A Baylor University professor under fire for views on the separation of church and state alleged to be contrary to Baptist tradition has been in the spotlight recently in another controversy--teaching evolution in public schools.
Descendants of J.M. Dawson, an icon in the Baptist tradition of standing for religious liberty, have called for removal of Francis Beckwith as associate director of a Baylor institute for church-state studies named in Dawson's honor and his reassignment to a "more appropriate position." (Click here for related story).
Beckwith, whose latest book, Law, Darwinism and Public Education, came out in March, has also been in the news lately for testifying before the Texas State Board of Education, which is considering changes to biology textbooks backed by proponents of "intelligent design," a view that challenges evolution's theory of natural selection by positing evidence for a Creator.
A constitutional scholar, Beckwith defends intelligent design not only on philosophical, but also on legal grounds. He argues that intelligent design is not a religion but is based on empirical arguments that answer the same questions posed by evolution. Therefore, he contends, teaching it in public schools ought to pass constitutional muster.
Courts have ruled against laws in several states requiring that teaching about evolution be balanced with other views of origins, namely the Book of Genesis. Courts said such laws have a religious, and not an educational purpose, and are thus forbidden by the First Amendment's ban on establishment of religion.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 struck down a Louisiana law requiring that public schools teaching evolution also teach creationism. The court cited five reasons for its ruling: the statute's historical continuity with the dispute prompting the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in the 1920s; the fact that the law was inspired by the creation account in Genesis; the religious motivation behind its passage; the fact that it improperly advanced religion to achieve an appropriate end of academic freedom; and that its purported purpose was a "sham" and that the law thus had no legitimate secular purpose.
Beckwith argues that unlike creation-science--a view pushed by young-earth creationists based on a literal reading of Genesis--the case for intelligent design, which he says is advanced by recognized scientists and based on science and philosophy rather than religion, gets around those objections.
"There may be good public policy reasons not to teach ID in public schools, but there are no good constitutional ones," Beckwith writes.
The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think-tank which lists Beckwith as a fellow, is leading the effort to persuade the 15-member Texas board to correct alleged "errors" in the current textbooks' treatment of evolution.
"All the textbooks under consideration grossly exaggerate the evidence of Neo-Darwinian evolution, pretending that its mechanism of natural selection acting on random genetic change is a slam dunk. Not so," William Dembski, an associate research professor at Baylor, told the textbook board at a hearing Sept. 10.
Proponents of intelligent design accuse many in the scientific community of uncritically accepting Darwin's thesis that evolution can be explained by naturally occurring processes not dependant on the existence of God. They believe many questions left unanswered by "methodological naturalism" are best explained by inferring that some intelligent force guided the development of life on the planet. They stop short of naming that intelligence God, although most advancing the view are conservative Christians.
Dembski, also a Discovery Institute fellow, infers intelligent design from what he calls "specified complexity," which is established when three factors are present. "Contingency" means that the event was one of several possibilities, implying it was not the result of an automatic process. "Complexity" means an object is not so simple that it can readily be explained by chance. "Specification" refers to a type of pattern that bears the trademark of intelligence.
Beckwith has explained the concept by saying if a person threw 1,000 bags of Scrabble letters into the air and some landed forming words, it could be easily explained by chance. If they spelled out the first 10 verses of Genesis, however, that would imply a pattern.
Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, author of the 1996 book Darwin's Black Box, defends intelligent design with another argument called "irreducible complexity." He challenges Darwin's idea that all complex organisms can be explained by a succession of slight modifications. Even the simplest organisms, he retorts, contain interacting parts that would not work alone.
Behe's analogy is a mousetrap, which is composed of a wooden base, a spring and a trigger. A mousetrap isn't just more efficient in catching mice than any of the individual components; it doesn't work unless all are present. Darwin's law of natural selection, he says, requires that an organism have a function in order to exist, change and pass on that change to its progeny.
Opponents say those and other arguments used to support intelligent design give a misleading view of evolution that most non-scientists would be unable to discern. They say suggestions by groups like the Discovery Institute that critiques of weaknesses in evolutionary theories ought to be added to textbooks aren't practical at a high-school level, where the intent is to introduce basic concepts as a foundation for future study.
The National Center for Science Education says the coverage of evolution in current biology textbooks "reflects the broad consensus in the scientific community."
"Evolution pervades all biological phenomena. To ignore that it occurred or to classify it as a form of dogma is to deprive the student of the most fundamental organizational concept in the biological sciences," the center says on its Web site.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes "the inculcation of religious doctrines" in schools, according to a position statement, "even if they are presented as alternatives to scientific theories."
The ACLU terms intelligent design a guise for "creation science" and labels it "a religious doctrine."
"In our society, the government is not permitted to instruct a child in religion, because it is not the government's job to promote a religious form of truth," the ACLU says.
Texas will spend about $30 million on biology textbooks in the 2004-2005 school year. Because it is the second-largest market of textbooks, the books it buys will likely be made available in other states. The board is set to decide what books it will use Nov. 7.
A recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation found that about one third of the states currently do not do a satisfactory job in teaching evolution to students.
Beckwith and Dembski aren't the only members of the Baylor faculty to weigh in on the textbook issue. "Biologists really stopped arguing whether or not evolution by natural selection occurred back in the 1800s," Dan Wivagg, a Baylor biology professor, told the book-selection committee, according to the Houston Chronicle. "There's no doubt that it's the central unifying concept in biology, and it must be in the textbooks if we're going to have scientifically literate citizens."
Beckwith, a former research fellow at Princeton University, joined Baylor's faculty in July as associate professor of church-state studies and associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies.
Beckwith has been named in discussions criticizing President Robert Sloan over the perception that he is using faculty appointments to move the traditionally moderate university to the cultural right.
Links on Beckwith's personal Web site include the Family Research Council, a religious-right group; anti-abortion groups; and Southern Evangelical Seminary, led by President Norman Geisler, which lists Beckwith as a non-resident faculty member and includes on its advisory board conservative figure John Ankerberg.
Another link is to the Evangelical Theological Society, which lists current and past leaders from conservative schools including Southwestern and Southeastern Baptist Theological seminaries, Dallas Theological Seminary, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.