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Darwin vs. design

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2012 - If a science course taught in any public classroom in Missouri, from grade school through college, includes a lesson on evolution, should it also have to give equal time to intelligent design?

Debates on Darwinism that go back at least as far as the famous Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee have surfaced once more, this time in Missouri, with legislation introduced in the state House.

How far the bill is likely to go is an open question -- especially in a session already loaded with pressing education issues from the funding formula to how to deal with students who live in unaccredited districts. Even one of its co-sponsors concedes the intelligent design bill is not likely to move very far.

And opponents are quick to rebut the bill's main premise, that Darwin's theory of evolution is just that, a "theory" that remains unproven and flies in the face of other accounts of how humans reached the point they are at today. They also point to earlier rulings that say "intelligent design" is no more than creationism dressed up in scientific jargon but still an encroachment on the First Amendment.

Proponents counter with the argument that educators should be open to questioning doctrine in light of modern techniques, and students should be allowed to hear all viewpoints.

"Darwin did his study and his theory many, many, many years ago," said state Rep. Sue Allen, R-Town & Country, a co-sponsor of the bill. "I think research and science have changed so much over time that it's naive to believe one theory such as evolution without considering the other options."

What the Bill Says

The legislation, introduced by state Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, with five co-sponsors, is known as the Missouri Standard Science Act. It starts off with three definitions, from "analogous naturalistic process" through "biological evolution" to "biological intelligent design," which it says is "a hypothesis that the complex form and function observed in biological structures are the result of intelligence and, by inference, that the origin of biological life and the diversity of all original species on earth are the result of intelligence."

Inherent within that definition, the bill adds, is the existence of a designer:

  • "Intelligence-directed action is necessary to exceed the limits of natural species change, which is a combination of autogenous species change and environmental effected species change," says one section.
  • Adds another: "The lack of significant present-day observable changes in species due to random variation, mutation, natural selection, adaptation, segregation, or other naturalistic mechanisms implies intelligence as the cause for all original species."

Given those assumptions, the bill says, both Darwin and design must get equal treatment in Missouri classrooms, down to an equal number of pages of material in textbooks and supplemental material if needed. In all standard science courses using empirical data, "only such data which has been verified or is currently capable of being verified by observation or experimentation shall be taught."
Further, "if scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a course of study, biological evolution and biological intelligent design shall be taught. Other scientific theory or theories of origin may be taught."

To comply with such requirements, the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would negotiate with textbook publishers to provide acceptable texts. Supplemental material would be developed by a committee "of nine individuals who are knowledgeable of science and intelligent design and reside in Missouri."

DESE would maintain a list of acceptable textbooks and make sure that any state tests conform with the act's mandates on the teaching of evolution and intelligent design. That would be a change from current policy, where individual local school boards have complete autonomy in choosing texts.

The monitoring of textbooks from Jefferson City would be new to the state. Current law requires courses to be taught in the constitutions of the United States and Missouri as well as in American history and Missouri government, but they do not specify what the courses should contain or what textbooks may be used.

Finally, the bill says that any introductory science course taught in a public college or university would have to use materials that meet similar standards.

What Proponents Say

Brattin, who sponsored the bill, told the Beacon it is all about bringing objectivity to the classroom.

"Some of the folks on the evolution side of things say this is not science and doesn't need to be in the classroom," he said. "But there are other sides of the debate. We're trying to say intelligent design is a very viable theory, much like evolution. I believe it makes good science to have both points of view in the classroom and allow the students to decide for themselves, to conduct their own research and come up with their own hypothesis for what happened.

"We don't know what happened 10 million years ago. We don't know what happened 100 million years ago. It's all theory."

Brattin, who operates a drywall firm, acknowledges no advanced scientific expertise or training, and he says the bill has already drawn sharp criticism from those who do. But he recalls his own skepticism when he learned about Darwin in school, and he wants Missouri to further the debate.

"I thought there were so many holes in what was being taught to me as fact," he said. "I even got into arguments with my science teacher. That's what sparked my enthusiasm."

Allen, one of the bill's co-sponsors, acknowledges that the bill is not likely to win passage in the General Assembly, but she still feels that whenever evolution is discussed, it should be paired with other ideas of how life on Earth came to be.

"Do I believe that everything that is said to be scientifically sound is scientifically sound?" she asked. "No. Could our beings come about solely that way and no other way? I don't agree with that. I'm not saying evolution shouldn't be taught. I'm saying it's a theory. It's like Freud or any of those other social science theories.

"You don't have to throw out Darwin if you do creation. Darwin and creation according to Genesis don't totally match up. But I think Darwin could have some explanation about how that direction happened."

What Opponents Say

Saying that Darwin must be paired with intelligent design is the kind of reasoning that made the state of Kansas "the laughingstock of the nation" a few years ago, according to Charles Granger, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis with long experience in helping to shape the teaching of science.

He flatly and emphatically says that the point of view championed by Brattin, that there are other sides to the debate that need to be heard, is dead wrong.

"I don't know of any practicing biologist who has actually studied evolution who believes that evolution is not the best explanation for the speciation of the Earth," he said. "I don't think anybody argues against the general idea. What they do argue about is mechanisms, about how it can happen faster or slower. But as far as the general principles, I don't know of anybody who has published anything negative in a peer-reviewed journal."

The National Center for Science Education, based in Oakland, Calif., notes that this year's Missouri legislation is a descendant of a similar bill introduced in the state in 2004, with a similar glossary of terms. It did not include mandates for higher education.

That bill, and a companion proposal, both died without passage. So have other bills with similar goals.

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the center, noted that Brattin's attempt is the fourth such piece of legislation introduced already this year, including two in New Hampshire and one in Indiana. The center keeps what it calls an "Antievolution Legislation Scorecard" that tracks such bills. Branch said that the most recent wave of such legislation goes back to the mid-1980s in Louisiana.

That law, and the action filed to overturn it, resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Edwards vs. Aguillard. In 1987, the court ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it represented an excessive entanglement of the state and religion, in violation of the First Amendment.

"Forbidding the teaching of evolution when creation science is not also taught undermines the provision of a comprehensive scientific education," the court's opinion said.

"Moreover, requiring the teaching of creation science with evolution does not give schoolteachers a flexibility that they did not already possess to supplant the present science curriculum with the presentation of theories, besides evolution, about the origin of life."

Branch also refuted one of the main contentions that proponents of the equal teaching of evolution and intelligent design often advance: Because what Darwin believed is only a theory, as opposed to proven fact, it should be open to challenge.

In the context of scientific inquiry, Branch said, "a theory is not a hunch or conjecture. It is a systematic explanation. In many ways, theories are more important than facts. Facts are isolated. If you want to make sense of the natural world, you need to have systematic explanations."

So why do such efforts keep coming back if they don't make much headway or, to most scientists, make much sense, either?

Granger said the answer is a political one, not a scientific one.

"You have to say something to get elected," he said. "They can pull out this bill and show it to their constituents and say see, my name is on this. I tried."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.