Last week the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove from state standards references to evolution as the underlying principle of biology. While the vote allows schools the freedom to teach about evolution, the battle is being reported as a simple conflict between scientific "evolutionists" on one side and fundamentalist "creationists" on the other, following the standard trope of the Scopes "monkey trial," immortalized in the 1960s movie "Inherit the Wind."
But whatever truth it holds, this description misses the more interesting and complex story. A scientific controversy is afoot, but it does not follow the script of "Inherit the Wind."
To see the issue clearly, one must focus not on "evolution" but on "Darwinism." Biologist George Johnson recently wrote that "organic evolution" is "one of the most solidly validated facts of science." In a sense, this is correct, if "evolution" simply means change over time. But orthodox Darwinists generally use "evolution" to mean much more: namely, that all living things have evolved -- without purpose or design -- from a common ancestor by natural selection working on random genetic mutations. Life itself, they tell us, emerged from a mindless combination of chance and necessity.
Here's the problem. Any such denial of purpose and design concerning our origins is inevitably ideological. Because of this, many parents -- religious and otherwise -- object to its dogmatic acceptance in public education. Of course, if it were true, then denying it would be foolhardy. But in fact this broader story contradicts a large body of scientific evidence. At present, most school textbooks either avoid these facts or misrepresent them.
Consider the hypothesis of universal common descent. Numerous molecular comparisons now suggest that bacteria, fungi, protozoa, plants and animals -- while they share interesting commonalities -- are not descended from a single organism. Fossil evidence reveals that the major groups of animals appeared relatively suddenly in the "Cambrian explosion," with no record of common ancestors.
In addition, most textbooks still present illustrations of similarities in vertebrate embryos as evidence of common ancestry, even though embryologists now know that such drawings distort the truth.
But even if we knew that universal common descent was true, the (neo-)Darwinian mechanism of random mutations and natural selection would face severe obstacles. The mechanism can preserve populations and produce antibiotic and pesticide resistance, but it can do little else. To account for evolution writ large, some mutations must modify embryo development in beneficial ways. But recent experiments show that all developmental mutations are harmful.
For years the most popular evidence for natural selection was "industrial melanism" in peppered moths. When tree trunks were darkened by pollution, dark moths prospered while the light ones became bird food. When the trunks lightened, the situation reversed. However, as biologist Jonathan Wells showed in the May 24 issue of the Scientist, this story was discredited in the 1980s, when biologists discovered several errors in the studies, including the fact that peppered moths do not normally rest on tree trunks. Even if accurate, all this "evidence" would have shown was that natural selection can affect an existing population, which no one disputes. It never told us anything about the origin of moths.
Before Darwin, most scientists argued that living things display the hallmarks of intelligent design. In 1859 Darwin offered what many claim is the decisive refutation of design arguments in biology. To prevent a counteroffensive, Darwin redefined "science" to eliminate explanations that appeal to design, since he knew that design was the most likely alternative to his theory.
Likewise, contemporary Darwinists insist that while teachers can offer "scientific" arguments against design, they can't mention arguments for design. But if scientific arguments against design are possible, then -- at least in principle -- there can be scientific arguments for design. They may be wrong, but they can't be ruled out by definition.
In fact, a growing number of scientists and other scholars are finding scientific evidence that life and the universe were intelligently designed. While their arguments have religious implications -- as do all theories of origin, including neo-Darwinism -- they are based on contemporary scientific discoveries, not religious authority or biblical texts.
For example, in "Darwin's Black Box," Michael Behe described several "molecular machines," such as the bacterial flagellum, that resist Darwinian explanation and give us reason to conclude that they are designed. Less known is a recent book by philosopher and mathematician William Dembski, "The Design Inference." Dembski offers scientists a rigorous way to distinguish and detect design in the natural sciences, including biology. Since science teachers can do this without assuming the identity of the designer, it provides a way to discuss evidence for and against design while avoiding specifically religious disputes.
Unfortunately, the vote in Kansas will not resolve this conflict any more than will mandating the exclusive teaching of Darwinism. Students certainly should be taught about Darwinian evolution, because it is the prevailing view in modern biology. But its rivals should be discussed as well, so students will have the resources to evaluate the theory rationally. Fairness and objectivity in the science classroom require that teachers teach the controversy, not deny its existence.
The writer is a senior fellow and program director of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in Seattle.