Intelligent design debate roils on

an illegal activity.

Mar 28, 2005
Patricia Princehouse(patricia.princehouse@case.edu)
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Editor's Note: Our trio of articles in the Feb. 28, 2005 issue (References 1, 2, and 3) on the debate surrounding intelligent design generated a great deal of mail. Below is a sampling of the various opinions.

In your Feb. 28, 2005, issue, Richard Gallagher proposes that scientists promote the teaching of religious ideology in public-school science classes,1 an illegal activity. In a display of chest-beating that would make any silverback [gorilla] envious, Gallagher says it is an "outstanding opportunity to exchange views with the naysay-ers" and that he longs for the sort of "full-blooded public debate" that we here in Ohio have engaged in for more than three years now. But we are not, as he claims, panicking, afraid "a generation will be brain washed." We're afraid our children won't be taught science, because that's exactly what's happening. I agree, "Scientists should go out of their way to support their local high-school science teachers to present the case for evolution." The prob lem is, most of them don't.

Gallagher boldly proclaims the debate "will fire the interest of bright kids who will see through the paper-thin arguments being set out to discredit evolution." That may be true for well-prepared students, but what about the rest of the kids? What about the ones reading several grade levels below what they should be? Or do we only care about the "bright" kids?

And by the way, creationists aren't stupid. They don't rail against evolution because of sheer ignorance. They object, in the face of all the facts, because of prior ideological and theological commitments. You can't overcome that with all the facts in the world about butterfly wing spots and hox genes.

I strongly disagree with the article "Intelligent Design and Informed Debate."1 I have been personally involved in public debate, including with religious groups, for three decades, mostly dealing with the development of gene technology. The fallacy with the argument made in the article is that there is the slightest interest on the nonscientific side for a real discussion. There is, of course, the limelight of publicity for the nonscientific group, but that is all. The general experience is that the scientists are wasting their time, utterly and completely, and a lot of it. Scientists should lobby, but directly with politicians or, better, through well-organized lobby groups employing public-relations managers versed in public speaking.

This article1 is a good attempt to bring the issue of intelligent design to the forefront. I have been collecting articles on this issue for the last couple of months and realize that we are losing the battle at this point. The major difficulty is that there is no debate. The religious right has the Bible on its side; [proponents] are always correct in their own thinking. The long-term damage is that science is going to suffer. Believing that evolution is only a theory that can't be proved is dangerous to all science. We need to keep this debate alive, as many people in the United States feel they don't have a stake in this issue.

What a bizarre world we live in! The lack of respect and bias reflected in quoted words like "enemies" in the article by Graciela Flores2 is ample evidence that science and scientists aren't nearly as neutral as we would like to believe. In a world filled with war and the initiation of aggression, I am appalled that a scientist would consider those with differing views as enemies. I have no idea why some of our colleagues feel threatened by other opinions and allow debate to escalate into a kind of philosophical and religious war. This is the kind of response I would like to avoid transmitting to the young scientists following in our footsteps.

Your editorial on intelligent design was courageously candid and on target.1 To implement its recommendations, however, it might be useful to consider two suggestions. First, many biologists, I regret to say, don't really know or understand the issue of evolution. Their often-flawed defense of it is counterproductive, because their exposition of it is often muddled. For example, in Darwin's classic On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, very little is written about evolution; it is nearly all about natural selection. It took Ernest Mayr to make full sense of evolution, and he died, unrecognized by the multitudes, just last month.4 And ask some biologists to define evolution in a short paragraph. You will wait, alas, in vain for a succinct and lucid explanation, this not only from high school teachers, but also from some of our own colleagues in colleges and universities.

Second, if one listens very carefully to arguments from "the opposition" to evolution, it soon becomes clear that the real hassle in many minds arises from the issue of the origin life rather than from evolution per se. It is important to separate the two, and I suggest it is useful to leave aside the origin of life for now, until evolution is explained. Sure, a human eye is complicated, but it's not as complicated as how life might have originated in the first place.

In his editorial, Richard Gallagher makes the point that scientists should relish the opportunity to engage the American people in an educational lesson about evolution1; in other words, use the creationist attacks on evolution against them. Gallagher is right, of course. Engaging the public in this subject provides a great opportunity to educate a few people about evolution and science in general. However, it provides an equally important opportunity to teach people about the importance of history as a discipline, and the importance of learning from reading the books in our libraries. Intelligent design has been refuted more times in the past than are easily counted.

