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David Brown
Photos by Daniel James Devine
David Brown

Peeking outside the Darwin cage

Intelligent Design | Five teachers talk about their passion for pointing students to the mind behind the universe and the risks they take to do it

In the Sept. 7 issue of WORLD, we look at a few scientists, students, and teachers who spent 10 days in Seattle at the Discovery Institute’s summer seminar learning about intelligent design (ID), the scientific theory that nature displays evidence of having been designed. Below are additional profiles of other courageous attendees who were willing to put their careers on the line for their ID beliefs.

To protect the identities of some attendees, WORLD agreed to use pseudonyms (designated with an asterisk).

David Brown*

David Brown,* a public school physics teacher in his 30s, doesn’t like to simply follow the rules, especially when it comes to science and evolution: “When the culture tells me I’m not allowed to think outside the Darwinian box, it makes me want to think outside the Darwinian box.”

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Chances are his students don’t care for rules, either. But the current American educational paradigm doesn’t leave room for dissenting viewpoints if the subjects are the origins of life and the universe. Instead, kids hear everything about random evolution and nothing about design.

“We tell children in our culture to be themselves, to follow their hearts,” said Brown, who teaches in south-central Pennsylvania. “But in our culture, in the realm of science, you’re not supposed to think for yourself. You’re supposed to follow the leader.”

Brown would like to see students thinking for themselves, but in a public high school, he has to be careful with his words. His school district lies in the same region as Dover, Pa., where a school board in 2004 tried to institute a teaching policy that would have included information about intelligent design and criticism of Darwinism. After some parents filed a lawsuit, a federal judge ruled intelligent design represented religion and that teaching it in public school was unconstitutional. (But the theory of intelligent design is not religiously but scientifically based.)

Brown avoids legal quicksand by teaching in a way that prompts students to do their own thinking. As a physics teacher, he doesn’t talk about biology, but introduces the concept of fine-tuning in the universe. For example, the Earth’s atmosphere blocks harmful radiation from the sun but is transparent to the visible light needed for photosynthesis. The Earth is an ideal distance from the sun to host liquid water, and our solar system is ideally placed to avoid dangerous radiation from the center of the galaxy. Brown ends such talks by suggesting to students, “It kind of makes you think!”

Sometimes he gets a class full of blank stares in return. But occasionally a student or two will show interest and spark some back-and-forth discussion.

Brown used to teach origins by telling students how some people believe the universe was created, and others believe it just popped into existence. At the Discovery Institute’s intelligent design seminar this summer, though, science research coordinator Casey Luskin advised him that approach was technically considered teaching intelligent design—and therefore illegal.

If he said too much about intelligent design during his physics class, Brown says, “there certainly would be repercussions.” —Daniel James Devine

Phoebe Johnson* 

While the Texas Board of Education changed the wording of its science curriculum in 2009 to make room for teaching alternatives to evolution, the school district where Phoebe Johnson* teaches took a hardline stance: Darwinism is true; everything else is wrong. Johnson, a high school biology teacher, soon started to feel the heat. Although her classroom curriculum only required a summary of evolution, Johnson was also part of the school’s Christian club, where she held a talk about how science and religion can coexist.

“I think I have a middle-of-the-road approach to it,” Johnson said. “One thing about the ID movement is that the people involved are really doing a good job being objective and trying really hard not to get wrapped up in politics or religion but looking at it for what it is.”

Soon the principal called in Johnson and a fellow teacher also involved in the Christian club. The principal complained they weren’t teaching the curriculum, questioned them about rumors, and intimidated them into quitting. Johnson’s co-worker ended up leaving the school, and Johnson soon applied for a teaching position at a Roman Catholic school (although she’s Protestant).

Johnson soon realized her new job environment would not be drastically different. While the school does believe the Bible is true, Pope John Paul II encouraged Catholics not to abandon science, which many took to mean embracing Darwinism. In her advanced biology class, she is allowed to teach the criticisms of Darwinian theory, but can’t supply students with alternative possibilities. She can say, “Isn’t God amazing?” while studying the design of kidneys, but can’t say that it didn’t come by evolution. 

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