JR'S Free Thought Pages
            No Gods  ~ No Masters   



                                                                                                     Darwin and Design

From what we now know about the cosmos, to think that it was all created for just one species among tens of millions of species who live on one planet circling one of a couple of hundred billion stars that are located in one galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies, all of which are in one universe among perhaps an infinite number of universes all nestled within a grand cosmic multi-verse, is provincially insular and anthropocentrically constrained. Which is more likely? That the universe was designed just for us, or that we merely see the universe as having been designed just for us?

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic Magazine (www.skeptic.com), the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech, and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Shermer received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things.

Michael Shermer is arguably the best science writer on the planet and one of the most effective promoters for a “reality based” world. Check out this lively entertaining short lecture on skepticism by Shermer.

     Science Defined in its Defense

Creationists sometimes claim that the theory of evolution is a doctrine in a “religion” they call Secular Humanism and thus if creationism is not taught in public schools, then neither should evolution be taught. The vast majority of believers and theists around the world fully accept the theory of evolution, so clearly they are not mutually exclusive. But is the theory of evolution a religious belief? No, it is not.

If a branch of science like evolutionary theory is a tenet of religion, then the definition of religion is so sweeping that virtually everything is a religion, rendering the word meaningless. Science is not a religion. Science is a very specific branch of human knowl­edge with a set of methods quite distinct from other branches of knowledge. I have, in earlier chapters, pragmatically defined it this way: Science is a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or con­firmation. More formally, I have defined it as follows:

Science is a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.4

The description of methods is essential, however, because it shows how science actually works. Included in the methods are hunches, guesses, ideas, hypotheses, theories, and paradigms, and testing them involves background research, experiments, data collection and organization, colleague collaboration and communication, correlation of findings, statistical analyses, conference presentations, and publications. In the simplest sense, science is what scientists do.

Although there is much debate among philosophers and historians of science about what science is, there is general agreement that science revolves around what is known formally as the hypo- thetico-deductive method: (1) formulating a hypothesis, (2) making a prediction based on the hypothesis, and (3) testing whether or not the prediction is accurate. In formulating hypotheses and theories, science employs natural explanations for natural phenomena. These characteristics of science were even codified into law in two important evolution-creationism trials in the 1980s, one in Arkan­sas and the other in Louisiana, the latter of which was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court. When forced to do so, science has defined itself, in defense.

The 1981 Arkansas trial was over the constitutionality of the state's Act 590, which required equal time in public school science classes for "creation-science" and "evolution-science." The federal judge in that case, William R. Overton, ruled against the creationists on the following grounds: First, he said, creation-science conveys "an inescapable religiosity" and is therefore unconstitutional: "Every theologian who testified, including defense witnesses, expressed the opinion that the statement referred to a supernatural creation which was performed by God." Second, Overton said that the creationists employed a "two model approach" in a "contrived dualism" that "assumes only two explanations for the origins of life and existence of man, plants and animals: It was either the work of a creator or it was not." In this either-or paradigm, creationists claim that any evidence "which fails to support the theory of evolu­tion is necessarily scientific evidence in support of creationism." Overton slapped down the tactic, writing "evolution does not pre­suppose the absence of a creator or God."

More important, Judge Overton summarized why creation-science is not science by explaining what science is:

1.   It is guided by natural law.

2.   It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law.

3.   It is testable against the empirical world.

4.   Its conclusions are tentative

5.   It is falsifiable

Overton concluded: "Creation science as described in [the Act's] Section 4(a) fails to meet these essential characteristics," adding the "obvious implication" that "knowledge does not require the im­primatur of legislation in order to become science."5

The 1987 Louisiana case amplified the description of science even more because this case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, thereby fulfilling the ACLU's original intent for the 1925 Scopes Tennessee trial. For the case of Edwards v. Aguillard, seventy-two Nobel laureates, seventeen state academies of science, and seven other scientific organizations submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Court's justices in support of the appellees' challenge of the constitutionality of Louisiana's "Balanced Treat­ment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act," an equal-time law passed by the state in 1982. The brief is one of the most important documents in the history of the evolution-creation debate and presents the best short statement on the central tenets of science endorsed by the world's leading scientists and science organizations.6

The brief responds to all of the attacks on evolution and science, opening with a demonstration that "creation-science" is just a new label for the old religious creationism of decades past. It then defines the criteria of science, a field "devoted to formulating and testing naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. It is a process for systematically collecting and recording data about the physical world, then categorizing and studying the collected data in an effort to infer the principles of nature that best explain the ob­served phenomena." At the heart of science is the scientific method, and these preeminent scientists took their opportunity to enter it into the Court record. From facts to hypotheses to theories to conclusions to explanations, the toolkit of science became, for better or worse, a subject for government decision:

Facts. "The grist for the mill of scientific inquiry is an ever increasing body of observations that give information about underlying 'facts.' Facts are the properties of natural phenomena. The scientific method involves the rigorous, me­thodical testing of principles that might present a naturalistic explanation for those facts."

