Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson looks at the history of attributing scientific gaps to a higher being. He’s on a panel to update the National Academy of Sciences document on evolution and creationism to reflect the dialogue on intelligent design and he tells Living on Earth host Steve Curwood that intelligent design is "a philosophy of ignorance" that has no place in science.
CURWOOD: In January, a Dover, Pennsylvania, judge is expected to rule whether intelligent design can be taught in a public school science class as an alternative to evolution. Intelligent design is the theory that the origins and workings of the universe can never be explained through science alone.
The judge will decide whether teaching intelligent design as part of biological science violates the first amendment of the Constitution’s separation between church and state. And Pennsylvania is not alone - some twenty states are considering teaching intelligent design in science classes.
With me is Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s an astrophysicist and head of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. Neil Tyson, just how novel is the argument of intelligence design as the answer to mysteries of science?
TYSON: Actually, many people think that notion is something new in the news. But if you comb the history books and look at what – let’s take scientists, in particular – how many of the greatest scientists of the past have thought about their work and the frontier of their work, it’s replete with reference to an almighty creator having a hand in what’s going on. But you have to pay close attention to how they invoke the creator.
Going back even to Ptolemy, 2,000 years ago, he had an explanation for the planets, and it involved very intricate epicycles, which are these loop-de-loops that planets are doing, to explain what’s going on. But it was fundamentally flawed because the sun is in the middle of all this motion, not Earth. And so he knew he was at his limits there, and he uttered what I think are some of the most poetic words ever to be spoken on the frontier of ignorance.
And he said: “When I trace, at my pleasure, the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch Earth with my feet: I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”
So there he was, sort of basking in religious glory, on that frontier where he could not really understand what was going on. And it would take a while before somebody figured out what was going on. That person was Newton. Newton figured out which way the planets were going and how they did it. You read his discussion of gravity, God is nowhere to be found.
Only when he looks at his equations and finds out, you know, the solar system I think is unstable. You keep up this gravity long enough, with all these multiple planets tugging on each other, it’ll unravel this beautiful system of gravity that I have put forth that describes how they attract each other. And he waxes poetic about God coming in and fixing that and keeping it going.
And it was not until 100 years after that where Simon-Pierre de Laplace, a brilliant French mathematician, was not content with just assigning that role to God. And he went in and figured out that the solar system is stable, and invented a new form of mathematics to learn that. So, we can glean a lot from scanning the history of people invoking what today is called “intelligent design.” And what they all have in common is it stunts further progress of discovery.
CURWOOD: Neil, I’m wondering if intelligent design is just another term for creationism, or different? As I understand it, the creationism perspective is one that looks directly at the Judeo-Christian Bible that says that God created everything here in seven days.
TYSON: Six days. (Laughs)
CURWOOD: Six days. Oh, that’s right. He took a day off.
TYSON: He rested on the seventh day. Yep.
CURWOOD: And intelligent design is not necessarily subscribing to that very literal interpretation, but saying, you know, this is really pretty amazing stuff and there must be something really smart, some being, that created all this. So, is there anything different in the movement to include intelligent design in science curricula, as opposed to efforts to teach creationism in schools?
TYSON: Well, what they have in common is that they’re both not science. But if you were to step into that universe, if you will, you can find differences among them. If you look 15-20 years ago, the creation science movement, which is what it was called, was taking a, just as you described, a literal interpretation of the Judeo-Christian Bible, and asserts that the universe was created in the six days and could not be much older than 10,000 years, as demanded by Biblical chronology.
Now, in this latest movement, you don’t have people who are leading the intelligent design movement making those kinds of claims. Because they’re just patently false in the face of scientific evidence. What you have them saying – and many of them, in fact, do accept what science tells us about the universe. Many of them do accept that the universe is about 14 billion years old, and, you know, that Earth goes around the sun. You know, they accept this. And their only issue is when you come to something you can’t explain, and they assert that it’s unexplainable.
CURWOOD: Now, you’ve been involved with updating a National Academy of Sciences document on creationism versus evolution, I think that was done in 1999. And that document states, quote, “unequivocally that creationism has no place in any science curriculum at any level.” Now, in the updating that you’re involved in right now, will this entail doing more than just including the term intelligent design in addition to creationism?
TYSON: Yeah, I’m on a committee to sort of revise that document which, by the way, is important in many ways. That document is read not only by, sort of, school administrators, but by schoolteachers who are not otherwise part of the debate but they want some guidance as to how they should treat the subject when they go back to their classroom. And so, yes, the document needs to gather some language that has accumulated over the past few years to enhance its relevance to what’s going on in the various court cases.
But also, one of our goals is to have it serve the role as a guide for people to understand how science works. So, rather than just going around debunking things, you just sort of highlight and enlighten the reader in terms of what theories are, how they work, how the frontier of science advances. And then it’s simply a document that brings you up close and personal to the methods and tools of science. And in that way you will understand immediately that philosophies of ignorance have no place in the same room as philosophies of discovery.
CURWOOD: Let’s say the courts in Pennsylvania, or perhaps somewhere else here in the United States, rule in favor of teaching intelligent design alongside evolution, as recently happened in Kansas. What would this mean for the future of science?
TYSON: Yeah, that’s an excellent question because, in some ways, I don’t really care much about the court case. I mean, it’s interesting to follow sociologically, but if they say intelligent design is science, that doesn’t make it science. You know, the courts is not the ultimate arbiter of how science works. It would be a curious development that we would have a legal system legislating what is science and what isn’t.
I can tell you this, that in the 21st century, emergent economies will flow from our innovations in science and technology. And the moment we stunt our curiosity by offering ready explanations that it’s unknowable, we will cede to the rest of the world that frontier of discovery. And we will see more than just a few engineering jobs go overseas. It’ll be sort of the beginning of the end of our sort of economic strength as a nation that we’ve come to take for granted in the 20th century.
CURWOOD: Neil deGrasse Tyson heads the Hayden Planetarium in New York and is a frequent contributor to Living on Earth. Thanks for being with us.
TYSON: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me again.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.