The Ohio Board of Education is looking at the question of the origins of life as it revises the state academic science standards. At issue: Is the theory of evolution, by itself, sufficient to address the age-old question of where we come from, or should alternative theories also be taught? When that debate surfaced in Kansas some years ago the mostly conservative Christian school board pushed biblical creation as a plausible scientific theory. That majority was quickly replaced in the next election. Here in Ohio those challenging the supremacy of evolutionary theory have taken another tack - one they say puts them on much firmer ground. 90.3 WCPN's Bill Rice reports.
Bill Rice: The famous Tennessee vs. Scopes trial of 1929 established Evolution as the sole framework used by the scientific community to explain the origins of life and man. Attorney Clarence Darrow lost the case against his creationist foe, William Jennings Bryan, but the courtroom battle left the biblical account of man's origins discredited. That outcome was burned into the national consciousness by the theatrical drama Inherit the Wind.
Clip from Inherit the Wind, 1960.
BR: This largely fictional account of the Scopes trial, starring Spenser Tracy, illustrates well the situation at the Ohio School Board, only with the tables turned. Evolution is the accepted theory, and it's being challenged by a competing school of thought - one that many board members admit they don't know much about. But they're learning - thanks in part to a recent presentation on so-called Intelligent Design Theory, which suggests that without the influence of a conscious, purposeful, intelligent entity life could not occurred . Research chemist Robert Lattimer is a staunch advocate. He's also on the team charged with writing Ohio's academic science standards. Lattimer says the question of whether life is the product of such an agent is worthy of scientific pursuit, and that the tenets of Intelligent Design Theory are scientifically sound.
Robert Lattimer: You look at various phenomena that you find in living organisms, and you try to determine whether or not those features and organisms could have been coming about from just natural causes - that is, physical and chemical laws and chance, or whether something else was needed to form that kind of complexity. So it's basically a statistical way of looking at things.
BR: Lattimer distinguishes between empirical science - that which can be proved through experimentation - and historical science, which deals with events that occurred in the distant past and cannot be tested in the lab. Evolution is historical science, he says; archeologists infer the descent of species based on observed fossil evidence, but cannot prove it to be absolute fact. That same inference occurs, he says, in design theory.
RL: Basically if you look at various facets of nature, particularly at the micro-chemical level, you will see much complexity and much information in such molecules as DNA and the proteins. All of that's very specific information, and the only way that scientists know that one can get information like that is through design, by intentional design.
BR: A simpler example of the design inference, Lattimer says, is the conclusion that an excavated stone that appears to have been fashioned by an early hominid actually was, rather than having assumed that shape and appearance by chance.
Opponents of design theory as legitimate science object in varying degrees. Manno Singham teaches physics at Case Western Reserve University and is on the Ohio Science Standards Advisory committee. Singham says science historically assumes that all phenomena is subject to unchanging laws of nature. To stray outside that assumption, he says, is akin to taking the easy road to what can lead to the wrong answer.
Manno Singham: What now we consider simple problems, like the orbit of the moon around the earth - that problem was not solved by Newtonian physics for nearly 75 years after Newton proposed it. Now at that time did scientists say this is a tough problem so we should say maybe the motion of the moon is caused by some supernatural agent? No, because that's not the way science works.
BR: Professor of Science Philosophy Patricia Princehouse, also of Case Western Reserve, agrees.
Patricia Princehouse: To come up against something where you can't find a natural explanation of it - and we do that all the time in science - you can look at those and say it's much too complex to explain - it must have been a designer. We might not be able to explain these via natural causes. That's giving up, that's closing science down.
BR: And there are sounds of alarm coming from other quarters as well. John Staver heads the Center for Science Education at Kansas State University, and had a hand in revising that state's science standards in 1999. The subsequent board effort to include so-called Creation Science in the standards resulted in the ouster of several members in the next election.
John Staver: The citizens of Kansas saw the Young Earth Creationist position as a very extreme position.
BR: Staver says those Young Earth Creationists have since stepped into the background, and the Intelligent Design theorists have stepped forward to take up the cause.
JS: Their views are, on the surface, more acceptable to a lot of the public. They're also much more sophisticated, they are very educated, they're very sophisticated, and they're very good at what they do. I don't agree with it, but one has to respect what they're trying to do, at least in terms of the way they're going about it.
BR: The Intelligent Design camp agrees their theory is consistent with the idea that a supreme being does exist. But, they insist, that's irrelevant. John Clavert is Managing Director of the Intelligent Design Network, based in Kansas, which was invited to present its views to the Ohio School Board.
John Clavert: The science of intelligent design simply says we're seeing patterns that exhibit intelligence. It certainly is not the function of a science teacher or science class to go into the deeper philosophical and religious implications of that evidence. But I submit that it is also not the function of a teacher to hide that from the children.
BR: That's exactly what Calvert claims is happening. And, he says, it amounts to censorship of legitimate scientific investigation. Ohio Chemist Robert Lattimer agrees.
RL: I'm not saying that evolution is wrong. There are many facets of evolution that are well documented and certainly are true. But we're saying that evolution is not all of the answer, but only part of the answer, and the part that involves design has been censored from the curriculum and from science.
BR: Lattimer and Calvert say while the Intelligent Design Theory points to religion, religious discussion properly does not belong in the science curriculum. But if they appear to take a religiously neutral position in their investigation of the origins of life, and seem to give a sympathetic ear to at least some of the tenets of Evolutionary theory, other Design theorists evidently do not, as evidenced in this instructional video.
Clip from Intelligent Design video: In its most extreme form, scientific naturalism provided a rationale for the terror of Nazi eugenics, and the tyranny of communism. Wrote Marx to Engels of Darwin's The Origin of Species: "this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view."
BR: The Triumph of Design and the Demise of Darwin" is advertised on Calvert's Intelligent design Network Website. It opens with a graphic that reads "the word", and is peppered throughout with references to the Christian God.
Clip from Intelligent Design video: It's certainly possible to be a devout, God-fearing, God believing good works-doing Christian and to be a Darwinist. What is isn't possible to do is to take your God-based belief and bring them into the university world, the intellectual world and have them treated with anything but indifference. More debate and discussion on Intelligent Design is scheduled to occur among board members in the coming months. The board expects to finalize its revised standards by the end of the year.
BR: The video also periodically shows an apparent disdain for Evolutionary theory.
Clip from Intelligent Design video: Although there are at least two schools of Darwinist thought, what binds them together, Dawkins boasts, is that they both, quote, despise - despise - so-called Scientific Creationists equally.
BR: More debate and discussion is scheduled to occur among board members in the coming months. The board expects to finalize its revised standards by the end of the year. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.