Hypotheses. Based on well-established facts, testable hypothe­ses are formed. The process of testing "leads scientists to accord a special dignity to those hypotheses that accumulate substantial observational or experimental support."

Theories. This "special dignity" is called a "theory" that, when it "explains a large and diverse body of facts," is considered "robust," and, if it "consistently predicts new phenomena that are subsequently observed," is deemed "reliable." Facts and theories are not to be used interchangeably or in rela­tion to one another as more or less true. Facts are the world's data. Theories are explanatory ideas about those data. Constructs and other non-testable statements are not a part of science. "An explanatory principle that by its nature cannot be tested is outside the realm of science."

Conclusions. It follows from this process that no explanatory principles in science are final. "Even the most robust and reliable theory ... is tentative. A scientific theory is forever subject to reexamination and—as in the case of Ptolemaic astronomy— may ultimately be rejected after centuries of viability. In an ideal world, every science course would include repeated reminders that each theory presented to explain our observations of the universe carries this qualification: ‘as far as we know now, from examining the evidence available to us today.’”

Explanations. Science also seeks only naturalistic explanations for phenomena. "Science is not equipped to evaluate supernatural explanations for our observations; without passing judgment on the truth or falsity of supernatural explanations; science leaves their consideration to the domain of religious faith." Any body of knowledge accumulated within these guidelines is considered "scientific" and suit­able for public school education; and any body of knowledge not accumulated within these guidelines is not considered scientific. "Because the scope of scientific inquiry is consciously limited to the search for naturalistic principles, science remains free of religious dogma and is thus an appropriate subject for public school instruction."

This case was decided on June 19, 1987, with the Court voting 7-2 in favor of the appellees, holding that "the Act is facially invalid as violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it lacks a clear secular purpose" and that "[t]he Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind." Predictably, Justices Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist dissented, arguing that "so long as there was a genuine secular purpose," the Christian fundamentalist intent "would not suffice to invalidate the Act." Re­calling the academic freedom issue that was argued more than sixty years before in the Scopes trial, Scalia and Rehnquist note, "The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have what­ever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools, just as Mr. Scopes was entitled to present whatever scientific evidence there was for it.” The majority of the Court disagreed, stating that regardless of the religious intent of the creationists, there is no science in creation-science; there is strong evidence that their opinions were shaped by the amicus curiae brief that demonstrated so plainly why creationism is not science by clearly explaining what science is.

The ongoing court cases and curriculum battles being fought over Intelligent Design creationism involve the same issues that were settled in the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision. But Intelli­gent Design creationists are repackaging their wares, appealing to our human natures, and taking advantage of a larger attack on science. There is no more science in Intelligent Design theory than there is in creation-science; but the point of the movement is not to expand scientific understanding—it is to shut it down. Case in point: Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, the first evolution-creationism trial of the twenty-first century.

      Design in Dover      

In the legendary debate over evolution at Oxford University in June 1860, Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce ("Soapy Sam") sardonically inquired of his debate opponent, Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's Bulldog"), whether he was descended from an ape on his grandfather's or grandmother's side. Accounts vary as to what was said next, but legend has it that Huxley muttered to the person next to him, "The Lord hath delivered him into my hands," and followed that with his stinging rejoinder to Soapy Sam: "If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.” 7

This is precisely how I felt when the judge issued his decision in the Kitzmiller case in late 2005. It was as if the Lord had delivered the creationists into our hands, and the judge's devastating critique of the creationist defense would make even the staunchest religious conservatives unhesitatingly affirm their preference for evolution. Kitzmiller was an exceptional court case—both for what it revealed about the motives of the Intelligent Design creationists, and the clarity and severity of the conservative judge's decision against the Intelligent Design proponents.8

In the trial, the Dover Area School District was defended by the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), an organization founded by conservative Catholic businessman Tom Monaghan and attorney Richard Thompson, who prosecuted Jack Kevorkian in the very public trial over assisted suicide. From its founding in 1999, the TMLC has been searching for venues in which to take on the ACLU. Calling themselves the "Christian Answer to the ACLU" and the "sword and shield for people of faith," the TMLC has challenged the ACLU on a range of public controversies, from pornography and gay marriage to nativity scenes and Ten Commandment displays. Starting in early 2000, representatives of the TMLC can­vassed school boards around the country, searching for and encouraging the teaching of Intelligent Design in public school science classrooms. The TMLC recommended that biology teachers supplement their standard textbook with the textbook Of Pandas and People. That creationist tract would prove to be a key piece of evidence in the trial. In 2004 the TMLC found a willing accomplice in the school board for the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania, which was dominated by conservative Christians seeking a way to introduce creationism into their children's science classrooms.

