Teaching Humanity’s Origins: Evolved or designed?

Next month will mark the 80th anniversary of the landmark Scopes trial, a riveting courtroom drama about the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theories of human origins in a Tennessee classroom. The court convicted science teacher John Scopes and fined him $100, but science won the day. Since then, it’s largely been Darwin in the classroom, God in the sanctuary.

But hostility to that division has been simmering for decades among concerned Christians and other believers who think that evolutionary science is not only wrong but hostile to their faith. They have sought an alternative that would acknowledge the possibility of God but also could be taught in public schools. They tried introducing “creation science,” which looked for evidence from nature that seemed to support the biblical account of creation. But the Supreme Court has twice struck down any such approach.

Now comes a movement known as “intelligent design.”

It was launched in the mid-1990s by a group of physicists, chemists, biologists and philosophers to challenge Darwin’s view that everything in the natural world came into being by an undirected process of natural selection and random mutations. These scientists accept evolution within species, but believe that because of their highly ordered complexity, some things like human eyes or cells are best explained as a product of an intelligent intent.

Maybe because so many Americans reject naturalistic evolution, intelligent design has attracted the attention of school boards and legislators in several states as well as religiously and politically conservative groups like the Eagle Forum. And more than 400 scientists in the past few years have signed a statement expressing their skepticism about Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

“Intelligent design is a far more sophisticated challenge to the prevailing view in science than creationism was, far more,” says Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum in Virginia. “It does not make any claims about the designer, who or what it is, but it opens the door to that possibility, not only scientifically but philosophically.”

Creationists may not support all intelligent design arguments, but have latched onto it as a vehicle for what they have not been able to achieve – raising questions about evolution in science classes.

“They are going to ride any vehicle that will do that,” Haynes says.

Evolution has not been a big issue in Utah until now. On June 3, Sen. Chris Buttars of West Jordan said he would propose giving equal time to what he called “divine design,” that is, that the world was created by a superior being.

“The divine design is a counter to the kids’ belief that we all come from monkeys. Because we didn’t,” the conservative Republican told The Salt Lake Tribune.

But proponents of intelligent design have a message for Buttars: Don’t help us.

“We get very upset when supposed friends are claiming far more than what the scholars are saying,” says John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle.

For one thing, they oppose requiring the teaching of intelligent design. What they are pushing, West says, is a thorough discussion of Darwinian theories which would include criticism raised by legitimate scientists.

That’s what the schools in Ohio and Minnesota have done and what intelligent design advocates hope will happen in Kansas, he says. But they don’t support the move in Dover, Pa., to add a statement about intelligent design to the curriculum. And they want nothing to do with Buttars’ so-called “divine design.”

“We wish [Buttars] would get the name right and not propose something he doesn’t understand,” West says.

The battle begins: It is not surprising that Darwin’s 1859 book The Origin of Species triggered intense opposition from religious people. At its core, Darwin’s theory of evolution presumed a natural process of development from simple to complex organisms, including humans. Scientific observation argued against the biblical account that God created the world in six days and directed subsequent events from his heavenly perch.

“Creation science,” as it was called, began in the 1920s with a Seventh-day Adventist geologist named George McCready Price, who claimed the Earth was actually much younger than scientists thought.

Noah’s flood first killed smaller animals, followed by vertebrate fish, and finally larger animals and man, Pearce wrote in 1923’s The New Geology. He argued that all these creatures lived at the same time, making any claims about an ancient Earth from the multilayered fossil record a fiction.

In the 1960s and ’70s, others tried to find evidence for a sudden creation of the universe, a separate ancestry for man and apes and a catastrophic worldwide flood.

But in 1981 and again in 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the teaching of creation science in public schools.

In the 1990s, several books, including Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins by Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon and Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution by Michael Behe critiqued traditional views of evolution and pressed a national debate among scientists.

Then Phillip Johnson, a retired legal scholar in Berkeley, Calif., considered the “founding father” of intelligent design, joined the fray. He published Darwin on Trial, which attracted the attention of many like-minded skeptics.

Johnson was “struck by the breadth of Darwin’s claims as opposed to how scanty were the observable changes,” he told The Washington Post last month. “I said that I shouldn’t take this up. I will be ridiculed and it will consume my life. Of course, it was irresistible.”

He wasn’t wrong about being ridiculed. The critics were fierce and opposition implacable.

Writing in The New Yorker, biologist H. Alan Orr called intelligent design “junk science.” Nick Matzke, spokesman for The National Center for Science Education, says it’s “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.” Few of Discovery’s research articles have been accepted in scientific journals. The American Civil Liberties Union and others have already launched a legal challenge to the Dover school position.

Still, intelligent design is not going away, says Haynes, who studies religious liberty issues for the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan think tank on First Amendment issues. “This challenge has legs. It will not be so easily defeated in the courts.”

On the home front: It is not clear when or if the intelligent design movement will find its way to Utah. Buttars said this week that he was prompted into action by calls from concerned parents who claimed their children were being taught that humans descended from apes.

“That’s got to stop,” Buttars says.

The truth is: It never began.

“We base our teachings solely on evidence,” says Patty Harrington, Utah’s Superintendent of Schools. “And there’s no empirical evidence man has sprung from the apes.”

Darwin believed apes and humans did have a common ancestor, Ann Story tells students in her biology classes at East High School in Salt Lake City, but that billions of years ago, apes went one way and humans another.

“Evolution is in the state core curriculum. It is what I am expected to teach and I don’t know how to present biology any other way,” Story says. “I don’t doubt that it is [the] way species have evolved but I tell the students they don’t have to believe it if they don’t want to. They just have to learn it well enough to pass my course.”

Buttars quickly backed down from his proposal, saying, if this is true, he no longer had a problem with the curriculum. Senate Majority Leader Peter Knudson agreed, saying, “I don’t see this as an issue we need to pursue.”

But some legislators, including Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, and Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, are willing to consider teaching intelligent design in tandem with evolution, and a statewide poll conducted last week for the Tribune found 52 percent support teaching it in Utah’s public schools.

“Kudos to him for having the courage to carry it forward,” Waddoups says.

And several religious educators also favor intelligent design in the classroom.

Caru Das, vice president of the Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, says Hindus believe that the most recent creation event happened about 155 billion years ago.

“It’s a calculation based on vedic mathematics, which follows a circular concept of time, rather than a linear one,” Caru Das says.

“There are a lot of points of contact between the vedic culture and the scientists that are not there between the scientists and the creationists.”

Intermountain Christian School in Holladay, a private Christian institution accredited by the state, uses secular textbooks in all its science classes, but also applies scriptures.

“All truth is God’s truth,” says Principal Rob Brown. “If there is a scientific truth, there is only one author behind that.”

Tribune reporters Leon D’Souza and Matt Canham contributed to this report.

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