Debating creation

Some call it a form of secular creationism. Others argue the human cell is so complex that it must have been created by a higher power. Either way, the discussion of “intelligent design”—the alternative theory to evolution that claims the universe must have been created by a supernatural force—has generated both virulent opposition and support.

The Dover, Pa., School District made national news late last year when its board voted to require teachers to read a written statement about “intelligent design” at the start of the unit on evolution and to refer students to a book on the subject. Then, last month, the board ruled biology teachers are not required to read a statement that says Darwin’s theory of evolution is just that—a theory—and cannot be proven by fact.

But the incident was enough to prompt Penn Assistant Professor of Philosophy Michael Weisberg and Associate Professor of Biology Paul Sniegowski to pen an open letter to the school board stating “intelligent design” is merely a form of creationism propped up by a biased and selective view of scientific evidence. The letter was sent in early January and signed by 31 faculty from Penn’s departments of biology, philosophy and physics. “People often say to us, ‘Well, why don’t you think it makes sense to mention alternatives?’” says Weisberg. In some cases, Weisberg says, that might be true: In a history classroom, for example, it would be useful to pose alternate theories about the cause of the Civil War, since this debate is well-documented among historians. “It is useful to impart that uncertainty to students by talking about alternate theories,” he says.

But he says evolution—a theory Weisberg and Sniegowski say is so strong that entire other fields, like genomics, are based on it—is no more disputed among scientists than the existence of atoms and molecules is disputed by chemists. Plus, Darwin is hardly the only evolutionary theorist. “This shouldn’t be handled this way in a public classroom,” Weisberg says.

How should it be handled? This is the central question of the debate for Stephen Dunning, professor of modern religious thought in Penn’s Department of Religious Studies. “What we should be debating is what is appropriate [in the classrooms].” he says. “What are science teachers capable of teaching?” Couching the debate as a conflict between science and religion oversimplifies everything, says Dunning. “Most [people] see science and religion as having very important roles in their lives,” he says. “The debate comes across as being dominated by the two extremes.”

Weisberg, who teaches courses on the evolution of scientific thought and the philosophy of biology, believes “intelligent design” supporters have based their arguments on flawed views of evidence. “Both Paul [Sniegowski] and I think that ‘intelligent design’ is a form of creationism that is based on a selective view,” he says. “[Proponents] say it’s not creationism because they don’t mention who the creator is.”

He adds the science classroom is not the place to discuss such issues. If there is a high school philosophy course, perhaps that’s the place for a discussion, he says. In his own classroom, he does explore these issues and helps students examine conceptual issues that arise in a historical context.

Dunning says the word “creationism” is used too broadly in this discussion, and says it covers a huge range of theories and interpretations, not just Christian fundamentalism. He says most people aren’t simply hard-core Darwinians or Christian fundamentalists. “Many people see evolution and creationism as totally compatible.”

Originally published on February 10, 2005