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Intelligent Design and Evolution (re-edited)

Guest - August 7, 2005

Submitted by Bret

To those few of you who read my garbled first post on this issue, please accept my apologies. All it really was was exactly that, garbled info I found interesting but did not verify (very unlike me). I guess the only real issue I have with the whole issue (before I started spouting off) is what I originally was trying to get at: What is everyone’s take on teaching intelligent design (ID) in the classroom alongside evolution?

I had no problem being taught evolution, as it has some very good ideas. However, I very much did not like it being taught to me as FACT. There is a reason it is called a theory and not a law. (I often joke about the same thing concerning music theory) I personally think both ideas, if taught, should be taught as they are called, as theories only, that we still do not know for a fact how the universe was created (or organized, as we mormons like to call it) and this is what has been postulated so far.

What do you think?


  1. Bret,
    I wish you wouldn’t have erased your last post and all the comments. Some people had put a lot of thought and time into those and they are now lost. We’re all learning here.

    Appologies to those who had engaged in the original conversation. Please don’t let this hinder you from returning.

    Comment by Rusty — August 7, 2005 @ 4:37 pm

  2. Bret, I also wish that you had kept the original discussion intact. It was a nice illustration of the problem with the political debate over Intelligent Design: the ID perspective is often more rhetoric than substance. This is, in my opinion, the reason it shouldn’t be in the schools. High-school students sometimes don’t have the math skills, scientific knowledge, and familiarity with the debate necessary to figure out the problems with superficially seductive arguments offered by advocates of ID. Until they’ve developed those tools, it’s probably safer to stick to teaching them the consensus among the thousands of working scientists who do have such skills.

    If you’re really worried that students get the whole picture, it would be fine to pick a few issues related to evolution and go into some depth about the current state of the evidence and the theory. This would allow the students to see that the evidence in favor of the general evolutionary perspective is pretty overwhelming, but that there is still some work to be done on a lot of specific points. Anything that helps students understand science as the ongoing elaboration of theory and evidence is a good idea in my book.

    But the truth of the matter is that the evidentiary argument against evolution is substantially weaker than the evidentiary argument against Joseph Smith. Do you think we should make Dan Vogel’s Joseph Smith biography mandatory reading for seminary students? Vogel, however much we might dislike him, is on firmer evidentiary ground than the ID folks usually are.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — August 7, 2005 @ 5:35 pm

  3. Ditto to the others.

    I’d add that the whole fact/theory distinction in science is problematic. Within science a fact is at best a theory we’re pretty sure of.

    Comment by Clark Goble — August 7, 2005 @ 6:02 pm

  4. This came out kind of long, so here’s a summary of statements:

    ID is not science. ID is religious propaganda.

    If ID is so correct, why does it so freely disseminate lies and deceit?

    The mountain of evidence from every relevant field of science supports the theory of evolution; it is as close to truth as it can be, given the knowledge of the day.

    Evolution has know bearing whatsoever on your eternal salvation.

    And more details here:

    1) ID is not science. Evolution is taught as fact because, as far as biologists are concerned, the debate is over. The scientific evidence supporting evolution is overwhelming, and is increasing constantly. There is no science supporting ID, only propaganda (twisted explanations and distortions of the actual science), “lack of evidence,” and philosophical trickery. When the ID camp can publish their “science” in the leading journals, such as “Science,” and “Nature,” those viewpoints have some place in the science classroom. As it stands, evolution is supported by a mountain of evidence, growing taller and more solid by the day. ID is the dim hope that the tiniest fragment of that evidence is wrong.

    Gravity is a theory. No kidding, a paper within the last year asserted that the theory of gravity is wrong. I’m a little weak on the physics behind it so I can’t really form an opinion. The same goes for evolution. I’ve got PhD in molecular biology. Many biologists don’t really understand evolution because they take it for granted. I only have a decent understanding of evolution from a molecular genetic, biochemical standpoint, with a little genomics and molecular evolution of development tossed in for good measure. If I wasn’t Mormon, I doubt I would have looked into it as much as I have. Here’s my point, unless you have an advances degree in evolutionary biology, you won’t really understand the data that supports it. If you don’t understand the data, you are at the whim of whoever you want to believe.

    I don’t understand the geology, the anthropology, the chemistry, the physics, that support evolution. I’ve only got one part of the story covered. I’ve got to take someone’s word on the rest. I trust the science. The science does not have the reckless agenda the ID/Creationist camps. Those camps are not seeking to discover truth, they are seeking to prove the existence of God to others. Good luck with that. The “evidence” supporting ID that was deleted from your post, it was full of lies and deceit, as shown in every response. If ID is so correct, why does it so freely disseminate lies and deceit?

