Hail, Mary

Recalling the long career of the late evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, who died in early February at the age of 100, after spending more than six decades as an intellectual leader in his field, a former colleague of Mayr’s writes (March 13):

Way back in 1959, and exactly 100 years after the publication of Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, [Mayr] was one of the key participants at the University of Chicago’s Darwin Centennial. A font of evolutionary study, the university attracted thousands of international dignitaries to the event–all representing the diversity of interests unified by the new science.

It also included distinguished theologians and humanists, along with high school teachers, all of whom embraced the new science. It was so successful that evangelical fundamentalists in the area had a panic attack. They and others immediately countered with their own made-up “alternative” that came to be known as “creation science.” They’ve since made their careers doing nothing to gain us any understanding of the natural world, but doing lots to confuse the public about the legitimacy of evolution as a science.

Well. I can’t say for sure whatever happened to the distinguished theologians and humanists and the others who, way, way, way back in 1959, embraced and defended some of the core tenets of evolutionary theory—and basic human rationality, therefore, while they were at it. But since the complex, global pathology called the “United States of America” leads the world these days in fundamentalists and “creation scientists” and necromancers and the like—and it never hurts to remember that this same pathological complex also leads the world, both in the number of concurrent wars of foreign aggression that it is waging, and in the number of its own residents that it locks up behind bars—I can’t help but wonder how much of the space that irrationalism and demagoguery currently occupy in this country has been carved out by the sheer violence of the American state towards others, the sheer trauma of life within, and the paranoia accompanying both of them?

I mean, how else could the views of the esteemed “creation scientists” and the “Da Vinci Code” sects—or their putative counterparts among the Michael Moore-to-the-rescue and the Nation-left establishmentarians—not only find a toehold in this country? But flourish as well? And even overgrow and choke-off so much of the rest?

The Writings of Charles Darwin on the Web (Homepage), John van Wyhe, Editor

Santa Fe Institute (Homepage)

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Stephen Jay Gould (Harvard Univeristy Press, 2002)
One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought, Ernst Mayr (Harvard University Press, 1991)
What Evolution Is, Ernst Mayr (Basic Books, 2001)
What Makes Biology Unique? Ernst Mayr (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Evolution isn’t merely a theory: It’s a fully developed science,” Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, Chicago Tribune, March 13, 2005

Saving Us from Darwin,” Frederick C. Crews, New York Review of Books, October 4, 2001
Four Complications in Understanding the Evolutionary Process,” Richard C. Lewontin, Santa Fe Institute Bulletin, Winter, 2003, pp. 19-26
Homo Floresiensis and Human Equality: Enduring Lessons from Stephen Jay Gould,” Richard York, Monthly Revew, March, 2005
The atheist: Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains why God is a delusion, religion is a virus, and America has slipped back into the Dark Ages,” Gordy Slack, Salon, April 28, 2005
The Wars Over Evolution,” Richard C. Lewontin, New York Review of Books, October 20, 2005

FYA (“For your archives”): Experience teaches that the link to Smocovitis’ commentary on Mayr will fail after a short period time. Therefore, I am depositing here a copy of the commentary itself—before the Chicago Tribune electronically isolates it behind the $$$$$$ curtain. And below Smocovitis’ commentary, I’m adding the complete text of Gordy Slack’s interview with Richard Dawkins, taken from April 28, 2005 issue of Salon.

Chicago Tribune
Perspective, Section 2
March 13, 2004
Evolution isn’t merely a theory: It’s a fully developed science
By Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis. Professor Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis teaches the history of science in the departments of zoology and history at the University of Florida

Ernst Mayr, the world renowned evolutionary biologist who died recently at the age of 100, spent most of the 20th Century studying and promoting Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. But if you’ve followed American media in recent months, you might think Mayr and his colleagues were failures, and that evolutionary theory is suspect, full of holes in evidence and logic, and kind of a religion of its own.

Despite its–and other–scientific advances in the 20th Century, evolution is under assault in America. People with thinly disguised religious and political agendas are demanding that alternative “theories” with euphemistic names such as “creation science” and “intelligent design” be given the same or greater weight than evolution in our textbooks and classrooms.

