Teaching the Controversy

By Stan Persky | August 27, 2005

I was watching the ballgame on TV the other night — the Blue Jays were being clobbered by the Yankees — and between innings, to avoid the car-beer-investment-cellphone ads I’d already seen more than once, I switched over to Larry King Live on CNN and ran straight into the Number One theological-cultural-scientific pennant race raging in America: the so-called “evolution vs. intelligent design controversy.”

Broadcaster and home plate umpire King had lined up an all-star panel to play this hot-button game. The teams included a fundamentalist pastor named John MacArthur to do the inerrant scriptural catching; Barbara Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University philosophy prof and evolutionary theory’s designated hitter for the evening; a couple of politicians, Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback and Connecticut Republican Congressman Chris Shays, to field the infield grounders; New Age guru Deepak Chopra to cover the way-outfield; and ace hurler Jay Richards, VP of the Discovery Institute, a conservative farmteam in Seattle that promotes intelligent design theory.

King yelled “Play ball!” and promptly asked the fundamentalist preacher, “John MacArthur, do you believe the world is only 5,000 years old?” Rev. MacArthur allowed that it might be as much as 10,000 years. Oh, boy. Then, to demonstrate we were on a level playing field, King promptly turned to Ms. Forrest, philosophy prof and DH, to ask, “If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?”

Forrest let this wild-pitch pass. “Larry, creationism has long been discredited by science and it’s long ago been declared to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. And so, this is an issue that should long ago have been settled. We shouldn’t still be debating this.” End of ballgame? Wait a sec, not so fast. Should creationism or intelligent design or whatever be taught at all? Larry wanted to know.

“No, not as science,” replied the prof from her ivory batter’s box. “Creationism is a religious issue… It should never be presented to children in a science class as science, because it isn’t. It’s a religious belief.” Which is pretty much the official position and orthodox swing of scientists and science teachers around the league.

Clearly, Larry was in over his head. So he hit a lazy pop fly to the guru in way-outfield. “Deepak, is it a faith issue?”

Since this game was far more interesting than watching the Blue Jays get clobbered, I stuck around for the late innings. Deepak said, “It is a faith issue. I totally agree with Barbara. I think we have to look at the scientific evidence, which says that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, the planet is only 3.8 billion and human beings have been around for 200,000 years in the form we know them. But having said that, there is evidence in science that there is creativity in the universe… that consciousness conceives, governs, constructs, and actually becomes what we call mind, and then body and the physical universe.” I better confess that, much to my surprise, I thought Deepak, whose wealth rivals that of the $25-million-a-year Yankee third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, was about the only interesting player on the field. Everybody else was mostly going through the motions and barely speaking in sentences during the post-game interviews.

Now that you’ve got a taste of the game, I can spare you the complete play-by-play (anyway, you can read the boxscore, and further anyway, I’ve had enough of the baseball metaphor).

Unless you’ve spent the summer roughing it in a cabin on the shores of Lake Erie, you probably already know that “evolution vs. intelligent design” is the latest installment in America’s running cultural war between religious fundamentalists and most of the rest of us, the secular humanists. It’s been going on, along with the debates on abortion and gay rights, for years, going all the way back to the Scopes Trial in 1925 when Clarence Darrow defended a Tennessee high school science teacher who was teaching evolution.

In the half-century or so after the Scopes trial, the creationists largely lost the battle to evolutionary theory. But in the last decade, with born-again American religious revivalism and the rise of “social conservatism,” the debate has taken a new turn. The faith-based creationists have been supplanted by a more scientifically-minded force that claims that whatever the truths of evolution, there’s also evidence of intelligent design in the universe, and if there is, it, too, ought to be taught in schools. The intelligent design people are careful not to claim that the intelligent design is necessarily the work of God.

In fact, people like Jay Richards of the Discovery Institute are very careful, and don’t want to be too tainted by association with religious crazies (even though most of their funding comes from said fundamentalist fanatics). “Intelligent design isn’t the same as traditional creationism,” says Richards. “Intelligent design theory is just saying more or less what Deepak Chopra said actually, that there’s evidence of purpose and design in the universe… It’s not a creation theory and it’s certainly not a religiously-based argument. It’s based on the evidence of science. And so the debate is different interpretations of science.”

Richards is also moderate on what he wants to see happen in the schools. Referring to recent conservative backing in the U.S. Senate, Richards says, “they encouraged what we call ‘teach the controversy’ at the Discovery Institute, and that just means teach the controversy over Darwin’s theory of evolution specifically, the evidence for and against it, but don’t require teaching intelligent design. We think that should be allowed, and we understand that’s what the President said.”

