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Evolutionapalooza in The New York Times


A major three-part series in The New York Times, running August 21-23, 2005, was devoted to the ongoing evolution/creationism struggle in the political, the scientific, and the religious sphere. Accompanying the series in addition were a William Safire "On Language" column investigating the etymology of "intelligent design" and "neo-creo" and a marvelous editorial column by Verlyn Klinkenborg on deep time and evolution. (In a further acknowledgement of the importance of the issue, the Times's website now has a special section devoted to its evolution coverage.) Overall, despite a number of minor errors, the series succeeded in portraying "intelligent design" as what it is: a religiously motivated, politically active, and scientifically bankrupt assault on the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

First, on August 21, Jodi Wilgoren's "Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive" appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times, focusing on the Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture (formerly the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture), described as "at the helm of this newly volatile frontier in the nation's culture wars." After sketching the history, tactics, and composition of the Discovery Institute, Wilgoren comments, "But even as intelligent design has helped raise Discovery's profile, the institute is starting to suffer from its success. Lately, it has tried to distance itself from lawsuits and legislation that seek to force schools to add intelligent design to curriculums, placing it in the awkward spot of trying to promote intelligent design as a robust frontier for scientists but not yet ripe for students."

Following the money, Wilgoren also writes that the Discovery Institute receives "financial support from 22 foundations, at least two-thirds of them with explicitly religious missions," such as the Crowell Trust, which describes its mission as "the teaching and active extension of the doctrines of evangelical Christianity," and the Stewardship Foundation, which seeks "to contribute to the propagation of the Christian Gospel by evangelical and missionary work." Although the Discovery Institute also receives funding for work unconnected with antievolutionism from secular foundations such as the Gates Foundation, its antievolution efforts are apparently unwelcome to the Templeton Foundation and the Bullitt Foundation, whose director was quoted as describing Discovery as "the institutional love child of Ayn Rand and Jerry Falwell."

According to the article, "Since its founding in 1996, the [Center for Science and Culture] has spent 39 percent of its $9.3 million on research, [Stephen C.] Meyer said, underwriting books or papers, or often just paying universities to release professors from some teaching responsibilities so that they can ponder intelligent design. Over those nine years, $792,585 financed laboratory or field research in biology, paleontology or biophysics, while $93,828 helped graduate students in paleontology, linguistics, history and philosophy." Wilgoren failed to report what the scientific payoff in terms of published results in the peer-reviewed scientific literature of Discovery's funding was, but the science journalist Carl Zimmer (author of Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea) provided the details on his blog, concluding: "Someone's not getting their money's worth."

Perhaps because of the scientific sterility of "intelligent design," the Discovery Institute turned instead to the "teach the controversy" slogan -- teaching evolution, that is, in such a way as to instill scientifically unwarranted doubts about it. NCSE executive director Eugenie C. Scott commented, "They have packaged their message much more cleverly than the creation science people have ... They present themselves as being more mainstream. I prefer to think of that as creationism light." Yet not all of the Discovery Institute's supporters have received the message: for example, "this spring, at the hearings in Kansas, [Discovery Institute's president Bruce] Chapman grew visibly frustrated as his supposed allies began talking more and more about intelligent design." And it was not teaching "the controversy" but "intelligent design" that President Bush's remarks seemed to endorse.

Although the article initially misdescribed Ohio, New Mexico, and Minnesota as having "embraced the institute's 'teach the controversy' approach" in their state standards, a correction was later issued. The article also contends that fellows of the Discovery Institute "successfully urged changes to textbooks in Texas to weaken the argument for evolution" during the textbook adoption process, a claim rejected by Texas Citizens for Science, whose president Steven Schafersman writes, "The DI 'urged' the textbook changes, but they weren’t successful, since the Texas SBOE voted 11-4 to adopt the biology textbooks explicitly WITHOUT the changes demanded by the DI. The DI worked very hard indeed to diminish and distort the evolution content in the biology textbooks that were adopted, but they failed, and the textbooks were uncompromised."