But thanks to people like Mayr, there is a big difference between these theories and the theory of evolution. That difference is science. Mayr took Darwin’s abstract theory of evolution and turned it into the science of evolutionary biology.

During his nine-decade career, Mayr wrote or edited 20 books and more than 600 journal articles, yet that was just a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of papers and books that have been written detailing experimental and observational studies supporting evolution. Through studies of diverse organisms ranging from viruses to plants and animals to humans, Mayr and others helped evolution itself evolve from its early incarnation as an incomplete and abstract theory into a rigorous science drawing on genetic principles, mathematical tools and some of the most sophisticated experimental methods known to modern science.

Conversely, proponents of alternative theories such as intelligent design cannot produce a single testable, repeatable experiment to support their position. They want us to take it on faith. They argue that some things in nature are so complex that they must have been designed by a higher being and that there is some greater purpose in the universe.

Pre-Darwin religion

They’re especially fond of tired examples and arguing from analogy–the old “watch must have a watchmaker” kind of fuzzy logic familiar to 18th and 19th Century minds. That doesn’t sound like science to me; it sounds like religion before the age of Darwin. And here’s the irony: While they would like you to believe that their arguments have the support of current mainstream religions, they do not.

Scores of religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II, have in fact affirmed the validity of evolutionary science.

But that hasn’t stopped proponents of this latest creationist fad from gaining a foothold in American education and popular culture.

In Dover, Pa., the school board became the first in the country to require the teaching of intelligent design. In suburban Atlanta, a school district required that stickers be placed in all biology textbooks stating that evolution was a theory and not a fact. In Kentucky, a museum devoted exclusively to “creation science” is in the works. In 1999, the Kansas Board of Education removed evolution from its central place in the teaching of biology, but restored it in 2001.

The truth is that evolution is a scientific explanation for the origin of biological diversity in the natural world; it also happens to be the best explanation we’ve got if we want to uphold any scientific understanding of the world at all.

“Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution,” Mayr’s friend and colleague Theodosius Dobzhansky once famously declared. Evolutionary understanding has spread to virtually all scientific disciplines.

The success of evolution has been due to its synthetic and integrative power.

It has even become an applied science, embraced enthusiastically by medicine, agriculture, conservation science, even computing and engineering sciences. From understanding the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, to comprehending the reasons for emerging viruses, evolutionary understanding is essential to modern science and its applications.

In turn, scientists from these diverse fields are enriching the study of evolution with their own knowledge and expertise. We can thus, with confidence, speak of not just evolutionary theory and evolutionary biology, but evolutionary science–with the full weight of that mighty last word.

Mayr recognized all that some time ago.

Way back in 1959, and exactly 100 years after the publication of Darwin’s book, “On the Origin of Species,” he was one of the key participants at the University of Chicago’s Darwin Centennial. A font of evolutionary study, the university attracted thousands of international dignitaries to the event–all representing the diversity of interests unified by the new science.

It also included distinguished theologians and humanists, along with high school teachers, all of whom embraced the new science. It was so successful that evangelical fundamentalists in the area had a panic attack. They and others immediately countered with their own made-up “alternative” that came to be known as “creation science.” They’ve since made their careers doing nothing to gain us any understanding of the natural world, but doing lots to confuse the public about the legitimacy of evolution as a science.

Mayr made his own career out of defending and promoting evolutionary biology against these and other subsequent assaults. Of all the scientific figures of the 20th Century, he came closest to filling Darwin’s shoes. He was indeed the “Darwin of the Twentieth Century.”

Fighting to the end

Whether it was garden-variety scientific adversaries, misguided scientists searching for ET, or the same old die-hard religious fundamentalists, Mayr never turned down the challenge to fight the good fight. “I’m an old-time fighter for Darwinism,” he once told the Harvard Gazette. And he fought to the very end.

In his later years, Ernst Mayr was a frequent visitor to the University of Florida; he enjoyed visiting with me and other friends, but what he really liked most was sharing his understanding of evolution with a new generation of students.

He never gave up the opportunity to visit a class. Those of us who knew him, and all of us who value science–indeed knowledge–owe it to Mayr and to the history of science to continue that fight.

The atheist: Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains why God is a delusion, religion is a virus, and America has slipped back into the Dark Ages.

