Intelligent Design not science
Intelligent Design not science
RICHARD OLMSTEAD, guest columnist - Seattle Post-Intelligencer - Aug 17, 2005, original
The recent suggestion by President Bush that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in biology classes has rekindled debate about the appropriateness of teaching alternatives to evolution to explain the origin and diversification of life on Earth.
The proponents of teaching either creationism or intelligent design usually argue that schools should be teaching the strengths and weaknesses of evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. For some reason, usually having to do with religious beliefs, they single out evolution from the myriad of other scientific fields for this criticism.
It takes a foundation in the basics of any discipline to be able to grasp the subtleties at the cutting edge of a field, so it is understandable that in high school science classes, the focus is on learning the basic facts and theories along with learning how scientists go about their inquiry to understand nature.
Students learn (or should learn) that theories are devised to explain observations in nature and that from theories, hypotheses are developed that can be tested by carefully constructed experiments.
Experiments may lead to the rejection of hypotheses and subsequent modification or rejection of the theories on which they are based, but can never "prove" a theory true.
Later, in the college or university, a student's background becomes sufficiently well developed to begin to probe the edges of our knowledge and see how theories and experiments mesh to push back frontiers in specific ways. Still later, if a student has become sufficiently intrigued, he or she may go on to pursue a Ph.D. and take responsibility for formulating hypotheses and constructing experiments that expand our understanding of the natural world.
This approach to science education is equally important in particle physics, cell biology, astronomy and evolution and helps develop a mind that is capable of thinking critically about science and life in general.
The continuing debate about teaching intelligent design is woefully misplaced in this context of science education.
Science classes should teach alternate scientific theories wherever competing theories collide. However, for a theory to be "scientific," it must provide the basis for testable hypotheses. Scientists and philosophers agree -- if a theory is not amenable to testing, it doesn't belong in a science classroom.
Intelligent design offers no testable hypotheses and, instead, offers only an explanation for observations of complex structures and phenomena in biology that must be taken on faith. As such, it offers less to a science class than does "flat-Earth theory" or "Earth-as-the-center-of-the-solar-system theory," both of which led to testable hypotheses and, ultimately, their rejection as predictive explanatory theories. If we were to consider intelligent design a "theory," the advances in genetics and developmental biology that have provided explanations for the origin of many complex structures in recent years would lead us to reject it along with flat-Earth theory and geocentrism.
The science of evolutionary biology embodies a broad body of theory (not a single theory, as so often depicted by opponents) and scientists have now tested hypotheses derived from these theories for 150 years. In that time, many hypotheses have been tested and rejected. For example, Darwin didn't understand the role genes and chromosomes play in inheritance, so his theories about inheritance have been replaced by new ones that offer more explanatory power. In fact, many of Darwin's ideas about evolution have been greatly modified in this way. Just as our understanding of physics has been altered dramatically since Newton, by the discoveries of Einstein and other physicists, so has our understanding of evolution been altered by the advances in biology since Darwin.
Yet biologists, from all their many disciplines, still find evolution to provide a unifying perspective from which to pursue a greater understanding of life. As one of the 20th century's most famous geneticists, Theodosius Dobzhansky, wrote, "Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution."
Richard Olmstead is a professor in the department of biology at the University of Washington and curator of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture