I’ve been asking a few friends who are neither journalists nor scientists—nor, for that matter, Americans—what they understand by the term “intelligent design.” “Isn’t that the slogan of that German car company?,” one said, in a remark typical of what I often hear. In Europe, intelligent design is nowhere near the big issue that it is in North America. Serious newspapers have been giving brief coverage to the Dover, Pennsylvania court case on their inner pages, but in the popular press and on television there is not a mention made.
It’s interesting to reflect on why that might be. After all, according to the U.S. Constitution, church and state are separate whereas over here, the queen is both head of state and head of the Church of England. And many schools are church schools with religious education a small but significant part of their curriculum, and a brief act of worship is an almost daily event. But it is hard to find anyone here who thinks that intelligent design is serious science or that it should be taught as such in schools, or at least who is prepared to say so in public. The Church of England, for the most part, seems to be on the side of the biologists, and even the Catholic Church has gone on record as saying that evolution is more than just a theory.
It might be a relatively untold story, but the evolution/creation debate regularly rears its ugly head into journalists’ lives. Almost whenever we broadcast anything substantial about evolution, we get a small but significant response from lobbyists demanding that we give equal time to creationist or intelligent design arguments. It is relatively easy to reply—almost with a stock letter—pointing out that ours is a science program, not one about religious belief. But these letters usually come through formal channels, and thus they demand time-consuming paperwork. We presume creationists monitor our broadcasts with that in mind.
This past summer, I was fortunate to be a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion, which enabled me to attend a series of seminars in Cambridge, England. Both the journalists and the speakers were drawn from a mixture of faiths and included several atheists, but no one seemed to be pushing the intelligent design argument, and the Brits among us were struck by the concern about intelligent design amongst our transatlantic colleagues.
One of the speakers at a seminar was Professor Richard Dawkins, well known on both sides of the Atlantic for his almost fanatical belief in evolution and his rejection of religion in all its forms. He might appear to be a fundamentalist scientist, but he does have a way with metaphors. He likened the theory of evolution to a crane that can lift complex life, including human life, up from the primordial slime. Evolution is a theory, yes, but like a crane, he says, it is built on the firm ground of established scientific observation. By contrast, invoking God as an explanation, through whatever subtle mechanism such as intelligent design, is like a skyhook: It may offer an explanation for the progression of life, but it has itself no rational supporting structure in science or observation. As William of Ockham would have put it in the 14th century, introducing God multiplies entities unnecessarily.
That logical argument, one might think, would hold true everywhere. But belief, to many British minds, including my own, defies logic. I was stunned to read in an account of a U.S. poll that “only” 26 percent of a sample of Americans believe in a literal six-day creation. For me, the figure of 26 percent would have been shocking enough, but it was the “only” that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I would be surprised if “even” 2.6 percent of Brits held that belief. But then we do not appear to be a very devout lot. Church attendance here is low and falling—only a few percent of the population attend church on a regular basis. And those who do go are often elderly and attending services that have changed little since the 19th century.
But I suspect that our societal level of devotion is not the main reason why the issue of intelligent design has not yet become a major debate in education. Rather it could be because religious education here is already part of the school curriculum. Whether people believe in intelligent design or not, to most Brits this is clearly a religious issue. Since there is religious education, if the topic is worthy of discussion then it seems logical that it should be discussed as part of religious education, not in biology lessons. The American curriculum does not offer that option.
Even though there seems to be no large, well-organized lobby group for intelligent design in Britain, its teachings have appeared in some of our schools. A few years ago, the government started to encourage the creation of so-called technology colleges in deprived inner-city areas where existing schools had been failing. These have been set up as partnerships between the public sector and private benefactors. Though they charge no fees, they are technically independent schools, and their benefactors get to appoint the school governors who, in turn, appoint the teaching staff.
One such benefactor is Sir Peter Vardy. He made his fortune as a car dealer and has now contributed to several schools in the northeast of England, the first of them, called Emmanuel College, is in Gateshead near Newcastle. It is clear that Vardy has sympathy for intelligent design and even for full-blown creationism. Another of the school’s directors is the Conservative peer, Baroness Cox, who, in 1988, sponsored amendments to an education reform bill stating that religious education in state schools should be “in the main Christian.”
According to The Guardian newspaper, the chief education advisor to the Vardy Foundation, John Burn, is a founder of the Newcastle-based Christian Institute that has 12 full-time staff promoting fundamentalist Christian beliefs. The head teacher at Emmanuel College suggested to a Guardian reporter that it is “fascist” to say that schools should not consider creationist theories, while the head of science at the school, Stephen Layfield, was quoted as having urged colleagues to “show the superiority” of creationist beliefs.
Such issues have been reported in the British press, especially in liberal or left-wing publications such as The Guardian, but they have not become headline news. That may still happen, however. In October, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that he wants all schools to have the chance to become “independent” to give them more freedom to innovate, within certain guidelines. Part of his motivation is probably to take some of the control of schools away from the local county education boards but, if there are enough rich benefactors who believe in intelligent design, some believe he could be letting religious dogma into the classroom through the back door.
And if this shows signs of happening, many other British journalists and I will be waiting with our pens and microphones at the ready, to lift this largely untold story into headline news.
Martin Redfern is senior producer of the BBC Radio Science Unit in London. Any views expressed in this article are his own, and not necessarily those of the BBC. Messages for Redfern can be left on the BBC Radio Science message board. See examples of this unit’s coverage of the Dover trial.