One of America's longest-running dramas is being revived in Ohio. There, the state school board is wrestling with whether to give the theory of evolution sole billing in its revised science curriculum, or to make room for an alternative theory called "intelligent design."
Inevitably, the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial springs to mind, along with "Inherit the Wind," the perennially popular play based on that trial. And, don't forget, only three years ago Kansas had a major replay of the controversy when its education board removed evolution from the curriculum altogether, a decision later reversed when voters installed a new board.
Ohio is following a somewhat different script. Intelligent design, depending on the commentator's perspective, is seen as either a reasonable explanation of nature's more complex formations - or simply Bible-based "creationism" in a different costume.
Unlike traditional creationists, the proponents of intelligent design don't argue with evolution's eon-spanning time frame. Nor do they deny Darwin's observations about change over time. Their basic point is that a guiding intelligence, instead of natural selection, better explains some of those changes and the intricacies of such structures as cells. They are purposefully indefinite about who, or what, that intelligence might be.
But are these ideas a valid scientific theory warranting equal time in biology classes?
At this juncture, the answer is probably "no." Intelligent design, while it has some scientists on its side, has not been scrutinized in scholarly journals. It doesn't have decades of corroborating scientific discovery and field work behind it, as does evolution.
This doesn't mean the theory of evolution is exempt from criticism, doubt, or even revision. That, after all, is part of the scientific method. Intelligent design offers a critique of evolution which shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Analysis that seeks cause only in matter can't explain all the turns of life on earth. On the other hand, the proponents of design will run into unintelligent outcomes like genetic dead-ends and disease. Science teachers should be free to bring up these contrasting approaches and probe the controversy they generate.
And if parents strongly object to any teaching of evolution on religious grounds, they should be able to have their children excused from that portion of a class.
Classroom discussion is one thing; official insertion of religious teaching into the public schools is another. Courts have tended to strike down state laws that require "creation science" to be taught. If intelligent design becomes a required part of biology courses in Ohio or other states, it will face similar challenges.
By year's end, the Ohio Board of Education plans to make a decision. It's only reasonable that evolution be given its earned place in science classes as an enduring theory of physical science that explains a lot, if not everything. But the door should be kept open to discussion, questions, and possible alternatives.