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Freethought Today · Vol. 24 No. 2 March 2007

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Honorable Mention -- FFRF High School Essay Competition

Intelligent Design vs. Intelligent Education: Elvia Pyburn-Wilk

By Elvia Pyburn-Wilk

According to the creation myth of the Philippines, the earth was created when great sky god Captan sent lightning bolts after his three grandsons to punish them for trying to break into the gates of the sky. As the story goes, Captan's first two lightning bolts destroyed the first two sons, but the third son was made of rock and his body broke into several pieces--each of which became a continent.

Imagine for a moment proposing to teach this myth in American public schools. The idea may seem ridiculous, but pause to compare the myth with the Christian story of creation according to Genesis. The bible tells a similar tale. So why even consider teaching the bible's version as a theory, let alone as a fact? Those in favor of teaching intelligent design rely on simple, faulty arguments to make their case. These arguments, along with a great deal of propaganda, seem to have fooled many people into thinking that scientists are amoral tricksters. Ironically, the only remedy for this mistake seems to be careful and critical scientific thought.

One of the most popular creationist arguments against evolution is that evolution is just a theory." This is quite true; evolution is a theory, as is the theory of gravity and the theory that the earth is round. According to scientific philosophers such as Sir Karl Popper, scientific theories such as gravity are considered valid because they are falsifiable--in other words, testable. Unless a theory can be shown to be falsifiable, it is not a theory.

Intelligent design does not pass this test, therefore it is not a theory. Moreover, it is not an idea that can be changed according to new evidence or revised in light of new research, as is the theory of evolution. No decent biologist would suggest that the theory of evolution is beyond revision; by its very nature, a scientific theory is constantly revised to make scientific progress.

Without understanding the basics of natural selection, which is the basis for the theory of evolution, many fundamental aspects of biology cannot make sense. For instance, millions of years ago, only prokaryotic organisms existed. Prokaryotic cells have no nuclei or other membrane-enclosed organelles. Sometime around 2.6 million years ago, eukaryotic cells with nuclei and interior membranes began to emerge and proliferate. The most likely explanation for this great advance in cellular complexity is the endosymbiotic theory, a theory that uses Darwin's idea of natural selection to explain how eukaryotes evolved. According to the endosymbiotic theory, the first eukaryotes arose when one prokaryote ingested another by phagocytosis, in other words, a bigger cell ate a smaller one. For some reason, the smaller cell's outer membrane was not digested by the larger cell, and the two cells developed a symbiotic relationship with each other. The organizational capacity of a cell with an interior organelle was much greater than that of other cells, and it was able to survive better in its environment and therefore reproduce more often.

This theory is supported by several pieces of evidence. For example, the mitochondria, an organelle found inside eukaryotes, has DNA very similar to the DNA of the prokaryotes it may have evolved from. The appearance of eukaryotes on our planet's timeline is unexplainable by creationism, and the best scientific explanation depends directly on an understanding of evolution.

As Darwin once said, "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars."

The second most common creationist argument is that every theory on the subject of earth's beginning, including that of intelligent design, should be presented to students so that they can make up their own minds. Setting aside for a moment that creationism is not a scientific theory, this argument still does not stand up. Students need to be taught how to objectively analyze the theories that they are taught. That is, they must be taught the strategy and method of scientific thought before being asked to choose between them. To jump the gun and assume students have the tools necessary to distinguish between an unfalsifiable myth and a falsifiable theory is to put the cart before the horse.

Intelligent design was not a theory arrived at through repeated tests or observations. Suggesting that creationism holds merit is not only a major obstacle to students' understanding of biology, but it runs counter to the logical and intellectual thought process required by objective and analytical thinking.

Proponents of intelligent design do not truly want every creation theory taught in schools. They want the Christian idea of creationism to be given special status and priority. This advocacy of a particular religion's dogma in a school setting is a great leap across Jefferson's famous "wall of separation" between church and state.

Science aside, it is clearly illegal to teach religious doctrine in a school science class. Various Supreme Court cases have attempted to walk the difficult line between promoting and restricting religion in schools and other government-sponsored institutions.

In the first of these court cases, 1947's Everson v. Ewing Board of Education, the Court stated that the government cannot aid or restrict the practice of any religion. The important point is that, while teaching creationism in public schools is a kind of promotion of Christianity, not teaching it in schools is not a restriction of Christian religious practice. It is simply restricting Christianity to where it should be practiced: in the church.

In deciding that education is a necessity and a right, the federal courts have made a commitment to provide public education that is impartial to various religious views. This is the type of education that prepares students to make educated decisions for the rest of their lives.

As a graduating high school student myself, I can honestly say that without an understanding of the scientific process and evolution, I would be entering college as an outsider to the intellectual world. The very fact that so many adults continue to misunderstand evolution and label creationism as a scientific theory underscores our society's need to better educate our young people in the sciences. To teach science is to teach theory, but it is also to teach a logical way of thinking that seems to be absent from the minds of many Americans. A good science education would negate the need for discussion and debate about teaching creationism in public schools.

Elvia Pybum-Wilk graduated in June from Bloomington High School South in Indiana. She finished high school in only three years and is attending Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. At Bard, Elvia plans to double major in creative writing and film, with a minor in political science. She has lived in Belize, California, New Mexico, and London. After college, she hopes to move back to London.