Intelligent design or intellectual laziness?
SIR – Much of the concern over ID (Nature 434, 1053 and 1062–1065; 2005) has focused on veiled attempts to inject religion into public education. Sheltered within the confines of academia, most biologists find it hard to believe that the slain need to be slain again. Those in the trenches—school boards, school biology teachers and their national representatives—often don’t know how to respond, in part because they themselves never really achieved a deep understanding of evolutionary biology at college.
However, there is a related and equally disturbing issue: the legitimization of intellectual laziness. Have a problem explaining something? Forget about it: the Designer made it that way. Any place for diversity of opinion as to who/what the Designer is/was? The ID literature makes it very clear that there is no room for scientific discourse on that. Think I’m exaggerating? To get a good idea of what IDers would have the face of science look like, check out the journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF.html).
Two factors have facilitated the promotion of ID. First, IDers like to portray evolution as being built entirely on an edifice of darwinian natural selection. This caricature of evolutionary biology is not too surprising. Most molecular, cell and developmental biologists subscribe to the same creed, as do many popular science writers. However, it has long been known that purely selective arguments are inadequate to explain many aspects of biological diversity. Building a straw man based on natural selection alone makes it easy for opponents to poke holes in evolution. But features of the genome, such as genomic parasites or non-coding introns, which aren’t so evolutionarily favourable (nor obviously ‘intelligent’ innovations), can be more readily explained by models that include random genetic drift and mutation as substantial evolutionary forces.
Second, IDers like to portray evolution as a mere theory. But after a century of close scrutiny, evolutionary theory has passed so many litmus tests of validation that evolution is as much a fact as respiration and digestion.
Less widely appreciated is that evolution has long been the most quantitative field of biology, well grounded in the general principles of transmission genetics. Yet few students at university, and almost none at high school, are exposed to the mathematical underpinnings of evolutionary theory. The teaching of evolution purely as history, with little consideration given to the underlying mechanisms, reinforces the false view that evolution is one of the softer areas of science.
Here is a missed opportunity. Our failure to provide students with the mathematical skills necessary to compete in a technical world is a major concern in the United States. Mathematics becomes more digestible, and even attractive, when students see its immediate application. What better place to start than with the population-genetic theory of evolution, much of which is couched in algebraic terms accessible to school students?
Department of Biology, Indiana University,
Bloomington, Indiana 47405, USA