others in the market.
But as a compact, readable
introduction to a liberal religious
critique of ID in biology, it is well-worth
reading and should be useful
to teachers and members of the
community who want to find out
more from critics of ID. Reading
through the essays they will find
reflections on the trial at Dover,
short op-ed style responses to ID,
and even some short selections
from Darwin and Paley that help
put the debate in context. They
will definitely find ammunition
against the irritating charge that
accepting biological evolution
means abandoning religious allegiances.
If more people read and
agreed with books like this, the
jobs of everyone who teaches science
in the United States would be
much easier.

I would love to give this book to
a high school teacher. Still, having
said that, I find myself asking: how
would someone respond if they
were already inclined to favor ID?
How persuasive would it be for
someone not convinced that we
can split the difference, let science
and religion occupy their separate
spheres, and end up with everyone
happy all at once?

One reason I am prompted to
raise the question is that I find
such compatibilism too cheap, too
politically convenient. (As someone
who teaches science, I certainly
find it convenient. But then, the
stereotype of a waffling liberal is
supposed to be someone who cannot
be zealous even about his own
interests.) For example, Intelligent
includes Stephen Jay
Gould's classic "Nonoverlapping
magisteria." Rereading it, I am still
unconvinced. I am even less
moved by the editors' and Alfred I
Tauber's Kantian approach to separate
spheres. It all comes across as
a bit too faith-based for my taste.

But that does not detract from
the value of the book. Any disagreements
I can summon up here are largely academic, and politically
irrelevant. They certainly would
have no effect whatsoever on what
happens in a science classroom. If
I have a concern, it is that I worry
that creationists and ID sympathizers
that I know are not impressed
by liberal compatibilism. And they
are intelligent people with substantial
questions about divine
action and what they see as the
basic religious requirement of a
top-down, mind-first, supernaturally
governed universe. ID resonates
with their religious intuitions, and
liberal theology invariably comes
across as overly sophisticated
backpedaling. Now, I cannot help
them. But I am not sure that handing
them a copy of Baird and
Rosenbaum's book would do
much to quiet their fears about
evolution either.

I do not want my worries to distract
from the virtues of what is
quite a decent book. Intelligent
represents a very mainstream
position adopted by public
defenders of evolution in the
United States. But especially outside
the technical scientific context, an
important virtue of an accessible
defense of evolution should be its
persuasive quality. I am not very
confident about this. I would love
to say I have some better idea
myself. But I confess I do not, and I
worry about relying too much on
what has become a well-stereotyped
set of arguments in favor of
excluding ID from education. It
would be intriguing to see if we
have any new and imaginative ideas
about how to persuade the public
that only evolution deserves a place
in the biology classroom. I do not
see such ideas in Intelligent Design,
but if this is a failure, it is a failure of
all of us active in defending the
integrity of science education.

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