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Teaching Intelligent Design at Schools

Intelligent Design or ID has emerged as a controversial issue in recent years in the United States of America. The question of whether Intelligent Design can be introduced in schools has invited numerous reactions, some very vitriolic, from diverse quarters like the church, school boards, parents of school-going children, the media, national health agencies, university professors and other educationists, authors, the print media, politicians, and other individuals. The reaction of each is only influenced by his or her personal agenda, and many expositions on the issue can be perceived to be biased, neither objective nor reasonable, and generally not in the interests of educational or scientific advancement. One can safely assume as relevant that the larger issue involved behind the controversy should be to consider whether or not Intelligent Design should be introduced in schools and whether this can be allowed to be a part of the regular school curriculum. This again implies that several larger issues need be considered for arriving at a rational, objective, legal, and proper position in this regard which would safeguard, among other things, the rights of the individual for free thought and expression and to practice religion, the rights of the growing child to acquire knowledge free from dogma, bias, or irrational considerations, the best interests of the nation, its educational system, constitution and people, and the right of the individual also to exercise free personal choice. However, the basic issue boils down to the question of whether Intelligent Design is a science or not, as compared to evolution, which has proven resilient, in most studies conducted to study its tenets across decades of research and analysis. This is because educationists cannot be seen to include a subject which is unscientific, and seen as a form of religious fundamentalism and hence non-secular, and in as much as related pedagogical considerations must essentially be seen to be rational, relevant, scientific, modern, and un-biased of approach for proper development of child education as per state policy. The issues, hence, need further amplification to understand them better, critically analyze them same and then take a rational stand.

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A most common view of Intelligent Design is that it is an extension of the theory of creationism. It is against Darwin’s theory of evolution (1859), and authors like Forest and Gross (2004, pp. 191-214) even consider the ID as a covert form of creationism. In as much as the study of evolution is a part of the standard course in biological science, ID directly confronts evolution and, by extension, the teaching of science and its established principles. It is no wonder that scientists and educationists are up in arms against the introduction of ID in schools. To compound matters, it is also seen as a veiled attempt to introduce religion in the school curriculum. Old-earth creationists had maintained that God had individually created plants & animals as a sequential process over extended ages, and also that it was God who, through biological processes, created the species and their diversities (Scott, 1999, pp. 361-372). The creationists do not believe in common descent as propounded by Darwin, which theorizes that present-day animals and plants have evolved from earlier simpler organisms. However, creationism has been found to clearly violate the Establishment Clause and hence, cannot be taught in a social science course {e.g.: Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987)}. Intelligent Design stands on two pillars, one – that of “irreducible complexity” as propounded by Behe (1996) and which only reasserts Paley’s theory (1802) which stated that evolution by itself could not explain the complex nature of organisms and that the Creator or God was the intelligent producer of such complex life forms, and another due to Dembski (1999: pp. 14 -15; 2001: p. 224) who outlined an odds-based approach which consisted in first searching for complex patterns in nature and then establishing that the mathematical odds of such patterns coming into existence randomly and without the direct intervention of an intelligent creator were extremely low. Both these pillars thus give the theory of Intelligent Design a scientific flavor, although, unlike evolution, its concepts have not been tested to establish the concepts as true fact.

Another aspect of the controversy is the involvement of religion. Christians believe in “divine creation”, that God has created the earth, nature, and all things in this world. To the religious orthodox believer, the theory of natural selection, which was what Darwin’s evolutionary theory was all about, as because the same discounted divine involvement in the process of creation of life and its forms, was contrary to what constituted true theism. While this controversy has been in existence since the time of Darwin’s postulation of evolutionary theory, recent and open support for Intelligent Design, which expounds on the direct role of a Creator or God in nature’s evolution, has only served to ignite a fire always ready to ignite, that of religious fundamentalism. The District Court in the now famous Dover Trial (Kitzmiller v/s Dover Area Sch. Dist., 400 F. Supp. 2d 707, 709 (M.D. Pa, 2005) had observed that Intelligent Design as explained by its chief proponents could not be termed as a valid scientific theory as it had neither been published in peer-reviewed journals, nor tried to prove its theory through research and testing, or even found acceptance among the scientific fraternity. The learned court viewed the ID as theology, and not science. Further, Judge Jones stated that ID espoused supernatural causation, was similar to creationism in that, its concept of irreducible complexity was an illogical dualism, and hence, also that, it could not be included in the school curriculum as an alternative to the scientific theory of evolution. He struck down the Dover School Board’s decision to introduce ID as a part of its course as unconstitutional.

