Commentary

Why Fight Over Intelligent Design?

Supporters of the theory of human origins known as “intelligent design” want it taught alongside the theory of evolution. Opponents will do anything to keep it out of science classrooms. The disagreement is clear.

But why does everyone assume that we must settle it through an ideological death-match in the town square?

Intelligent design contends that life on Earth is too complex to have evolved naturally, and so must be the product of an unspecified intelligent designer. Most adherents of this idea would undoubtedly be happy just to have it taught to their own children, and most of my fellow evolutionists presumably believe they should have that right. So why are we fighting?

We’re fighting because the institution of public schooling forces us to, by permitting only one government-sanctioned explanation of human origins. The only way for one side to have its views reflected in the official curriculum is at the expense of the other side.

This manufactured conflict serves no public good. After all, does it really matter if some Americans believe intelligent design is a valid scientific theory while others see it as a Lamb of God in sheep’s clothing? Surely not. While there are certainly issues on which consensus is key — respect for the rule of law and the rights of fellow citizens, tolerance of differing viewpoints, etc. — the origin of species is not one of them.

The sad truth is that state-run schooling has created a multitude of similarly pointless battles. Nothing is gained, for instance, by compelling conformity on school prayer, random drug testing, the set of religious holidays that are worth observing, or the most appropriate forms of sex education.

Not only are these conflicts unnecessary, they are socially corrosive. Every time we fight over the official government curriculum, it breeds more resentment and animosity within our communities. These public-schooling-induced battles have done much to inflame tensions between Red and Blue America.

But while Americans bicker incessantly over pedagogical teachings, we seldom fight over theological ones. The difference, of course, is that the Bill of Rights precludes the establishment of an official religion. Our founding fathers were prescient in calling for the separation of church and state, but failed to foresee the dire social consequences of entangling education and state. Those consequences are now all too apparent.

Fortunately, there is a way to end the cycle of educational violence: parental choice. Why not reorganize our schools so that parents can easily get the sort of education they value for their own children without having to force it on their neighbors?

Doing so would not be difficult. A combination of tax relief for middle income families and financial assistance for low-income families would give everyone access to the independent education marketplace. A few strokes of the legislative pen could thus bring peace along the entire “education front” of America’s culture war.

But let’s be honest. At least a few Americans see our recurrent battles over the government curriculum as a price worth paying. Even in the “land of the free,” there is a temptation to seize the apparatus of state schooling and use it to proselytize our neighbors with our own ideas or beliefs.

In addition to being socially divisive and utterly incompatible with American ideals, such propagandizing is also ineffectual. After generations in which evolution has been public schooling’s sole explanation of human origins, only a third of Americans consider it a theory well-supported by scientific evidence. By contrast, 51 percent of Americans believe “God created human beings in their present form.”

These findings should give pause not only to evolutionists but to supporters of intelligent design as well. After all, if public schooling has made such a hash of teaching evolution, why expect it to do any better with I.D.?

Admittedly, the promotion of social harmony is an unusual justification for replacing public schools with parent-driven education markets. Most arguments for parental choice rest on the private sector’s superior academic performance or cost-effectiveness. But when you stop and think about it, doesn’t the combination of these advantages suggest that free markets would be a far more intelligent design for American education?

Andrew J. Coulson is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.