Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Me

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; 12:15 PM

I was one of those blissfully nerdy kids who fell in love with
dinosaurs in the fourth grade and never outgrew it. In adulthood,
people like me go to natural history museums, see Steven Spielberg
movies and read the essays of the late paleontologist Stephen Jay
Gould. That is usually enough to keep us happy.

But a couple of weeks ago I saw a chance to take my amateurish grasp
of the history of life a bit further. I persuaded the editor of The
Post's editorial pages to publish an op-ed piece of mine called
"Who's Afraid of Intelligent Design?"

My inspiration was a front-page story by The Post's Chicago bureau
chief, Peter Slevin.
He described the Intelligent Design movement, a group of apparently
serious scientists who are doing research on what they see as flaws
in standard evolutionary theory. They appear to think that some
organisms are too complex to have been the result of random chance
and natural selection, and they think they can prove it. I was
surprised to learn that unlike the Creationists, the Bible
fundamentalists who accept Genesis literally, the Intelligent Design
(ID) folks agree with Darwin that the story of life is hundreds of
millions of years long, and that chimpanzees and humans share an
ancestor a few million years back. It is the earliest parts of the
story, particularly the notion that life could emerge from non-living
chemicals on an early, sterile earth, that the Intelligent Design
folk think are on particularly shaky ground.

As I read Slevin's story I thought: what an exciting science lesson!
The ID researchers seemed to be grasping at gaps in the fossil
record, rather than seeing the irresistible Darwinist logic of what
scientists have discovered. But comparing their arguments to Darwin's
was, I thought, a wonderful way to teach Darwin. I could not
understand why important educators and scientists were spending money
on lawyers to keep ID out of the classroom. In my op-ed I said we
ought to let ID be explained to students so that they could
understand how it defied the scientific method, just as the flaws of
perpetual motion theory, I said, should be a part of a physics course
and the fallacies of the Steady-State theory should be part of an
astronomy course.

For me and many other students, biology as it is usually taught, one
complicated fact or term after another, is deadly dull. Introducing a
little debate would excite teenagers, just as the attacks on
conventional wisdom launched by my favorite high school history
teacher, Al Ladendorff, always got me walking fast to that class so I
wouldn't miss anything.

Well, the minute the op-ed appeared the e-mails started popping up on
my computer, right under the coconut ape with a ball and bat that
sits atop my IBM. At last count there were about 400 of them. Most
said they had the unfortunate duty to tell me that I was an idiot.

Daniel Kohn of Mountain View, Calif., said he was "extremely
disheartened by the ignorance you displayed in your commentary on
Intelligent Design." Christian Iffrig of Arlington said, "Like most
imbecilic do-gooders, you think it's about creating a forum for
intellectual discussion -- give and take. You think they'd accord the
same respect for diverse opinions? They have no such intentions."

Some readers were kinder, but equally convinced that I did not see
the ramifications of what I was saying. Anthony Joern, professor of
biology at Kansas State University, asked about "that poor high
school teacher who must deal with the religious parents of the
students who were subjected to such a debate. What happens if you do
present a fair debate and religion loses? What does the teacher do in
Kansas when the parents clamor for revenge?"

Elizabeth Lutwak said, "I would like to agree with your approach. I
think many science teachers and their students could handle, and
would benefit, from such a debate. Yet the ulterior motives of these
groups scare me. They are already scaring a fair number of science
teachers into not teaching evolution at all, making the material a
mere reading assignment."

Jim Wilson of Louisville, Ky., said, "If I'm reading correctly then
in order to make classrooms more 'fun' we should consider junk
science or introduce false information. No we shouldn't. Would you
encourage denying the Holocaust and giving that argument any credence
just because it would get the students more involved? Just because
you personally were bored by biology, I don't think we should 'jazz'
it up to make it fun."

"Your central point is cute and democratic," said Scott Hayes, "but
not particularly useful to a science teacher who is struggling to
help overcome amazing data which suggests that more than half the
people in this country believe that human beings walked the planet
when dinosaurs were alive."

I anticipated those reactions. I surveyed many of the best biology
teachers I knew before I wrote the piece. Not one of them thought my
idea would work. I mentioned two of them in the op-ed. Based on that
very negative reaction, I assumed that if the idea had any merit at
all, it would only be in some future age, when our big-brained,
metal-bodied descendants would celebrate my meager effort as an
interesting example of early 21st century off-color humor. Or
something like that.

But instead, I was stunned to discover that many e-mailers (a
generous estimate would be about 30 percent) agreed with me, and they
had had the same idea long before I did. "I, like you, am a strong
believer in Darwinism and, also like you, think that critical debate
should be injected into the classroom whenever possible," said
Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss, a Washington, D.C., senior research analyst
who just earned a doctorate in political science.

Brian Arneson, who works in the Chemical Education Group at the
University of Texas, said, "Our entire school curriculum is devoid of
intelligent debate, especially in science. Our students lack the
basic ideas of what makes a credible claim and how to defend their
position with experimentally derived evidence."

"You are right," said Norman Ravitch of Savannah, Ga. "Nothing is
taught in a more boring fashion than science. All is memorization.
What you suggest, reading different theories, I did in college on my
own in a biology class and it was wonderful."

So I felt better. There were so many e-mails that I was forced to
respond to each with very terse comments, but I was grateful for each
one. I don't think I will be making any more attempts to offer my
ill-informed views on evolution, but there is something I am curious

I have received very few e-mails from actual high school biology
teachers who have ever tried introducing the debate to their classes.
I suspect some are doing this quietly to avoid the kind of religious
eruption that readers told me was inevitable.

Is there anyone out there trusting their high school students to
handle these contradictions and using them to better explain how
science works? Tell me about it. I still have a lot to learn.