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THE BLACK HOLE

Intelligent designs for public education

By JONATHAN THON | FEB 13 2014

We are very pleased to introduce a guest post from Dr. Mark Larson, an associate professor of biology at Augustana College, South Dakota. Mark is a distinguished scientist, a gifted lecturer and a strong advocate for science education. His article this week is particularly timely in light of recent events in the South Dakota Legislature.

Context

Early in February 2014, a member of the South Dakota State Legislature submitted a bill for consideration that would prohibit administrators of public schools in South Dakota from reprimanding teachers who chose to teach their students about intelligent design in the science classroom. South Dakota is not the first place where such bills have been introduced. However, teaching of intelligent design has largely been outlawed after the Kitzmiller v. Dover case in 2005 which ruled that intelligent design was, in effect, biblical creationism in disguise.

While there are some scientists who are trying to promote intelligent design on scientific grounds, most proponents of the idea are unabashed in their view that evolution is the problem, and is particularly a problem from certain religious standpoints. It is not hard to conclude that most of the support for intelligent design is not from a scientific perspective, but a concern that evolution undermines the culture and values that certain Christian sects tightly adhere to. Thankfully, the bill was pulled from consideration shortly after it was introduced.  However, the need to defend evolution will never cease.

Editor’s Note: Below is Mark’s response to an op/ed piece that ran in South Dakota’s largest newspaper on February 6th.

Response

As a professor at a private, church-based college, I am not compelled to follow any governmental decision about what can and cannot be taught in a public education setting. We are not bound by the precedent set by Edwards v. Aguilar (1987), which prohibited the teaching of literal biblical creationism as science in schools, or the findings of Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005), which found that intelligent design was religious enough in nature and scientifically questionable as to not be acceptable in the science classroom.

We teach evolution for the simple reason that it is the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life, and because evolution provides an underlying architecture that unifies all of biology. There are other ideas about how life came to be as it is (intelligent design is one), and there are scientists who are examining these possibilities. I won’t claim to know their motivations for doing so, religious or otherwise, and I won’t impugn their scientific acumen for exploring ideas off the beaten path. But their ideas must be subject to scrutiny, as all scientific ideas must be.

Under this scrutiny, the vast majority of scientists resoundingly reject the main premise of intelligent design – that if something looks designed, it is. Design proponents point to many cellular components as evidence for this idea, including blood clotting, the cellular immune system, and the main energy-producing protein in all cells. As we have learned more about these systems, there is surprising clarity and simple chemical explanations as to how these systems evolve. Not every scientist sees it this way – and in science, there is never 100% agreement. But to give equal footing to evolution and intelligent design has no basis in the scientific literature. To teach that evolution and intelligent design are in any way on equal footing is to basically discard the last 150 years of scientific progress. We do our students a tremendous disservice to claim the equality of scientific ideas that are not equal.

While evolution provides a powerful explanation for the diversity of life, the findings of evolution do not (and cannot) provide absolute proof as to the existence or non-existence of a higher power. While some people, scientists included, look at evolutionary biology and other aspects of science and conclude that there is no God, we don’t teach that either. However, there is no escaping that evolution does provide an explanation for the diversity of life on earth in a way that does not require a higher power’s intervention. Molecules following very basic chemical and physical principles come together in ways that are compatible with what we know of evolution. Organic molecules can form from inorganic precursors. RNA can be synthesized that self-replicates. Cells are organized in ways that are chemically spontaneous. Genes change and new cellular components arise in ways that are easily observable. Organisms show clear biological relationships to one another.

I am not naïve – I know that this can have profound implications.  If one believes that a higher power is responsible and necessary for life as we know it, the fact that evolution provides a model where no intelligent agent is necessary can be extremely disconcerting. This is not the intent of science.  Science’s only intent is to explain the unknown, and to follow the evidence wherever it may lead – separate from questions of meaning or purpose. The questions of “ultimate concern” do not change no matter what evolutionary biology tells us. We should not be fooled to believe that we are beholden to evolution in our examination of “how then shall we live.” Accordingly, we should not let this fear dictate how we teach our students in the science classroom.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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  1. Reuben Kaufman / February 19, 2014 at 20:24

    I see no harm in referring to ID in science classes, because our students will come across the issue one way or the other. Naturally, we would not teach it as an alternate scientific explanation, but we can, in a neutral and not belittling manner, explain the concept and show why it is not within the domain of science. This is not giving credence to ID, whose proponents pretend that ID is an “alternate theory”. We could teach our students that even if Darwinian evolution was ever to be abandoned totally by the scientific community (rather unlikely, in my opinion!), it certainly won’t be replaced by ID. That, I think, is a valuable concept to teach.

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