Nature Alerts Researchers to Threat of Intelligent Design Movement

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Posted on April 27, 2005 in Intelligent Design

It can’t be ignored anymore, reported Nature in two articles this week.  Geoff Brumfiel1 asked academic researchers, “Who has designs on your students’ minds?”  He reported on the rise of IDEA Clubs (Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness, such as the first one at UC San Diego), highlighting the story of Salvador Cordova’s prospering IDEA club at George Mason University (Virginia).  Noting that “the turnout was surprisingly good” at a cold March meeting, he discussed the rise in student interest in intelligent design (ID) and delved into the reactions of scientists and some theologians who are opposed to it.
    Although ID leader Stephen Meyer got a few words in the article, most of those quoted were critical.  Bruce Alberts, head of the AAAS, got several sentences in, including this one: “To me it doesn’t deserve any attention, because it doesn’t make any sense.”  The criticisms centered around supposed connections of ID to creationism and the Christian Right.  While mentioning problems with the fossil record and complex molecular machines, Brumfiel allowed critics to dismiss them with claims that science is making progress explaining them, whereas ID supposedly stops further investigation by invoking the supernatural.
    The lead editorial in Nature2 made no attempt to give a balanced presentation; it assumed ID is a threat to science.  It flashed a red alarm to the science community and discussed strategies to deal with ID.  “Rather than ignoring it, scientists need to understand its appeal and help students recognize the alternatives.”  (Emphasis added in all quotes.)  The old strategy of pretending it will go away won’t work, the editorial says:

Scientists tend to tune out when they hear the words ‘intelligent design’.  The concept, which endeavours to show God’s hand shaping the course of evolution, is being promoted in parts of Europe and, more significantly, has recently become popular among Christian fundamentalists who want religion taught in US secondary schools.  To most researchers it sounds like politics rather than science, and like someone else’s problem.

The editorial portrays ID as antique rather than cutting-edge: “the concept is a throwback to the days when natural philosophers pursued pseudoscientific disciplines such as alchemy,” it continues.  But scientists should not ignore it, Nature says, because it is gaining popularity on many campuses.  The editorial is convinced it stems from religious beliefs of students, but feels ID is more insidious than creationism (“bad news for researchers”), because of its scientific rather than Biblical arguments.  “This approach makes it less theologically heavy-handed than its predecessor, but it also poses a threat to the very core of scientific reason.”  This is because “Most contemporary researchers believe that it is better to keep science and theology firmly separated.”
    So what strategy does Nature recommend?  Certainly not a frontal assault: “attacking or dismissing intelligent design is likely to aggravate the rift between science and faith that causes students to become interested in intelligent design in the first place,” it continues.  Though “Some will be troubled by the suggestion that they discuss these issues in the classroom,” it must be dealt with:

Scientists would do better to offer some constructive thoughts of their own.  For religious scientists, this may involve taking the time to talk to students about how they personally reconcile their beliefs with their research.  Secular researchers should talk to others in order to understand how faiths have come to terms with science.  All scientists whose classes are faced with such concerns should familiarize themselves with some basic arguments as to why evolution, cosmology and geology are not competing with religion.  When they walk into the lecture hall, they should be prepared to talk about what science can and cannot do, and how it fits in with different religious beliefs.

This gentler one-on-one discipleship could be more fruitful than engaging in campus-wide ‘Darwin vs. Design’ debates, Nature suggests, because “ill-prepared scientific lectures can sometimes lack the superficial impact of design advocates’ carefully crafted talking points.”  Influencing individual students in the classroom setting can be powerful:

Indeed, it is not the job of a science teacher to meddle with the way their students are brought up or to attack their core personal beliefs.  Rather, the goal should be to point to options other than intelligent design for reconciling science and belief.
    Even if they manage to sway just a few students, researchers in the United States can have a disproportionate effect on the national debate over science in the classroom.  Students often return to their home communities and become teachers, doctors and engineers.  It is as local community leaders that those students will become invaluable allies when more conservative religious groups try to halt the teaching of scientific theories in schools.

1Geoff Brumfiel, “Intelligent design:  Who has designs on your students’ minds?”, Nature 434, 1062–1065 (28 April 2005), doi: 10.1038/4341062a
2Editorial, “Dealing with Design,” Nature 434, 1053 (28 April 2005), doi: 10.1038/4341053a.
3Martin Jones and Mark Blaxter, “Evolutionary biology: Animal roots and shoots,” Nature, 434, 1076 (28 April 2005), doi: 10.1038/4341076a.

This should be read as a victory for the ID movement, akin to Sennacherib’s boast that he had Hezekiah locked up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage when in fact his army had been decimated.  It’s a victory because ID is finally getting beyond the stage where the scientific establishment can just ignore it, and more importantly, because it demonstrates that the opposition has no answers.  Like Sennacherib, the Kingdom of Charlie boasts great things, but falls flat before the power of design arguments.  Retreating, it has to change its strategy.  Rather than addressing the evidence and facing the issues squarely, it resorts to propaganda tactics and empty boasts.
    Noticeably absent from either of these two articles was any enlightened response to the claims of ID that Darwinian evolution is woefully inadequate to explain the complexity of life and the explosion of complex body plans in the fossil record.  All they could say was the bluffing statement worthy of Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week, “Scientists know that natural selection can explain the awe-inspiring complexities of organisms, and should be prepared to explain how.”  But did they explain how?  No!  In fact, in the same issue (see footnote 3 above), another paper on Darwin’s Tree of Life admitted in the first sentence, “Despite the comforting certainty of textbooks and 150 years of argument, the true relationships of the major groups (phyla) of animals remain contentious.
    The opposition to ID is running scared.  They have no answers, and they know it, so they just try to pigeonhole design arguments as “religion vs science” by using the loaded words Christian fundamentalists, faith, belief, pseudoscience, alchemy, religious right etc.  They are scared because they don’t want to debate and tell us all those good reasons why natural selection can explain the awe-inspiring complexities of organisms.  They are scared because they see that Darwinism is on the way out due to its own inherent failings, and they are afraid of ID the Future.
    Like Hezekiah’s army facing formidable odds, the ID leaders do not need power in numbers.  They need power in evidence: to have a case that matches what the observations show, and to present it forthrightly and persistently.  The power of the ID movement is not in the personalities of its leaders, but in the strength of the arguments.  When given the opportunity to hear both sides, most people who have not previously been brainwashed find ID arguments convincing and reasonable.  Too bad that does not include Bruce Alberts, Mr. Molecular Machine himself, who should know better (see 01/09/2002 entry).

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