Science and Religion Twenty Years after McLean V. Arkansas: Evolution, Public Education, and the New Challenge of Intelligent Design

By Beckwith, Francis J. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Science and Religion Twenty Years after McLean V. Arkansas: Evolution, Public Education, and the New Challenge of Intelligent Design


Beckwith, Francis J., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


I. INTRODUCTION
II. IMPORTANT TERMS
  A. Creationism
  B. Evolution
  C. Intelligent Design
     1. Scholarly Support for Intelligent Design
     2. Intelligent Design's Conflict with Methodological Naturalism
     3. Intelligent Design and Specified Complexity
     4. The Application of Specified Complexity to
        Intelligent Design Theory
        a. Irreducible Complexity of Certain Biological Systems
        b. The Fine-Tuning of The Universe For The
           Existence of Human Life
        c. The Information Content of DNA
        d. The Fossil Record
III. MCLEAN V. ARKANSAS
IV. CONCLUSION

I. INTRODUCTION

The conventional wisdom in constitutional law is that the debate that began with the famous Scopes trial in 1925 (1) over the teaching of origins in public school science classrooms officially ended in 1987. In that year the U.S. Supreme Court, in Edwards v. Aguillard, (2) struck down a Louisiana statute, the Balanced Treatment Act, that required its public schools to teach creationism if they taught evolution and vice versa. The Court held that the statute violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. A small group of academics, however, with university appointments, impressive publications, and better credentials than their creationist predecessors, have raised questions about evolution and have offered alternative arguments that have changed the texture, tenor, and quality of a debate once thought long dead.

The Intelligent Design (ID) movement, (3) has presented an array of sophisticated and empirically grounded arguments supporting the notion that intelligent agency may do a better job of accounting for certain aspects of the natural world, or the natural world as a whole, than non-agent explanations, such as natural selection or scientific laws working on the unguided interaction of matter. ID theorists argue that certain physical systems, including biological ones, exhibit what is known as specified complexity, and that specified complexity is best accounted for by intelligent agency. Moreover, ID theorists maintain that contemporary science's repudiation of intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation is not the result of carefully assessing ID's arguments and finding them wanting, but rather, it is the result of an a priori philosophical commitment to methodological naturalism (MN), (4) an epistemological point of view that entails ontological materialism (OM), (5) but which ID proponents contend is not a necessary condition for the practice of science. (6)

Although the Edwards Court sounded the death-knell for creationism as part of the science curriculum in public schools, it neither prohibited public schools from teaching alternatives to evolution, (7) nor prevented schools from offering to their students theories that may be consistent with, and lend support to, a religious perspective. (8) As I have argued elsewhere, (9) both of these qualifications, combined with other factors, suggest that ID may be offered as part of a public school science curriculum or voluntarily by a teacher without violating the Establishment Clause, for, as we shall see, ID is an alternative to evolution that is consistent with, and lends support to, a number of philosophical and religious points of view. Unlike creationism, however, ID is not derived from a particular religion's special revelation, but is the result of arguments whose premises include empirical evidence, well-founded conceptual notions outside of the natural sciences, and conclusions that are supported by these premises.

On the other hand, a future court may rely on the reasoning of a 1982 federal district court case, McLean v. Arkansas, to assess the constitutionality of teaching ID in public school science classes. McLean is the only federal court case that dealt with some of the important philosophical and scientific questions that simmer beneath the surface in this debate. …

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