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Intelligent Design a Threat to Science Education, Says Prominent Biologist and Author
by Anne C. Paine


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The anti-evolution movement is alive and well and thriving in Ohio. In the past, the movement formulated its arguments in religious terms, but today, in a savvy attempt to gain political and educational credibility, proponents have adopted modern scientific language and a new name: intelligent design. For scientists and those interested in true science education, intelligent design is a national threat.

So contended Kenneth R. Miller, professor of biology at Brown University and author of Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution, in his Oct. 5 lecture at Oberlin College.

The lecture, titled "The Emperor's New Curriculum: Ohio and the Battle over Darwin," was part of the symposium celebrating the dedication of the Oberlin College Science Center. Miller is the co-author of a series of high-school and college biology textbooks that are used by millions of students nationwide.

The discussion was particularly timely, held just two weeks before a committee of the Ohio Board of Education approved a set of science standards. The vote came after a 10-month debate over what Ohio's 1.8 million public-school students should learn about the origin and development of life on Earth. As part of that debate, Miller—who during his Oberlin lecture described himself as a devout Catholic—participated in a board-sponsored panel discussion on intelligent design last spring.

Although intelligent design by name didn't make it into the state standards, the committee did allow for the teaching of alternative theories, including intelligent design, if local school boards choose to include them in their curricula. The full Board of Education will vote on the standards in December.

The intelligent design movement is funded by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that bills itself as a think tank working on a variety of contemporary issues. Institute fellows, all of whom hold impressive academic credentials, give the institute an air of respectability, Miller said. These fellows produce reports, publish books, and host conferences on intelligent design.

Intelligent Design Proponent Hails Ohio School Board Vote as Victory

Just a week after a State Board of Education committee completed a set of science standards for Ohio's public-school students, one of intelligent design's most outspoken advocates toured Northeast Ohio, hailing the vote as a victory that "liberated" teachers to discuss all theories of human origin.
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Phillip E. Johnson, an advisor to the institute's Center for Science and Culture, toured Northeast Ohio shortly after the committee vote and hailed the decision as a victory.

Intelligent design holds that there is a transcendent intelligence, and that some form of "intelligent intervention" is required to form life. The movement's arguments, said Miller, are not new.

"In his own time, Darwin's ideas were attacked as a threat to a God-centered understanding of mankind's place in the living world. Intelligent design proponents see evolution as the basis for a lot of ‘bad' things: lawlessness, homelessness, abortion, homosexuality. Anti-evolutionism is not an argument about science; it's an argument about society," Miller said, projecting an anti-evolution cartoon depicting the evils associated with the theory.

A basic tenet of intelligent design is that some features of biological organisms are simply too complex to have evolved. Simultaneous evolution of so many different features is an improbable event, say intelligent design proponents. This is the concept of irreducibly complex design.

The corollary is that if any single part of a system is missing, the entire system will be nonfunctional.

To disprove these tenets, Miller discussed differences in the chemical makeup of the blood of whales and dolphins and that of terrestrial mammals. Whales and dolphins lack one of the key chemicals involved in clotting in humans, an adaptation, Miller said, to living in deep waters. If the intelligent design theory were to hold true, whales and dolphins would not be able to live without these chemicals in their blood.

In a less serious example, Miller turned one of intelligent design's favorite illustrations of irreducibly complex structures on its head.

Michael Behe, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University, often uses a five-part mousetrap to prove the concept of irreducibly complex structures, Miller said. The idea is that without all its parts, the mousetrap cannot function.

Using Behe's own trap, Miller—much to the audience's delight—showed slides of simplified designs that he and his colleagues have devised. Starting with a four-part trap, he worked his way down systematically to a functioning one-part mousetrap.

"The intellectual underpinnings of the movement turn out to be wrong. The evidence for intelligent design depends a priori that an evolutionary pathway is impossible," Miller said.

The evolutionary process continues today in the form of bacterial resistance to drugs, in changes in mosquitoes, and in the development of new species. "Evolution gives rise to everything we see in nature," Miller said.

The danger of the intelligent design movement, according to Miller, is that it distorts the scientific process.

"Intelligent design proponents depict science as a closed community, but they overlook the fact that science deals with novel claims all the time. Science subjects ideas to research, then to peer review. Ideas win acceptance in this way, scientific consensus develops, and ideas eventually end up in textbooks and curricula. Intelligent design does not put its ideas though this process. They want to inject their ideas directly into textbooks. This would be a terrible message to kids about how science works: take your idea and get political support for it," Miller said.

"So what does all this have to do with ‘The Emperor's New Clothes?"' Miller asked, referring to his lecture title. "Well, you know the story—at the end the guy had no clothes on. The evidence for intelligent design vanishes the same way, because there's nothing there."


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