Second, on August 22, Kenneth Chang's "In Explaining Life's Complexity, Darwinists and Doubters Clash" appeared. Beginning with a sketch of Michael Behe's familiar comparison of a mousetrap and the vertebrate blood clotting cascade, the article makes it clear that "while Dr. Behe and other leading design proponents see the blood clotting system as a product of design, mainstream scientists see it as a result of a coherent sequence of evolutionary events," and devotes half a dozen paragraphs to explaining how "scientists have largely been able to determine the order in which different proteins became involved in helping blood clot." Russell Doolittle, a professor of molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego, and a recognized expert on protein evolution, summarizes: "The evidence is rock solid."

Not quite so solid is Chang's distinction between "design proponents" and creationists: he writes, "Unlike creationists, design proponents accept many of the conclusions of modern science. They agree with cosmologists that the age of the universe is 13.6 billion years, not fewer than 10,000 years, as a literal reading of the Bible would suggest. ... Some intelligent design advocates even accept common descent, the notion that all species came from a common ancestor, a central tenet of evolution." While individual "design proponents" may indeed accept the scientifically ascertained age of the universe and of the earth and the thesis of common descent, those are issues on which the "intelligent design" movement prefers not to take a stand. The diversity of opinion of the "intelligent design" witnesses at the "kangaroo court" hearings in Kansas is instructive.

In addition to the argument from "irreducible complexity," the article also discusses the "it just looks designed" approach, premised on the idea that mainstream science arbitrarily excludes design while considering explanation of natural phenomena. The Discovery Institute's Stephen C. Meyer commented, revealingly, "Call it miracle, call it some other pejorative term, but the fact remains that the materialistic view is a truncated view of reality." But, Chang reports, "Mainstream scientists say that the scientific method is indeed restricted to the material world, because it is trying to find out how it works. Simply saying, 'it must have been designed,' they say, is simply a way of not tackling the hardest problems." And he notes that evolutionary biology's scientific record is stellar, yielding "so many solid findings that no mainstream biologist today doubts its basic tenets, though they may argue about particulars."

In the remainder of the article, as with Behe and Doolittle on blood clotting, Chang allows proponents of "intelligent design" to present what are presumably their best cases and then provides refutations from mainstream scientists: William Dembski versus unnamed "other mathematicians (although David Wolpert, Jeffrey Shallit, and Jason Rosenhouse, among others, spring to mind); Stephen C. Meyer versus David Bottjer on the Cambrian explosion; Douglas Axe versus Kenneth R. Miller on protein formation. The net effect is to provide impressive support for what Chang earlier reported as the view of "intelligent design" held by many scientists: "little more than creationism dressed up in pseudoscientific clothing. ... only philosophical objections to evolution, not any positive evidence for the intervention of a designer."

As if to reinforce the point, the final section of the article begins by recognizing that "[i]ntelligent design proponents are careful to say that they cannot identify the designer at work in the world, although most readily concede that God is the most likely possibility. And they offer varied opinions on when and how often a designer intervened." Such vagueness, in the eyes of mainstream scientists, makes "intelligent design" unfalsifiable. As a possible falsification of "intelligent design," Behe offered that if "anything cool" were to be reported from Michigan State University's Richard E. Lenski's long-running observations of E. coli evolution, then he might be convinced. Lenski was quoted as replying, "If anyone is resting his or her faith in God on the outcome that our experiment will not produce some major biological innovation, then I humbly suggest they should rethink the distinction between science and religion."

Third, on August 23, Cornelia Dean's "Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science" appeared, focusing on scientists who -- contrary to a stereotype common both among scientists and among the public -- embrace religion. "Although they embrace religious faith," Dean writes, "these scientists also embrace science as it has been defined for centuries. That is, they look to the natural world for explanations of what happens in the natural world and they recognize that scientific ideas must be provisional -- capable of being overturned by evidence from experimentation and observation." Dean adds, perceptively, "[T]his belief in science sets them apart from those who endorse creationism or its doctrinal cousin, intelligent design, both of which depend on the existence of a supernatural force."