    2) ID is religious propaganda. It is a weak extension of Creationism (yes, I know there is a difference between the two) and as an extension of Creationism, it is a religious viewpoint. Not any religious viewpoint, but a Christian viewpoint. If ID has any place in school, it is alongside the creation myths from every other religion in culture in the world. Why should the creationism of Christians be favored over that of the Native Americans? Why shouldn’t they be given equal weight? I have no problem with these traditions in school; I do have a problem if only one of them is in the classroom, especially the science classroom. To favor ID is to favor the Christian religion; and I think it is a dangerous thing to favor any religion in public schools.

    3) Evolution doesn’t matter. It’s not a question on the temple recommend interview. It’s ridiculously tangential to the salvation of anyone. There are far greater problems in America and the world to dignify this minor question with such time and fervor. It doesn’t matter. Personally, I believe God played some role in evolution, so I don’t believe whole-heartedly in the theory of evolution. But I do believe everything evolved. You can hang your hat on it. The evidence is becoming so overwhelming, in 50 years your grandchildren will laugh when they hear that their grandparents didn’t believe in evolution.

    Comment by another — August 7, 2005 @ 6:14 pm

  5. I am surely not very qualified to opine meaningfully on this subject, and am certainly less knowledgeable about it than others here. But I’ll run my mouth anyway …

    It seems to me that we need to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of teaching science to highschool students? What is “science” class designed to do? I always figured its purpose was to teach students the current state of “knowledge” in the hard sciences (and perhaps, to teach a bit of the critical thinking that helps to bring advances in particular fields, though perhaps that task is not handled nearly as well as it should be). So the question as to what should or should not be included in the curriculum is best answered by assessing the strength of various theories (and their competitors) and drawing some sort of practical line that manageably limits the curriculum to that which is sufficiently mainstream that it commands the assent of the vast majority of those scientific experts qualified to express meaningful assent. I imagine that there are counter-theories to almost every scientific proposition under the Sun, and it surely would be impracticable to present them all.

    My sense is that historically, those who agitate for Creationism in the classroom see Evolution as a philosophical system at war with their own religious philosophies (and with very different epistemological assumptions than their own philosophies), and don’t want their children exposed to theories of knowing that are different than their own (or at least that yield different conclusions on certain matters than their own do) without those theories being met with a robust response.

    The problem is, science class is designed to teach kids science. It is not designed to survey the various epistemologies with currency in our culture and to attempt to compare them. It seems to me that if parents want their children to be taught Creationism in school, they should be agitating for “epistemology” classes as part of the curriculum, rather than for the inclusion of non-scientific theories in “science” classes. (Of course, we’d still face the problem of which philosophical, religious or mythological ways of knowing to to include). Note that the fact that Creationism appears to be driven by those with religiously sectarian agendas isn’t even really the point.

    Enter ID. My understanding is that ID arose out of the belated realization that overtly religious tactics weren’t going to get the job done, but trying to fight “science” on its own turf (i.e., by dressing Creationism up as a scientific counter-theory) might. And yet, the origin of ID (assuming I got this right) really isn’t the point. The point is that, unless a significant contingent of scientists start to view ID as a serious “scientific” theory, it shouldn’t meet the standard of what is taught in science class. And this remains true, regarless of whether there really is an intelligent designer, or indded, regardless of whether “evolution” is even “true” in any sense.

    Aaron B

    Comment by Aaron Brown — August 7, 2005 @ 7:38 pm

  6. Let me restate one part of this again: The fact that we include “science” classes as part of our highschool curriculum need not be understood as an ideological stand that attempts to privilege the scientific method as a way of knowing that is superior to other methods. The existence of science classes merely shows that, as a society, we believe that there is one way of knowing (the scientific method) which seems to have led to beneficial results to mankind, and so we think our children should study it. There may be other ways of knowing that are important, indeed, even superior (based on some set of criteria), but they aren’t included in “science” class simply because they aren’t “science.” That’s all. If there are other ways of knowing that are sufficiently important that they should be taught to students also, then by all means, concerned citizens should lobby for these new types of classes.

