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23 September 2014
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Dr William Dembski, mathematician and proponent of intelligent design
A War on Science

The theory of evolution is under attack from a controversial new idea called intelligent design. But is it science?

When Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution nearly 150 years ago, he shattered the dominant belief of his day – that humans were the product of divine creation. Through his observations of nature, Darwin proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection. This caused uproar. After all, if the story of creation could be doubted, so too could the existence of the creator. Ever since its proposal, this cornerstone of biology has sustained wave after wave of attack. Now some scientists fear it is facing the most formidable challenge yet: a controversial new theory called intelligent design.

In the late 1980s Phillip Johnson, a renowned lawyer and born-again Christian, began to develop a strategy to challenge Darwin. To Johnson, the evidence for natural selection was poor. He also believed that by explaining the world only through material processes was inherently atheistic. If there was a god, science would never be able to discover it.

Johnson recruited other Darwin doubters, including biochemist Professor Michael Behe, mathematician Dr William Dembski, and philosopher of science Dr Stephen Meyer. These scientists developed the theory of intelligent design (ID) which claims that certain features of the natural world are best explained as the result of an intelligent being. To him, the presence of miniature machines and digital information found in living cells are evidence of a supernatural creator. Throughout the 90s, the ID movement took to disseminating articles, books and DVDs and organising conferences all over the world.

To its supporters, intelligent design heralds a revolution in science and the movement is fast gaining political clout. Not only does it have the support of the President of the United States, it is on the verge of being introduced to science classes across the nation. However, its many critics, including Professor Richard Dawkins and Sir David Attenborough, fear that it cloaks a religious motive – to replace science with god.

Throughout the 20th century Christian groups resisted the theory of evolution. Many US states did not teach it until 1968 when the Supreme Court ruled that banning the teaching of evolution contravened the first amendment of the constitution of America, the separation of church and state. It was however still legal to teach religion as part of science class until the Edwards vs. Aguillard case in 1987, where mentioning a theory called 'creation science' in biology lessons was also deemed unconstitutional. This left evolution as the only theory of biological origin that science teachers were allowed to teach.

In 2005, the school board of Dover, a small farming community in western Pennsylvania, became the first in America to adopt the theory of intelligent design. The move divided the community and the small town became the centre of national attention. The school board voted to teach the ninth grade biology class that there are gaps and problems with the theory of evolution and to present intelligent design as an alternative.

Dover science teacher Bryan Rehm and his wife Christy believed that this new policy was not only anti-science, but religious and therefore unconstitutional. By promoting religion it was a violation of the law passed in 1987. The Rehms and nine other parents and teachers filed a law suit against the school board. Neighbour was pitted against neighbour in the first legal challenge to intelligent design.

After 40 days of trial, Judge John E Jones III ruled against the school board, stating: "We have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."

Evolution supporters heralded this victory as the damning blow to the intelligent design movement. However, as history shows, law suits have little effect on the support for creationism in a country where over 50% of citizens believe that God created humans in their present form, the way the bible describes it.*

*Gallup national poll September 2005

Further reading:

Anti intelligent design:
    Eugenie Scott - Evolution Vs. Creationism Kenneth Miller - Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution
Pro intelligent design:
    Michael Behe - Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution Phillip Johnson - Darwin on Trial

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 Elsewhere on bbc.co.uk

News: Britons unconvinced on evolution
More than half the British population does not accept the theory of evolution, according to a survey.

News: Evolution takes science honours
Research into how evolution works has been named top science achievement of 2005.

 Elsewhere on the web

Pennsylvania Middle District Court
Judge Jones' decision.

The National Center for Science Education
Defending the teaching of evolution in public schools. Extensive coverage of the Evolution versus Intelligent Design Dover school trial.

The Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture
Intelligent design think tank.

The MSU Digital Evolution Laboratory at Michigan State University

The World of Richard Dawkins
British academia's most vocal critic of ID.

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