By Gordy Slack

April 28, 2005 | Richard Dawkins is the world’s most famous out-of-the-closet living atheist. He is also the world’s most controversial evolutionary biologist. Publication of his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene,” thrust Dawkins into the limelight as the handsome, irascible, human face of scientific reductionism. The book provoked everything from outrage to glee by arguing that natural selection worked its creative powers only through genes, not species or individuals. Humans are merely “gene survival machines,” he asserted in the book.
Dawkins stuck to his theme but expanded his territory in such subsequent books as “The Blind Watchmaker,” “Unweaving the Rainbow” and “Climbing Mount Improbable.” His recent work, “The Ancestor’s Tale,” traces human lineage back through time, stopping to ponder important forks in the evolutionary road.
Given his outspoken defense of Darwin, and natural selection as the force of life, Dawkins has assumed a new role: the religious right’s Public Enemy No. 1. Yet Dawkins doesn’t shy from controversy, nor does he suffer fools gladly. He recently met a minister who was on the opposite side of a British political debate. When the minister put out his hand, Dawkins kept his hands at his side and said, “You, sir, are an ignorant bigot.”
Currently, Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, a position created for him in 1995 by Charles Simonyi, a Microsoft millionaire. Earlier this year, Dawkins signed an agreement with British television to make a documentary about the destructive role of religion in modern history, tentatively titled “The Root of All Evil.”
I met Dawkins in late March at the Atheist Alliance International annual conference in Los Angeles, where he presented the alliance’s top honor, the Richard Dawkins Prize, to magicians Penn and Teller. During our conversation in my hotel room, Dawkins was as gracious as he was punctiliously dressed in a crisp white shirt and soft blazer.

Once again, evolution is under attack. Are there any questions at all about its validity?
It’s often said that because evolution happened in the past, and we didn’t see it happen, there is no direct evidence for it. That, of course, is nonsense. It’s rather like a detective coming on the scene of a crime, obviously after the crime has been committed, and working out what must have happened by looking at the clues that remain. In the story of evolution, the clues are a billionfold.
There are clues from the distribution of DNA codes throughout the animal and plant kingdoms, of protein sequences, of morphological characters that have been analyzed in great detail. Everything fits with the idea that we have here a simple branching tree. The distribution of species on islands and continents throughout the world is exactly what you’d expect if evolution was a fact. The distribution of fossils in space and in time are exactly what you would expect if evolution were a fact. There are millions of facts all pointing in the same direction and no facts pointing in the wrong direction.
British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, when asked what would constitute evidence against evolution, famously said, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” They’ve never been found. Nothing like that has ever been found. Evolution could be disproved by such facts. But all the fossils that have been found are in the right place. Of course there are plenty of gaps in the fossil record. There’s nothing wrong with that. Why shouldn’t there be? We’re lucky to have fossils at all. But no fossils have been found in the wrong place, such as to disprove the fact of evolution. Evolution is a fact.
Still, so many people resist believing in evolution. Where does the resistance come from?
It comes, I’m sorry to say, from religion. And from bad religion. You won’t find any opposition to the idea of evolution among sophisticated, educated theologians. It comes from an exceedingly retarded, primitive version of religion, which unfortunately is at present undergoing an epidemic in the United States. Not in Europe, not in Britain, but in the United States.
My American friends tell me that you are slipping towards a theocratic Dark Age. Which is very disagreeable for the very large number of educated, intelligent and right-thinking people in America. Unfortunately, at present, it’s slightly outnumbered by the ignorant, uneducated people who voted Bush in.
But the broad direction of history is toward enlightenment, and so I think that what America is going through at the moment will prove to be a temporary reverse. I think there is great hope for the future. My advice would be, Don’t despair, these things pass.
You delve into agnosticism in “The Ancestor’s Tale.” How does it differ from atheism?
It’s said that the only rational stance is agnosticism because you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of the supernatural creator. I find that a weak position. It is true that you can’t disprove anything but you can put a probability value on it. There’s an infinite number of things that you can’t disprove: unicorns, werewolves, and teapots in orbit around Mars. But we don’t pay any heed to them unless there is some positive reason to think that they do exist.
Believing in God is like believing in a teapot orbiting Mars?
Yes. For a long time it seemed clear to just about everybody that the beauty and elegance of the world seemed to be prima facie evidence for a divine creator. But the philosopher David Hume already realized three centuries ago that this was a bad argument. It leads to an infinite regression. You can’t statistically explain improbable things like living creatures by saying that they must have been designed because you’re still left to explain the designer, who must be, if anything, an even more statistically improbable and elegant thing. Design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything. It can only be a proximate explanation. A plane or a car is explained by a designer but that’s because the designer himself, the engineer, is explained by natural selection.
Those who embrace “intelligent design” — the idea that living cells are too complex to have been created by nature alone — say evolution isn’t incompatible with the existence of God.
There is just no evidence for the existence of God. Evolution by natural selection is a process that works up from simple beginnings, and simple beginnings are easy to explain. The engineer or any other living thing is difficult to explain — but it is explicable by evolution by natural selection. So the relevance of evolutionary biology to atheism is that evolutionary biology gives us the only known mechanism whereby the illusion of design, or apparent design, could ever come into the universe anywhere.
So why do we insist on believing in God?
From a biological point of view, there are lots of different theories about why we have this extraordinary predisposition to believe in supernatural things. One suggestion is that the child mind is, for very good Darwinian reasons, susceptible to infection the same way a computer is. In order to be useful, a computer has to be programmable, to obey whatever it’s told to do. That automatically makes it vulnerable to computer viruses, which are programs that say, “Spread me, copy me, pass me on.” Once a viral program gets started, there is nothing to stop it.
Similarly, the child brain is preprogrammed by natural selection to obey and believe what parents and other adults tell it. In general, it’s a good thing that child brains should be susceptible to being taught what to do and what to believe by adults. But this necessarily carries the down side that bad ideas, useless ideas, waste of time ideas like rain dances and other religious customs, will also be passed down the generations. The child brain is very susceptible to this kind of infection. And it also spreads sideways by cross infection when a charismatic preacher goes around infecting new minds that were previously uninfected.
You’ve said that raising children in a religious tradition may even be a form of abuse.
What I think may be abuse is labeling children with religious labels like Catholic child and Muslim child. I find it very odd that in our civilization we’re quite happy to speak of a Catholic child that is 4 years old or a Muslim of child that is 4, when these children are much too young to know what they think about the cosmos, life and morality. We wouldn’t dream of speaking of a Keynesian child or a Marxist child. And yet, for some reason we make a privileged exception of religion. And, by the way, I think it would also be abuse to talk about an atheist child.
You are working on a new book tentatively called “The God Delusion.” Can you explain it?
A delusion is something that people believe in despite a total lack of evidence. Religion is scarcely distinguishable from childhood delusions like the “imaginary friend” and the bogeyman under the bed. Unfortunately, the God delusion possesses adults, and not just a minority of unfortunates in an asylum. The word “delusion” also carries negative connotations, and religion has plenty of those.
What are its negative connotations?
A delusion that encourages belief where there is no evidence is asking for trouble. Disagreements between incompatible beliefs cannot be settled by reasoned argument because reasoned argument is drummed out of those trained in religion from the cradle. Instead, disagreements are settled by other means which, in extreme cases, inevitably become violent. Scientists disagree among themselves but they never fight over their disagreements. They argue about evidence or go out and seek new evidence. Much the same is true of philosophers, historians and literary critics.
But you don’t do that if you just know your holy book is the God-written truth and the other guy knows that his incompatible scripture is too. People brought up to believe in faith and private revelation cannot be persuaded by evidence to change their minds. No wonder religious zealots throughout history have resorted to torture and execution, to crusades and jihads, to holy wars and purges and pogroms, to the Inquisition and the burning of witches.
What are the dark sides of religion today?
Terrorism in the Middle East, militant Zionism, 9/11, the Northern Ireland “troubles,” genocide, which turns out to be “credicide” in Yugoslavia, the subversion of American science education, oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Roman Catholic Church, which thinks you can’t be a valid priest without testicles.
Fifty years ago, philosophers like Bertrand Russell felt that the religious worldview would fade as science and reason emerged. Why hasn’t it?
That trend toward enlightenment has indeed continued in Europe and Britain. It just has not continued in the U.S., and not in the Islamic world. We’re seeing a rather unholy alliance between the burgeoning theocracy in the U.S. and its allies, the theocrats in the Islamic world. They are fighting the same battle: Christian on one side, Muslim on the other. The very large numbers of people in the United States and in Europe who don’t subscribe to that worldview are caught in the middle.
Actually, holy alliance would be a better phrase. Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion. Both have implacable faith that they are right and the other is evil. Each believes that when he dies he is going to heaven. Each believes that if he could kill the other, his path to paradise in the next world would be even swifter. The delusional “next world” is welcome to both of them. This world would be a much better place without either of them.
Does religion contribute to the violence of Islamic extremists? Christian extremists?
Of course it does. From the cradle, they are brought up to revere martyrs and to believe they have a fast track to heaven. With their mother’s milk they imbibe hatred of heretics, apostates and followers of rival faiths.
I don’t wish to suggest it is doctrinal disputes that are motivating the individual soldiers who are doing the killing. What I do suggest is that in places like Northern Ireland, religion was the only available label by which people could indulge in the human weakness for us-or-them wars. When a Protestant murders a Catholic or a Catholic murders a Protestant, they’re not playing out doctrinal disagreements about transubstantiation.
What is going on is more like a vendetta. It was one of their lot’s grandfathers who killed one of our lot’s grandfathers, and so we’re getting our revenge. The “their lot” and “our lot” is only defined by religion. In other parts of the world it might be defined by color, or by language, but in so many parts of the world it isn’t, it’s defined by religion. That’s true of the conflicts among Croats and the Serbs and Bosnians — that’s all about religion as labels.
The grotesque massacres in India at the time of partition were between Hindus and Muslims. There was nothing else to distinguish them, they were racially the same. They only identified themselves as “us” and the others as “them” by the fact that some of them were Hindus and some of them were Muslims. That’s what the Kashmir dispute is all about. So, yes, I would defend the view that religion is an extremely potent label for hostility. That has always been true and it continues to be true to this day.
How would we be better off without religion?
We’d all be freed to concentrate on the only life we are ever going to have. We’d be free to exult in the privilege — the remarkable good fortune — that each one of us enjoys through having been being born. An astronomically overwhelming majority of the people who could be born never will be. You are one of the tiny minority whose number came up. Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one. The world would be a better place if we all had this positive attitude to life. It would also be a better place if morality was all about doing good to others and refraining from hurting them, rather than religion’s morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment.
Are there environmental costs of a religious worldview?
There are many religious points of view where the conservation of the world is just as important as it is to scientists. But there are certain religious points of view where it is not. In those apocalyptic religions, people actually believe that because they read some dopey prophesy in the book of Revelation, the world is going to come to an end some time soon. People who believe that say, “We don’t need to bother about conserving forests or anything else because the end of the world is coming anyway.” A few decades ago one would simply have laughed at that. Today you can’t laugh. These people are in power.
Unlike other accounts of the evolution of life, “The Ancestor’s Tale” starts at the present and works back. Why did you decide to tell the story in reverse?
