Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: The Panda's Black Box

The Panda's Black Box: Opening up the Intelligent Design Controversy
edited by Nathaniel C Comfort
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 165 pages
Reviewed by
Glenn Sanford

For anyone Comfort: The Panda's Black Box: The Panda's Black Box - coverinterested in a wideranging and detailed treatment of the “intelligent design” (ID) controversy, a thorough reading of the transcripts from Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District would be recommended, except that it is extremely long, tedious, and often bogged down in the minutiae of legal proceedings. Nonetheless, a selective glimpse at the testimony is insightful. At issue in Kitzmiller was a statement directing students to “keep an open mind” “because Darwin’s Theory is a theory” and informing those who were interested in an alternative view that the ID “reference book” Of Pandas and People was available.

In his introduction to The Panda’s Black Box, Nathaniel Comfort attempts to unpack the current teach–the–controversy strategy. He concludes that the controversy that exists between ID proponents and advocates of mainstream evolutionary theory “is not about the findings of science. Rather, it is about the place of science in society” (p 7). Comfort champions teaching the controversy, as long as it is taught in a humanities environment that is equipped to handle the rhetoric, dogma, values, and the political baggage that it entails.

Scott Gilbert, the only biologist among the contributors, provides an interesting look at what it would take for biologists to “teach the controversy”. Using his experience teaching developmental biology, he lampoons ID as “what science might be if it lost its respect for evidence and controls” (p 41) and adds that “the debate between evolutionary biology and ‘intelligent design’ is like a debate over whether the aerodynamics of the Boeing 747 are superior to those of flying carpets” (p 43). These oneliners aside, Gilbert’s central theme — that it is important to separate the scientific content of a theory from its science–like packaging — provides a resonant theme.

Michael Ruse and Edward Larson provide histories of the design argument and teaching evolution in public schools, respectively. Ruse’s piece distills portions of his much more substantial Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 2003) to provide a history of the design argument that stretches from the ancient Greeks to the contemporary ID movement. He rejects the claim that ID represents a breakthrough in scientific thinking.

Likewise, Larson, author of Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution (third edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) and Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997) condenses substantial scholarship to trace the debates over evolution in the public schools from the 1920s into the 21st century. Beyond the abridged history, Larson touches on the role played by scientists’ attitudes toward religion in shaping the ongoing controversy and on the impotence of our court system when it comes to solving the public controversy.

Jane Maienschein uses the current controversy over human embryonic stem cells to illustrate how the public presentation of purported science–religion battles generally fails to capture the range of issues involved. Her discussion attempts to separate facts, on which there may be little disagreement (for example, that a fertilized egg contains a full complement of DNA), from values, on which there is generally little agreement (for example, “What rights or respect should be afforded to an embryo?”). She also separates metaphysical debates (that is, those about what exists) from epistemological debates (that is, those about how we know things). By citing the centrality of evolutionary theory to any hope of finding a competent response to threats such as the H5N1 strain of avian flu and the loss of biodiversity, she provides the most compelling case for choosing evolution over ID for our classrooms and policy–making arenas.

Robert Maxwell Young’s discussion of scientific reductionism, materialism and the fact–value distinction as sources of the science–religion divide illustrates at the often–ignored complexity of the science of human nature. Rather than attacking either ID proponents or evolutionists, he provides a useful examination of historical transitions that accompanied the shift from natural theology to materialist science. The centerpiece of his discussion casts Darwin’s theory as “arguably the most important idea in the history of the natural or human sciences” (p 13).

The Panda’s Black Box is an accessible reader that quickly and deftly surveys the current evolution– ID debates from a range of philosophical and historical angles. It provides a useful synopsis of considerable scholarship on the issues involved. Despite the considerable abridgment of several lines of argument owing to its brevity, it manages to convey a sense of the debates that is accessible and sufficiently footnoted to allow those who are so inclined to dig deeper into the quagmire of “the controversy” surrounding the place of science in our society.


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