    Aaron B

    Comment by Aaron Brown — August 7, 2005 @ 7:50 pm

  7. Looks like I missed the whole deal, but I want to give a hearty concurence to Aaron’s last comment.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 7, 2005 @ 10:50 pm

  8. Aaron,
    What are you suggesting? That we have some kind of “spiritual” classes (not that that could ever happen) exploring other ways of finding Truth? Or even through some other methods that we still don’t know about? I understand what you are saying, but it doesn’t sound like you have a solution (which I’m not saying you need, I just want to be clear as to what you’re saying).

    Comment by Rusty — August 7, 2005 @ 11:04 pm

  9. The state of the evidence on some questions is so thin that the theories are inevitably philosophical, rather than scientific in nature. The problem is that many scientists are in the habit of teaching their a priori philosophical assumptions as well supported facts when in truth none are in evidence. Where is the scientific evidence that the origin of life was an accident? There is none. Where is the scientific evidence that excludes all possibilities other than the strictest materialism? Has some scientist solved the mind-body problem and neglected to tell us about it? Proven the non-existence of the spirit? Established beyond doubt that free will is an illusion? Constructed a true artificial intelligence?

    Until these questions are answered in the affirmative it will always be in good form to mention that some scholars have principled objections to the common subtext of the theory of evolution as the key to life, the universe, and everything.

    Comment by Mark Butler — August 8, 2005 @ 1:37 am

  10. First, I want to thank all of you for being so gracious to me and my bad construing of ideas (a problem I have struggled with as ong as I can remember) on this very controversial topic. I also apologize for having to erase the original and losing some of your very good comments, but I felt it was in the best interest to everyone to not continue a post that was so badly formed and give you the wrong impression of me or my thoughts or hurt the reputation of Rusty’s fine blog.
    I also concur with your thoughts, Aaron. Very insightful.
    Roasted Tomatoes,
    I see your point and no, all I suggest is that if science feels comfortable with calling evolution a law, then teach it as such, but if they call it a theory, then please teach it that way. The same goes for every law and/or theory out there. Like I said about music theory, there’s a reason it’s called that and all the teachers I’ve had on the subject had no problem acknowledging it. Music theory as taught to us is just the way we happen to look at it. When I was taught evolution it was never even hinted at that their were gaps in the theory or that there were any alternatives. Anyone who thought otherwise and expressed as such was made a bit of a fool. Maybe I just got unlucky in my schooling but if it happens, I think it’s a problem.
    Speaking of gaps I do very much like what you said (or was it someone else?) concerning the fact that ID just teaches that there’s a god of gaps (he fills them in, supposedly) and doesn’t do much to teach the science of the whole issue. I had not thought of it that way before.
    These things of course will probebly forever remain in controversy. The real problem lies in the belief that man ascribes the wonders of the universe to nothing and not to it’s rightful organizer/creator, but nobody here would have an argument with that8)

    Comment by Bret — August 8, 2005 @ 3:06 am

  11. Bret, there are gaps in the theory of evolution–but they’re small and technical. There are alternative theories of evolution, but there’s no scientifically credible alternative to evolution. And, as some of the other commenters have pointed out, there’s no real difference in science between a law and a theory. The theory of evolution has as much empirical support as about any other idea in human history, so a good deal of confidence with respect to the basic idea is scientifically warranted.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — August 8, 2005 @ 8:56 am

  12. Bret, I tend to think you DID get unlucky in your schooling. Musical theories are nothing like scientific theories.

    I think many religious people feel comfortable writing off evolution because it is “just a theory.” But theory doesn’t mean the same thing to scientists that it means to lay people.

    Here is some really good info explaining the difference, from http://wilstar.com/theories.htm

    (Sorry this is so long, but this is such a pet peeve, that I have to post it. Delete it if you must…)

    Three such terms that are often used interchangeably are “scientific law,” “hypothesis,” and “theory.”

    In layman’s terms, if something is said to be “just a theory,” it usually means that it is a mere guess, or is unproved. It might even lack credibility. But in scientific terms, a theory implies that something has been proven and is generally accepted as being true.

    Here is what each of these terms means to a scientist:

    Scientific Law: This is a statement of fact meant to explain, in concise terms, an action or set of actions. It is generally accepted to be true and univseral, and can sometimes be expressed in terms of a single mathematical equation. Scientific laws are similar to mathematical postulates. They don’t really need any complex external proofs; they are accepted at face value based upon the fact that they have always been observed to be true.

    Some scientific laws, or laws of nature, include the law of gravity, the law of thermodynamics, and Hook’s law of elasticity.

    Hypothesis: This is an educated guess based upon observation. It is a rational explanation of a single event or phenomenon based upon what is observed, but which has not been proved. Most hypotheses can be supported or refuted by experimentation or continued observation.

