University pays theory little notice


Published: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
It was just a couple of years ago that a student walked into Kenneth Sassaman's University of Florida anthropology classroom with a Bible, demanding equal time to discuss religious explanations for human existence. Since then, the public debate about evolutionary theory, as espoused by Charles Darwin in 1859, has reached a fever pitch.
In August, President Bush suggested schools teach "intelligent design," a view that challenges scientific theory and promotes the idea that an intelligent force played a role in the creation of animals, plants and humans. Just last month, a federal judge ruled that teaching intelligent design was unconstitutional, condemning a Dover, Pa., school board's decision to promote an alternative to evolutionary theory.
Sassaman, interim chairman of the UF Department of Anthropology, says he doesn't see debate about evolution going away anytime soon. But just as he did with a student several years ago, Sassaman says, he'll continue to refer students to other classes if they want to discuss the Book of Genesis. Though he won't turn his classroom into a stage for theological debate, Sassaman says he sees no conflict between religious conviction and hard science.
"They're complementary, like yin and yang," said Sassaman.
The public discussion of intelligent design may have students more eager to debate alternative theories, but Sassaman said his department hasn't formally addressed the issue. There is no boiler-plate paragraph, for instance, in class syllabuses that discourages or encourages religious discussion in anthropology classes. Some UF professors, however, are starting to address intelligent design early on in the semester.
"I don't dwell on it, because we've got enough to do in class," said John Krigbaum, an assistant professor of anthropology at UF. ". . . I sort of sidestep it as a pseudoscience."
Krigbaum often steers students toward a Web site called talkdesign.org, a site that likens intelligent design to the legend of Atlantis or astrology. The site works to debunk several arguments of intelligent design proponents, including the notion that biological structures not yet explained by evolution are evidence of an unseen designer's work.
George Lebo, who retired from UF as a professor of astronomy in 1993, isn't ready to dismiss intelligent design - nor did he when he was teaching. In his general astronomy course, Lebo began a discussion of the origins of the universe by first revealing his "bias." Lebo's bias, he says, is that he believes in both the Big Bang - an explosion that created the universe 13.7 billion years ago - and a Christian God.
"I personally believe that (the Big Bang theory) is taught in the first two chapters of Genesis," he said. "That's my bias."
Lebo says he shares the views of many intelligent design proponents, specifically that certain major jumps in biological evolution point to the role of an intelligent force.
"Life from nonlife, I don't think that happened," he said. "I think there are probably certain steps that are too big to cross without somebody monkeying with the works."
Even so, Lebo says he doesn't believe there should be any "requirement" that intelligent design be taught, in part because of an interest in separating church and state. Such a requirement would constitute "a murky area for me," he said.
So how do educators effectively teach evolution without denigrating their students' religious beliefs? It's not easy, says Kelly Smith, an associate professor in the Clemson University Department of Philosophy and Religion. First off, professors need to be careful not to dismiss something like intelligent design out of hand, Smith said.
"A lot of scientists take this authoritarian approach, which I think is counterproductive," he said in a Friday telephone interview.
Smith, who doesn't personally subscribe to intelligent design as a science, says professors can use discussions of intelligent design to talk about how scientific method and theory should work. For Smith, intelligent design is an example of how science shouldn't work. For instance, dismissing evolution as "just a theory," as design proponents often do, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes a theory, Smith said.
"If you mean by 'theory' it could be wrong, then yes it's a theory," Smith said. "But you have to understand that everything in science is a theory . . . What science does is (it) takes the best available explanation."
In many cases, though, professors don't bother to discuss the nuances of scientific method, Smith said. Without that type of open discussion, Smith says a lot of students will fail to understand the basic tenants of evolutionary theory.
"They'll learn to regurgitate whatever you want them to," he said. "But they won't buy it."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@ gvillesun.com.

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