An alternative to evolution and ID is theistic evolution, as often cited by many Christian educators. This theory attempts to bring together evolution and creation concepts by stating that evolution was one method adopted by God in order to create and sustain the world and its life forms. In fact, one of the most well-known scientific organizations, The American Association for the Advancement of Science also maintains that ID is irrelevant and that there are no scientific means of testing ID concepts, for it to be treated as a science. Interestingly, the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy, after the Dover ruling, brought out various materials that espoused the cause of religion, extolled the intimate relationship between science and religion, and also saw the embrace of science as a way of appreciation of God’s creative beauty and complexity. Scott (2009, p. 19) goes further when she says that, “the question whether God created the world, cannot be assessed by science”. To the influential American Civil Liberties Union of Utah Foundation, Inc or ACLU of Utah (2006, pp. 1-3), theories like the ID are nothing but “semantic glosses on the underlying creationist concept of a supernatural designer unknowable by science, the creation of all living species by non-natural processes, and opposition to the scientific theory of evolution” The learned court in course of the Dover Trail also repeated the views of Pennock (p. 41) by stating that ID was based upon a false dichotomy, since, it only tried to confirm itself through discrediting evolution. Additionally, the prestigious National Association for Science or NAS was also quoted as stating that, “creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species were not science since they were not testable by scientific methods”.

The issue also needs to examine the basic tenets of evolution in order to arrive at a rational view on the same. Evolution, as it stands, relies on certain assumptions. For one, evolution relies to a large extent on the age of the earth as being somewhere around 4 billion years (Dalrymple, p.474). For another, evolutionists maintain that humans evolved as many as 5.7 million years back from chimpanzees (Cavalli-Sforza L.L. & Cavalli-Sforza, F. p. 40) and the present-day human form i.e., homo- sapiens-sapiens originated in Africa around 100,000 years back (Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. & Cavalli-Sforza, F., p. 51). Such evolution of homo- sapiens-sapiens from primates has been proved by the existence of fossil evidence as supported by methods of research in molecular biology, including the human genome project. The newer strains of the virus, microbes, etc are based on natural selection of mutants randomly, and the survival of the fittest, an integral part of the process of evolution, has been well demonstrated by the increasingly resistant nature of bacteria to antibiotics, plant herbicides, and chemotherapy (NAS, 1999). The very immunity of the body to disease is due to natural selection (Schlenke and Begun, pp. 1471-1480). The success of the application of Darwinism to various biological, medical, physical, biochemical, and other branches of science, as also the utility of the theory of evolution in forming the basis of the modern biological theory itself, works substantially in favor of the concept of evolution, unlike creationism or its current version, Intelligent Design, which can in no way be regarded as a scientific theory whose tenets have been tested to be true by means of known scientific methods of research and analysis. On the other hand, evolution has convincingly explained the origin of life on earth as also the diversities of life forms. In fact, among biologists, the present-day buzzword is Evo-Devo or developmental evolutionary biology, which brings together common evolutionary issues in phylogeny and the theories of molecular and cellular processes (Carroll).

A common view in the educational fraternity argument of the US is that students should themselves be allowed to choose between evolution and ID and be able to critically analyze the options. While critical analysis would be to advantage to the student, it still needs to be considered whether, a controversial subject like ID, once introduced as part of the regular school curriculum, would not impose more such controversial decisions upon educationists, which could adversely impact student interests as also the interests of the nation. And that too, ID appears to have, as per the expert opinion, no roots in scientific reasoning or, for that matter, in even a theory that can be tested- if at all it can be-and till now appears a poor substitute for explaining creation as the theory of evolution can do. Actually, a theory, by very definition, permits being tested and, if proved true, can be converted to a law. Intelligent Design exhibits no such characteristics that define a theory. Hence, at least on the face of it, it would seem that the consideration of the introduction as part of the school curriculum of a topic like Intelligent Design, whose credentials as a theory is dubious, does in no way warrant a discussion nor its perceived merits guarantee it a valid entry in the school curriculum.