    Theory: A theory is more like a scientific law than a hypothesis. A theory is an explanation of a set of related observations or events based upon proven hypotheses and verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers. One scientist cannot create a theory; he can only create a hypothesis.

    In general, both a scientific theory and a scientific law are accepted to be true by the scientific community as a whole. Both are used to make predictions of events. Both are used to advance technology.

    The biggest difference between a law and a theory is that a theory is much more complex and dynamic. A law governs a single action, whereas a theory explains a whole series of related phenomena.

    An analogy can be made using a slingshot and an automobile.

    A scientific law is like a slingshot. A slingshot has but one moving part–the rubber band. If you put a rock in it and draw it back, the rock will fly out at a predictable speed, depending upon the distance the band is drawn back.

    An automobile has many moving parts, all working in unison to perform the chore of transporting someone from one point to another point. An automobile is a complex piece of machinery. Sometimes, improvements are made to one or more component parts. A new set of spark plugs that are composed of a better alloy that can withstand heat better, for example, might replace the existing set. But the function of the automobile as a whole remains unchanged.

    A theory is like the automobile. Components of it can be changed or improved upon, without changing the overall truth of the theory as a whole.

    Some scientific theories include the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity, and the quantum theory. All of these theories are well documented and proved beyond reasonable doubt. Yet scientists continue to tinker with the component hypotheses of each theory in an attempt to make them more elegant and concise, or to make them more all-encompassing. Theories can be tweaked, but they are seldom, if ever, entirely replaced.

    Comment by terry — August 8, 2005 @ 10:51 am

  13. Personally I find Michael Ruse’s numerous writings on the subject to be by far the best. Though he is a naturalist, he sends his children to a private Christian school and was himself one of the star witnesses in the creatism trials in Arkansas. He wrote a book titled “Can a Darwinian be a Christian?” to which he answered “yes, but it is tough at times.”

    I also find his views regarding the theory/fact status of evolution to be very helpful. He separated evolution into 3 aspects: 1) evolution as fact, namely that it happened. This is undisputed among scientists and the evidence is simply overwhelming. To say that evolution happened is but a theory really is ridiculous. 2) mechanisms of evolution, as in how it happened. Right now the main mechanism is supposed to be natural selection, however other mechanisms are occasionally put forth and even accepted. It is possible that natural selection could be over thrown, but it seems really doubtful. 3) path of evolution, what path did a particular species follow in their evolutionary past? Obviously, since there are millions of species which need to be studied, this field is still largely theory. Of course there are holes here, which IDists love to exploit, but this is not because the idea of evolution is flawed. It’s only because we are humans who have little access to the past for obvious reasons, and to the present to the limited man-hours. It should be pointed out that Behe’s book is entirely based on exploiting this natural gap in our knowledge.

    Thus in one sense evolution really is as factual as you could ever hope a science to be, but in other aspects it is theoretical, due to no fault of its own.

    I do think that as long as the arguments against evolution go unmet, which is a big qualifier since most of their arguments have been met, these criticisms should be presented, but probably not to high schoolers. This is different from actually teaching Intelligent Design, which can hardly be considered science at all. If irreducible complexist really is an issue (and I personally don’t think it is) then present the argument of irreducible complexity, not the idea that a Designer is the only other option.

    If the ID’s have science to offer, lets see it, but if all they have is a magical “designer” who does all the work, lets recognize it for what it is.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — August 8, 2005 @ 11:10 am

  14. “That’s all. If there are other ways of knowing that are sufficiently important that they should be taught to students also, then by all means, concerned citizens should lobby for these new types of classes.”


    Mormon kids get get seminary and institute. In college anyone can take philosophy. What more do you want?

    Comment by Anonymous — August 8, 2005 @ 11:26 am

  15. To me there are two big problems with ID as scientific theory. The first is that it isn’t falsifiable. You can’t test it in order to disprove it. This is a major problem in my mind. Of course some people would probably say the same thing about evolution.

    The more troubling aspect of ID is that it doesn’t answer who created the Designer. So really they’ve just shifted the question of where intelligence comes from. Since they didn’t like the answer that evolution came up with they’ve moved the target, but it still doesn’t work as scientific theory.

    Of course Mormonism allows for an endless recursion of designers designing designers. Oddly enough, Mormonism also includes a form of natural selection in this process…

    Comment by a random John — August 8, 2005 @ 12:01 pm

  16. Real quick — I don’t have any time to respond right now…

    I don’t actually want Creationism/ID/religious creation myths taught in school. Trust me folks, I’m very much on the other side of this issue. Completely. I was just trying to make the point that people who feel threatened by evolutionary theory should think about what “science” class is for, and not get caught up in the epistemological battles in the classroom.

