Fact and Fiction on Evolution

Intelligent design's five favorite myths


Last week saw two big developments in the battle over evolution and "intelligent design." In Dover, Pennsylvania, where a trial on the teaching of intelligent design in public schools is just wrapping up, all eight incumbent school board members were sent packing on election day and a slate of pro-evolution candidates was swept in. Alas, this victory for science, reason, and plain common sense was offset by the 6-4 vote of the Kansas Board of Education to approve new public school science standards that allow teaching so-called challenges to evolution.

This seems like a good time to go over some of the basic arguments and misconceptions in the evolution debate.

Evolution is just a theory; it's not verifiable or provable, and shouldn't be taught as fact.

Evolution is, in fact, the foundation of the entire science of modern biology and much of modern medicine. No, there is no absolute "proof" of evolution, but that's not how science works. The evolutionary theory of origin of species is supported by abundant evidence from the fossil record and genetics research—indicating, for instance, that both humans and modern apes are related to primates who lived millions of years ago or that modern birds are related to dinosaurs. And how much scientific evidence is there disproving evolutionary theory? Zero. Yes, there are many unanswered questions about evolution. But the answer to these questions is more scientific research, not filling the gaps with "God did it."

Opponents of intelligent design are intolerant, closed-minded "Darwinian fundamentalists" who don't want to allow alternative viewpoints in the classroom. If their position is so strong, what are they afraid of?

Opponents of intelligent design don't want science classrooms to become a platform for pseudoscience. Would it be intolerant for high school health classes to exclude material about the healing power of pyramids or about demonic possession as a cause of mental illness? Is it intolerant not to teach Holocaust denial in history classes?

One thing that worries scientists and champions of science is that acceptance of intelligent design will undermine students' understanding of the scientific method itself. And those worries aren't groundless. Here's what conservative columnist Tony Snow says in support of teaching intelligent design: "ID is useful largely because it punctures the myth of scientific invincibility, while providing a basis for promoting the cause of 'hard' science. . . . Let science teachers tell kids that science is a matter of inspired guesswork, not of invincible decree." Of course, no true scientist believes science is "invincible"; scientific research is all about trial and error. But the notion that science is "inspired guesswork" merely promotes scientific illiteracy and irrationalism.

The science establishment opposes intelligent design because it doesn't want challenges to the status quo.

This argument shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how science works. Scientific hypotheses are constantly challenged, revised, and even disproved. For every scientist invested in the prevailing "orthodoxy," there are probably at least 10 who would love nothing more than to revolutionize their field. But the status quo must be challenged through scientific inquiry, not wishful thinking.

Intelligent design is a science-based challenge to evolution.

The words of intelligent-design champions themselves leave no doubt that their motivation is religious, not scientific. A good overview of the topic is given by University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne in the August 22 New Republic. Coyne quotes mathematician William Dembski, one of the much-vaunted "real scientists" who champion intelligent design: "At a fundamental level . . . what drives me in this is that I think God's glory is being robbed by these naturalistic approaches to biological evolution, creation, the origin of the world."

Darwinism is a vehicle for atheism and materialism.

Newsflash: Charles Darwin was a Christian. The Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran World Federation, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis have all issued statements that evolutionary science is not incompatible with the basic tenets of religious faith. In Catholic schools, evolution has been taught for years, with no fuss, as part of the science curriculum.

Yes, there are people in the scientific and academic elites who fear and despise religion. Unfortunately, the battle for intelligent design will do little except reinforce their worst prejudices.