Then there remains the question of free choice, freedom to the practice of one’s religion, and the fundamental rights allowed in a free society. Regarding the religious aspects of the controversy, the US Constitution very clearly appears to protect freedom of personal religion and the right to practice one’s own religion. The founding fathers of the Constitution envisaged a secular state in a social-democratic environment. But the First Amendment to the US Constitution very clearly forbids by inference, the inclusion of any form of dogma or religious bigotry in schools. In fact, in an article in Eurozine, Pereto (2006, pp. 1-9) has even considered the controversy relating to the introduction of ID in schools as an assault on science. Even Scott and Matzke, 2007, pp. 8669-8676) aver that “due to its support from those outside the scientific community, Intelligent Design is a substantial assault on the integrity of science education“. Thus, while free choice is desirable in a democratic society, yet, the state often has to decide whether or not to allow its citizens the freedom that it wants, in the larger interests of the nation or state. Research in education and psychology has also confirmed how most college students lack an understanding of evolutionary theory but also find no link between comprehending evolutionary theory and viewing the same as truth (Brem, S.K., Ranney, M., and Schindel, J.E., 2003, pp.181-206). Various studies have also shown that “students have deep-rooted misconceptions on evolution and these misconceptions conform with consistent and alternate theories on evolution and which are markedly immune to educational instruction” (Cummins, C.L., Demastes, S.S., and Hafner, M.S., 1994, pp. 445-448). This may also perhaps explain why so many Americans feel strongly on the issue but exhibit little knowledge of evolution and its complexities which implies that they may be less equipped to judge what should and should not be included in their school curriculum. Innocent minds of children are very susceptible to things and what is taught to them during growing up years do bear upon their future attitudes and outlook towards life. In that sense, it is better that controversies are avoided by school boards so that scientific principles as also the best interests of all students are not compromised.

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The considered opinion of experts in the field can be regarded as important observations that can count towards deciding on the issue in question, viz., whether to introduce Intelligent Design in schools or not. One such expert, who is against ID, at least in its present form, is Taner Edis, an Associate Professor at Truman State University. According to him, “intelligence itself appears to be a product of combinations of chance and necessity, where Darwinian processes are critically important in producing genuine novelty” (Edis, p.190) He also maintains that “biology also combines chance and necessity in its central theories” (p. 192). He continues in the same vein when he says that “In the study of complexity, the overwhelming trend is toward an invigorating synthesis of perspectives from biology, physics, computer science, and other relevant disciplines. So it is very implausible that ID should be correct. Most scientists who pay any attention to ID, therefore, ignore the substantive claims involved in ID and concentrate on countering its political influence” (pp. 192-193). He is generally of the view that Intelligent Design is a poor explanation for the complexity of nature and it is only Darwinism that can best explain such complexities through the biological study of variation and selection as expounded in Darwin’s theory of evolution (pp.195-196). Scott and Matzke opine that ID is not suited for teaching in public schools, since it promotes a sectarian form of religion, is a failure as a science, and not proved itself as worthy of being taught at schools. They also maintain that ID only presents an impoverished and pre-modern explanation of complex functional phenomena in biology, in contrast to the highly fertile and unifying principles of modern evolution theory (p. 8675). Another author, Pereto views both creationism and Intelligent Design as inadequate in satisfactorily explaining evolution since it, in his view, ‘involves the surrender of reason’. He also maintains that only Darwin’s theory of evolution needs to be perfected so as to gain a better understanding of the natural world (p.1) He also believes that rigorous research undertaken in biological experiments establish universal truths, which permit verification by all, anywhere in the world and are perfectly unrelated with any ideological leanings or bias of any kind. But the same, he says, cannot be said to be true of creationism – and by inference Intelligent Design – which is neither universal nor established by experimental research of natural phenomena (p. 2). He echoes many other authors when he says that intelligent design theory cannot be termed as a science by usual criteria that are considered in the case of other sciences (p. 5). In another observation in an article, Miller, J.D., Scott, E.C., and Okamoto, S., (2006) opined that there was a need to teach primary concepts of evolution in school and college biology classes through informal learning avenues because, as they could infer from relevant data, much of present-day science education seemed ineffective while the subject of biological science itself appeared to be merging with other sciences (p. 766).

