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Review: Intelligent Design Versus Evolution

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
18
Year: 
2008
Issue: 
4
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
38–39
Reviewer: 
Michael K O'Sullivan
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Intelligent Design Versus Evolution
Author(s): 
Edited by Louise Gerdes
Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. 126 pages.

The At Issue series from Greenhaven Press has become a standard in many public high school libraries, due primarily to the pro/con, point/counterpoint, balanced approach it takes with any controversial issue or topic. The introduction of each volume is used to give readers a historical and current perspective on the issue, and an overview essay from a previously published source is used to present the controversies surrounding the issue.

The introduction to this volume attempts to cover the history of this controversial topic from Charles Darwin's publication of his evolutionary theory in 1859 to the Scopes "monkey" trial in 1925 and up to the machinations taken by the Kansas state board of education in 2005 when it redefined science and opened the door to supernatural explanations in its classrooms, and its reversal in 2007, when it returned to the more mainstream scientific definition of evolution. Missing from this introduction and the overview essay, however, is the Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District decision from 2005, in which a federal district judge ruled that this Pennsylvania school district violated the Constitution by requiring the presentation of "intelligent design" in its science curriculum. This court decision does appear later in the book, but does not receive adequate or fair coverage.

The essays compiled by the editor for this publication are reprinted with permission from a variety of publications, including newspapers, magazines, professional journals,and books. It should also be noted that these essays have been edited to meet certain publication requirements. Prominent and not so prominent spokespersons from both sides of the issue are featured in this volume. If you have followed this battle for any length of time, you will recognize several of the names of the commentators with essays included in this edition. Two of the more outspoken commentators included in this volume are William Dembski and Richard Dawkins.

Following the point/counterpoint style of the At Issue series, the book presents a piece arguing that "intelligent design" is based on science, not religion, and then a piece countering that "intelligent design"is religion, not science. A third perspective also is offered: "intelligent design" is neither religion nor science. This particular essay, written by John Derbyshire, a journalist and author who writes for conservative political newsmagazines, originally appeared in the conservative magazine National Review. Evolution is then addressed by Dawkins in his essay entitled, "Evolution is an accepted fact," and is countered by Dembski's attempt to compare evolution to alchemy.

Considering this volume is primarily targeting high school students, the biggest problem with Dembski's article "Evolution is a flawed theory",which is reproduced in its entirety, will be the difficulty high school students will have in following and comprehending Dembski's meandering discussion of how evolution resembles alchemy more than science. For example, I wonder how many students would comprehend his conclusion, "The lesson of alchemy should be plain: Causal specificity cannot be redeemed in the coin of metaphysics, be it Neoplatonic or materialistic" (p 56). The selection of this essay to counter Dawkins's argument was a poor editorial choice. I am sure that there are plenty of other pieces the editor could have selected that would have been more age-appropriate and readable for high school students.

The tactic of incorporating "intelligent design" in the science curriculum by "teaching the controversy" also is addressed. Jonathan Witt, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, takes the point of view that "Critical analysis of evolutionary theory should be taught in the public schools." Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, counters with the obvious point that the science classroom should be used for the teaching of science. Leshner summarizes, "At a time when the United States faces increasing global competition in science and technology, public school science classrooms should remain free of ideological interference and dedicated to the rigor that has made American science the envy of the world" (p 66).

This volume provides a further legitimate rebuttal to the "teach the controversy" argument, with an essay entitled "Intelligent design should be taught in religion classes, not science." It is in such classes, according to Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy at Florida State University, that beliefs such as "intelligent design" can be debated along with other "faith-based" beliefs. As previously mentioned, one area where this book significantly fails is in its coverage of the Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District decision. The book does not fairly or adequately cover this major judicial decision.The only article that addresses this case, "Outlawing discussion of intelligent design in schools is a violation," is written by John Calvert, an attorney who serves as managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, and counsels school boards, school administrators, and science teachers regarding the teaching of what he calls origins science.

Calvert misrepresents the judge's findings in the Dover decision, calling it "twisted", and claiming it effectively establishes a state sponsored ideology. He even claims that the court "inserted a religious bias into science, while purporting to remove one" (p 73). Unfortunately this book does not provide a counterargument to Calvert's interpretation, so the average student, with a limited or no awareness of this judicial decision, will be left with a highly skewed interpretation of what even the media described at the time as a very thorough and comprehensive ruling. Unless a science teacher or a high school librarian selecting this book has stayed current on the issue of "intelligent design", this shortcoming in the book will be easily overlooked.

This book, as part of the At Issue series, does a fairly thorough job of presenting both sides of the various arguments surrounding the "intelligent design" versus evolution battle. However, the content of several of the articles, as previously mentioned, will require some introductory knowledge and understanding of evolution.

One would hope that books like the At Issue series will encourage critical thinking and analysis among high school students, as they are designed to do.However, it has been my experience as a high school librarian that many students approach controversial topics with a preconceived opinion. Students picking up this book, or even going into the publisher's on-line version (Opposing Viewpoints), will migrate to the point of view that supports their belief, while ignoring the opposing viewpoint. This is not the fault of the publisher or the editor in their choice of articles, unless they neglect to include articles from a certain perspective. Encouraging students to review and analyze viewpoints critically is the role of the teacher or the media specialist. As teachers, we need to encourage students to approach controversial issues with an open mind and to be receptive to different points of view. Students looking for arguments to support a particular point of view in the "intelligent design" versus evolution debate will not be disappointed in this volume.

About the Author(s): 

Michael K O'Sullivan
Rosemount High School
3335 142nd Street West
Rosemount MN 55068
michael.osullivan@district196.org

Michael K O'Sullivan is the Instructional Media Coordinator at Rosemount Senior High School in Rosemount, Minnesota. He is coauthor, with his wife Connie O'Sullivan, of "Monkey business: The intelligent design war has come to the school library" (School Library Journal 2005 Nov; 51 [11]: 42–5) and "Selection or censorship: Libraries and the intelligent design debate" (Library Review 2007 Mar; 56 [3]: 200–7).