    I was probably uncharacteristically conciliatory in tone, which led some to think I was more sympathetic for the other team than I really am.

    Aaron B

    Comment by Aaron Brown — August 8, 2005 @ 12:28 pm

  17. Thank you much everyone! I’ve learned a lot from all of your comments and I think I understand the issue a whole lot more.
    That’s a fantastic overview of it those terms. Maybe the understanding of those terms should be taught and/or re-emphasized in school then? Though I’ve vaguely been aware of those definitions before, obviously I sure could have used them>:)
    Good points. I especially like what you said about “If irreducible complexist really is an issue then present the argument of irreducible complexity, not the idea that a Designer is the only other option.” That may be a way to help get around the whole issue itself.
    a random John,
    “Of course Mormonism allows for an endless recursion of designers designing designers. Oddly enough, Mormonism also includes a form of natural selection in this process…”

    Very true!:)

    Comment by Bret — August 8, 2005 @ 6:00 pm

  18. Bret,

    “If irreducible complexist really is an issue then present the argument of irreducible complexity, not the idea that a Designer is the only other option.”

    The problem is, however, that the argument of irreducible complexity isn’t very good. Ruse uses the example of those semi-circular stone bridges. It couldn’t have been built piece by piece because it would have collapsed. Therefore, God must have built all semi-circle stone bridges in the world. Not true, because there once were peices supporting the semi-circle and once the stone were all in place the under structure could be taken away, leaving us with what we have now.

    The same is true for irreducible design. Organs don’t have to be used for the same function and therefore be subject to the same selective pressures forever. Selection works on whatever is available. Not only that, but some parts of an organ, or even an entire organ itself, can disappear if it serves no selective advantage, just like the bridges under structure.

    Suddenly, complexity is actually quite reducible indeed. Of course actually saying that systems could have evolved bit by bit is something other than showing that it actually did evolve bit by bit. But this caveat simply reduces the matter to the typical creationist argument that until you show me how each and every thing has evolved gradually I won’t budge an inch. This is, as Paulsen has noted, an unstable appeal to ignorance, a Designer of the gaps if you will, who will only exist so long and inasmuch as there are gaps.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — August 8, 2005 @ 6:58 pm

  19. A few issues.
    1. We might say that science is simply one way of knowing, and that we can only include things in the course that imply that way of knowing, but empiricism, the idea that data or observation can directly prove something, that it is interpretation-free is a privileged idea that gets a lot more air time than any other way of knowing. Witness the kids in my first-year writing classes who all think they can prove abortion is bad with statistics.
    2. We may say that publicaiton in leading journals is the sign of good science, but those who decide what gets published are often biased against certain ideas. Witness an associate who rejected an article without serious consideration because it was about a theory that was counter to what she saw as mainstream research in the are and that she saw as part of a “quack” field of inquiry. I think it would be much harder to be published as a researcher whose conclusions favored ID than as a researcher whose conclusions favored evolution.
    3. At the same time, discourse in fields favors certain ideas. At times, it is hard to write about certain ideas/theories without sounding a bit less credible if only because the terms used to describe certain ideas in that field of inquiry label those ideas a less credible.
    4. People do often decide to lobby for the inclusion of other ways of knowing in the high school curriculum, but things that question the primacy of empiricism get labeled as religious or radical. Back-to-basics political rallying cries like the no-child fiasco take the thrust out of programs to help kids think about what they are learning, and high school is increasingly a place where kids are expected to simply absorb “facts.”
    5. My own take–I do believe that evolution is an operative force. I was lucky enough to be taught evolution in a department that was more than half LDS. They never taught ID, but they did keep our minds open on the implications of evolution. Thus I never became defensive about evolution and it wasn’t hard for me to believe in evolution and be a member of the church. I must point out that this left a host of possibilities open, and I still believe in a limited view of evolution. The frist presidency has been fairly clear in their statement on the origins of man that man did not evolve from lower forms of life. If I had been taught evolutionary ideas by someone whose agenda was to break down my faith in anything but materialism, I may have reacted very differently when comparing what I had been taught with such first-presidency statements.
    There was a really good David O McKay lecture on the subject a little over a year ago at BYU Hawaii. The talk isn’t up on the web yet, but there is an article at:

    Comment by Anonymous — August 8, 2005 @ 7:21 pm

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