The God vs. Darwin debate went to the White House when President Bush recently weighed in, stating in a roundtable interview with reporters that "intelligent design" should be taught along with evolution in public schools. It's a move that has undoubtedly pleased the president's conservative religious base. However, it has also caused much unhappiness among those conservatives who want the Republican Party to be something other than a political arm of the religious right, including such strong Bush supporters as columnist Charles Krauthammer and University of Tennessee law professor and metablogger Glenn Reynolds.
Some arguments made by proponents of teaching "intelligent design" have superficial popular appeal, which may explain why the idea polls well. One such argument is intellectual diversity: Those who believe that only evolution should be taught in science classrooms are supposedly trying to stifle opposing viewpoints. A related claim is that a left-leaning, elitist scientific establishment, backed by secularist groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, is using taxpayer dollars to promote its own agenda in the classroom and teach children to despise their parents' religious beliefs.
Now, it's quite true that mainstream scientists vehemently reject the idea of allowing evolution and "intelligent design" to compete in the nation's public school classrooms. The reason is that "intelligent design" is not science. A scientific hypothesis must be testable - meaning that, if it is wrong, there should be a way to disprove it.
"Intelligent design" boils down to the claim sarcastically summed up by aerospace engineer and science consultant Rand Simberg on his blog, Transterrestrial Musings: "I'm not smart enough to figure out how this structure could evolve, therefore there must have been a designer." Simberg, a conservative, concludes that this argument "doesn't belong in a science classroom, except as an example of what's not science."
The notion that the teaching of evolution is some kind of left-wing plot is, to put it plainly, absurd. In addition to the people mentioned above, opponents of teaching "intelligent design" as an alternative scientific viewpoint include John H. Marburger III, director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. Earlier this year at the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers, Marburger responded to an audience question by stating point-blank that "intelligent design is not a scientific theory."
In some ways, evolutionary theory is more compatible with conservative ideas than with leftist ones. Indeed, proponents of applying evolutionary theory to human social structures tend to be viewed by the left with suspicion, particularly on biological explanations for sex roles. As several commentators have pointed out, it's conservatives who reject the notion that complex organization requires deliberate central planning in economics. Why should biology be different?
Is evolutionary theory a vehicle for anti-God ideas? One of the more extreme "theoconservatives," National Review writer David Klinghoffer, has even argued that evolution should be regarded as a doctrine of the "religion" of secularism. But this is nonsense; plenty of people who follow traditional religions do accept evolution. Yes, some champions of evolution such as British scientist Richard Dawkins are militant atheists, but there were militant atheists long before Darwin.
Plenty of Christian, Jewish, and other religious groups have explicitly stated that there is no contradiction between faith and evolution - including the Catholic Church, though regrettably it now appears to be qualifying that position. Ironically, when the National Center for Science Education produced an online teachers' guide to teaching evolution which included a section pointing out that many religious bodies endorse evolution, proponents of "intelligent design" complained about the mixing of religion and state (since the teachers' guide was partly funded with federal money).
If some public school teachers are using evolution as a vehicle for atheist propaganda, that's outrageous and a proper matter for school boards. If schools want to offer classes on religion and philosophy that explain religious views of the origins of life, fine. But to make science classrooms a platform for a pseudoscience whose sole intent is to counter "godless" natural selection is a travesty of both science and faith. And this effort may well alienate many scientifically literate people from the Republican Party and conservatism, making the caricature of evolution as left-wing dogma a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe.