APS News


Too Much Screaming, Not Enough Debate on Evolution

Intelligent Design is not the draconian threat envisioned by back page author Marshall Berman [APS News, October 2005]. Nearly everything about this controversy has been blown way out of proportion. The central problem is that extremely polarized factions have made it the centerpiece of the fight between atheism and religious fundamentalism. There has been no opportunity for voices of moderation to be heard above the screaming.

Instead of the extremists on either end, there are two significant scientists who are party to the intelligent design controversy, and thoughtful people would do much better to pay attention to them:

One is Michael Behe from Lehigh University, who wrote a book "Darwin's Black Box" in which he made specific and limited criticisms of Darwinian evolution. For over a decade, Behe has resisted the role of "champion" that the Creationists would like to thrust upon him; he has made NO statement supporting creationism, but steadfastly insisted that Darwin's theory is missing something.

The other is Kenneth Miller of Brown University, author of "Finding Darwin's God," and also author of a leading high school biology text. Miller carefully distinguishes between science on one hand and philosophy on the other, and judges that Intelligent Design Theory falls in the realm of philosophy. Somewhat similar to Behe, Miller has resisted the blandishments of the scientific materialists who would make him their hero. He doesn't dislike philosophy or theology, but he insists that the borderline with science should be acknowledged and respected.

If you think back a few centuries, there really was a time when phlogiston was taken as scientific fact; and when the concept was later overthrown, it did not cause the collapse of all Newtonian Mechanics–only a correction; and then science moved forward again. When someone today points out that Darwinism can't account for everything, but that person cannot provide a complete alternative explanation, you would think that people would start looking for a correction. Unfortunately, the extreme polarization surrounding the argument has made that nearly impossible, and people are presumed to take sides. The prevailing scientific establishment brands as a "religious nut" anyone who doesn't totally accept the scientific materialist's viewpoint that neo-Darwinian evolution can explain everything about life.

If the screamers would kindly get off the stage, a coherent (and ultimately useful) debate could begin. Two cornerstones of that debate would be to notice the incompleteness of Darwin's theory, and to distinguish between the domain of science and the domain of philosophy. These are the two strongest points made by Behe and Miller. I think that if such a debate were pursued, evolution would win, but it would be sobered by the insights of intelligent design theory, and we would all end up knowing more about life processes.

Marshall Berman's headline begins "Intelligent Design: The New Creationism...", but the colon is really an equal sign. When he first conflates intelligent design with creationism, and then devotes most of his article to bashing creationism, Berman is not contributing to a helpful debate. In doing so, he strongly resembles physicist Lawrence Krauss, who has written frequently for the NY Times, repeatedly slurring intelligent design through "guilt by association" with creationism. As long as the scientific establishment engages in such tactics, a finite fraction of the American people will be completely turned off to science. It isn't necessary.

Creationism is gradually fading away on its own, and doesn't need to be bludgeoned by the science community. The unhappy fact that the creationists would like to hijack Intelligent Design Theory for their own purposes clutters up the issue, but does not automatically disqualify any scientist who questions Darwin. If a clear distinction between science and philosophy is upheld, as Miller counsels, science has nothing to fear–Intelligent Design is emphatically not a threat to all of science and society.

The reason that evolution is taught in biology classes is that it's the best theory we've got–just as in physics, Classical Mechanics was "the best theory we've got" in the 1920s. There is plenty of time, in college or grad school, to look into the ragged edges of Darwin's theory. Corrections and improvements to Darwinian evolution will appear through diligent scientific inquiry. Suppressing such inquiry out of a misplaced fear of "religious nuts" only slows down the progress of science.

Meanwhile, one perverse benefit of the entire controversy is that high school students will pay better attention because they'll want to know what the fight is all about, and hence they'll learn more biology along the way. Perhaps we could use something like that in physics.

Thomas P. Sheahen
Deer Park , MD

There Is No Joy in Physics

Re: Intelligent Design: The New Creationism Threatens All of Science and Society, by Marshall Berman, APS News Back Page, October, 2005:

I do not believe that "The ID movement poses a threat to all science and perhaps secular democracy itself." Berman's radical and narrow-minded rhetoric adds nothing of value to the discussion of "Evolution" and adds to the confusion about what the discussion should be about. The best measured and reasonable perspective I have found on this has been given by Freeman J. Dyson in Infinite in All Directions (Harper & Row, New York (1985)). Dyson states, "In the no-man's land between science and theology, there are five specific points at which faith and reason may appear to clash. The five points are the origin of life, the human experience of free will, the prohibition of teleological explanations in science, the argument from design as an explanatory principle, and the question of ultimate aims." I fail to see how any serious scientist can disagree with this assessment.

It does not help for leaders in the fields of science to just brand the ID advocates as fools, in the "dark ages", and a "threat." There are obviously missing links in the "Theory of Evolution." I believe with Dyson that the argument from design has merit as a philosophical principle. One argument centers on the accidental nature of evolution. Accidental mutations followed by natural selection are sometimes claimed to explain everything. I believe it was Eugene Wigner who said, "Where in the Schroedinger equation do you put the joy of being alive?" Evolution fails to explain the role of mind and consciousness in human affairs, among other things.

The arguments of "Creation Science" may be overstated; so is Berman's case. Can we hear a more rational discussion?

Fletcher Gabbard
McKee, KY

Start Spreadin' the News

I sincerely believe that it would be beneficial to society to get the "Intelligent Design" Back Page in the October APS News published in mainstream newspapers and media. The deceptions and lies of the Discovery Institute must be revealed to the general public! 

Brad Barker
Port St Lucie, FL

Teach Intelligent Design as an Example of Non-Science

Marshall Berman warns of the dangers of the "Intelligent Design" movement (APS News, October), but one common reaction of scientists–to ban all discussion of Intelligent Design from science classes–is misplaced. Far better to meet the challenge head on. A brief description of the Intelligent Design concept should be given, noting that it rests entirely on claims that there are gaps in the description of life given by Darwinian evolution. In effect, it is only a critique of Darwinism; it offers no evidence for its validity beyond the assertion that evolutionary theory has not yet answered every question concerning the complexity of life.

It is only fair, then, that any discussion of Intelligent Design should also include a critique of it. First, the many ways in which the supposed inadequacies of Darwinism have been exaggerated should be noted. Second, note the many questions Intelligent Design cannot even pretend to answer: why do many organisms possess vestigial organs that no longer provide useful function; e.g., the human appendix? What kind of Intelligent Design is it that allows some of its highest creations (including humans) to be slaughtered by the uncontrolled proliferation of its own cells (i.e., cancer) or by the most incomplete of living forms (i.e., viruses)? How to explain evolution we see occurring before our very eyes (e.g., disease microbes developing resistance to drugs)?

Third, and most importantly, Intelligent Design lacks the fundamental epistemology of any scientific theory: it is neither verifiable nor falsifiable by any experimental observations. It makes no predictions as to what should be observed in circumstances not yet studied, and thus no observational result can either strengthen or weaken the evidence for or against Intelligent Design. It therefore lacks this most fundamental attribute of a scientific theory.

An hour or two spent discussing Intelligent Design in this way would provide students with a much better idea as to why scientists do not accept it as a legitimate scientific competitor to Darwinian evolution than does simply refusing to discuss the subject. 

David C. Williams
Albuquerque, NM

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff