L. Neil Smith's
Number 300, December 12, 2004

Bill of Rights Day December 15

Supernatural Selection
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

When I was a kid, we would play a game called "Telephone." Of course, I say "we" as if kids spontaneously sat down and played this game, when, in fact, that was never the case. It was pretty much always imposed upon us by camp counselors. What they'd do was, they'd line up a bunch of kids, side-by-side, and whisper a word or phrase into the first kid's ear. Then the first kid would whisper it to the second kid, etc., until it reached the kid all the way down at the other end. Then the last kid would say it out loud and it would barely resemble what the counselor had actually said. "What time is it?" became "What lime exhibit?" And so on. Then everyone would giggle and start the game over, repeating the process until one of the kids—often one with an older brother—turned the message into a string of curse words, at which point we'd get up, go to the field, and play kickball, never to speak of what happened again.

I'm not sure how Telephone counts as a "game," exactly. I've played games before. Games have winners. Telephone doesn't.

But anyway, I bring this up for a reason—but hold that thought. First, I want to digress and tell you about Dover, Pennsylvania.

Dover, Pennsylvania, is a small town south of the state capital, which a few weeks back became the first town in the country to require the teaching of "intelligent design" in high school biology classes. According to the I.D.E.A. Center, intelligent design is a theory suggesting "that life is here as a result of the purposeful action of an intelligent designer," as opposed to the "blind forces" of Darwinian evolution. So in other words, intelligent design means supernatural selection. It doesn't stress that the world was whipped together by the God of the Bible, necessarily, but by a god—perhaps the God of the Bible, or perhaps in the case of Dover an omnipotent man named Ben.

As you might imagine, this new curriculum requirement is causing a bit of a stir.

"The only thing we want to do is provide a balanced playing field for the students," insists school board member William Buckingham. But Witold Walczak of the Pennsylvania ACLU disagrees. He calls the Dover decision an "attempt to teach religion instead of science." Eugenie Scott of the National Association for Science Education takes it a step further; she calls intelligent design "creationism in a lab coat."

Now, on the one hand, I can see why intelligent design would make some people—especially scientists—uncomfortable. A lot of time, energy, and money are poured into biological research, and a lot of good things—like enhanced human understanding, or "The Stepford Wives"—come about as a result of it. So if you believe, as many folks do, that evolution and creation are mutually exclusive, then requiring intelligent design in a bio class is sort of like teaching the science of childbirth, followed by the "alternate theory" that babies are dropped off by storks. At that point, it doesn't really matter if it provides a balanced perspective. It flies in the face of several known facts—not the least of which is the nine-month process we all know goes into having a child.

(Also, to my recollection, I've never seen a stork in a baby ward. A time or two in the waiting room, yes—but never in the ward.)

To that end, intelligent design may seem somewhat disingenuous. While it doesn't refer to the God of the Bible, necessarily, many of its supporters do believe in said God. That's why its detractors believe its supporters are being sneaky. They think its supporters are just trying to find a back door to get God into the classroom. Personally, I don't see the connection; I don't think a back door is necessary. I mean, even Gumby can walk through walls—Gumby, damn it. And if Gumby can get in a building without our help, surely God can do it, too. But still, we live in a Judeo-Christian country. And in a Judeo-Christian country, even a generic reference to God is more likely to mean the God of the Bible than, say, Zeus. So it's no wonder some people see this as Creationism Lite. You can't blame them. It's an educated guess.

But on the other hand, the stork analogy I made a moment ago is incomplete. If intelligent design is creation theory, it's creation theory through a P.C. filter. It's like teaching that babies are delivered either by storks or ladies, while swapping out the word "stork" for "some bird" just to make it sound objective. "Which one is it, birds or ladies?" kids will ask. Then they'll stumble upon the name Lady Bird Johnson one day. They'll learn that she loved the environment. And then they'll conclude she was Mother Earth. Where will this get us, I ask you? Soon kids will believe her husband, Lyndon, fathered all of mankind, which I'm sure you'll agree is mostly untrue. But, by then, it will be too late. The Cult of LBJ will have risen. The damage will be done. All because we didn't have the balls to tell kids what the hell we were talking about.

So maybe the problem with intelligent design isn't that it's an unspecific, Trojan Horse-type of introduction to creation theory. Maybe its real flaw is the fact that it isn't specific enough.

Call a stork "a stork" and a robin "a robin," I mean. And if you're referring to the God of the Bible, call Him "the God of the Bible"—whatever the setting.

Look, I'm not saying we should turn the average biology class into a lesson on theology. It doesn't need to become a class about religion. There's plenty enough to learn about religion that it deserves a class all its own. The neat thing about intelligent design is it merely suggests something often thought to be the opposite of what's taught in the science classroom; then it attempts to back it up through scientific fact. I think that's pretty cool. If we're going to teach about the origins of life in public school—indeed, if we're going to have such a thing as public school to begin with—we ought to be teaching every kind of theory. All of 'em. Simple and intricate alike. And if we have to name names, let's name names. The truth will sort itself out.

That's the thing that gets me about the way we teach science. The theory of evolution is just that—a theory. By definition, it's something that cannot be proven. Yet here we are, treating it like gospel, acting as if it's absolute fact. I'm not saying there isn't any merit to the theory of evolution. Things certainly evolve, whether that explains life or not. And I wouldn't discount the value of science, either. It's significant stuff. But I fail to see where natural selection has more merit—in a publicly funded setting, no less—than the idea that, maybe, there's a reason—a higher purpose—for the selections nature makes. Why wouldn't there be? Because a bunch of guys with Ivy League degrees say so? Well, nine of ten dentists recommend Crest. I like Aquafresh better. And just because nine dentists are on the same page doesn't make them right.

Which brings me back to the game of Telephone.

We tend to think people were unsophisticated back in the biblical ages—that they assigned supernatural explanations to natural phenomena, just to cope with their surroundings. The implication here is that science is more accurate than religion, simply because scientific ideas are tested and taken apart over time. But just because science was less developed a few thousand years ago doesn't mean creation theories are inherently inaccurate. Back then, folks were much closer, time-wise, to the very beginning. It's entirely possible that the Great Big Camp Counselor in the Sky handed them a sensible message about the origins of life, only to have it muffled and made to seem quaint by the science of passing it down. For all we know, that's why He doesn't talk to us directly anymore—we're too far removed to hear what He's saying now.

Hey, it's a theory. But I suppose it's another story for another time.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column for "The Aquarian" and other publications. His website is www.readjdm.com, and he can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.

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