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scientists confront intelligent design and creationism

17 june 2007

It's the issue that will not go away: teaching evolution in public schools. It didn't go away after McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1981), or after Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), or after Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005). Despite defeat after defeat, opponents of evolution keep testing new ways to inject the public-school system with opposition to Darwin, common descent, natural selection, and indeed science itself. So a quarter-century after Laurie Godfrey's famous anthology Scientists Confront Creationism, she and Andrew Petto have returned to the lists, with an old opponent in a new guise for a new century.

Here's a confession. Even when I was in my mid-20s and had earned a doctorate (albeit in English Literature), I remained a skeptic on the subject of evolution. On the face of it, common descent of all life forms, by whatever means, is a wee bit counterintuitive. It asks one to believe that a mouse and a whale have a common ancestor. (As do a vole and an ostrich, or a whale and a starfish, but let's start with one of the milder claims.) Even with a whole bunch of greats appended, the idea that Stuart Little and Moby Dick have the same grandparents seems rather crazy.

How did I get to be such a skeptic? My high-school biology class involved aimless dissection of fetal pigs and frequent breaks to watch the 1972 World Series on TV. (Day baseball might have been worth the cost of prolonged ignorance.) In college, I avoided biology; I took physics and geology and astronomy instead. Grad school was not the time to brush up on my cladistics. I got duller and duller and more resistant, and even as an unchurched leftist of the 1980s, I was perfectly ready to believe that Somebody had created living species, because I could not conceive of a mechanism for their natural evolution.

It took years of determined reading to bring me round – reading Darwin, Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, Steven Jay Gould, Niles Eldredge, Ian Tattersall. The edifice of contemporary biology is enormous and complicatedly interwoven of materials from many different disciplines. (I am still only 2/3 of the way through Gould's cinderblock-like Structure of Evolutionary Theory, a book I hope to review here one day if I haven't completely forgotten its opening chapters by the time I finish.)

It would be misleading – and would play into the hands of creation "scientists" – to say that I am a "believer" in evolution now. It is not a matter of faith. I am convinced by some of the same evidence that led Darwin to his conclusions about selection. If human selectors can breed wild canines into Chihuahuas and Saint Bernards in a few hundred years' time, the conditions of nature can certainly breed generic mammals into voles and hippopotami over many millions. Intelligent design is unnecessary: all that is needed is some reason to favor certain types of creature over others in different environments – and different environments, natural selection provides aplenty.

But the immensity of natural history ensures that long years of education, self- or otherwise, are needed to explain the concepts of natural selection and common descent. It is not a topic amenable to coffee-stoked talk radio, beer-fueled dorm debates, or Fresca-sodden school board meetings. Still less is there likely to be common ground between scientists who have labored for decades to build an understanding of the Darwinian "view of life," and those religious believers whose entire Weltbild seems challenged by such a view. Certainly not when the general public appoints itself as arbiter, and when that general public is one whose secondary education in biology (thanks in part to the existence of the controversy) is as benighted as mine was.

Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism, the new collection edited by Petto and Godfrey, takes on creationists and "intelligent design" advocates directly, and also discusses the meta-problem of why creation "science" has such a hold on the public imagination in the United States.

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