This article first appeared as an editorial I wrote for the Valley News on 4 September 2005. I thought it was probably a good time, given the bills currently before the New Hampshire legislature, to post it again.
What is science, and what is science trying to accomplish? The goal of science is to investigate what we as humans can empirically know but do not yet understand about the workings of nature. Scientists do this by constructing sets of hypotheses (based on what we have already learned) about some feature of nature that we do not understand, testing these hypotheses by making observations and performing experiments, and then updating our understanding based on which hypotheses are supported and refuted by these observations and experiments. This results in a never ending cycle of hypothesis generation, testing, and updating of our understanding.
Having been raised a Methodist and now being a member of the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, I know the power of God in people’s lives. Also, my scientific training and my career as a practicing scientist show me that nothing in science denies the existence or actions of God. In fact, science can only be mute on these issues, since we cannot empirically test the existence, actions or methods of God.
Intelligent Design proposes that complexity in nature is the identifying characteristic of the action of an Intelligent Designer: either irreducible or specified complexity as described by Dr. Michael Behe and Dr. William Dembski, respectively. I interpret this to mean that the truly complex features of nature we do not now understand should be attributed to the direct actions of God or whomever the Intelligent Designer may have been. I have absolutely no quarrel with the direct action of God being a valid hypothesis to explain any feature of nature that we currently do not understand, complex or otherwise.
What makes something science is not merely having hypotheses. Science is having hypotheses and then testing them. The Intelligent Design hypothesis is untestable by science, exactly because we can never empirically know or understand the actions of God or any other Intelligent Designer. This in no way negates the validity of the hypothesis. It simply means that this hypothesis is outside the purview of science, because science can only support or refute hypotheses that are empirically testable, and this is not one of them. To me, the issue is not about any prohibition against teaching Intelligent Design, God or religion in K-12 public schools. The issue is that the hypothesis of an Intelligent Designer to explain features of nature should not be part of the science curriculum, because it is outside the purview of science.
Biological evolution has been and continues to be used by some to justify various human social agendas, what Dr. Michael Ruse, a philosopher and historian of science, calls “evolutionism” in his book The Evolution-Creation Struggle. I am as adamantly opposed to the teaching of these social agendas as part of the science curriculum as anyone. A K-12 science curriculum should teach students the methodologies used by scientists to explore nature and the empirically supported theories and results about how nature works – period.
Evolution is a body of knowledge that has been and continues to be developed, rigorously tested, and empirically supported. In fact, even most proponents of Intelligent Design agree that evolution is important in nature. Biological evolution results from the interplay of genetic mutations, genetic drift, gene flow and natural selection. Surely, we have only begun to understand how these processes work and how they and other processes have shaped the earth’s biota – that’s why I am a scientist and an evolutionary biologist. All fields of science are ever expanding bases of knowledge that are continually focused on what we do not know – remember that the goal of science is to explore what we do not yet understand. Science’s job will be done when we know all that can be known about nature, but until then criticisms that evolutionary biology cannot now explain any particular complex feature of an organism are unjustified.
And if God’s hand were accepted as the scientific explanation for some complexity of nature, scientific inquiry into that complexity – by definition – stops. If we do this before we are sure we know all we can about it, we may be stopping investigations on something that could potentially be understood with more thought, insight and hard work. The various biological causes of disease are examples of natural phenomena that were once ascribed to the actions of God, but that through continued scientific inquiry were found to be understandable. If science had accepted God’s hand as the explanation for disease, modern medicine would not exist. Obviously, science will be wasting its time in its pursuit of understanding for things that truly were the result of God’s direct action, but that is the price that science must pay, since science cannot know what is and is not understandable beforehand.
Misunderstandings about evolution also come at a high price to our economy and overall well being. For example, evolution is central to combating infectious diseases. HIV is so pernicious because the HIV virus evolves in the body of each infected individual. Doctors have found that the most effective HIV treatments are those that slow or prevent this evolution. If we did not understand evolution, these treatments would not exist. Drug companies also invest huge sums of money to develop new antibiotics, but even before being produced they know these drugs will be effective for only a few years because of the evolution of resistances to them by pathogens. Specific patient treatment strategies can slow this evolution, again because we understand the evolutionary process. Exactly the same issues affect our agriculture through the evolution of resistance in the pathogens and pests of our crops and livestock. Health care and agriculture are only two of many practical areas where a solid understanding of biological evolution is crucial. With a solid science education that includes evolutionary biology, today’s students will find better solutions to tomorrow’s problems.