Education Opinion

Intelligent Design: Evolution’s Foil

By Derek Stolp — January 28, 2009 5 min read

“I’ll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance
Your skill shall, like a star i’ th’ darkest night,
Stick fiery off indeed.”
-Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2

When federal Judge John E. Jones III handed down his decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover in December, 2005, I experienced a considerable sense of relief, if not jubilation, that a challenge to the scientific method, perhaps even to reason itself, had been turned back. Having taught mathematics for nearly forty years, I was not affected directly by the outcome of the case but, as a citizen, I was and continue to be concerned about American views on evolution.

Teaching the Evolution Argument

Derek Stolp recommends the following resources for teachers struggling with arguments that support the teaching of evolution:
NSTA Tool Kit for Teaching Evolution by Judy Elgin Jensen
Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth R. Miller
Kitzmiller v. Dover, U.S. District Court

After all, in their 2006 article “Public Acceptance of Evolution,” in Science, Jon D. Miller, Eugenie C. Scott and Shinji Okamoto pointed out that, in 2005, an international study of attitudes and beliefs about evolution revealed that over the previous 20 years, the percentage of U.S. adults who accepted evolution had declined from 45 to 40 percent. I thought that, perhaps now, Judge Jones’ decision would allow biologists to attend to the issue of teaching the fundamentals of this field without having to fight a rear-guard action by creationists who have repackaged themselves as proponents of intelligent design. But upon further reflection, and drawing upon some lessons from my own teaching in mathematics, I have had a change of heart. Including intelligent design in the biology curriculum, I realize, would not only help in the teaching of evolution but is, perhaps, necessary if we are to put religious belief into its proper relationship to science.

“Teach the controversy” has been one of the rallying cries for the proponents of intelligent design and, with one important clarification, supporting that principle could be very helpful in teaching the principles of evolution, as well. The important clarification is that the controversy is political, not scientific, and it is one well worth studying in the context of a civics class. This debate over the teaching of evolution has aroused passions in a number of communities, and adults have passed along their own misconceptions about science to too many children. Passions, however, have a way of concentrating the mind and focusing energies, qualities often missing in classrooms.

So much of what is taught in high schools fails to ignite the passionate engagement of students and, when the opportunity presents itself, we would be wise to harness it. Students learn and retain so much more when they are active participants in their own learning rather than passive recipients of packaged concepts, and nothing captures their interest like discussions of their own beliefs.

Furthermore, passive recipients are unlikely to change their fundamental beliefs or understandings, despite their apparent cooperation. Linda McNeil discovered, as she revealed in Contradictions of Control: School Structure and School Knowledge, her 1986 enthnographic study of social studies courses in four high schools, that teachers tried to control their classes by simplifying content and avoiding class discussion. One effect of this was to cause students to doubt school knowledge, especially if they had some outside-of-school experience that contradicted what their teacher had stated as fact. This disbelief was revealed only through interviews with the students: they “appeared to acquiesce to the pattern of classroom knowledge, only silently to resist believing it.”

Similarly, Howard Gardner in his 1991 book, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach made the following claim: “For the most part, children’s earliest conceptions and misconceptions endure throughout the school era. And once the youth has left a scholastic setting, these earlier views of the world may well emerge (or reemerge) in full-blown form.” These related observations suggest that ignoring children’s strongly held views about intelligent design may, in the long run, be unproductive.

Even the best designed, most comprehensive lessons on evolution, if they neglect to help the children address the flaws in the intelligent design argument will be, to borrow a Biblical analogy, like seeds scattered upon the rocks. On the other hand, having children articulate beliefs that they think conflict with scientific principles, and having them examine those points of apparent conflict would help them to clarify the relationship between religious belief and scientific practices and would allow them to see, as the biologist Kenneth R. Miller has argued in his recent book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul that they occupy distinct, complementary realms.

In mathematics, children do not fully appreciate the limitations of the predictive powers of best-fit lines until they experience exponential relationships, such as the rate at which heated water cools, nor do they understand the limitations of real numbers until they study complex numbers. In history, children do not fully grasp the power of democratic decision-making until they contrast it with autocratic styles. In literature, the foil is often used to highlight characteristics of the protagonist, as Laertes is to Hamlet, and ID can serve a similar function in the teaching of the characteristics of evolution.

Amy Harmon, in “A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash” in the New York Times last summer, described the practice of a biology teacher in Orange Park, Florida, who welcomed the questions of children who have been taught to believe in the concept of intelligent design. Instead of simply teaching about evolution and ignoring “the controversy,” he invited their questions and encouraged dialogue and offered a variety of hands-on experiences. He may not be converting them all, but he is promoting thoughtfulness and a healthy spirit of inquiry in his students, and the fruits of this process will be adults who understand the scientific process.

Kitzmiller v. Dover dealt intelligent design a setback but it would be a mistake to think that the issue is now settled. Teaching children the concepts of evolution while ignoring their prior out-of-school training is not enough to convince them that evolution is the central organizing principle of modern biology. Science education has nothing to fear from intelligent design and much to gain by the comparison.