Intelligent design teaching at Murrysville's Cornerstone Ministries stirs debate
The room was packed as more than 500 people listened intently to Paul Nelson talk about genetics. Some fervently took notes. Others looked perplexed as the professor tried to explain the evolutionary theory of common descent.
Nelson wasn't teaching an introductory biology course. From the stage at Cornerstone Ministries in Murrysville, he preached a different take on the evolutionary science that is taught in schools across the country.
He explained the theory so he could debunk it.
Widely considered a creationist, Nelson — who is an adjunct professor in the master's program in science and religion at Biola University, a Christian college in southern California — questioned Charles Darwin's theory that all organisms share a common ancestor. To bolster his case, he referenced DNA sequencing, genes of unknown functions and orphan genes.
“Often, in science and philosophy, we think of a problem like a hole in the ground. Every time you fill one hole, you create another,” said Nelson, who has a doctorate in philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory from the University of Chicago.
As part of the six-week “Origins” series that was organized by Cornerstone Ministries, Nelson was one of four speakers brought in to question Darwin's theory of evolution and the way it is taught in local schools. And after yesterday's conclusion of the series, participants plan to lobby the state legislature with a plea to enable teachers in public schools to present alternate, controversial “theories” — ones that violate the basic scientific principle that they be able to be tested — when teaching evolution.
Donn Chapman, senior pastor at Cornerstone, said he doesn't want schools to teach creationism. Instead, he said, he wants teachers to discuss alternate theories to evolution, including intelligent design, to create critical thinkers.
After a staff member asked Chapman about the evolution chapter that his ninth-grade child was studying at Penn-Trafford High School, the pastor realized parents were unprepared for the questions their children might come home with after biology class.
He borrowed a copy of the textbook and set out to present the material in a “way that is more akin to our faith.”
“I looked at the data presented to our young people, and I find it to be very skewed,” Chapman said. “I'm troubled as much by what is not presented as by what is. It's not so much that you're saying, ‘This is a lie,' as that you're saying, ‘This is so incomplete or so to one side.'”
The “Origins” course is part of Cornerstone's Academy, a series of classes at the nondenominational church. Chapman said it's the best-attended series the church has hosted. During its first three weeks, “Origins” attracted about 800 people per week, he said. Each week, a different aspect of evolutionary biology was dissected. Topics included evolution, the evolution of populations, common decent and the history of life.
Not all of the sessions focused solely on scientific theory. During one session, Jerry Bergman, an author and professor of biology most recently teaching at Northwest State Community College in Ohio, addressed what he called the “dark side of Darwin.” Notes provided by the church from the session quote several Bible verses. According to the course notes, Darwin had a negative attitude towards women, was a racist and had questionable mental health. Chapman questioned why the man is regarded so highly.
“He was a chauvinist pig that never evolved and believed women evolved less than men,” he said. “Why are we taking a man like that and holding him up as an example to our children?”
Instead, Chapman, who hosts a weekly show called “Origins” on Cornerstone's Christian TV station, said schools should focus on sharing ideas and learning the truth. In particular, he advocates for teachers sharing alternate ideas — most notably intelligent design — on evolution.
“We shouldn't say you can only bring this information if it fits what this little intellectual elite group wants your kid to know. That's not good education,” Chapman said. “We shouldn't have to surrender critical thinking when we walk into science class.
“We're just teaching kids to read the book and fill in the right notch on a test. We're not teaching our kids to think.”
However, Josh Rosenau, the programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., said it's wrong to promote intelligent design as a “critical thinking” alternative.
Rosenau likened the notion of critically thinking about intelligent design to trying to nail gelatin to the wall. Discussing such a “vague, amorphous idea” before it's been tested and proven or disproven by scientists isn't the way things are done, he said.
“A revolutionary new idea doesn't start in a high school classroom and grow into scientific theory,” Rosenau said. “What they're trying to do is skip past all of the intermediate stuff that theory goes through and move it into the classroom first.”