The most important reason is that if you tell the evolution story forwards and end up with humans, as it’s humanly normal to do so because people are interested in themselves, it makes it look as though the whole of evolution were somehow aimed at humanity, which of course it wasn’t. One could aim anywhere, like at kangaroos, butterflies or frogs. We’re all contemporary culmination points, for the moment, in evolution.
If you go backward, however, no matter where you start in this huge tree of life, you always converge at the same point, which is the origin of life. So that was the main reason for structuring the book the way I did. It gave me a natural goal to head toward — the origin of life — no matter where I started from. Then I could legitimately start with humans, which people are interested in.
People like to trace their ancestry. One of the most common types of Web sites, after ones about sex, is one’s family history. When people trace the ancestry of that name, they normally stop at a few hundred years. I wanted to go back 4,000 million years.
The idea of going back towards a particular goal called to my mind the notion of pilgrimage as a kind of literary device. So I very vaguely modeled the book on Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” where the pilgrims start off as a band of human pilgrims walking backward to discover our ancestors. We are successively joined by other pilgrims — the chimpanzee pilgrims at 5 million years, then the gorilla pilgrims, then the orangutan pilgrims. Starting with humans, there are only about 39 such rendezvous points as you go back in time. It’s a rather surprising fact. Rendezvous 39 is where we meet the bacteria pilgrims.
The idea that evolution could be “random” seems to frighten people. Is it random?
This is a spectacular misunderstanding. If it was random, then of course it couldn’t possibly have given rise to the fantastically complicated and elegant forms that we see. Natural selection is the important force that drives evolution. Natural selection is about as non-random a force as you could possibly imagine. It can’t work unless there is some sort of variation upon which to work. And the source of variation is mutation. Mutation is random only in the sense that it is not directed specifically toward improvement. It is natural selection that directs evolution toward improvement. Mutation is random in that it’s not directed toward improvement.
The idea that evolution itself is a random process is a most extraordinary travesty. I wonder if it’s deliberately put about maliciously or whether these people honestly believe such a preposterous absurdity. Of course evolution isn’t random. It is driven by natural selection, which is a highly non-random force.
Is there an emotional side to the intellectual enterprise of exploring the story of life on Earth?
Yes, I strongly feel that. When you meet a scientist who calls himself or herself religious, you’ll often find that that’s what they mean. You often find that by “religious” they do not mean anything supernatural. They mean precisely the kind of emotional response to the natural world that you’ve described. Einstein had it very strongly. Unfortunately, he used the word “God” to describe it, which has led to a great deal of misunderstanding. But Einstein had that feeling, I have that feeling, you’ll find it in the writings of many scientists. It’s a kind of quasi-religious feeling. And there are those who wish to call it religious and who therefore are annoyed when a scientist calls himself an atheist. They think, “No, you believe in this transcendental feeling, you can’t be an atheist.” That’s a confusion of language.
Some scientists say that removing religion or God from their life would leave it meaningless, that it’s God that gives meaning to life.
“Unweaving the Rainbow” specifically attacks the idea that a materialist, mechanist, naturalistic worldview makes life seem meaningless. Quite the contrary, the scientific worldview is a poetic worldview, it is almost a transcendental worldview. We are amazingly privileged to be born at all and to be granted a few decades — before we die forever — in which we can understand, appreciate and enjoy the universe. And those of us fortunate enough to be living today are even more privileged than those of earlier times. We have the benefit of those earlier centuries of scientific exploration. Through no talent of our own, we have the privilege of knowing far more than past centuries. Aristotle would be blown away by what any schoolchild could tell him today. That’s the kind of privileged century in which we live. That’s what gives my life meaning. And the fact that my life is finite, and that it’s the only life I’ve got, makes me all the more eager to get up each morning and set about the business of understanding more about the world into which I am so privileged to have been born.
Humans may not be products of an intelligent designer but given genetic technologies, our descendants will be. What does this mean about the future of evolution?
It’s an interesting thought that in some remote time in the future, people may look back on the 20th and 21st centuries as a watershed in evolution — the time when evolution stopped being an undirected force and became a design force. Already, for the past few centuries, maybe even millennia, agriculturalists have in a sense designed the evolution of domestic animals like pigs and cows and chickens. That’s increasing and we’re getting more technologically clever at that by manipulating not just the selection part of evolution but also the mutation part. That will be very different; one of the great features of biological evolution up to now is that there is no foresight.
In general, evolution is a blind process. That’s why I called my book “The Blind Watchmaker.” Evolution never looks to the future. It never governs what happens now on the basis on what will happen in the future in the way that human design undoubtedly does. But now it is possible to breed a new kind of pig, or chicken, which has such and such qualities. We may even have to pass that pig through a stage where it is actually less good at whatever we want to produce — making long bacon racks or something — but we can persist because we know it’ll be worth it in the long run. That never happened in natural evolution; there was never a “let’s temporarily get worse in order to get better, let’s go down into the valley in order to get over to the other side and up onto the opposite mountain.” So yes, I think it well may be that we’re living in a time when evolution is suddenly starting to become intelligently designed.
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About the writer
Gordy Slack is a freelance science writer based in Berkeley, Calif.

