Entomology Department
Search the Department of Entomology

Entomology, Evolution and Intelligent Design
by Steve Yaninek

Evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) hit the popular press recently when the Dover Area School Board in Pennsylvania proposed including ID as a scientific alternative explanation to evolution. The school board was sued by parents who basically objected to having religion introduced as part of the science curriculum. This past December Judge John E. Jones III of the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, PA ruled that ID is nothing more than creationism in disguise and therefore unconstitutional to teach in public school science classrooms.

Attacks on evolution have been around since before, and have continued long after, Charles Darwin's famous treatise in 1859 "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" more commonly known as the "The Origin of Species." The real issue is that evangelical Christians, a significant part of the general public and conservative politicians continue to be concerned about what evolution represents and how it is taught in public schools. To some, it is an attack on their faith, so they are lashing back with the full force of their religious convictions.

I see two non-intersecting crosscurrents when we talk about evolution and faith. People of faith and some members of the general public object to the notion that anyone, in this case the established scientific community, would deny them their faith by not allowing faith-based doctrine such as ID to be included in science education. On the other hand, the legitimate scientific community is united in its opposition to accepting the tenants of ID as science without the required scrutiny of being something that can be observed, measured, and tested using falsifiable hypotheses that ultimately generate predictions based on accumulated evidence. I see this debate as a big misunderstanding of what evolution really is, and how the scientific community "decides" what gets included in the scientific debate.

Modern scientific evidence for evolution began with the modern synthesis, the blending of evolutionary biology and genetics led by evolutionary biologist Theodore Dobzhansky in the first half of the 20 th century. There has been a flood of supporting evidence pouring in from all reaches of the scientific community in recent years making an overwhelming case for evolution and its central role in the foundation of the life science - at least with the mainstream scientific community. Evidence for evolution - survival of the fittest and descent with modifications - continues to accumulate to such an extent that the scientific community is as unified on the predictability of this phenomena as such a community can be. In fact, "Evolution in Action" (Science, December, 2005) was just recently designated the scientific breakthrough of the year by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The main premise of ID is that living organisms are so complex and so intricately constructed that evolution alone through natural selection is insufficient to explain what we observe in nature. The implication is that if evolution is not responsible there must be an "intelligent designer" that is responsible for what we observe. ID's chief architect is lawyer Phillip Johnson, and many advocates of the doctrine are fellows of the Center for Science and Culture at the conservative think tank called the Discovery Institute. The program started in 1996, and according to their website they aspire to:

  • support research by scientists and other scholars challenging various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory;
  • support research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design;
  • support research by scientists and scholars in the social sciences and humanities exploring the impact of scientific materialism on culture.
  • encourage schools to improve science education by teaching students more fully about the theory of evolution, including the theory's scientific weaknesses as well is its strengths.

The institute and their "scientists" do not contribute to or participate in the mainstream scientific community, but instead engage the general public, particularly state science curricula through local school boards. Pat Shipman, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State University, recently wrote an engaging article on Being Stocked By Intelligent Design for the November-December, 2005 issue of American Scientist Online. In the article, she provides the historical and philosophical context for the rise of ID, and implores scientists to stop ignoring ID which she describes as religious prejudice disguised as intellectual freedom.

Where does entomology fit in this debate? As a part of the scientific community and long standing member of the life sciences, we have an obligation to adhere to the principles of the scientific method, and to insist that students and the general public receive the best scientific education possible in science class and other scientific media for all grade levels and all age groups. To this end, the Council of Entomology Department Administrators (CEDA) and the Entomological Society of America (ESA) adopted a statement in support of keeping ID out of science classrooms. Below is the statement approved at the December, 2005 CEDA and ESA meetings in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

CEDA and ESA Position on Intelligent Design 

Entomology, the scientific study of insects and their relatives, aims to increase knowledge of the biology of this largest group of animals on Earth and apply that knowledge toward improving human health and well-being. Advances in entomology depend upon rigorous and widely accepted scientific methods that include the development of hypotheses based on observations that are tested and either falsified or incorporated into the body of knowledge that constitutes the discipline. Any hypothesis that cannot be rejected based on evidence is inherently unscientific.

As in all other sciences, the knowledge that accumulates from the testing of various hypotheses can lead to the development of scientific theories, which offer the most comprehensive explanations of natural phenomena and predict the characteristics of as yet unobserved phenomena. Evolution is one of the most robust theories in the biological sciences and has been integral to the conduct of entomological science since it was first articulated some 150 years ago. Indeed, entomologists were among the first North American scientists to incorporate evolutionary theory into their work and have successfully used its explanatory and predictive power to elucidate aspects of the systematics, ecology, physiology, and genetics of insects and their relatives.

No meaningful or significant controversy exists within the biological sciences, entomological science included, about the centrality and legitimacy of evolutionary theory. Ongoing study and refinement of evolutionary theory are reflections of the manner in which all areas of science advance.

In contrast, "intelligent design," with its central tenet of irreducible complexity (i.e., aspects of living systems are too complex to ascribe to biological processes and therefore must have been designed by some intelligent force) is neither predictive nor falsifiable and therefore does not meet the standards of science. Accordingly, intelligent design has no utility in entomological science and, for the same reason, it has no legitimate place in science classrooms at any level of instruction.

For the United States to remain intellectually and economically competitive in the 21 st century, its science must be conducted according to time-tested and globally acceptable standards; evolutionary theory meets those standards and provides the foundation on which the biological sciences can most productively continue to advance. We should expect no less in the quality of science education in this country.