INTELLECTUAL CURRENTS: Biologists Here Join PR Offensive To Counter Critics

Professor of Biology James Hanken used to tell a story about rabbits in his organismic biology course that has gained new significance in recent years.

Until the teaching schedule for the team-taught Biological Sciences 51, “Integrative Biology of Organisms,” changed this year, Hanken would talk about rabbits’ digestive systems in lecture. The animals can absorb the nutrients from plant matter only in the small intestine, but food is digested in a part of the gut that’s farther “downstream.” So how do plant nutrients finally get into the rabbit’s bloodstream having already passed through the small intestine undigested?

“They secrete these things through their anus, eat them,” and pass them back through the small intestine, Hanken explains.

And then he adds, “Now you tell me, where’s the intelligence in that design?”

It’s an instance of how the rising nationwide debate over intelligent design—the notion that life evolved through a process guided by a divine “designer”—has made its way into the halls of Harvard’s scientific establishment.

As proponents of intelligent design are going to court to force their brainchild to be taught in public school classrooms alongside Darwin’s well-established theory of evolution, evolutionary biologists here are joining colleagues across the country in becoming more forceful public advocates of the foundation of their own science.

The growing movement into the public arena comes as many researchers worry of a chilling effect that the ongoing public-relations effort against evolution might have on their science.

“You’ve got to hand it to the creationists,” Hanken says. “They have been much more effective at packaging their ideas in ways that are very seductive and very palatable to the average American.”

Now, a growing number of biologists at Harvard and elsewhere are striking back more and more with a campaign of their own—in the form of books and articles for popular consumption, visits to public schools and advice for schoolteachers, and even frequent interviews with the press. Hanken and some of his colleagues say they see a professional obligation to impart their convictions about evolution to an increasingly skeptical public.

Otherwise, says Professor of Biology Brian D. Farrell, “I think we’re shirking our duties.”

AN ORGANIZED RESPONSE

Several recent public-opinion surveys have found skepticism about evolution running high in the United States. One poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center in July, found that only 26 percent of Americans believe that humans evolved by natural selection. That process is the foundation of Darwin’s theory, universally accepted by mainstream biologists today.

And earlier this month, the Kansas Board of Education voted that students will be expected to study “alternatives” to evolution in biology classes.

Scientists here point out that they have been able to continue their research on evolution unrestrained by the increasingly hostile attitude toward that theory outside of science-friendly Harvard. But there’s no guarantee, professors say, that their future work will not suffer—most directly in the form of a drop in government funding—if alternatives to evolution continue to take hold.

And so, scientists at Harvard and across the country are abandoning their traditional resistance to direct dialogue with the general public and joining an organized offensive to counter creationists and proponents of intelligent design.

It’s an effort that, many biologists readily admit, is proceeding with a growing sense of urgency.

“We now have the situation where some really good scientists are wondering whether they should be using the word ‘evolution’ in the titles of their papers,” says Marvalee H. Wake, president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

The institute, which represents more than 250,000 scientists, barely engaged in issues of public school education until about six years ago, Wake says. It has since embarked on several initiatives to help educators teach evolution effectively and to prepare schoolteachers for more challenges like the ones that have taken the stage in Pennsylvania and Kansas.

Wake, a biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is also helping form a committee of scientists, lawyers, and media experts to respond to challenges to evolution.

“Frankly none of us, with a few exceptions, are very good” at public relations, Wake says. “We come across as ivory tower snobs.”

HARVARD GETS INVOLVED

The fight over how evolution is taught is now being waged most directly in a federal courtroom in Pennsylvania, where an ongoing trial will decide whether ninth-graders in the Dover school district should be required to learn about intelligent design.

As judicial challenges are cropping up across the nation, Professor of Psychology Marc D. Hauser isn’t waiting for a similar lawsuit to be filed here.

Hauser, who teaches the popular core course many students know as “Sex”—Science B-29, “Evolution of Human Nature”—has been calling school district superintendents around Boston in an effort to “preempt” campaigns that would push the subject into local public school curricula.

Hauser advocates a spirited and pro-active campaign on the part of his colleagues to influence school-age children who might doubt evolution.

“Rather than go after and attack intelligent design,” Hauser says, “what you want is an education system that takes every kid growing up and teaches them the beauty of discovery in science generally, and more particularly, evolutionary biology.”

As an example of a way to reach youngsters, Hauser suggests a “kind of traveling show.”

“Imagine you have a day in downtown Boston, in a huge venue,” he muses. “You have a lottery of tickets to public school kids, terrific people who lecture, who are eloquent about the nature of the science, and there are also free books.”

In fact, some Harvard biologists—including Hanken, Farrell, and Hauser—see a duty in educating the lay public about the foundations of their research and countering theories like intelligent design that, they say, aren’t based on science.

“You almost have a professional obligation, at this point, to do what you can to dispel this misinformation that’s being perpetrated on the American public,” Hanken says.

A FINE LINE

But Gonzalo Giribet, an associate biology professor who teaches several undergraduate courses on evolution, isn’t sure if reaching out to the public is the best use of scientists’ time.

“Most scientists don’t do that because their work is to produce science,” he says. “There should be other people whose work is to disseminate that science among the public.”

Giribet adds that repackaging evolutionary biology for popular consumption is very important. But, he says, “if all scientists spend their time trying to make popular articles or writing popular books, science wouldn’t get done.”

In addition, Giribet notes that he “refuses” to engage proponents of intelligent design in a debate about science. Echoing many other biologists, Giribet says he does not believe that claims based on “metaphysical ideas such as faith” qualify as science.

It is, many admit, a fine line biologists walk when they take on intelligent design directly in the public sphere. Not only are they concerned about legitimizing those ideas by challenging them from a scientific standpoint, but they also worry about being drawn further into a public relations battle they have little appetite to fight.

The intelligent design proponents “sort of win,” Farrell says, “by forcing us to spend our resources...on something other than our science.”

—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at atroian@fas.harvard.edu.