Scientists celebrate victory in evolution fight
New government rules have banned ‘free schools’ in Britain from teaching the controversial theory of intelligent design. But should schools be allowed to teach what they like?
There is a war of ideas raging around the world, and schools are the battleground. On the one hand are the supporters of science, who accept the general scientific belief that the nature of life on Earth is explained by Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution.
On the other hand is an alliance of rebellious religious groups. They say life has been shaped, not by blind biology but by supernatural forces. The name they give to this idea? The theory of intelligent design.
Evolution is a broken theory, say so-called ‘design theorists’. They point to the amazing complexity of life in the natural world; to biological structures like the human eye; to extraordinary relationships and symbiosis between living things. These wonders couldn’t have just come about through millions of years of gradual mutation and natural selection. They must have been put in place by some guiding spirit – an ‘intelligent designer’.
This, they say, is not religion but serious science and, as such, it should be taught to students in school science lessons.
But design theorists have a problem. Of all the people who have studied evolution and biology seriously, only a tiny fraction see any reason to reject evolution. Instead, the overwhelming weight of scientific and expert opinion is that the theory of evolution is essentially correct, and that intelligent design has no evidence to back it up at all.
The result is that intelligent design is off the curriculum for British schools. But design theorists had, until this week, found cause for hope. The UK government is encouraging the foundation of ‘free schools’, outside government control. Religious groups who set up such schools for themselves might, it was believed, be able to teach intelligent design as well as, or even instead of, evolution.
Not any more. Today, anti-religion campaigners are celebrating after the UK Department of Education revised its rules to ensure that not even free schools can try to teach intelligent design as if it were science.
Freedom to be wrong?
Should schools be allowed to teach whatever they want? There are those who say yes. Schools, embedded within their communities, should have the freedom to educate young people in whatever ways they think best. If parents want their children to be brought up with the traditional beliefs of the community, whether that means intelligent design or anything else, they should have that option. That is not about religion but about basic liberty.
Liberty is a noble ideal, others reply, but must take second place to the rights of young people themselves. Which rights? The right to an education that is based around truth, not lies.
- Should schools be allowed to teach intelligent design if they want to?
- What place should religion have on school curriculums?
- What limits should there be on what schools are or are not allowed to teach? In groups, discuss and draw up a list of topics you think should be treated carefully, or which should be completely off limits.
- Do some further research into the theory of evolution. Do you think it is incompatible with religious belief? Why do you think some religious groups find it so challenging?
Some People Say...
“Governments have no place interfering with schools.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So intelligent design is banned from my school?
- Well – most schools would never have taught it anyway. The only schools that take intelligent design seriously are those with a strong connection to certain religious communities.
- Why’s that?
- People usually support intelligent design when the theory of evolution clashes with their beliefs about God. Some Christians, for example, follow a strict interpretation of the Bible, which says the world was created in six days, not millions of years.
- Really? What about dinosaurs and fossils and so on?
- There are lots of proposed explanations. Some think dinosaurs were all wiped out by Noah’s flood, and that fossils were made when their bones got stuck in mud after the waters receded. A few even say that fossils were put on earth by the devil, precisely to trick scientists now.
- Charles Darwin
- One of Britain’s best known scientists, Darwin is remembered today as the father of evolutionary theory. His book, On The Origin of the Species, was published in 1859 and remains one of science’s most important works.
- Intelligent design
- Philosophers have long been familiar with the ‘argument from design’. It says that the world is too complicated to have come about by chance and must therefore have been created by some sort of superior being or intelligence. The theory of evolution is challenging precisely because it shows how at least some parts of the world (i.e. living things) could have originated by chance.
- A symbiotic relationship between two animal species is one in which both species work together so that both can flourish. So, for example, plover birds clean the teeth of crocodiles by picking out trapped food, earning themselves a free meal in the process.