Coyne (2005) presents a convincing argument against the very concept of Intelligent Design. He observes that “Intelligent Design or creationism was an unscientific, faith-based theory which ultimately rested on fundamentalist Christianity”. He states that ID has not been able to stand the test of scientific scrutiny. He cites examples from nature that lend support to his viewpoint. He says, quoting one example, that organisms in the world are actually not intelligently designed. He cites as a fact that some intelligent designer could not have been the cause of flaws that can be perceived in biological nature in plenty. For instance, at a time when reptiles evolved into mammals, how come, he questions, the supposedly Intelligent Creator-produced animals having both reptilian and mammalian characteristics. The same Creator could not be termed intelligent when he produced the Kiwi birds without functional wings. An Intelligent Creator could not so produce, Coyne continues, cave animals with useless eyes, the human fetus with a transitory coat of hair, or even multiple species only to let them perish, and then again to generate more species, or to continue in this way, without any obvious reason or planned design. He also questions why the process of preparation of Vitamin C in the body was previously found to exist in humans, but later on, became defunct because of a disabled enzyme if at all the same had been the design of an Intelligent Creator. He himself answers his questions by saying that there could only be two answers to this, one being that life was a result of evolution, and not by Intelligent Design, or, taking an extreme view in stating the second answer, that the Creator was a prankster who designed things just so that they seemed to have evolved, naturally, and which answer would not be liked by religious people or some others. Coyle says that ID would be acceptable, if and when, it could be rigorously tested and spawned scientific research. Additionally, ID has been found to violate the US Constitution and cannot be treated as good education. One argument that shows the intrinsic fallibility of ID, which argues against evolution through the process of natural selection as propounded by Darwin and supports the concept of creation by design, is that, some parts of the ID theory itself admits that some evolutionary change, at least, is caused through natural selection. These changes or microevolution includes among others, the variations in resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, changes in moth’s color proportions to help it fight against predation by birds, and even alterations due to artificial selection (as quoted from “Of Pandas and Peoples” by Davis, P. and Kenyon, D.H.). Coyne both cites and presents the various evidence as proof of his support for evolution and his arguments against Intelligent Design as a relevant, logical, scientific and acceptable theory of creation and reasons for diversity of species as seen in nature. His arguments, written just before the Dover Trial ended, and which he predicted would be in favor of evolution protagonists and against supporters of Intelligent Design, perhaps constitutes the last word and clinching argument that creationism or Intelligent Design, at least in the present form, has no place in the curriculum of US schools and cannot possibly replace the well-entrenched, scientifically established concept of Darwinian evolution or theory of natural selection, till such time, when a really alternate, better, authentic, and scientifically proved theory can be evolved. (pp. 21–33)

At the end, it need not be re-emphasized that ID is only a poor substitute for Darwin’s evolution theory. While different authors may have different viewpoints, the presentment of various sides to the controversy, as also an impartial analysis of the issues involved, has been attempted through this paper, however insufficient or irrelevant, some may perceive the same. It still needs to be made clear at the end that education is a subject that needs to be handled with care. The question of whether evolution or Intelligent Design is to be taught in schools, or whether Intelligent Design warrants its selection as an essential part of modern biology in schools, particularly in the US, can be best decided by students, their parents, educators, scientists, policy makers and, perhaps, the general public or lay citizens of the country. An attempt is being made by the various competing groups in the controversy to pitch their side of the arguments, without thought for the welfare of the students, or even the US education system as a whole. Once a decision is made and a system introduced, its effects, whether good or bad, can only be known with time and through the repercussions of the system so introduced upon the people involved. The policy makers and politicians have a responsibility in this respect to do what is just and not introduce a system of religious parochialism which fosters on discontent with a system and gives vent to unreasonable demands. Human perception on any issue is obviously veiled by any deficiencies in perception that the person himself or herself possesses. Much is yet unknown in this universe and even science has not been able to deliver the right answers in a host of mysteries and unsolved cases on this earth spread over ages of time. Scientists, perhaps, also need to delve within and find their own shortcomings that may circumscribe their understanding of the earth and all creation. A biased attitude would not in any way further the cause of either science or education. A case in point is the fact that scientists have some prejudices themselves with regards to religion and view anything other than something in keeping with their own theories and reasoning as false and not a fact of nature. A personal opinion is that the human ego can cloud all human perceptions and prevent an otherwise rational human being from unearthing or knowing actual truth. There is then this to ponder. Do we realize that the human being itself may be perceived as a part of the nature that we so wish to study and comprehend? In Physics, we know of a reference frame. Can something within a reference frame behave similarly outside that reference frame, when not subjected to identical system of forces, etc? Do we not judge others more impartially and better, if we ourselves are not related to the issue or are not a related party? We leave it at that. Let the intelligent ponder the questions raised through this paper and, hopefully, the world would be infinitely better, and move in the right direction in time to come.

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Brem, S.K., Ranney, M. and Schindel, J.E., 2003, “The perceived consequences of evolution: college students perceive negative personal and social impact in evolutionary theory”, Science Education, 87, pp. 181–206

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Dembski, W.A., 2001, No Free Lunch: Why specified complexity cannot be purchased without intelligence, Rowman and Littlefield

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