Intelligent Design and Creationism

The debate over the teaching of intelligent design in high school biology classrooms is one that is chaotic. There is little effective communication between both sides of the debate. The main reason for this is because the terminology that is used often takes on many different definitions. The word "creationism" has only fairly recently been coined and it is often used without providing any context as to what the person means when they use it. Sometimes the term refers simply to the belief in the Biblical account of creation, and denies that any creature that has never been seen by man existed. Others will use the definition to mean forces beyond those that are known to man today were involved in the creation of life, no matter how old the earth is and no matter what the history of life is, and that force is a divine being. For this piece, I will be using the latter definition ( You may argue that there is only one real definition of the word, but both have been used by journalists and other people and I assume that the latter definition is also used by anti-intelligent design pundits who say ID is "creationism disguised as science", because of course ID deals with creation itself, not necessarily the Genesis version – that is, of course, they are not just stupid or trying to mislead people). The belief that all evolution is the mechanism that has given rise to modern creatures and ecosystems without any "supernatural force" (e.g. a force today still unknown and uncorroborated by science) will hence be referred to as rational macroevolution. When I refer to intelligent design, I am speaking of the opposite - the belief of unknown forces involved in the creation of life.

Another term that can take on many forms is the word "evolution" itself. Some scientists will say, "We have seen evolution occur – calling it a 'theory' is incorrect!" That is only partially true. Any person who has had at least a high school course on biology will know that there are two kinds of evolution that scientists distinguish between – there is microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution deals with what has been observed. The classic case of the Galapagos finches that Darwin discovered (which by the way is created by shifts to different ends of certain polygenic spectra, not by changing the finch genome itself – all varieties of finch can still be interbred and no new species is created; as such, it is not evidence of complete species divergence that has to occur for evolution to be true) and the changing gene pool of creatures with very short generation times (such as mice and insects) are often referred to as proof of macroevolution, but they only demonstrate how the structure of gene pools can be altered due to cyclic or temporary changes in their environments. They do not demonstrate nor do they prove that simple single-celled organisms will over time form creatures as enormously complex as those in the current animalia kingdom (which is the theory of macroevolution – the grand scheme). I'm confidant that most experts will tell you that the theory of "genetic drifts" gradually leading to changes as drastic as those that have occurred in the known fossil record, which is known as "gradualism", is inadequate to totally explain all of evolution. Everyone knows that in the process of evolution, drastic changes need to be made and that natural selection through generations alone cannot create them. Examples of these changes are going from prokaryotic life forms to eukaryotic ones, (this one is still largely unexplained, and for each salient difference that distinguishes these two groups and how they arose, there are often multiple, mutually exclusive theories that each have their own impracticalities) single-celled organisms to multi-cellular ones, the creation of organs and organ systems, the transition to a simple circular chromosome to the gigantic, super-condensed and super-complex set of chromosomes that we see in animals today, and many more.

Therefore, other mechanisms have to exist, such as mutations. Even the simplest creatures (the ones that existed first) have mechanisms that prevent mutations (pathogenic bacteria, by the way, have many controlled mutations to ensure that they gain resistance to their hosts immune systems – odds are that if you warp just a few of the genes you can come up with an enzyme that will help you to survive the onslaught by host immune systems.) and so do all other living things. For living things that do not need controlled mutations to ensure that they can be an effective parasites, the odds of a mutation occurring, getting by the natural "proofreading" mechanisms the organism has, occurring in a coding section (non-intron) of the genome, occurring early enough in the development of the organism so that the mutation will spread to the other cells in the body, being expressed, and having a noticeable and beneficial effect are quite small.

But enough about the obvious weaknesses of the theory of rational macroevolution – time to talk about the concept of intelligent design and it's place in the education system. The most common argument bade by ID opponents is that ID is not science, since it cannot be tested, proved, or disproved. For one thing, it is incorrect to say that it cannot be proven. It would be more correct to say that it cannot be proven by any known scientific means. Is this not also true of rational macroevolution? The phenomenon of microevolution (which leads to changes in organisms that are virtually unnoticeable compared to those that macroevolution itself should produce) is observed, but to prove that macroevolution exists, would you not need to either go back in time or observe all life through the billions of years that life supposedly evolved through? Or at least create your own earth-like environment and see if advanced life evolves? Macroevolution is not science using this definition, and using the logic of ID opponents, should not be taught in schools. In this sense, believers of rational macroevolution are guilty of the same logical fallacy they accuse those that use the clockmaker analogy (1) of committing: making an assumption without finding definitive proof. Furthermore, just because something is not provable by any known scientific means, does not mean that it cannot be true. Einstein's principle of time dilation was deduced by other laws dealing with electricity, magnetism, and light, and was not provable until super-accurate atomic clocks could accurately measure time differences on the order of nanoseconds (that is, billionths of a second). Who knows what sort of equipment and techniques will be available to science in the future where theories that we thought were not provable become provable? Perhaps then we can get a better understanding of the practicalities of rational macroevolution.

