In 1789, when James Madison drafted the 10 statements that would become the Bill of Rights, he chose to get the obvious out of the way in the very first amendment; there shall exist, always and forever, a divide between church and state. For the next 70 years, there was hardly a fuss about it. Then in 1859, a small publisher in England released a book titled On the Origin of Species, and lo, the fusses went forth and multiplied.
Ever since the legendary Scopes “Monkey” trial in 1925, the teaching of evolution in America’s public schools has had few moments of peace. Each generation since has seen a legal fight for a ban on teaching evolution—or a ban’s repeal—appear in the national spotlight, like a comet making its predictable return. Throughout the 20th century, evolution survived in America’s schools under the shield of the First Amendment, and today it’s standard biology curriculum. “All great truths,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “begin as blasphemies.”
The fight is far from over though. Backed into a corner by evolution’s vast and varied armory of evidence and stymied by Mr. Madison’s simple decree, creationists have devised "intelligent design," cloaking creationism in the sheep’s clothing of a lab coat. Intelligent design propounds that evolution has many holes, and a good theory to fill those holes is one in which an intelligent supernatural entity worked in mysterious ways to produce the complexity and diversity seen in nature.
At time of writing, no scientific evidence has been produced or found independently to support this hypothesis. In an effort to tiptoe by the First Amendment, intelligent design proponents refer to the “entity” with bleached phrases like “an intelligent power” or “unknown designer” punctuated with a well-practiced shrug. By keeping the letters G, O, and D out of it, they plan to give intelligent design a science-y flavor so as to qualify it for public school textbooks and classrooms. And they plan to do it all with a straight face.
In the last decade, the number of attempts by evangelical elected officials or groups such as the Discovery Institute to quietly ram creationism back into science education has increased in both frequency and intensity. In 2002, the Ohio Board of Education elected to revise the academic standards to allow for intelligent design (that decision was overturned in 2006). Two years later, in 2004, the little town of Dover, Pennsylvania landed in the national spotlight when an evangelical school board member forced through the purchase of intelligent design textbooks, resulting in a lawsuit that ended up in the federal courts. The year after that, Kansas landed on front pages when several religious members of the Board of Education organized a coup to enforce the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution as a “competing theory.”
This year, a former chairman of the Texas Board of Education led a charge to get intelligent design into textbooks in an effort to lead a nationwide trend—apparently when it comes to textbooks, as Texas goes, so goes the nation. When asked why he was disregarding Evolution’s support from expert scientists and biologists, he replied, “Someone has to stand up to the experts.”
Sadly, the collateral damage of these crusades is not small. Beyond litigation’s financial impact—the cash-strapped Dover School District had to shell out a million dollars in legal fees—fervor and tension metastasize in these small towns turning neighbors into strangers, friends into enemies, and family members against one another. Some people pick up and move. And yet, intelligent design and its fans remain undeterred, convinced of their righteous cause.
There's a special irony to this. Ideas, like all living forms on this planet, live and die by their merit. A fundamentally bad idea, in the unflattering light of critical analysis, will wither and die. A sound idea will survive, only to become refined over time by reasoned thought and inquiry. The fittest live on, the feeble do not.
In this regard, intelligent design has a grim prognosis. Without a single shred of evidence to support it, it too will go the way of the dinosaur.
Illustration by Fatim Hana