On October 18, 2004, the school board met and voted 6-3 to add the following statement to their biology curriculum: “Students will he made aware of the gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of life is not taught." The next month the board added a statement to be read to all ninth-grade biology classes at Dover High:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.

As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments.

Copies of the book Of Pandas and People were made available to the school by William Buckingham, the chair of the curriculum committee, who raised $850 from his church to purchase copies of the book for the school. As he told a Fox-TV affiliate in an interview the week after the school board meeting, "My opinion, it's okay to teach Darwin, but you have to balance it with something else such as creationism.” But eleven parents of students enrolled in Dover High would have none of this, and on December 14, 2004, they filed suit against the district with the legal backing of the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The TMLC had the fight they were aching for. The suit was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and a bench trial was held from September 26 to November 4, 2005, presided over by Judge John E. Jones III, a conservative Christian appointed to the bench in 2002 by President Bush.

The primary task of the prosecution was to show not only that Intelligent Design is not science but that it is just another name for creationism, which the U.S. Supreme Court had already decided in Edwards v. Aguillard—the Louisiana case—could not be taught in public schools. Expert scientific witnesses testified on behalf of the prosecution, including Brown University molecular biologist Kenneth Miller and University of California, Berkeley, paleontologist Kevin Padian, both of whom rebutted specific Intelligent Design claims. More important were the expert testimonies of the philosophers Robert Pennock, from Michigan State University, and Barbara Forrest, from Southeastern Louisiana University, both of whom had authored definitive histories of the Intelligent Design movement. Pennock and Forrest presented overwhelming evidence that Intelligent Design is, in the memorable phrase of one observer, nothing more than "creationism in a cheap tuxedo."

It was revealed, for example, that the lead author of the book Of Pandas and People, Dean Kenyon, had also written the foreword to the classic creationism textbook What Is Creation Science? by Henry Morris and Gary Parker. The second author of Pandas, Percival Davis, was the co-author of a Young Earth creationism book called A Case for Creation. But the most damning evidence was in the book itself. Documents provided to the prosecution by the National Centre for Science Education revealed that Of Pandas and People was originally titled Creation Biology when it was conceived in 1983, then Biology and Creation in a 1986 version, which was re-titled yet again a year later to Biology and Origins. Since this was before the rise of the Intelligent Design movement in the early 1990s, the manuscripts referred to "creation," and fund-raising letters associated with the publishing project noted that it supported "creationism." The final version, by now titled Of Pandas and People, was released in 1989, with a revised edition published in 1993. Interestingly, in the 1986 draft, Biology and Creation, the authors presented this definition of the central theme of the book, creation, as follows:

Creation means that the various forms of life began abruptly through the agency of an intelligent creator with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc.

Yet, in Of Pandas and People, published after Edwards v. Aguillard, the definition of creation mutated to this:

Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, wings, etc.

So there it was, the smoking gun. The textbook recommended to students as the definitive statement of Intelligent Design began its evolving life as a creationist tract. Like the old Monty Python routine where the guy changes a dog license to a cat license by simply crossing out "dog" and writing in "cat," the creationists simply deleted "creation" and pasted in "intelligent design."

If all this were not enough to indict the true motives of the creationists, the prosecution punctuated the point by highlighting a statement made by the purchaser of the school's copies of Pandas, William Buckingham, who told a local newspaper that the teaching of evolution should be balanced with the teaching of creationism because "[t]wo thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can't someone take a stand for him?"

This was all too much even for the ultra-conservative Judge Jones. On the morning of December 20, 2005, he released his decision—a ringing indictment of both Intelligent Design and religious insularity:

The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board's ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus reli­gious, antecedents.

Judge Jones went even further, excoriating the board members for their insistence that evolutionary theory contradicts religious faith:

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs' scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way con­flicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

Demonstrating his understanding of the provisional nature of sci­ence, Judge Jones added that uncertainties in science do not translate into evidence for a non-scientific belief:

To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an un-testable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The judge pulled no punches in his opinion about the board's actions and especially their motives, going so far as to call them liars:

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

Finally, knowing how his decision would be received by the press, Judge Jones forestalled any accusations of him being an activist judge, and in the process took one more shot at the "breathtaking inanity" of the Dover school board:

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.



(Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, 2006, pp. 93-105)



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