Design and Other Religious Beliefs
December 30, 2005
Last week sanity
in American education was hopefully restored as
a Federal court banned the school board of Dover
County, Pennsylvania from teaching “intelligent
design” in its high school biology classes.
US District Judge John Jones condemned the “breathtaking
inanity” of the school board that tried
to sneak this bit of Christianity into the public
The “intelligent design” movement
is just the latest manifestation of fundamentalist
Christianity’s attempt to teach the Bible
in science classes. Charles Darwin, the scientist
who developed the theory of evolution by natural
selection, himself realized that this was a major
and severe blow to those who believed in the literal
truth of the Biblical account of creation in seven
days found in the Book of Genesis. Almost immediately
there arose a backlash among literalist Christians
who could not accept Darwin’s theory because
it would mean the Bible was not literally true.
While these groups were present in Europe, they
really came into their own in what became known
as “fundamentalist” Christianity in
the US. Christian fundamentalism remains quite
strong in the US even in the present time.
Fundamentalists first tangled with Darwin in the
1920s during the famous Scope Case, where a Tennessee
teacher was tried for violating the state ban
on teaching evolution. That case held up fundamentalists
to national ridicule.
After the shock of the Soviet launch of the Sputnik
satellite in 1957, the US embarked on a national
program of upgrading the quality of science education.
A result was the widespread teaching of evolution,
even in conservative states with fundamentalist
populations. This led to a backlash, which culminated
in court cases in the early 1980s in which local
school boards were trying to teach “Creationism”
alongside with evolution. This was pitched as
providing equal time to multiple explanations
of the origins of life on Earth. The courts saw
through the charade, and banned “creationism”
as just dressed-up religion.
By the late 1990’s, fundamentalist Christianity
was ready for another try. This time they wanted
to apply more direct scientific veneer to their
schemes. The religious package would now be wrapped
inside something called “intelligent design”.
This concept, propounded by Michael Behe, who
is a tenured university professor, proclaimed
that certain elements of biology, particularly
at the level of proteins within the cells, were
so complex that they could not conceivably have
evolved. Behe also argued that some processes
were so complex and interdependent on a whole
slew of proteins that there was no way they could
all have evolved together simultaneously. Given
that assumption, the logical conclusion is that
an “intelligent designer” had to make
them. Neither Behe nor the school board in Dover
County would say out loud who this designer is,
but it is clearly God, not little green men from
Mars (and if it was men from Mars, then we still
have the problem of how they came to be!).
The problem with intelligent design is that it
is not science. A scientific theory, such as evolution
by natural selection, must explain the observed
facts using the laws of nature as they are known.
In addition, a real scientific theory must be
testable and falsifiable. If for example, the
DNA of a lion was more similar to an elephant
than a tiger, that would falsify the theory of
evolution, as evolution clearly predicts that
tigers and lions, based on their biological similarity,
must have evolved from a common ancestor. Intelligent
design makes no testable predictions nor does
it explain the observed facts.
Evolution is the only theory that explains why
all life shares a common biochemistry, and why
the closer two species are in the fossil record
and in their biological characteristics, the closer
they are in their DNA. Evolution also explains
why life exists in groups of species with shared
characteristics. Just think of the whales or the
bats or the beetles (there are literally thousands
of beetle species in existence). And if we look
in the fossil record for example, we find over
30 different species of elephants and mammoths
that existed in the last few million years. Evolution
also explains why some species can interbreed
and produce young (horses and donkeys to make
Science should be taught in science class and
religion in religion class. Islam does not have
a story that has the literal elements of Genesis.
Which makes it doubly disturbing to see so much
creationist literature in mosque bookstores around
the country. It is in fact an odd example of Christian
fundamentalist thinking entering Muslim thought.
Comments can reach me at Nali@socal.rr.com.