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To Debate or Not to Debate Intelligent Design?

To Debate or Not to Debate Intelligent Design?

September 28, 2005

When I heard that advocates of “Intelligent Design” were urging schools to "teach the controversy" between their view and Darwinian evolution, I was dismayed.

About 20 years ago, I coined the phrase “teach the controversy” when I argued that schools and colleges should respond to the then-emerging culture wars over education by bringing their disputes into academic courses themselves. Instead of assuming that we have to resolve debates over, say, whether Huckleberry Finn is a racist text or a stirring critique of racism, teachers should present students with the conflicting arguments and use the debate itself to arouse their interest in the life of the mind. I elaborated the argument in numerous essays and in a 1992 book, Beyond the Culture Wars, which is subtitled, How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education.

So I felt as if my pocket had been picked when the Intelligent Design crowd appropriated my slogan, and even moreso when President Bush endorsed its proposal, saying that "both sides ought to be properly taught" so "people can understand what the debate is about." As a secular left-liberal, I felt that my ideas were being hijacked by the Christian Right as a thinly-veiled pretext for imposing their religious dogma on the schools.

And yet, setting intellectual property questions aside, the more I ponder the matter and read the commentators on both sides, the more I tend to think that a case can be made for teaching the controversy between ID and Darwin.

Not that the sides in this debate are equal, as Bush’s comment suggests. If we judge the issues strictly on their scientific merits, the Intelligent Designers don’t seem to have much of a case. In a lengthy and detailed article in The New Republic (August 22 & 29), the evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne persuasively shows that the supposed "flaws" in the theory of natural selection that IDers claim to point out simply don’t exist. H. Allen Orr had made a similarly persuasive refutation of ID in The New Yorker (May 30), and these arguments have been further reinforced in articles by Daniel C. Dennett in The New York Times (August 28) and by Coyne again and Richard Dawkins in The Guardian (September 1).

Taken together, these writers make an overwhelming case that Darwinian evolution, if not a total certainty, is as certain as any scientific hypothesis can be. As Coyne puts it, "it makes as little sense to doubt the factuality of evolution as to doubt the factuality of gravity." From a strictly scientific standpoint, there seems to be no real "controversy" here that's worth teaching, just a bogus one that the IDers have fabricated to paper over the absence of evidence in their critique of evolutionary science.

And this would indeed be the end of the story if the truth or validity of an idea were the sole thing to consider in deciding whether it is worth presenting to students. But when we measure the pedagogical merits of an idea, its usefulness in clarifying an issue or provoking students -- and teachers -- to think can be as important as its truth or validity. In some cases even false or dubious notions can have heuristic value.

This point has been grasped by several commentators unconnected with the Christian Right who defend the teaching of the controversy. In a column of June 2000, before ID had become prominent in the news, Richard Rothstein, then The New York Times education columnist, proposed that students be exposed to the debate between creationism and evolution. And in a piece on the controversy earlier this year in Slate, Christopher Hitchens, asks, “Why not make schoolchildren study the history of the argument? It would show them how to weigh and balance evidence, and it would remind them of the scarcely believable idiocy of the ancestors of 'intelligent design.'"

Hitchens’ argument has been challenged by the editors of The New Republic, who caustically retort that getting kids to weigh and balance evidence is not exactly “what Bush -- or IDers -- want at all.” What they want "instead is to teach ID as a substantive scientific argument. If anything, what Bush is calling for is anti-historical, the exact opposite of what Hitchens praises." This is true, but so what? Hitchens doesn’t claim that his argument is one the IDers themselves would make, but only that students would learn something important about how to think from the kind of debate the IDers propose.

Secular liberals will object that Hitchens is overly confident that the good guys would win if the debate were aired in schools. In his scenario, the students would see the "idiocy" of ID’s ancestors and also presumably of its current advocates. What secular liberals fear, however, is that in many classrooms the scientific truth would be overwhelmed by dogma and prejudice.

Behind such fear -- and behind the liberal secularist objections to teaching the debate -- one senses the shellshock and impotence of the Blue-state Left in the wake of the 2004 election, and the worry that the Left will only lose again if it allows itself to be suckered into debating "values" with the religious Right on its own terms. This worry is deepened by the feeling that American public debate is not a level playing field, but an arena in which conservative money and Fox News control the agenda.

