Evolution: Science, Religion, Economics

December 11, 2005

Indiana Writers Group column for Dec. 14 and thereafter
684 words

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

With the recent election results in Kansas and Delaware, the debate in Indiana continues to intensify over teaching Evolution and "Intelligent Design" in the public schools. There is much at stake — from scientific integrity to philosophical baggage. And the stakes are more intense than they ought to be because of the way in which our country delivers educational services.

Evolution refers to two different but related areas within science. On the one hand, evolution is a fully observable mechanism by which life evolves in modest increments over time. In this manifestation, evolution is an indisputable scientific theory, eminently supported on empirical grounds. On the other hand, evolution also is used to refer to a largely unobservable process by which today’s observable range of life supposedly developed from the earliest days on the earth. In this case, evolution is a hypothesis, proposing that the development of life is an unguided process. As such, it uses pieces of scientific explanation to construct a compelling story — as a proposed interpretation of history.

"Intelligent Design" fully accepts evolution in the former sense. But it proposes the alternative hypothesis to the development of life — that the development of life was a guided process, caused by an intelligent designer of some sort. This too is intuitively compelling. When one sees something complicated and meaningful (e.g., Mount Rushmore), it is easy to infer that it was designed. As today’s most famous evolutionist, Richard Dawkins, has said: what we see today has "the appearance of being designed." So, the question is whether the apparent design is reality or merely an illusion.

This essay cannot be long enough to address the question in detail. Suffice it to say here that scientific endeavors routinely use evidence of "intelligent design" in many accepted contexts — from code-breaking to the search for life outside our universe (are the data in patterns or random?), to arson and murder investigations (was it an accident or intentional?), and to archaeology (is the rock a tool or merely a stone?).

Scientific considerations aside, this issue provokes such controversy because the dominant provider of education has such strong monopoly power — and most consumers have little ability to avoid its dictates. Let’s see why this is the overarching problem — and how we could avoid it.

Imagine for a moment that the government decides that food (as education) is important, so everyone can eat for free at the government-run restaurant in their neighborhood. The subsequent government bureaucracy, the manager of the restaurant and a local "Food Board" would determine the menu. And passionate constituents would try to influence their choices.

Proponents of the Atkins Diet would clamor for "all meat"; vegetarians would argue for "all veggies"; and other people would want a range of options in concert with their various tastes and preferences. This is a recipe for turmoil. For example, if the Atkins people were politically persuasive, the vegetarians would be deeply offended and the others would not be wholly pleased either.

The solution is as easy as the problem is silly.

The government would allow different types of restaurants to arise and compete, based on consumer preferences. Or better yet, the government would get out of the business of operating restaurants and leave that to the private sector, intervening only as necessary to help the needy afford food through vouchers or other subsidies to the individual.

The same is true with education. If one group wants their children taught sex education with cucumbers and condoms in the fifth grade, then that should be their prerogative. But that shouldn’t be forced on other people. Another contentious example is school prayer. Some parents want a prayer to Jesus Christ. Many parents want a prayer to the lukewarm deity of civil religion. Others want no prayer at all — or prayer to other gods. By providing options, school choice deals with such issues in a far more effective manner than a government entity with significant monopoly power.  

Science, religion and politics. Real wars and now "culture wars" have been fought in their name. Let’s put down our weapons and give all American parents the freedom to educate their children as they see fit.

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Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. He teaches economics at Indiana University (New Albany). Contact him at eschansberg@inpolicy.org.



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