This brings me to my next point: many people who would be believers in rational macroevolution would say that most major forces of nature and phenomena that are relevant to the shaping of young earth conditions have already been explained and if they have not been observed by now, then they must not exist. If one believes this – that the universe has no major surprises left for us except for maybe a few uninteresting words about black holes and quasars – they are sadly mistaken. There are scientists out there, such as the brilliant men and women who work at Fermi Lab, who are working on solving some of the most baffling paradoxes and mysteries science has ever known. When answers are found to these, they will undoubtedly drastically change the way that we look at the universe and will completely shatter many of our preconceived notions about it. Already, many great physicists, such as Stephen Hawking, have deist views on God and the creation of the universe. Einstein himself rejected the concept of atheism for agnosticism, if not deism itself. It is easy to see why many experts in the field of physics are more likely to reject non-belief in some form of God or higher power: understanding some of the befuddling implications of quantum mechanics and general relativity, and understanding the very, very, very delicate balances of forces in the atom that made the creation of the universe as we know it possible often makes people downright disdainful of the notion that the universe likely does not have some very powerful, ubiquitous, and hidden forces behind them that we have not yet uncovered.

All this having been said, what is my personal position on the teaching of ID in schools? My position is that it should be kept out of classrooms. There simply is not much for a discussion on the theory of ID, since it is way more vague than the concept of rational macroevolution. However, I do believe I have a solution that will make most people with strong opinions in this controversy happy.

To begin, I want to answer a question that you are likely to hear from many high school students and even some college students. Why are subjects taught in high school that have no direct relevance to the workplace? The answer is that what is important in these subjects is not necessarily the things that are learned in these classes, but the skills that are acquired. These skills include things like critical thinking, reasoning, and effective and clear communication. They are also useful in boosting the development of the brain – studies show that kids that take up activities such as music, art, and learning a foreign language can boost the development of the brain. The trouble with high school and even college level biology classes is that they are set up to be classes that involve mindless memorization and offer very little of anything that would be of value to students. Most biology curriculums (those that are in high schools and general biology classes at universities) will spend a majority of their time discussing the subjects of ecology, mechanisms of evolution, and organism taxonomy. All these subjects are tied to evolution, and presenting the curriculum in such a way that students will attain useful skills from them is difficult to impossible.

This is the reason why I believe it would be a good idea for all high schools in the country require a year of physics. Very few states require four credits in science for graduation, and many of them only require two years. Thus, many students are able to get a diploma without even setting foot inside a physics classroom. This is the reason why many college students can explain the concept of natural selection but cannot do something as mundane and simple as making a light bulb light up with a battery and a piece of wire. This is the reason why they can tell you who Charles Darwin (who in my opinion barely qualifies as a scientist if he qualifies as a scientist at all – the central thesis of his book - that organisms with traits best suited for their environment survive and procreate over those that don't - is common sense and does not compare to the thought experiments and mathematical and logical genius of many of the greatest physicists) is but cannot tell you who people like Nikola Tesla and Enrico Fermi are (hell, they probably wouldn't even know who Einstein is if it weren't for the fact that history classes may have cursory mentions of him, that his name has become a noun that means "genius", and his creation of the archetypal image of science geniuses with unkempt gray hair).

Physics, as a tool for aiding in the intellectual development of students, is immensely superior to evolution and all the subdisciplines of biology connected to it. Physics not only involves math, but also involves converting word problems into mathematical models to find the answers to them. This is a type of thinking and skill that many students seem to be lacking in. This is not to say, however, that the teaching of the subject of biology is not completely useless. Biology, when taught in schools, should focus more on the molecular, cellular, and organ system levels of organisms. These subjects not only generally require more critical thinking and less blind memorization, but they are also involve knowledge that would lead to a better understanding of the human body by the individual that could be useful in some real-life situations, even if a person does not go on to learn advanced concepts in biology at the university level. Doing these things will ensure that students have a chance to look at the world and the universe from less-God-skeptical and more deist physicist prospective and minimize the exposure of kids to macroevolution and possible insinuations that rational macroevolution is the only reasonable mean of macroevolution. So religious and metaphysical stuff stays out of schools, students will not feel as if they have to completely reconcile their belief or disbelief in the existence of God to be scientific, or that they are being intimidated for their religious beliefs, and students' quantitative skills will be fortified. Seems everyone wins.

(1) The clockmaker analogy is that when ones finds a clock, they assume that is has a creator and that similarly one should assume that living things do as well.