Dear Kansas biology students:

Your state school board, in requiring the teaching of Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution, has asked you to consider theories critically. They may not have realized that in so doing they put their own ideas at risk, for you may find helpful these questions that scientists use in judging the status of a theory:

1. Does it make specific predictions that could be tested?

2. Do those arguing for it objectively deal with all the evidence?

3. Can we point to cases in which it has been changed and improved by empirical tests?

4. Have plausible alternatives been fairly and carefully considered and rejected for good reason?

My answers to these questions for Intelligent Design are: (1) Not in this case, for the Designer could design anything at all. (2) No, they cite confirmations, and their evidence is shaky. (3) We cannot. (4) No, they have not — evolution has not been fairly and carefully considered, and their rejection of it is not for good reason.

In this case, another question arises that does not occur in science, where the only causes allowed are material ones: Does the theory admit supernatural causes? Intelligent Design does, and that alone makes it religion, not science. Religion is based on belief; science is based on observation and experiment. While few believers abandon faith when prayers are not answered, any idea in science that is inconsistent with the facts and could be replaced by a better alternative would be thrown out.

Biologists would be willing to accept an alternative to evolution if it could explain everything that evolution does with equally valid logic; if it were consistent with all the other parts of science with which evolution is consistent, including physics, chemistry, geology and medicine. In addition, it should explain some important material observation that evolution cannot. At the moment, no alternative comes anywhere close to doing all those things.

You might also want to recall the experience the Catholic Church had with Galileo following its confrontation with him in the 17th century. The Church (and Aristotle) then held that the Earth was the center of the universe. When Galileo observed four moons moving around Jupiter through his new telescope, he saw that the Earth moved around the Sun like the moons moved around Jupiter. He then published his discovery, together with other evidence and arguments.

The Church forced him to recant, but its victory was short-lived. Newton soon discovered gravitation and the laws of motion and predicted the orbits of the planets with great accuracy. Continuing advances in physics and astronomy made the Church’s position increasingly untenable — we went to the moon on Newton’s physics, not on Aristotle’s. The Church finally realized that it was hurting itself by advocating an indefensible position and retracted its rejection of Galileo in 1992. The story is now repeating itself with evolution.

A scenario with much deadlier consequences played out in the Soviet Union when Stalin bought Lysenko’s false arguments that denied established facts of genetics. As a result, crops planted under false premises failed and famines killed millions. And when the president of South Africa questioned scientific evidence that the HIV virus causes AIDS, he put at risk the lives of millions. These painful examples show that the nature of reality is not subject to the decrees of human institutions. People can pay with their lives when authorities deny what science has learned.

When you discover — as many of you will if you study evolution carefully and fairly — that Intelligent Design misleads you about the nature of reality, you are likely to lose respect for those who misled you and perhaps even for religion in general. That would be a shame, for the world’s religions contain much wisdom about the human condition. We should regret that proponents of Intelligent Design have chosen a confrontational course involving issues that need not be central to religious belief. I suspect that they do not appreciate how much they run the risk of losing the respect of everyone else.

Stephen Stearns is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.