Evolution-vs.-design debate focusing on what to teach
August 22, 2005
Deseret Morning News
By Joe Bauman
Ever since humans first peered into the night sky and wondered, "Where did all this come from? What started the universe? Where did we come from?" mankind has tried to find the answers.
The scientific explanation of at least how some things got the way they are involves natural selection, the force behind evolution. Organisms mutate; some mutations are harmful, and the offspring die, while others make the offspring more fitted to survive, and these better genes are passed on, according to most scientists.
Opponents of evolution have argued it is mistaken, does not jibe with their understanding of Scripture or is inadequate to explain the complexity of life.
Recent attacks are in the form of an argument known as intelligent design. It holds that life is just too complex to be attributed to natural forces. Intelligent design supporters say that if evolution is taught in school, it should be as a conjecture and intelligent design should be discussed, too.
While the matter of classroom instruction is sparking debate, not everyone is lining up on one side or the other.
Dale Bills, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said, "The church has not taken a position" on the question.
Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, an outspoken critic of evolution, is considering legislation that would require schools to teach intelligent design ideas to help explain the origin of life.
If the school system agrees to talk about human evolution "only as a theory," he said, "I'm fine." Otherwise, "then there's a problem."
The trouble, Buttars said, is that while there's a scientific standard, when it comes to evolution "they've never found anything that meets that standard."
What about scientists who cite fossils showing that humans evolved? "Well, they're wrong," Buttars said.
"The Neanderthal man is totally human. That's been proven. And Lucy is totally ape," he said.
Neanderthals lived in Africa and Europe from 230,000 to between 29,000 and 28,000 years ago, and are believed to be fully human but not in the direct line of modern people. Lucy, considered by many paleontologists as possibly in modern humanity's direct line, is a hominid dated to about 3.18 million years ago.
"They've never found anything in any of these fossils that is somewhere between," Buttars said.
"He's woefully misinformed," said Dave Goldsmith, professor of geology and paleontology at Westminster College. The human fossil record shows "a wonderful sequence of transitional forms," Goldsmith said.
Buttars insists that if human evolution is taught as a fact, children are "being misled."
Intelligent design simply says that "we believe there's no way that you can start from nothing and by accident, life appears," the state senator said. Evolutionists like to criticize faith, he said, but believing in the accidental appearance of life is "the greatest leap of faith I've ever heard of."
The attack against human evolution is supported by John Morris, a national advocate of intelligent design, who will come to Utah in November to discuss the issue. The president of the Institute for Creation Research, North Santee, Calif., he will be at Calvary Chapel of Salt Lake City, 460 W. Century Drive, Nov. 18-19. The chapel's Web site says his visit is part of "Creation Weekend."
"I feel that evolution has become a state religion, and it is being taught in the public schools at taxpayer expense, to the exclusion of religious ideas," said Morris, contacted at the institute. "This is a problem."
Schoolchildren should be taught evolution because it is the dominant belief of scientists, he said. "But they need to be taught all about evolution, including the evidence which does not support evolution."
Intelligent design "is not a religious movement," he said. "There are individuals in that movement of every stripe, from atheist to agnostic to Christian to whatever."
Whether intelligent design is taught in school depends on the approach, said Tom McClenahan, academic dean and professor of Old Testament Studies at Salt Lake Theological Seminary. If it is expressed as a form of Creationism, it has philosophical and religious assumptions, and those should be made clear and specific in any discussion, he said.
On the other hand, intelligent design could be discussed as a theory that says certain aspects of the universe are best explained by a directed cause rather than random events.
"That seems to be to be just two alternative theories," McClenahan said, "and they could be presented as two scientific hypotheses."
According to Goldsmith, the intelligent design argument is an insult to both religion and science.
Even if there were not a well-established biological theory of evolution - and there is - intelligent design still would not be the way to go, he said. "It's just bad science.
"Science relies on testability, which intelligent design doesn't have," Goldsmith added.
"People who advocate for intelligent design claim that it's not a religious theory because it does not explicitly mention God. But it relies on some unknowable, all-powerful intelligence," Goldsmith said.
"The fact that you do not call that intelligence 'God' does not mean it is not a religious theory."
Another argument stressed by the opponents of evolution is that it is only the "theory" of evolution, as if that means it is a wild conjecture, he said. That's a misconception, according to Goldsmith.
"In science you can basically divide the world into facts and theory, and a fact is anything observable. . . .
"When biologists refer to evolution, we actually call it both a fact and a theory. The observation that evolution has happened, that life today is different than it was in the past, is a fact. Darwin's model of natural selection, the explanation that we use to explain why life has changed, is a theory.
"But like the molecular nature of water, nobody doubts that the theory is true - at least, no reputable scientists really do." The State School Board plans to discuss issues involving the teaching of evolution at its Sept. 2 meeting, said Brett Moulding, director of curriculum and instruction for the Utah State Office of Education.
"We teach evolution in the science classroom, and it's taught in high school biology," Moulding said. He said a position paper the board will consider Sept. 2 emphasizes that teachers need to respect and be nonjudgmental about beliefs students bring to the classroom.