A case in point is Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, who speaks freely about his Christian belief (and who, according to the article, is working on a book about his religious faith). "[A]s head of the American government's efforts to decipher the human genetic code," Dean writes, "he had a leading role in work that many say definitively demonstrates the strength of evolutionary theory to explain the complexity and abundance of life." Referring to the comparison of the human genome with the genome of other organisms, Collins told the Times, "If Darwin had tried to imagine a way to prove his theory, he could not have come up with something better, except maybe a time machine. Asking somebody to reject all of that in order to prove that they really do love God -- what a horrible choice."

Not all scientists are religious, of course, and some are even decidedly antireligious. Dean's article opens by juxtaposing Collins with Herbert A. Hauptman, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry, reported as saying that religious belief is not only incompatible with good science but also "damaging to the well-being of the human race," and Steven Weinberg, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics, is later quoted as saying, "I think one of the great historical contributions of science is to weaken the hold of religion. That's a good thing." Toward the end of the article, the zoologist and popular writer on evolution Richard Dawkins is quoted as contending that religious scientists stop short of claiming that their faith is supported by evidence: "The most they will claim is that there is no evidence against ... which is pathetically weak."

Yet in a previous section of the article, Dean notes, "For [Kenneth R.] Miller and other scientists, research is not about belief." A practicing Roman Catholic who teaches biology at Brown University (and a Supporter of NCSE), Miller told the Times that "he was usually challenged in his biology classes by one or two students whose religions did not accept evolution, who asked how important the theory would be in the course. 'What they are really asking me is "do I have to believe in this stuff to get an A?,"' he said. He says he tells them that 'belief is never an issue in science.'" In the same vein, his fellow Catholic Joseph E. Murray, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, commented, "Faith is one thing, what you believe from the heart," but in scientific research, "it's the results that count."

Earlier in the article, Dean observed, "disdain for religion is far from universal among scientists," and later cited the results of Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham's 1996 survey among natural scientists as to their beliefs in God and immortality, with 39.6% of respondents agreeing with "I believe in a God in intellectual and affective communication with mankind, i.e., a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer" (and about 45.5% disagreeing and 14.9% expressing agnosticism). According to Witham's Where Darwin Meets the Bible (Oxford University Press, 2002), 42.5% of the responding biologists agreed, 43.5% disagreed, and 14% expressed agnosticism. It is interesting to compare Larson and Witham's data with William A. Dembski's reported [Link broken] estimate "that only one or two percent of biological scientists believe in God."

Additionally, William Safire's "On Language" column in the August 21 issue of the Times -- entitled "Neo-Creo" -- looked at the etymology of "intelligent design." The Discovery Institute's Stephen C. Meyer credits Charles Thaxton with reviving the term "intelligent design" in 1988, claiming, "We weren't political; we were thinking about molecular biology and information theory. This wasn't stealth creationism." (Contrast Meyer's claim with the recent report that the word "creationism" in early drafts of the "intelligent design" textbook Of Pandas and People, of which Thaxton was the "academic editor," was replaced with the phrase "intelligent design.") As for the titular "neo-creo," Safire credits it to the Columbia University philosopher (and NCSE Supporter) Philip Kitcher, in his on-line exchange on Slate with "intelligent design" impresario Phillip Johnson.

Finally, Verlyn Klinkenborg -- a member of the Times's editorial board who specializes in agriculture, environment, and culture -- contributed "Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution" as an "editorial observer" column in the August 23 issue. Beginning with a vivid articulation of "the difficulty of comprehending what time is on an evolutionary scale," Klinkenborg suggests, "Nearly every attack on evolution -- whether it is called intelligent design or plain creationism, synonyms for the same faith-based rejection of evolution -- ultimately requires a foreshortening of cosmological, geological and biological time." He adds, "Evolution is a robust theory, in the scientific sense, that has been tested and confirmed again and again. Intelligent design is not a theory at all, as scientists understand the word, but a well-financed political and religious campaign to muddy science."