Let Schools Provide Fuller Disclosure

SUNDAY, MARCH 29, 1998

Recent news from Post Falls has an all too familiar ring. A group of religiously motivated parents is pressing for the teaching of creationism alongside Darwinian evolution. If they succeed, many fear the American Civil Liberties Union will sue the school district.

On the surface, the Post Falls controversy appears to be yet another dreary and unproductive chapter in the American culture war over the teaching of Darwinism in the public schools.

Yet the Post Falls school board has done an unusual thing. Rather than capitulate to parental pressure or to threats of legal action, the board decided to study the issue to determine if parental concerns can be addressed responsibly without violating existing law.

To date, concerned parents in Post Falls have pressed for including so-called young-Earth “creation science” in the biology curriculum. Yet this approach was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case. Like it or not, Edwards has rendered legally problematic any attempt to teach biblically based young-Earth creationism in the public schools.

This does not mean, however, that parents have no grounds for concern about the present curriculum or that nothing can be done about it. Indeed, if board members do their homework, they will discover considerable latitude under existing law to address parental concerns about the present selective - and ideological - presentation of scientific evidence.

Current biology textbooks present only half the scientific picture. For example, at present only one of the standard high school biology texts even mentions the Cambrian explosion. Not a single text discusses the challenge that Cambrian fossils pose to Darwinian evolutionary theory. Indeed, fossil studies reveal “a biological big bang” near the beginning of the Cambrian period (530 million years ago) when at least 50 separate major groups of organisms, or phyla (including all the basic body plans of modern animals), emerged suddenly without clear precursors.

Fossil finds repeatedly have confirmed a pattern of explosive appearance and prolonged stability in living forms - not the gradual stepby-step change predicted by neo-Darwinism.

Yet students are rarely told about these findings. Some science educators justify the omission on the grounds that it would confuse students. But scientific literacy requires that students know all relevant facts, whether or not they happen to support dominant theories.

Consider another example. Many biology texts tell about the famous finches in the Galapagos Islands whose beaks have varied in shape and length over time. They also recall how moth populations in England darkened and then lightened in response to varying levels of industrial pollution. Such episodes are presented as conclusive evidence for evolution. And indeed they are, depending on how one defines evolution. Yet few biology textbooks distinguish the different meanings associated with “evolution” - a term that can refer to anything from trivial change to the creation of life by strictly mindless, material forces. Nor do they explain that the processes responsible for cyclical variations in beak length or wing color do not explain where birds, moths and biologists came from in the first place.

As a host of distinguished biologists (e.g. Stuart Kauffman, Rudolf Raff, George Miklos) have explained in recent technical papers, small-scale “micro-evolutionary” change cannot be extrapolated to explain large scale “macroevolutionary” innovation. Micro-evolutionary changes (such as variation in color or shape) merely utilize or express existing genetic information; the large-scale macro-evolutionary change necessary to assemble new organs or body plans requires the creation of entirely new genetic information.

Leading evolutionary biologists know that this distinction poses serious difficulties for modern Darwinism. Students should, too.

Textbook omissions do not mean that there isn’t a case to be made for Darwin’s theory or that students don’t have a right to hear it. They do. But students should know not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of contemporary Darwinism. They should also know that many scientists do not accept the Darwinian idea that life arose as the result of strictly mindless processes - that, instead, many scientists see powerful evidence of intelligent design.

Consider Dean Kenyon. For nearly 20 years, Professor Kenyon was a leading evolutionary theorist who specialized in origin-of-life biology. While at UC Berkeley in 1969, he wrote a book that defined for over a decade evolutionary thinking on the origin of life.

Yet as molecular biologists learned more about the complexity of living things, Kenyon began to wonder whether undirected chemistry could really produce the intricate information processing systems found in even “simple” cells. Studies of the genetic molecule DNA showed that the instructions inscribed along its spine displayed all the hallmarks of intelligent coding or language. Kenyon and many other scientists have now concluded that the information in DNA - like the information in a computer program, an ancient scroll or in this newspaper - had an intelligent source.

