December 2, 2005

Academics consider “intelligent design” museum talk

By Christopher Michaud

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A panel of academics took a cool look
at the increasingly heated issue of evolution versus
"intelligent design" on Thursday, variously holding up the
latter as a cultural battle, a global phenomenon or even a
brilliant marketing scheme.

The "Darwin's Legacy" discussion, convened in conjunction
with the American Museum of Natural History's exhibit on the
naturalist who developed the theory of evolution, came as legal
battles played out over the teaching of evolution and
"intelligent design" in U.S. schools.

Intelligent design holds that some aspects of nature are so
complex they must be the work of an unnamed designer or higher
power, as opposed to the result of random natural selection as
argued by Darwin.

Policies that would promote teaching alternatives to
evolution are being considered in at least 30 states, and the
Kansas Board of Education earlier this month approved new
public school science standards that cast doubt on the theory
of evolution.

In Dover, Pennsylvania, a local school board was ousted
over its requiring that intelligent design be taught in
classrooms, and a group of parents has sued saying that
violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

In a broad-ranging discussion, the panelists agreed as
often as they differed, with several noting that the debate
over evolution and intelligent design was rife with paradox.

James Moore of Britain's Open University noted religion was
not taught in U.S. schools, yet this was a "very religious
nation." In contrast, fewer than 5 percent of adults attend
church services in Britain, a Christian country where religious
education is mandatory and there is no separation of church and


Florida State University Michael Ruse, author of "The
Evolution-Creation Struggle," echoed that, calling America "a
peculiarly religious country" which was also a "science
powerhouse. How can it be such?" he asked.

Ruse suggested the answer lay partly in history, not least
being the Civil War after which Southerners turned to the
Bible, and evolution "was taken to represent everything about
the North that they disliked."

The result, he said, was the "red state-blue state clash --
It's not science versus religion as such -- but very much a
cultural clash that we've got in America today." Others
concurred, saying that the schism was part and parcel of a
broader cultural war over contentious issues like abortion, gay
rights and gun control.

But the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Ronald Numbers
viewed the phenomenon as a growing global issue, saying
intelligent design had made significant inroads in Australia,
throughout Latin America, in Korea and most surprisingly,
Russian and even China, which remains a communist state.

"And it's not just a Christian phenomenon," he added,
citing a Turkish education minister who pushed for intelligent
design in schools, as well as inroads made within both Judaism
and Islam.

Numbers said that at heart, the proponents of intelligent
design "want to change the definition of science" to include
God, an issue he predicted would end up in the Supreme Court.

"One of the most successful PR campaigns we've seen in
recent years," he added, "is intelligent design."

Finally Edward Larson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his
1998 book on the Scopes monkey trials, held that the debate
boiled down in the United States to what is being taught in
high school biology classes.

In the only remark to draw applause from the large
audience, Larson said the "problem is partisan officials trying
to tell science teachers how to do their jobs," and for
"blatantly religious motivations." He also noted that "so far,
the issue hasn't affect scientific funding."

President George W. Bush, a vocal Christian, has stated he
believes that intelligent design should be taught in classrooms
alongside evolution, as has British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Opponents say it is thinly veiled version of creationism,
the Bible version of human origins, which the Supreme Court
barred from the classroom decades ago.