Though I share these fears, there seems to me a certain failure of nerve here on the part of the Left. After all, if evolution and intelligent design were debated in academic courses, the religious Right would have the same risk of losing as the liberal secularists -- maybe greater risk, if Hitchens is correct. In any case, it’s  not clear that one wins a battle of beliefs by hunkering down, circling the wagons, and refusing to engage the other side. And if the Right has more money and media clout with which to shape such a debate, that may be all the more reason to enter the debate: if you don’t have money and media clout, arguments are your best bet.

Seen this way, the anti-evolution assaults of the Intelligent Designers and the creationist Right could be viewed less as a threat than an opportunity. This moral is suggested by a recent news story in The New York Times that reports that museum staffs that are being challenged by religious patrons to explain why they should believe in evolution “are brushing up on their Darwin and thinking on their feet” (September 20, 2005). One museum has developed training sessions for staff members “on ways to deal with visitors who reject settled precepts of science on religious grounds.”

What is most interesting in the article, and most germane to the recent debate, is the suggestion, reflected in quoted statements by museum people, that though this religious rejection of science may be misguided, it needs to be listened to and answered rather than ignored or dismissed, and that being forced to defend evolution can actually be a good thing. The implication is that it’s not unreasonable for patrons to press museum people to explain the grounds on which evolutionary science is more credible than ID or creationism. As one director of a paleontological research institution puts it, "Just telling" such patrons "they are wrong is not going to be effective." As another museum staffer advises docents, "it's your job not to slam the door in the face of a believer," and another says, "your job is ... to explain your point of view, but respect theirs."

Arguably, this is precisely the job of teachers as well, though admittedly museums serve different functions than educational institutions. If the goal of education is to get students to think, then just telling students their doubts about Darwin are wrong is not going to be effective. And teachers being forced to engage their religious critics and explain why they believe in evolution might be a healthy thing for those teachers just as it seems to be for museum workers. In fact, I would like to ask Coyne, Dennett, Orr, and others who have written so cogently in defense of evolution if they don’t feel just a tiny bit grateful to the IDers for pushing them to think harder about -- and explain to a wider audience -- how they know what they know about evolution.

Scientists like Coyne and Dawkins concede that debate should indeed be central to science instruction, but they hold that such debate should be between accredited hypotheses within science, not between scientists and creationist poseurs. That's hard to dispute, but, like Rothstein and Hitchens, I can at least imagine a classroom debate between creationism and evolution that might be just the thing to wake up the many students who now snooze through science courses. Such students might come away from such a debate with a sharper understanding of the grounds on which established science rests, something that even science majors and advanced graduate students now don’t often get from conventional science instruction.

How might such a debate be taught? Ideally in a way that would not become fixated on the clash of faith and science, which might quickly produce an unedifying  stalemate, but would open out into broader matters such as the history of conflicts between science and religion and the question of how we determine when something qualifies as "science." At the broadest level, the discussion could address whether the ID-evolution debate is a smoke screen for the larger political and cultural conflict between Red and Blue states. Representing such a many-sided debate would demand the collaboration of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, a collaboration that could make a now disconnected curriculum more coherent. Such a collaboration would also answer the scientists’ objection that there just isn’t time to debate these issues, given everything else they have to cover. Then, too, explaining how we know what we know against skeptical questioning is not an add-on, but an intrinsic part of teaching any subject.

In any case, science instructors may soon have no choice but to address the controversy posed by ID and creationism. If many American students now bring faith-based skepticism about evolution with them into classrooms, as it seems they do, then there’s a sense in which the controversy has already penetrated the classroom, just as it has penetrated museums, whether ID or creationism is formally  represented in the syllabus or not. Schools and colleges may not be teaching the controversy between faith and science, but it’s there in the classroom anyway insofar as it’s on some students’ minds. Teachers can act as if their students’ doubts about evolution don’t exist, but pretending that your students share your beliefs when you know they don’t is a notorious prescription for bad teaching.

Bio

Gerald Graff is a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (W. W. Norton, 1992) and Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2003).

 

 

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