Changing courses 

Engineering Intelligent design in Darby schools

A debate is raging over proposed changes to the science curriculum at Darby High School—including a “critical look at origin science”—as education in Montana continues to evolve. Nobody wants to specify precisely what alternatives to evolution may be presented to tomorrow’s schoolchildren, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to assume they will include a theory known as “intelligent design.”

Intelligent design is a school of thought positing an intelligent designer of life and the universe, aka a creator. Adherents hold that the universe is put together with such sophistication that it could not have been created by chaos and chance; there must have been an engineer involved.

Proponents tout research by leading scientists. Opponents claim that science is not peer-reviewed.

The proposal was introduced to the Darby community by parent and ordained minister Curtis Brickley during a presentation to 200 people on Wednesday, Dec. 10, and seems to be gaining momentum; Brickley expects to present a policy plan to the school board on Jan. 5.

At press time, Brickley was unwilling to discuss exactly what recommendation he will make to the board at that meeting. He did say that he doesn’t want a mandate to teach only intelligent design. Instead, he wants the theory juxtaposed against evolution in an effort to “teach origin science more objectively.”

“They need to teach evolution more critically, and teach evidence that challenges the neo-Darwinian theory,” Brickley said during a phone interview. “I believe it is worthy of every school district in the state and nation. If I can play a role, I’ll be happy.”

Intelligent design and creationism both implicate creators. But intelligent design doesn’t require a single creation event, or attempt to answer the question of the creator’s identity.

“Design theory doesn’t seek to answer that question. That question can be carried out in philosophy and religion classes,” Brickley said.

Brickley doesn’t feel that the general public is prepared to properly debate the merits of intelligent design. “I try to avoid arguments because for 90 percent of the public, the dialogue is over their heads. I let the experts debate it and try to broker the information coming out of the intelligent design camp,” Brickley said.

Challenges to evolutionary science curriculums gained national attention in 1999 when the Kansas school board voted to drop evolution from its science classes. After the subsequent ouster of three conservatives who had supported the move (and a school year in which Kansas found itself the butt of national comedy routines), the teaching of evolution was reinstated. More recently, Ohio has changed state science standards to allow the teaching of intelligent design, and other state schools boards—including those in Alabama, Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and West Virginia—are challenging evolution’s classroom supremacy.

Since Montana is a local control state, school boards have plenty of leeway in setting curriculum. In Darby, a simple majority of the five-person board has to vote for the policy change in two separate meetings for it to take effect, regardless of what the mainstream scientific community might think.

Darby school board member Doug Banks is all for the change. After Brickley’s two-hour presentation, Banks feels that he has enough information to vote for the change.

“Textbooks don’t acknowledge that science has refuted evolution,” Banks said. “Students are reading textbooks that are totally false. The whole scientific community knows that it’s false.”

Since Brickley’s presentation, a group called Ravalli County Citizens for Science has also formed. The group is composed of parents concerned and outraged over the proposed policy change.

“This is a politically and religiously motivated action that seeks to place a religious agenda ahead of the interests of students. Students will be less prepared for college if this policy affects them,” parent and RCCS coordinator Rod Miner said.

In the 2002-2003 school year, Darby High School ranked in the 64th percentile nationally on standardized science tests.

Miner feels that in order for a theory to qualify for dissemination in public schools, it should first survive the rigors of scientific methodology.

“There is no scientific controversy here. There is a political controversy,” Miner said. “What they are proposing is not real science. Supporters can’t point to any studies or peer-reviewed articles. They’re trying to bypass the process of developing sound theory.” Miner and the rest of his group have announced a public meeting to discuss their reasons for continuing to teach evolution unalloyed. That meeting, scheduled for Jan. 21, will feature university scientists explaining the merits of evolution theory.

Miner says he’s gotten word from School Board Chair Gina Schallenberger that the policy change will be tabled until the board and public have had a chance to hear from both sides.

RCCS is also considering the possibility of a lawsuit should the policy change come into effect.

“Some people are against this thing only because of a potential lawsuit which will cost the district money,” Miner said.

To get a perspective from the mainstream scientific community, the Independent contacted the biological sciences department at the University of Montana.

“Evolution and intelligent design are not parallel alternatives,” Associate Dean of Biological Sciences Don Christian said. “I don’t think there are any hypotheses developed by intelligent design that can be tested by science.”

Intelligent design focuses on structures and processes that proponents call irreducibly complex, Christian said. For example: how did winged creatures come to have such complex bone structures?

“It’s an issue that’s plagued evolutionary biologists for years. In the last year they’ve developed a revolutionary new view of partial wings that points clearly to the advantages of intermediate wings,” Christian said.

The point is, Christian said, that some irreducibly complex structures haven’t been studied thoroughly enough for evolution to explain, but the answers are out there and still coming in.

“We all have world views that include elements outside of science, and it doesn’t mean they’re any less valid,” Christian said. “But it’s not science.”

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