Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Test for Intelligent Design Proponents

Introduction

If intelligent design were to be brought into elementary and high school classrooms, students would be taught that there are some people who believe that an intelligent designer of some kind who was needed to create life (and/or guide its development) and that others believe that life as we know it was the result of a natural evolutionary process -- where perhaps God made the universe in such a way that this process could have occurred. This would no doubt be touched on a number of different times throughout their education. But the belief in God is a religious belief, and this naturally enough could not be touched on at any point. However, they would also learn about the nature of empirical science and how it requires theories with testable hypotheses -- simply as part of their normal science education. And by teaching intelligent design along with evolutionary biology, students would learn "critical thinking skills" -- or at least this is what proponents of intelligent design claim.

Like many others, I take the view that by the "intelligent designer," the vast majority of proponents of this idea are disingenuously referring to God in a way that is intended to get around the Separation of Church and State, whether their ambitions reach any further or not. But in my view, the more ardent promoters of intelligent design intend to use science classes for introducing young earth and old earth creationist "criticism" of the natural sciences under the banner of "critical thinking skills." The more ambitious hope to turn science classes into a platform from which to begin the launch of what is essentially an anti-scientific, fundamentalist religious and political ideology -- beginning with a pseudo-scientific case for the existence of God.

In contrast, there are a great many religious individuals who believe that God is not something which one can fit inside a test-tube, and that it is a mistake to treat the belief in God as an empirical hypothesis to be tested inside a lab or a class devoted to science. They believe that the very act of attempting to demonstrate the existence of God is itself destructive of true faith. Their views will be one of the first victims in the effort to bring intelligent design into our classrooms. However, proponents of intelligent design wish us to believe that the intelligent designer isn't necessarily God, and that they merely wish to teach "critical thinking skills." So let us assume for the moment that the proponents of intelligent design are sincere in their desire to improve education.

A Mini-Seminar on Natural Science

If intelligent design or its creationist criticism of natural science is to be taught alongside evolutionary biology as a means of promoting "critical thinking skills," then there is an additional way of teaching such skills which we should consider: tying together all the major branches of hard science, including physics, biology, astronomy, geology, and chemistry in an integrated series of lessons. Typically, students take various classes, but no real emphasis is placed on seeing how the material from one class or one year is related to another. In contrast, students should see the material from different classes or grades as different pieces in the same puzzle and should be encouraged to put the pieces of the puzzle together. In this way, science teachers could demonstrate the unity of science and teach students further critical thinking skills -- perhaps the most valuable set of lessons students will ever learn. (Proponents of intelligent design should appreciate this to the extent that they actually value the development of such cognitive abilities. Moreover, it could be of real benefit for students in tomorrow's world.)

This could be part of senior year -- a kind of mini-seminar required for all students in order for them to graduate. Since not all students will have taken courses in all of the hard sciences, it couldn't be done in a single day, though. I believe teachers would need one class period for the introduction to or review of each branch, a class period cutting across several different branches, and then another class period for reviewing the whole of what students will have learned. Handouts could be made available, and both reading and homework assigned.

What follows is a tentative schedule, including the material which would be covered for each day.

Day One: students will focus on elements of physics, learning about heat, temperature, pressure, electricity, light, and polarization.

Day Two: students will focus on elements of biology, where students would learn the importance of proteins, amino acids, peptides, the nucleic acids we call DNA and RNA, lipids and cell structure, and of course, eukaryotes, bacteria, archea (including some specific extremophiles), viruses and even viroids (the last of which are nothing more than strands RNA containing instructions on how to replicate themselves).

Day Three: students will focus on elements of astronomy, learning about stars, planets, comets, and the early formation of the solar system, including how the inner planets were at one time heavily bombarded by comets.

Day Four: students will focus on elements of geology, learning about minerals such as borax, volcanic sea vents, the early earth and its reductive atmosphere (i.e., that it lacked corrosive oxygen -- something which we discovered just recently).

Day Five: students will focus on elements of chemistry, work with autocatalytic chemical reactions, repeat the experiments of Miller and Urey in creating amino acids, form stable ribose (the only essential component in nucleic acid other than amino acids) using borax, and create left-handed molecules using polarized light. (If some chemistry experiments would take longer than the period of time available to the class, then an outside chemistry class could be coordinated with the seminar to perform the same set of experiments, and students could be brought in to view the approach and results.)

Day Six: students will touch on topics which could include the presence of organic compounds in comets, the hydrophobic character of some proteins, how lipid bubbles form in volcanic sea vents and will naturally encapsulate such proteins in cell-like structures, Spiegelman's Monster and Manfred Eigen's experiment where a mere enzyme formed rapidly self-replicating viral RNA when provided with the appropriate nutrients, and how some RNA viruses create DNA using their RNA as a template for the purpose of replication.

Day Seven: students will review what they have learned from each of the branches -- in order to stress the unity of scientific knowledge, and then take time to relax in an informal environment and share with each other what they have learned the past six days. If they are thoughtful, they should see a great many connections, particularly if dialogue is encouraged, as it can be one of the most powerful tools in education.

As a tentative title for the course, I would suggest calling it "The Unity of Science: an investigation into the roots of biological systems in our world."

In Conclusion

What happens outside of school would be entirely up to the parents. Those who want to teach their children that God as the intelligent designer created life could continue to do so. Those who want to teach their children that God simply made a world in which life could arise and evolve naturally could continue to do so. Those who want to teach their children a less religious view of the world could continue to do so. And everyone's religious beliefs would be respected.

I am opposed to teaching intelligent design in science classes, and I will continue to oppose it. But if proponents of intelligent design genuinely value our children's science education and the development of their critical thinking skills, they should appreciate this integrative, scientific mini-seminar, and we should expect their full support. Personally, I do not believe that proponents of intelligent design will support this course. However, if they insist upon having intelligent design taught alongside evolutionary biology as "a means of teaching skills in critical thinking," then I believe that the outlined mini-seminar should be insisted upon as proof of their sincerity.

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