As students head back to biology classrooms in the next few weeks, debate over whether they should be taught “intelligent design” concepts alongside evolution is getting hotter, with the president, other politicians and a high-profile Roman Catholic cardinal all weighing in.

Quizzed on the topic, President Bush recently told reporters: “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas and the answer is ‘Yes.”‘

The president’s remark prompted sharp criticism from intelligent design opponents. Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation” that Bush is “anti-science” and “there’s no factual evidence for intelligent design.”

They aren’t the only ones entering the fray.

Last month, Austria’s Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece that “the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world.” He said Catholicism cannot accept evolution if this means “an unguided, unplanned process.”

Schoenborn’s statements caused consternation among scientists and educators – including some Catholics – who have resisted intelligent design (or ID) for a decade.

Meanwhile, the National Center for Science Education tallies evolution disputes in 18 states this year. Last week, the Kansas Board of Education gave preliminary approval to science standards that allow ID-style alternatives to be discussed alongside Darwinism. In Pennsylvania, a forthcoming federal trial will test the legality of disputed ID instruction in Dover’s schools.

The ID movement says Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection acting upon gradual biological changes cannot address how life originated. ID also argues that Darwinism fails to fully explain how extremely varied and complex life forms emerged during the past 600 million years.

Therefore, it concludes, guidance and information from some external intelligence must be involved. That intelligence is usually left unidentified, but it sounds like God – and critics say ID is religion masquerading as science.

Michael Ruse, a Florida State University philosophy professor and ardent ally of Darwinism, outlines the conflict in a new book, “The Evolution-Creation Struggle” (Harvard University Press).

Ruse says the fight over ID and evolution is important because it’s “a struggle for the hearts and souls of people, with deep implications for the ways in which we live our lives and regulate our conduct. It is a religious or metaphysical battle, not simply a dispute about scientific theory.”

While scientists accuse religious advocates of stepping outside their field by pronouncing on what is and isn’t biologically possible, religious thinkers accuse scientists of reaching beyond science into the realm of theology with some of their pronouncements.

For example, a National Association of Biology Teachers statement once defined evolution as “an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process.”

Two distinguished religion scholars, philosopher Alvin Plantinga and Huston Smith, a historian of world religions, convinced the association to drop the first two adjectives in 1997 because these were theological assertions, not scientific ones.

“How could an empirical inquiry show that God was not guiding and directing evolution?” the two scholars asked the association.

The answer is that such statements go beyond what science alone can discover and enter the realm of philosophy and religion, says Plantinga, a Protestant teaching at the University of Notre Dame. “‘Unguided evolution’ is not part of science,” Plantinga says. “It’s a theological add-on” that some scientists use to try and undercut religion.

In his view, schools should teach four things about evolution: there’s lots of debate; most biologists see Darwinism as the best explanation; some think the process is wholly unguided and there are “respectable people” who disagree.

Warren Nord, an educational philosopher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, thinks the pros and cons should be fairly presented to students, whether or not ID is inherently religious. His reasons: There’s wide discussion of the issue and it “ties into perennial philosophical questions about design in nature that go all the way back to the Greeks, as well as the Bible.”

John F. Haught, a lay Catholic theologian at Georgetown University, agrees that scientists sometimes turn evolution into an anti-religious worldview that exceeds the proper limits of science. However, he opposes ID as both bad science and bad theology.

To Haught, educators fail to admit that “there are different layers of explanation” for phenomena. For example, water boiling on a stove can be validly explained as molecules responding to heat, as effects caused by turning on the burner, or as evidence that someone wanted a cup of tea.

Similarly, he thinks, evolution can be seen as both the result of natural selection and part of God’s overarching purpose.

Where is this debate headed? The new challenge posed by ID seems destined to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1987 barred a different critique of Darwinism, Bible-based “creationism,” from the nation’s schoolrooms because it is advanced a “religious viewpoint.”

On the Net:

Center for Science and Culture (pro ID):

National Center for Science Education (anti ID):

AP-ES-08-17-05 1238EDT

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