After listening to Nelson's presentation last month, Franklin Regional sophomore Drew Ramsey said she was doing a lot of thinking. While she said the session was a lot to take in, she was interested to hear about a different perspective on genetics and evolution than what she had learned in biology.
Ramsey said she would be OK with her science teachers reviewing more than just Darwin's theories in class.
“In other classes, we have free reign to discuss other ideas,” Ramsey said. “In social studies, we talk about different political ideas, so why not in science?”
Chapman said one of the points of the series is to give parents a way to respond when children come home from school with questions about how evolution fits in with religious faith.
He emphasized that it isn't the schools' job to teach that.
“Our kids shouldn't have to surrender their faith to get a good scientific education,” Chapman said. “That's all I'm saying. The church and home have work to do to teach who that creator is and to bring them to know God.”
Not testable science
Considered in the context of the scientific method — the basic process that calls for scientists to observe, measure, experiment and test, revise and, if possible, disprove their hypothesis — intelligent design isn't science at all, opponents of intelligent design say.
They say the notion at the heart of the idea can't be scientifically tested or disproved. If the scientific method can't be applied to the idea, it isn't science and doesn't belong in a science classroom, they say. In essence, it's religion without using the word “God.”
In Pennsylvania, the courts agree. In 2005, Judge John E. Jones III ruled that teaching intelligent design in public schools violates part of the First Amendment because it“cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.” The ruling came after the Dover Area School Board in York County tried to include intelligent design in biology courses.
“It's not science; it's a religious claim,” Rosenau said. “When someone talks about the idea of intelligent design, it sure sounds like saying some magical being descended and poof, created stuff. That sounds a lot like creationism.”
Chapman begs to differ. Intelligent design isn't the same as creationism, he said. Creationism is a belief that God created man, animals and the earth in six days, Chapman said. Intelligent design, he said, is based on scientific evidence and points to a directed process and a designer, not necessarily God.
That's not science, Rosenau said.
“For something to be science … you have to be able to test something and say this idea is wrong. That's what scientists do all day is try to prove themselves wrong,” Rosenau said. “But if you've got this being that is acting outside of the laws of nature, how do you put that in a test tube? How do you put that under a microscope?”
About 50 bills similar to what Chapman is supporting have been proposed in 17 states, Rosenau said. Two states — Louisiana and Tennessee — have laws that protect teachers who include intelligent design in classroom discussions.
In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that creation science can't be taught in school. However, Rosenau said, that ruling also indicated that teachers are entitled to present evidence against evolution.
“What we teach in evolutionary biology classes today isn't exactly what Darwin would have imagined, though he got a great deal right,” Rosenau said.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the theory of evolution is an assessment anchor, which means teachers are expected to address the subject and test on it. State education officials expect students to explain the mechanisms of evolution, explain the impact of natural selection, analyze evidence for biological evolution, and apply the scientific process and tools to the study of evolution. Intelligent design is not addressed as a curriculum topic.
Chapman said teachers should be able to discuss intelligent design and other ideas that are politically controversial without fearing for their jobs. He said he plans to work with Josh Youngkin of the Discovery Institute — a Seattle think tank that promotes intelligent design — to lobby the state to consider model legislation from the institute.
“I understand that half of the students don't believe God's word or what I believe is God's word,” Chapman said. “This idea that if a teacher even mentions that they believe in intelligent design, there's a heya,threat of their job, there shouldn't be fear to teach and introduce ideas and to talk about your own thinking. I believe that even if it doesn't agree with mine, we should be able to have discussions.”
At both Penn-Trafford and Franklin Regional, teachers are free to answer questions about intelligent design or creationism and how it relates to evolution if a student brings it up.
Chapman said teachers shouldn't have to wait for a teenager to bring up the topic.
“I don't want to produce students who just know how to check the right box on a multiple-choice test to pass a standardized test. I want us to produce critical thinkers,” Chapman said. “The best scientists in America in the future will be those who learn how to think critically, not those who learn to just give the right answer out of a textbook.”
Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or firstname.lastname@example.org.