I won’t say who is getting my vote for president. But I confess a nonpartisan desire that former senator Rick Santorum (R) remain in the race long enough to focus attention on an intriguing, if deeply controversial, educational issue.
He may not get the chance. The primaries are tough. So hang on, Senator. Show a little courage and you could spark new interest in one of the few causes we share: encouraging high school discussion of alternatives to evolutionary theory.
Teaching all sides of the evolution issue is supported in opinion polls. But those against it feel more strongly. When I suggested in 2005 that high school biology teaching would be improved by allowing students to debate Darwinism vs. the intelligent design theory, I received more than 400 e-mails. Seventy percent of them said I was an idiot. Many added that I was a dangerous idiot.
I respectfully disagree. It is important to note that Santorum and I have different reasons for wanting high schools to allow discussion of intelligent design — the notion that some supernatural force (not necessarily God) brought life to earth. Santorum believes that God had a hand in it. But he wants to avoid injecting religion into schools, so he says classes need only examine the scientific possibility that Darwin was wrong to conclude that life evolved only because of natural processes.
I think Darwin was right, but boring. It was hard for me to become interested in classroom explanations of natural selection when I was a student. Introducing a contrary theory like intelligent design and having students discuss its differences from Darwinism would enliven the class. It would also teach the scientific method. Did Darwin follow the rules of objective scientific inquiry? Does intelligent design?
Advocates of intelligent design at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute have influenced Santorum. They accept many Darwinist concepts, such as the notion that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. They see a weakness in Darwinian theory because of the lack of much evidence of natural precursors to the animal body types that emerged in the Cambrian period 500 million years ago. How did we get from random chemicals to creatures with eyes and spines? They say that gap in knowledge leaves open the possibility of intervention by an outside force.
Many scientists and teachers think the intelligent design folks are only pretending to have an allegiance to science. They seemed sincere to me. Some have doctorates in science. Even if they are fakes, their reliance on the fossil record rather the first book of the Bible qualifies them for a science class debate.
Santorum seems less eager than I am to push this issue, even though it represents one of his greatest legislative successes. He added a pro-intelligent design provision, called the Santorum Amendment, to a version of the No Child Left Behind bill that passed the Senate. It was cut out of the final bill, but language encouraging what Santorum called “competing scientific interpretations of evidence” remained in the accompanying report of the conference committee.
I don’t see any mention of his victories over evolutionary dogma on his Web site. I have watched many of the GOP debates and don’t recall the issue coming up. In recent years Santorum and the Discovery Institute have shifted their emphasis, saying intelligent design is a worthy high school topic but shouldn’t be pushed right now for fear of hindering its scientific development. They don’t want to make more enemies.
Some Darwinists, including me and some teachers, say that’s political cowardice. The topic can work in a biology class if well taught. If Santorum stays in the race he may talk about it, giving the issue more national prominence.
That would be good. We might eventually discover that high school students are smarter than we think. Give them a chance to examine the messy places where politics and research intersect, and their understanding and interest in science will be the better for it.
For Jay Mathew’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jaymathews.