Postscript (November 25): Looks like we’ll have to chalk another one up for the Americans. Because surely they lead the world in the number of university-campus-based chapters to have been formed for the “Intelligent Design” fan club:

Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center

Chicago Tribune
November 25, 2005
Students join debate on intelligent design
Campus clubs set up to defend concept
By Lisa Anderson

ITHACA, N.Y. — Dappled with autumn leaves, the manicured campus of an Ivy League university in upstate New York may seem far from the cornfields of Kansas or the rural towns of central Pennsylvania, but it represents the newest of these battlefields in the growing culture war over the teaching of evolution.

The national spotlight recently has focused on school boards in Kansas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that are grappling with calls for including intelligent design, a concept critical of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, in science curricula. But a significant new front in this cultural conflict is opening in the halls of American higher education, spearheaded by science students skeptical of evolution and intrigued by intelligent design.

One of them is Hannah Maxson. A math and chemistry major at Cornell University, she founded an Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Club here this fall.

“In my opinion, both intelligent design and Darwinian evolution are science. Both have philosophical implications. Intelligent design implies the universe is somewhat directed. Darwinian evolution implies a naturalistic worldview,” Maxson, 21, said.

Darwin’s evolutionary theory, hailed as the cornerstone of modern biology by nearly all scientists, holds that all life on Earth shares common ancestry and developed through natural selection and random mutation. In science, a theory is generally a principle developed from facts rigorously tested over time.

Intelligent design, or ID, posits that there are complexities of life not yet explained by evolution that are best attributed to an unnamed and unseen intelligent designer. Opponents, including every major U.S. scientific organization, deride it as “neo-creo,” or a high-tech version of creationism, the account of creation in Genesis in the Bible.

Cornell’s IDEA Club is one of about 25 such campus organizations across the country, including a new club established at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The clubs operate under the auspices of the IDEA Center, founded in 2001 as a non-profit educational organization whose goal is “to promote intelligent design theory purely on its scientific merits,” according to the organization’s mission statement. The center provides clubs with organizational help, books, videos and primarily non-financial support, according to Casey Luskin, co-founder of the center and the first campus IDEA Club begun in 1999 at the University of California, San Diego.

He said the center, which has a budget of less than $10,000, remains separate from and receives no funding from the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based advocate of intelligent design.

However, several institute fellows are on the center’s advisory board, including such prominent ID advocates as William Dembski and Michael Behe, and Luskin recently became the program officer for public policy and legal affairs at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.

“We have done a lot with very little. I attribute that to the fact there are so many students out there who want to talk about this issue but are not given the opportunity in their classes,” Luskin said.

David Masci, a senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C., said, “As this issue has bubbled up into the national consciousness over the last 10 years, it makes sense that it would have a presence on college campuses.”

God does well in poll

Masci pointed to a March Gallup Youth Survey of teens age 13 to 18. It showed that 38 percent believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years” and 43 percent agreed that “human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.” Only 18 percent said humans developed over millions of years without divine guidance.

Such numbers are nothing new for Will Provine, a biological sciences professor at Cornell University. In his annual course on evolution for non-biology majors, Provine hands out questionnaires asking students’ views on evolution.

Since he began the course in 1986, the number of students saying they believed humans came about due to divine direction–whether through creationism, intelligent design or simply God’s guidance–has fallen below 70 percent on only two occasions, Provine said.

“I’m really thrilled to have everyone in the course, whether you’re a creationist or not,” said Provine, who identifies himself as an atheist. “If they are deeply religious, I don’t try to change their minds. I just encourage them to sort it out.”

He said he differs from most in the evolutionary biology field because he welcomes all views and ridicules none.

That kind of tolerance is too rare, said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

“I think many of the scientific organizations have felt they had to demonize ID in order to win the argument. I think by ruling out ID in science journals and science discussions, they have given the impression that they are not willing to listen and really engage the other side,” Haynes said.

Cornell student Maxson said it was such derision and lack of knowledge about intelligent design that led her to found her IDEA club, which quickly registered about 60 members.

“I was surprised at how much interest there was,” said the junior from California.

She also was surprised at how much controversy ID is generating on campus.

