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Deja vu all over again

Writing in the Washington Post (December 17, 2005) on the topic of what "intelligent design" textbooks would actually teach, Douglas Baynton discusses textbooks from the nineteenth century. "The one science course routinely taught in elementary schools back then was geography," he writes, and the textbooks used were "compendiums of knowledge intended to teach children a little of everything about Earth and its inhabitants." In addition, however, they "seem also to have been intended to provide solace for the existentially anxious." Baynton quotes a number of passages that might have been taken from the latest work of "intelligent design" apologetics: for example, "the physical phenomena of the world reveal in their harmonious action a unity of plan and purpose, and display in an infinite variety of ways the 'Power, Wisdom and Goodness of the Almighty Designer.'"

One problem with such thoughts, Baynton suggests, is their parochialism: "if you've concluded that the world is designed for humans, there is no compelling reason to stop there. Why not a world made not just for your species but also for your race, your nation, your moment in history?" More problematic, though, is their scientific sterility: "useful answers that open up further questions are replaced by answers that are emotionally satisfying but intellectual and practical dead ends. After all, once you know that mountains exist because they were meant to exist, what is left to do but to sit in your armchair and meditate on the wisdom of their design?" Baynton, who teaches history at the University of Iowa, concludes by remarking, "The details have changed, but the fundamental habits of thought at issue have not."