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A View From the Past

Gerald Skoog
Work under Review
Of Pandas and People
Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis, edited by Charles Thaxton

Can structures such as fins, feathers, and skulls be the result of "common engineering work of an intelligent artisan?" In answering this question, Charles Thaxton, the Academic Editor for Of Pandas and People, affirmatively sums up the premise of this book which is "life is like a manufactured object, the result of intelligent shaping of matter." In striving to meet the goal of presenting data "that bear on the central question of biological origins," the authors make the following assertions:

a) Messages encoded in DNA must have originated from an intelligent cause.

b) Biological structures exhibit the characteristics of manufactured things.

c) Organisms such as giraffes are a package of interrelated adaptations that has resulted from the ability and work of an intelligent designer.

d) An intelligent designer shaped clay into living forms.

e) Various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency with their distinctive features (fins, feathers, etc.) already intact.

f) Similarities among living things are like preassembled units that can be plugged into a complex electronics circuit. They can be varied according to an organism's need to perform particular functions in air or water or on land. Organisms are mosaics made up from units at each biological level.

g) The fossil record is either the result of a catastrophe that followed an initial informative event or a series of informative events by an intelligent designer which matches the record of appearance found in the geological record.

h) The view of intelligent design is rooted in the observation that today human intellect is required to produce the complex arrangements of matter we see in computers, literary works, and bridges. If the present is a key to the past, then an intelligent cause similar to human intellect must have accounted for all relevantly similar complex assemblages in the past.

In assessing this list of claims and propositions, Thaxton's assertion that "Darwin did not disprove intelligent design, he simply argued there is no need for it" seems relevant. The claim that life is the result of a design created by an intelligent cause cannot be tested and is not within the realm of science. Also, as implied by Darwin, the explanatory power and usefulness of the dicta of intelligent design in directing research and understanding the natural world make them peripheral to the study of biology. Observations of the natural world also make this dicta suspect. Stephen Jay Gould in The Panda's Thumb argued that "ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution" and that "odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proofs of evolution – paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process constrained by history, follows perforce." Gould uses the orchid, which he describes as a "collection of parts generally fashioned for other purposes," and the panda's thumb, which he described as a contraption that is a modified radial sesamoid bone and anatomically not a finger, as examples that reflect evolution in nature rather than intelligent design.

In 1886, Thomas Huxley argued in his book Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews that the hypothesis of special creation was not only a "specious mask of our ignorance" but its "existence in Biology marks the youth and imperfections of the science." Huxley indicated the history of every science involved the "elimination of the notion of creative or other interferences with the natural order of the phenomena which are subject matter of that science." He indicated that when astronomy was a young science "the morning starts sang together for joy" and the "planets were guided on their courses by celestial hands." In 1989, Of Pandas and People represents the continued efforts of a vanguard to keep an earlier and less mature view of the world entrenched in biology classrooms.

The view that life is the result of design by an intelligent cause was in the mainstream of American thought as late as the nineteenth century. Prior to the Civil War, nearly every college and university had a natural philosophy course that was built around the basic tenets presented in this book. The course was so important it generally was taught by the school's president. In the late 1800s, the faculty at John Hopkins University revised the biological sciences curriculum and eliminated the emphasis on creative design and other creationist tenets. Other colleges and universities eventually did likewise. These actions were not the result of censorship or abridgement of academic freedom. Creationist ideas, which were once in the center of human thought, had become fringe ideas that had no power to explain the natural world. Today, they remain fringe ideas that have no legitimate place in the study of biology beyond their historical significance as ideas that once dominated human thought.

Because of legislative and judicial setbacks in their efforts to ban the teaching of evolution or to neutralize it with equal treatment of creationism, the antievolutionists now are focusing their attach on evolution. This book reflects that strategy. Also, the antievolutionists are interpreting the statement in Edward V. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 96(1987) that indicated "teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction" as support for the teaching of creationist tenets. Undoubtedly, the authors also were encouraged by the Texas State Board of Education's guidelines for the upcoming adoption of biology and elementary science textbooks that mandate the coverage of "scientific theories of evolution and other reliable scientific theories, if any." As stated by Robert Simonds in the creationist publication "Impact" (October, 1989), there are many school administrators, school board members, and teachers who are "closet creationists" who want to support creationist views. This book may find favor with these individuals. No one, however, should be seduced by the argument that the idea "life is the result of an intelligent plan conceived by an intelligent agent" is a scientific theory or model, and as such, should be studied by students to balance or neutralize the teaching of evolution. Clearly, Pandas is being used as a vehicle to advance sectarian tenets and not to improve science education. This book has no potential to improve science education and student understanding of the natural world.

Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker asserted that "biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose" and that "all appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit displayed in a very special way." The authors of Pandas have been seduced by the complicated nature of life and, undoubtedly, by other factors to see purpose and design in nature. As a result they cling to an outmoded orthodoxy that represents poor science. No benefit could be achieved by emphasizing this orthodoxy in the biology classroom of this nation.

Gerald Skoog is Professor and Chairperson of Educational Leadership and Secondary Education at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and was President of the National Science Teachers Association in 1985-86.

Note: This review was originally published in Bookwatch Reviews 2(11) in 1989, and republished in Reviews of Creationist Books, second edition, edited by Liz Rank Hughes (Berkeley: NCSE, 1993). Transcribed for the web by Nick Matzke and Glenn Branch.