On Oct. 21, about two weeks before Kansas redefined state science standards to include the supernatural and while a Pennsylvania federal court heard a landmark case concerning the constitutionality of teaching ID in public schools, Cornell’s acting president devoted his entire state of the university address to an impassioned attack on intelligent design.

Calling it an urgent matter “of great significance to Cornell and to the country as a whole,” Hunter Rawlings said, “The issue in question is the challenge to science posed by religiously based opposition to evolution, described, in its current form, as intelligent design.”

He said bluntly, “ID is a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea.”

Shocked by Rawlings’ speech, Maxson shot back with a news release posted on the IDEA Club’s Web site. She criticized Rawlings for his “blatant disregard for the facts concerning intelligent design” and for “blasting the emerging intelligent design theory as unscientific and religious in an unscrupulous, unknowledgeable manner.”

Sitting over lunch in Cornell’s wood-paneled Ivy Room restaurant on a recent rainy afternoon, the slight, soft-spoken Maxson said, “I expected it would be controversial in that some people would be down on it, but not controversial to the extent you would have the president of the university making a major speech on it.”

But Rawlings is not the only academic leader to affirm evolution and oppose ID in recent weeks.

In September, Robert Hemenway, chancellor of the University of Kansas, sent a letter to faculty and students in which he said, “The attack on evolution continues across America and compels me to again state the obvious: The University of Kansas is a major public research university. . . . As an academic, scientific community we must affirm scientific principles.”

On Monday, the university’s religious studies department announced a new course to be offered in the spring: Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies.

In October, Timothy White, president of the University of Idaho, sent a similar letter to students and faculty saying, “I write to articulate the University of Idaho’s position with respect to evolution: This is the only curriculum that is appropriate to be taught in our bio-physical sciences.”

Emphasizing that he has a “very high respect for people of faith,” Cornell’s Rawlings said during a recent interview that his speech drew a strong positive response from scientists as well as other university presidents.

“I think, perhaps, more academics will get involved in this debate, and I think they should. [Earlier] they didn’t want to dignify intelligent design and, second, they didn’t think they had to. They didn’t take this seriously as a movement. But it is now gaining a place in many public schools, and that means we’ll be dealing with the results for years to come,” said Rawlings, noting that he welcomed the dialogue with Cornell’s IDEA Club.

“These IDEA clubs are going to face a lot of opposition on college campuses, I would predict,” said Haynes of the First Amendment Center, who is an expert on religious liberty and educational organizations.

“It’s a very interesting idea, so to speak, because it’s students saying, `Let’s have the debate. If we can’t have the debate in the classroom, then we’ll do it ourselves.’”

That was Jaclyn Wegner’s goal when she established the IDEA Club at the U. of I. this semester.

U. of I. student’s opinion

“Just hearing about how the scientific community was handling [ID], it seems that a lot of people are being kind of closed-minded, and it’s causing them to be discriminatory against scientists who even question Darwin’s theory. That’s what has driven me to start this club,” said Wegner, 21, a senior from Frankfort in south suburban Chicago who is majoring in integrative biology.

Already, she said, a Darwin Club has popped up in response, headed by a friend of hers.

“That’s really cool,” she said. “We are going to try to hold events together. We are not competing. We’re all interested in the same issues. We are just coming from different sides.”

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IDEA club chapters around the world

Armstrong Atlantic State University (Georgia)
Baraboo, Wis.
Boise State University (Idaho)
Braeside High School (Kenya)
California State University-Sacramento
Cornell University (New York)
Fork Union Military Academy (Virginia)
Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio)
George Mason University (Virginia)
Hillsdale College (Michigan)
James Madison University (Virginia)
Midwestern State University (Texas)
Myers Park High School (North Carolina)
University of Mississippi
Poway High School (California)
Pulaski Academy (Arkansas)
Seattle Central Community College
South Mecklenburg High School (North Carolina)
Stanford University (California)
Tri-Cities IDEA Club (Washington)
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, San Diego
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Missouri-Columbia
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
University of Oklahoma
University of the Philippines, Tacloban College
University of Texas at Dallas*
University of Victoria (British Columbia)
University of Virginia
Vanderbilt University* (Tennessee)
Wake Forest University (North Carolina)
Western Baptist College (Oregon)
Westminster College (Missouri)
[* denotes currently inactive]

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