January 12, 2005

Intelligent design and schools

I've been thinking a bit about Creationism and Intelligent Design the past few days -- I think there was an article in Salon this weekend, or late last week, that might be what got me started. But I'm not going to bother tracking it down: all you need to know is that there is a drive, burnishing over the past few years, to supplant the status quo in high school biology classes with a `balanced' presentation of `several alternative theories of species development' and some of the `scientific criticisms' of Darwinian Natural Selection. The scare quotes are there because the only alternative that ever comes up is Intelligent Design, and the criticisms come from fringe wackos, not actual mainstream biologists who, for example, get published in peer-reviewed journals.

If you don't know, Intelligent Design is basically a `guided evolution' theory: when it's actually presented as a scientific theory, and not the ravings of some lunatic Christian, it sounds just like Natural Selection, only it picks out certain features of organisms which it claims are too complicated to have happened by chance, and then hypothesizes/concludes some supernatural intelligent agent was responsible for somehow intervening in evolution so these features would come about.

In and of itself, it's a philosophically interesting, defendable theory. I don't think it holds up, but that's only incidental to my point here. You see, I'm broadly in favor of the inclusion of Intelligent Design, along with Natural Selection, in the standard high school biology curriculum.

Breathe. I can explain.

What I do not want is a platform in classrooms for idiots to spout off their own nonsensical religious beliefs. But a discussion of Intelligent Design, and the controvery surrounding theories of evolution more generally, would be a fantastic chance to get teenagers to think about what science actually is: what a scientific theory is (and is not); what constitutes evidence for and against a theory; maybe even the place science holds in our society and culture. In a sense, I want the current curriculum, where students learn about Darwin's finches and so on over the course of a week or so, but then a week of just a little philosophy of science.

What I like most about this idea (besides exposing teenagers to philosophy) is that it appears to be a concession to the Intelligent Design movement, but might serve to undermine it -- let this crappy idea wither in the sun, or be left on the shelf of the marketplace of ideas, whatever metaphor you prefer. It probably wouldn't actually work that way, but a philosophy can dream. Even if it doesn't kill off ID, I still think this plan's ability to foster discussion among teenagers about intellectual topics is fantastic.

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