Looking for intelligent design in America

Posted: Aug 05, 2005 12:00 AM

I'm not sure it's kosher to play devil's advocate when the subject is evolution vs. intelligent design, but here goes.

Americans are atitter following President George W. Bush's comments that public schools ought to teach both evolution and the nascent theory of "intelligent design" (ID). The president's remarks, now dissected more ways than Genesis, were in response to questions from a group of Texas journalists.

His words seem uncontroversial enough - that kids ought to be taught both ID and Darwin (not necessarily in equal amounts, though he wasn't explicit on that point) "so people can understand what the debate is about."

So far, that seems a galaxy or two short of left field. Then, as reported by The New York Times, he clarified:

"I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

Atheists, secularists and others whose aversion to religion sometimes borders on fanaticism - there's no dogma like no dogma - see in Bush's remark a subversive move toward replacing Darwin's theory of evolution with a creationist view of man's origin.

Proof of this nefarious conspiracy is hinted at by the Times' mention that ID has been discussed in a weekly Bible study group at the White House. What else would they discuss in Bible study? Howard Dean?

I don't doubt that deeply religious Americans weary of assaults on everything from the Ten Commandments in public buildings to God in the "Pledge of Allegiance" find solace in any public expression of respect for their beliefs. That some will exploit Bush's comments to their further comfort - and even to advance their own educational preferences - will surprise no one.

But there's no reason to assume from Bush's comments that Darwin is facing extinction, or that Americans suddenly will sprout webbed toes and retreat into the slime if ID is mentioned in schools.

Before I forget, one quick correction to the Times story deserves mention. In a Freudian slip of biblical proportions, the reporter misquoted Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, an advocacy group for ID. Commenting on Bush's remark, Meyer was quoted as saying:

"We interpret this as the president using his bully pulpit to support freedom of inquiry and free speech about the issue of biblical origins." Except Meyer didn't say "biblical"; he said "biological origins." The Times promised a correction.

Back to playing devil's advocate, what if ID were taught in the interest of making education more interesting? Whatever else is true or merely theoretical, the question of man's origin is endlessly fascinating, as demonstrated by headlines and blogs this week. The Web site technorati.com, which tracks public interest in the blogosphere, counted 17,000 blog entries on ID as of midday Thursday.

If adults find the issue that compelling, might not high school students also? I realize students have been rendered nearly insomniac by the intense level of intellectual stimulation commonly found in public schools, but what's the harm in spiking the punch a little?

Meanwhile, the father of evolutionary theory seems in no danger of being displaced by Bush or advocates of ID, which, by the way, is not the same as creationism, as is often misunderstood.

John G. West Jr, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, explains that while creationism defends a literal interpretation of Genesis and a biblical God, the theory of ID "is agnostic regarding the source of design and has no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text.

"Instead, intelligent design theory is an effort to empirically detect whether the 'apparent design' in nature observed by biologists is genuine design (the product of an organizing intelligence) or is simply the product of chance and mechanical natural laws."

Not exactly wacky wisecracking from the lunatic fringe. Objectively, what would be the harm in inviting discussion of this new theory alongside others that have the imprimatur of modern science? Truth has nothing to fear from charlatans, after all. And alert, stimulated children incited to prove or disprove intelligent design would hardly suggest a failure of public education.

As an indefatigable fan of metaphor, I am personally disinclined to go literal on most anything beyond instructions for dismantling bombs. But if the creationists are right and Genesis is to be taken literally, I'd bet my immortal soul that God is shaking his head right now thinking, "I never shoulda created the apple."

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