Proponents of intelligent design are asking the country to accept a 200-year-old prescientific idea about the origins of life. What kind of debate can we expect from the kind of people who surely know the origins of their own ideas, but intentionally shroud them from public view? Perhaps it's time to turn the debate to the motives and tactics of the opposition. The general public needs to be made aware not only of the triumphs of science and evolution, but also of the rhetorical tricks being used against its best interests.

Something you didn't bring up in your editorial is that the proponents of intelligent design are not susceptible, by their own statements, to factual argument. They base their argument on faith, and any contrary fact is regarded as irrelevant. For this reason argument with them may be an exercise in futility. One may hope that observers of a debate will be less likely to be swayed by faith, but I wonder.

How you could juxtapose the statements "Full information on evolution and on intelligent design must be supplied" with "Scientists should go out of their way to support their local high-school science teachers to present the case for evolution" is beyond me. A little fairness, please! As a practicing biomedical research scientist for over 20 years, not to mention as a casual observer of nature and the world around me, the evidence for design in nature seems overwhelming. Even your own publication makes reference to the fact that biologists almost can't help make use of the term "design" when describing their findings.2 I for one intend to do all I can to let the education community know that there are serious flaws in the "molecules to man" paradigm espoused by so many under the "evolution" rubric, and that evidence for a designer is not only clear, but increasing day by day.

Re: "Journals and Intelligent Design"2: I was taught that the use of language such as "design," which implies a teleological explanation but is really intended to imply an evolutionary mechanism, is called "teleonomy." I teach my biology students the difference between teleology and teleonomy every semester so they do not misunderstand me.

However, doing handsprings [so as] not to be misrepresented by the creationists is futile. They ridiculed one of my papers as weak evidence that species can evolve in the present, when the paper was not intended to do that.5 It was only intended to show that major phenotypic evolution can occur within a few generations in modern populations. However, the modest claims did not prevent the creationists from imputing a much more grandiose claim to us, and then bashing the claim that they (not we) had invented.

As a research scientist and psychiatrist, I think "intelligent design" can be accommodated within an empirical model of evolution if the "intelligence" is construed as initially setting in motion the natural laws that produce differentiation and natural selection. It would not then conflict with Darwinian concepts. We all wonder how it started.

Given the fact that proponents of intelligent design refer to evolution as "only a theory" while not acknowledging that in science, unlike in general parlance, a theory is something that has been repeatedly tested and found to be true, I was appalled to see you, writing in a scientific publication, refer to intelligent design as a theory.1 By so doing, you are contributing to the confusion and giving support and comfort to the creationists.

I am amazed that your editors did not catch some of the rash statements made by Richard Dawkins, whom you quote in "Creationism: from the US, with love."3 You quote Dawkins as having said, "It's important to get across that respectable churchmen are all supporters of evolution." That statement can hardly be considered scientific, much less accurate. Has Dawkins interviewed all churchmen? He certainly has not interviewed me, or the 50 other PhDs who give scientific data supporting their position in the book, In Six Days, compiled by John F. Ashton.

Dawkins is quoted in Phillip E. Johnson's book, Darwin on Trial, as saying, "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane." Dawkins went on to explain that what he dislikes particularly about creationists is that they are intolerant, Johnson writes. I have to chuckle as I think of such an absurdly self-contradictory statement by Dawkins. Evidently Dawkins cannot see his own intolerance through his rage against intolerant people.

I did not "misquote" Bruce Alberts in my New York Times op-ed piece, as several of your sources apparently presume.2 I quoted him quite accurately, and in context. Nor did I "misrepresent" his quote, as his own letter alleges. At no point in my op-ed piece did I either say or imply that Bruce Alberts shares my view. I received many E-mails after the piece appeared, and nobody at all was under the impression that Bruce Alberts is an intelligent-design sympathizer. Rather, I simply used his accurate characterization of the cell to show that the foundation of life is much more complex than many people realize. He may not like the conclusion I reached, but I neither misquoted him nor misrepresented his views.

Your article implies that intelligent-design proponents in general, and me in particular, are being dishonest. Sometimes people do misquote other people. But sometimes the charge of misquoting is used to denigrate a person making an unpopular argument. I think that is the case here.