The Flu Next Time
Unwittingly, I suspect, the Albuquerque Journal recently picked an ideal time to poll New Mexicans about whether "intelligent design" should be taught in the state's classrooms as an alternative to evolution. The newspaper's survey found 49 percent of New Mexicans in favor ("regardless of your own opinion about intelligent design"), 41 percent opposed.
The Journal probably didn't plan its survey to coincide with a pandemic of bird-flu headline hysteria, but its timing couldn't have been more apt. In the event of an actual flu outbreak, if and when a vaccine is developed, we now have a way to ration what surely will be scarce protection against the virus: 49 percent of us believe our schools should teach an alternative to the very science that undergirds our understanding of the dangerously evolving flu virus. Surely these folks would have no problem, then, going to the back of the vaccine line? Perhaps so-called "intelligent design"—really creationism in a costume-store lab coat—will come up with an "alternative" bird-flu preventative for them.
Besides, if you're dubious about evolution, you really shouldn't worry about the bird flu in the first place. It's only this simple virus' ability to evolve and adapt that makes it dangerous. The fear is that the H5N1 virus, which as yet can only spread from birds to other birds and from birds to humans, will develop the knack of spreading from humans to other humans. Then we're in real trouble, as a glance back at the gory history of the 1918 flu pandemic frighteningly suggests.
As Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College in London, succinctly puts it in The New York Times, "If we're unlucky, this virus will give us a nasty demonstration of evolution in action."
The H5N1 "bird-flu" virus could change by mating with a regular flu virus already infecting a human host, creating a deadly new virus offspring; this is how the flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968 were thought to have been sparked, according to Judson. Or the virus' genetic material could accidentally change—mutate—as is believed to have happened in 1918.
"Sex and mutation: these are not special processes reserved for viruses," writes Judson. "They are two fundamental mechanisms of evolutionary invention." She goes on to urge, in a message seemingly crafted for those 49 percent of New Mexicans ready to remake the biology curriculum (or the 34 percent of Americans, according to a USA Today poll, who think evolution is "definitely/probably false"): "So let's not strip evolution from the textbooks, or banish it from the class, or replace it with ideologies born of wishful thinking. If we do, we might find ourselves facing the consequences of natural selection."
But, intelligent-design advocates will protest, they merely want to introduce an alternative to Darwin in the classroom. That's like saying we need to teach piano lessons as an alternative to drawing in art class—it's apples and oranges.
You can certainly believe that some divine Designer is responsible for the universe. You can even believe this and still find evolution by natural selection a scientifically sound explanation of how that Designer's blueprints became flesh; that was, indeed, the view that the late Pope John Paul II apparently tended toward. Many scientists are also devout believers in religions of various stripes, and Darwin himself was the son of a minister and attended divinity school.
But that's what issues such as those posed by intelligent design represent—religious or philosophical topics. They're perfectly appropriate for classes in those subjects. What intelligent design is not, despite attempts by advocates to disguise it with the trappings of science, is fodder for the biology classroom. Ultimately, unlike Darwin's theory of evolution—or Newton's theory of gravity or even Einstein's theory of relativity—intelligent design is not testable. It posits things unanswerable by science. Even a theory peering as close to the dawn of creation as the Big Bang could, over time, be buttressed by evidence (as it has been by, for example, the discovery of microwave radiation still lingering from that inaugural expansion). But we can never prove or—conveniently for its adherents—disprove the claims of intelligent design.
"The central idea of intelligent design," writes Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eric Cornell in a recent Time magazine, "is that nature is the way it is because God wants it to be that way. This is not an assertion that can be tested in a scientific way."
Rather, it's an assertion of faith, not science, and the attempt to conflate the two degrades both.
That's a lesson evidently lost on Kansas school board members, who recently went even further than those here in Rio Rancho, NM, in voting to insert intelligent design into the curriculum. But voters in Dover, Pa., last month displayed a more, er, evolved view when they ousted school board members who'd thrust that town into a costly battle over intelligent design. The Dover voters decided to let biology students get back to studying biology, and to keep school boards—and schools—out of religious controversies.
Contrary to the fulminations of the Rev. Pat Robertson, that decision in no way diminishes religion. As Pepper Trail, an Oregon PhD biologist, writes in High Country News, "For almost all people the world around, religion fills existence with meaning and provides moral instruction on how to live. Neither evolution, nor the fact that the earth is not the center of the universe, nor any other once-'blasphemous' finding of science, threatens religious faith."
The same cannot be said for intelligent design's potential damage to our educational system. And while intelligent-design advocates waste time and tax dollars trying to dumb down our schools, other countries are leaving us in the scientific dust. A report released this fall by the National Academies on math and science warned that it will cost as much as $10 billion annually to catch up with a "gathering storm" of foreign competition in these fields.
Sadly, the Albuquerque Journal hasn't done a poll on the sagging state of our science education. And televangelists like Pat Robertson aren't using their "700 Club" airtime to bemoan the problem.
Rev. Robertson did have time, however, to warn the good people of Dover, Pa., not to come complaining to God should some natural disaster (he said hopefully) wreak havoc on their town. They could turn to Charles Darwin instead, the reverend sneered.
One wonders whether Pat Robertson has had his flu shot yet?
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.