Richards is referring to some summer impetus given to the debate when President George Bush told an early August press conference that he “felt like both sides ought to be properly taught… so people can understand what the debate is about.” Although Bush didn’t directly endorse intelligent design, he reasonably said, “I think part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.” Mr. Bush’s decision to throw in his two cents on the issue has resulted in the pages of newspapers like the New York Times and the Globe and Mail being filled with articles, op-ed pieces, and letters about “teaching the controversy,” as well as wall-to-wall TV coverage from mid-to-lowbrow Larry King Live right on down to the tabloid tube. I’m sure that by late fall, there’ll be at least one Reality TV show dealing with evolution — or, wait a minute, doesn’t Survivor and Big Brother already do that?

Most of the scientists, on the other hand, deny that there is a controversy at all, deny that there’s scientific evidence of intelligent design, claim that “intelligent design” is just a thin new cover for old-fashioned “creationism,” and assert that all this fol-de-ra has no place in science classes and, anyway, science teachers should stick to teaching science. Rather than debating intelligent design, they prefer to simply invoke the authority of “science” to deny that there’s anything to debate. Which is pretty much what Prof. Barbara Forrest said on the Larry King show.

So, what to do?

Glad you asked. I just accidentally happen to be a sort of expert on this subject, and know exactly what to do. When the teaching season begins next week, right after Labour Day, I will, as I’ve been doing for years, “teach the controversy” to my students in the Knowledge and Reality introductory philosophy classes. In a sense, then — the strategic sense — I’m on the side of the intelligent design characters and critical of my scientific colleagues. I’d better explain why I think it’s a good idea to teach the controversy, in my Deepak Chopra-like philosophy classes, as well as in biology and physics classes.

The reasons are simple and straightforward. 1) When you teach evolution, it is inevitable that significant questions arise about the implications of evolution for our understanding of the nature of human beings, the universe in which we live, and the plausibility of believing in a God. 2) Most people don’t understand evolution.

Rather than snootily saying that there’s no controversy because there’s no evidence for intelligent design, or that science teachers should stick to science and not discuss theology or philosophy, I think that we teachers (both philosophers and scientists) ought to recognize that it’s completely reasonable for people to ask, “If evolution is true, then what does it mean for our belief in a God and for everything else?” It’s reasonable for students, once they get their minds around the notion that “evolution” is not an agent and does not have teleological purposes, to ask, “Are we living in a purposeless universe? And if we are, then what’s the meaning of our lives?” Since we teachers believe evolution is true, I think it’s our responsibility to answer that question.

In my classes, one of the texts I use is Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God (HarperCollins, 1999). Miller is a biology professor at Brown University and a Christian believer. His book gives a good account of evolution and directly takes up the claims of intelligent design proponents. His account of believing in God is less good, but at least it provides students with a reasonably-balanced discussion of some of the larger issues. I also usually invite in to my classes one of my colleagues from the biology department to talk to the students about some of the finer points of evolutionary theory. The whole thing works pretty well, in my estimation. I haven’t noticed that “teaching the controversy” leads to increased church attendance or to students rolling around on the floor speaking in tongues.

It’s important to realize, as I claim in reason 2 above, that people ask the question about what does evolution mean for their other beliefs from a position of appalling ignorance. A 2004 Gallup poll (as well as a 2004 poll conducted by CBS television) found that 45 per cent of the American population believe that God created human beings more or less in their present form, all at once, sometime within the last 10,000 years, a belief that is almost certainly wrong. Only 35 per cent of poll respondents think that evolution is a “scientific theory that has been well-supported by the evidence,” while an equal number believe that it isn’t supported by the evidence (and the remaining 30 per cent say they don’t know enough to say). Since 99 per cent of scientists (and 99 per cent of the rest of us secular humanists) believe that evolution is the best theory to explain the development of the universe and human beings, that’s a big gap between us and the rest of the populace. The poll findings demonstrate that there is widespread ignorance about evolution and that we teachers have so far failed to dispel it in our efforts to teach evolutionary theory.

I think scientists and science teachers are making a big strategic mistake if they turn their backs on the “controversy.” I don’t want the only place where intelligent design is discussed (dissected, and debunked) to be those stadium-sized fundamentalist churches where we can be sure that creationists will connect the very few dots that lead from ID to God. The schools are among the few institutional settings where there’s a possibility that superstition, pseudo-science, and wacky beliefs can be exposed. And science teachers are among the people who are capable of doing that. I think it’s lame for scientists to whine, We just know about science and can’t say anything about anything else. Scientists are just as much intellectuals as the rest of us intellectuals, and if they don’t know about the possible implications of evolutionary theory on other kinds of belief, well, they ought to learn.

Given the failure to dispel ignorance so far, I think we have to do better. One of the possible ways of doing better, in science as well as in philosophy classes, is to “teach the controversy.” Hell, I’d rather have us teach the controversy than have them teach it. Otherwise, I think we teachers are rightly accused of elitism and of keeping our heads in the clouds which hover just above our ivory towers.

As for the Blue Jays, it would be only a cheap shot for me to point out that they’re possible evidence that the universe isn’t entirely intelligently-designed.

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, B.C.

Vancouver, August 27, 2005


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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