Irresponsible Design


(This 753rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 4, 2005.)


The title of a recent New Yorker article is "Why Intelligent Design Isn't". For those who want answers to the claims of those who wish to insert religion into our school biology curricula, that article provides a good and quite brief start.


It is not my intent to debate further the specific issues so well addressed in that New Yorker piece; rather, I speak to the school board members of this region. You need to serve as a front line of defense for your besieged biology teachers.


Here is the problem.


My observation suggests that virtually all school board members are citizens who seek to enhance the quality of their community through their generous and altruistic contribution of time and energy. However, a few community activists, some of them also board members, seek to insert religion into our school biology curriculum.


Over the years these folks have fought the teaching of evolution in the schools. They first called their movement creation science, but when they found that approach stopped by the courts, they turned to what is now called intelligent design (ID).


They tell us that evolution cannot explain the differences among the species that inhabit the earth nor the complexity seen in living things. Thus there must be, as William Paley suggests, "a divine watchmaker", an intelligence that they clearly (although not explicitly in order to avoid further court setbacks) associate with their God.


Proponents of ID tell us that evolution is only a theory, just as theirs is and thus ID should be offered in contrast to evolution.


Evolution, like gravity, is a sound and well-tested scientific theory or explanation. ID, on the other hand, hasn't been shown to teach us anything about the natural world: "God wills it" or "the Bible tells us" or "the Koran insists" doesn't explain anything from a scientific standpoint. The idea that whenever one sees what appears to be irreducible complexity one sees the hand of God is a matter of faith and not of science.


That doesn't make those who believe in a higher power somehow bad. What is bad, however, is their confronting science with their faith. Many of us who accept evolution also believe in a higher power that shepherds us, but we reject this confrontation.


Science takes new information and places it in a coherent context intelligible to humans. That is in fact what evolution has done and continues to do. It takes a wide range of observations from geology, paleontology, chemistry, physiology, biology and every other scientific field and tests them against the larger theory. Millions of those observations fit perfectly but, when a few don't do so precisely, the theory itself is modified. In the process scientists argue. ID proponents focus on those arguments but, despite important new contributions from Mendelian, molecular and population genetics and many paleontological discoveries, basic evolutionary concepts remain recognizable from what I studied in school in 1944 or even what Darwin wrote in "The Origin of Species" in 1859.


At the University at Buffalo and every other state college evolution is taught matter-of-factly and without controversy. It is accepted there as unexceptional as the organizing principle of biology and geology. So too is it taught at private schools like Canisius College.


If we don't teach our students solid biology, including its fundamental idea evolution, we cannot expect our biotech industry, to say nothing of agriculture and medicine, to progress and to retain for us our position of world leadership in those fields. And if school districts want their students to go on to good colleges and to do well in science, their teachers must teach modern biology, which includes evolution.


I urge school board members not to contribute to your biology teachers' problems. Don't desert these teachers and let them be browbeaten in their classrooms and in their community by those who seek to force on them and their students ideas that run counter to the science they are assigned to teach. Find ways to shield these important school staff members from the current barrage of unwarranted attacks.-- Gerry Rising