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Should Intelligent Design be Taught in Public School Science Classrooms?


A variety of different arguments have been offered for teaching “both sides” of the evolution/ID debate in public schools. This article reviews five of the most common types of arguments advanced by proponents of Intelligent Design and demonstrates how and why they are founded on confusion and misunderstanding. It argues on behalf of teaching evolution, and relegating discussion of ID to philosophy or history courses.

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  1. 1.

    Some could argue to the contrary that the legal debate over Intelligent Design has turned the science classroom into a public forum. Whether or not this is true, of course, turns upon what is meant by this expression, “public forum.” A public forum in the sense intended here is a community that can and moreover should decide, democratically, an accepted position on a question, where credentials for membership in that forum are a matter of either membership in citizenry or elected office. However true it may be that the ID-evolution debate has brought public attention to the question of what counts as science, this paper argues that it is neither the courts, nor the public, ultimately, but scientists who should determine in specific cases what count as legitimate scientific theory, based on the criteria discussed below. Thus, science is not a public forum in this sense. The legal context of debates over teaching ID in public schools concerns interpretation of the Establishment clause as well as the question of whether the teaching of ID constitutes promotion of religious views by the state. Recent legal decision has concluded that teaching ID constitutes a violation of the separation of church and state (Kitzmiller v. Dover 2005). (Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on this issue.).

  2. 2.

    One reviewer notes that the account of science advanced here is very much in keeping with some contributors to McComas (1998). Another suggests that readers may find similar views in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2008). Many thanks for these useful references.

  3. 3.

    Of course, learning science is important in itself, both in terms of the content and learning the practice of critical thinking, whether or not one might use such science to compete for jobs.

  4. 4.

    It should be noted that these are argument types, not tokens. The aim of this paper is to reply to general kinds of argument, not to each specific argument of the variety of ID proponents, which would require (at the least) a book length manuscript. For an example of a comprehensive and thorough analysis of argument tokens, see Sarkar (2007).

  5. 5.

    That is, it does not follow from the fact that something seems difficult or impossible that it is. More detail on this point will be supplied below.

  6. 6.

    This point is mentioned in McComas (1998), as well as the National Academy of Sciences’ statement (2008).

  7. 7.

    For an excellent overview of some common assumptions about science and how they are misguided, see Woodward and Goodstein (1996).

  8. 8.

    This point is also canvassed in McComas (1998).

  9. 9.

    Though, some, (Popper) deny that even this is possible; Popper claimed that all we may claim is that a hypothesis has not yet been falsified.

  10. 10.

    See Friedmann (2004), for a discussion of the history of this notorious claim, never published; also, see also Zimmer (2008).

  11. 11.

    For a thorough review, see Futuyma (1998); or, a much shorter account, Charlesworth and Charlesworth 2003.

  12. 12.

    For further discussion, see, e.g., Millstein (2006).

  13. 13.

    Of course, one could legitimately argue that cooption is neo-Darwinian, insofar as Darwin himself makes reference to such mechanisms.

  14. 14.

    For reasons far too complex to go into here, there are difficulties with this notion of exaptation—very briefly, almost every biological trait is in some sense an exaptation, because it’s rarely the case that a trait is not in some sense (directly or indirectly) co-opted from another function, at some level of organization.

  15. 15.

    See Futuyma (1998, pp. 681–685), or a discussion of how the eye has evolved many times in the history of life.

  16. 16.

    This reconstruction follows that of Sober (2008). For much more detailed discussion of this argument and its problems, please see Sober’s excellent text.

  17. 17.

    A Gallup Poll conducted in 2008 showed that over 50% of Americans believe either that God created humans in their present form, or somehow guided human evolution (Gallup Poll, May 8–11, 2008b).

  18. 18.

    In response to the question, “Would you generally favor or oppose teaching creation along with evolution in public schools?” a majority was in favor (roughly 65%) but with respect to replacing evolution curriculum with creation curriculum, a majority was opposed (roughly 51%) (CBS News/New York Times Poll. Nov. 18–21, 2004. N = 885 adults nationwide.).

  19. 19.

    However, it does seem to be the conclusion of many cognitive and neuroscientists. See, for example Wegner (2002), and more recently, Hassin et al. (2006).

  20. 20.

    A wonderful example is Asa Gray. Some have also argued that there is a domain of faith versus a domain of empirical concern. Questions in the two domains, it is argued, are nonoverlapping—they are different kinds of questions that required different answers, and modes of argument. Gould called this the “two Magisteria” argument (1997).

  21. 21.

    See the Darwin Correspondence Project (2007).

  22. 22.

    See, e.g., Galileo, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in Drake, ed. (1957).

  23. 23.

    An appendix following gives a list of useful websites for teaching controversial material, and evolution in particular, in the high school and college classroom. Of course, this is a very small sample of a much larger literature that could be surveyed here.


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Correspondence to Anya Plutynski.



Some useful websites for teaching controversial topics (on teaching evolution) (video of workshop on Structured Academic Controversies)

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Plutynski, A. Should Intelligent Design be Taught in Public School Science Classrooms?. Sci & Educ 19, 779–795 (2010).

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  • Science Classroom
  • Intelligent Design
  • Behavioral Disposition
  • Public Forum
  • Common Descent