Intelligent design, the argument that life is so complex that it must have required a sophisticated designer, was formulated to circumvent court decisions that banned the teaching of creationism in science classes. There was an attempt to get intelligent design into schools for a while, but it failed after a lawsuit in Dover, Pennsylvania recognized it as inherently religious. That lawsuit is now more than a decade old, and it seems some school districts have short memories.
Zack Kopplin, an activist who has tracked attempts to sneak religious teachings into science classrooms, found a bit of sneaking in Youngstown, Ohio. There, a document hosted by the city’s schools contains a lesson plan that openly endorses intelligent design and suggests that students should be taught that there is a scientific controversy between this and evolution.
The document focuses on the “diversity of life” and is a bizarre mix of normal science and the promotion of intelligent design. For example, most of the first page is occupied by evolution standards with a language similar to that of the Next Generation Science Standards. But the discussion is preceded by a statement straight out of the “learn the controversy” approach: “Students examine the content of evolution and intelligent design and consider the merits and deficiencies of both sides of the argument.” Elsewhere in the document, teachers are even told to organize a debate in which students take turns arguing for evolution and intelligent design.
The document then goes into specific exercises that should be done in the classrooms. These exercises give the impression that the school system has taken a standard lesson plan and added some creationist material. A creationist handout from one of the exercises highlights the arguments of Lehigh University professor Michael Behe. Behe claims to have identified structures in cells that are too complex to have come about through evolution. However, the biological community has dealt with this claim at length. When he repeated it in court in Dover, the judge completely rejected Behe’s arguments.
Yet the same textbook claims that “Darwin’s theory of evolution is a theory in crisis in light of the tremendous advances we have made in molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics over the last fifty years.” The same argument is also repeated in detail in one of the videos the document says students should watch. The video appears to be from the media arm of the Discovery Institute. Discovery is a strong proponent of intelligent design, viewing it as a tool to replace the current scientific process with one more in line with its theological views.
Another video promoted by the document is more overtly religious — and even worse scientific. It claims there are no fossils of animal life prior to the Cambrian (apparently someone is unaware of the Ediacaran). It also claims that scientists have never discovered a single fossil of a transitional species, which it says “absolutely refutes the Darwinist’s claim”. Later, the biologically nonsensical argument is made that the different number of chromosomes in different species is also evidence against evolution.
Just as the video cuts out, it ends with the statement that “every kind is created by God,” making clear its religious nature (and unconstitutionality in the school system). Kopplin emphasizes how this video is actually the product of an Islamic creationist (and possible cult leader), a fact that the supposedly Christian backers of this lesson plan probably wouldn’t appreciate.
However, mixed in with these videos and handouts are several links to exercises, documents, and videos from highly reputable sources such as universities and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It’s quite likely that whoever put together this document started with a standard, scientifically valid lesson plan and pasted on a series of random bits of creationist information gleaned from a bit of web searching.
It is clear, however, that the authors’ search did not extend to legal precedents and all available information describing the overtly religious roots of intelligent design. And in doing so, they have left their school system vulnerable to an expensive lawsuit that the schools will clearly lose.