Another design theorist, Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, has recently written a book titled Darwin’s Black Box. Behe explains that during Darwin’s time, the biochemistry of life was as mysterious to scientists as the wires and chips inside a computer are to small children today. So long as scientists didn’t know how the biochemical machinery worked, they could reasonably believe that life had gradually self-assembled. Now that we know the inner workings of living systems, however, we can no longer entertain such superstitions.

In one section, Behe examines the intricate workings of an acid-powered rotary engine. What does this have to do with biology? Curiously this engine does not power a lawnmower or an automobile, but the propeller-like tails of certain bacteria. Behe shows that the intricate machinery in this molecular motor - including a rotor, a stator, O-rings, bushings and a driveshaft - requires the coordinated interaction of some 50 complex protein parts. Yet the absence of almost any one of these proteins would result in the complete loss of motor function. To believe this engine emerged gradually in a Darwinian fashion strains credulity. Natural selection only selects functionally advantageous systems. Yet motor function only ensues after the necessary parts have independently self-assembled - an astronomically improbable event. Behe concludes that a designing intelligence must have played a role.

In recent years, a growing number of scientists have begun to make a scientific case for the design hypothesis. One such book, “The Design Inference,” by William Dembski (a University of Chicago-trained Ph.D. in mathematics) is slated for publication with Cambridge University Press this year. Dembski’s book shows how scientists can identify the effects of intelligent causes and distinguish them from naturally caused phenomena.

Few rational people would, for example, attribute cave paintings or hieroglyphic inscriptions to natural forces such as wind or erosion. Dembski’s work shows why and establishes a scientific method for detecting intelligent causes. His work suggests that, for many scientists, the conclusion of design constitutes an inference from scientific evidence, not a deduction from religious authority.

Under existing law, high school science teachers have every right to discuss new developments in scientific thinking with their students, even if it challenges existing dogma. One can hardly imagine a credible legal challenge to a teacher who wants to discuss Behe’s book or Dembski’s ideas with students. At the very least, teachers should feel entirely free to inform their students of omissions in current textbooks.

Of course, some critics treat any criticism of Darwinism as a violation of church and state. Others argue that design theory, in particular, cannot qualify as science, since the designer postulated by Behe, Kenyon, Dembski and others cannot be observed or verified directly. Yet scientists often detect unobservable entities - quarks, forces, fields, the big bang - from their observable effects. Darwinists themselves postulate unobservable “transitional” organisms and allegedly creative processes that occur too slowly to be observed.

Others object to presenting design theory because it may have religious implications. Yet most origins theories have religious or philosophical implications. The present crop of biology texts makes no attempt to hide the antitheistic implications of contemporary Darwinism. Douglas Futuyma’s textbook tells students that Darwinism makes “theological explanations” of life “superfluous.” Kenneth Miller’s best-selling high school text from Prentice-Hall insists that “evolution works without either plan or purpose.” Indeed, by denying any evidence of intelligent design in nature, Darwinism promotes an antitheistic philosophy known as materialism.

Even so, the threat of indoctrination does not come from allowing students to ponder the philosophical issues raised by the origins question. Instead, it comes from force-feeding students a single ideological perspective.

Fortunately, there are now many resources that can help teachers rectify this imbalance without spoiling for a legal fight. Rather than censoring Darwinist texts or asking teachers to adopt religiously derived alternatives, parents and school boards concerned about ideological indoctrination should now insist on full scientific disclosure.


This sidebar appeared with the story: Lecture Gonzaga University will present Stephen C. Meyer as the fourth speaker in its Templeton Lectures on Christianity and the Natural Sciences at 7 p.m. April 2 in the Jepson Center Auditorium. The lecture, free and open to the public, is titled “DNA by Design: The Message in the Microcosm.”


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