INTELLECTUAL CURRENTS: Intelligent Design Finds Few Sympathizers at HDS

When Harvard was founded in 1636, the University was charged with educating ministers in creationism and other central tenets of Christianity.

Three hundred and sixty-nine years later, in the midst of a national debate about God’s place in the classroom, even the University’s divinity faculty—the heirs to that theological mission—reject the latest argument for God’s role in creation: “intelligent design.”

The national debate about intelligent design marks the latest front in the battle between proponents of teaching creationism and evolution in public schools. The century-old debate, which reached a pinnacle in the media with the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial”, has surfaced anew with the emergence of intelligent design.

Intelligent design refers to the theory that while evolution can explain some natural phenomena, other aspects of life are too complex to be a result of randomized natural selection, and thus must have come from an “intelligent designer.”

And while scientists—who have long been outspoken critics of alternatives to evolution—find themselves again embroiled in a defense of evolution, they have found an unlikely ally in this battle: divinity faculty.

Leading scholars on the issue at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) and other divinity schools say their faculties have almost no proponents of intelligent design.

Mark U. Edwards Jr., professor of the history of Christianity and associate HDS dean for academic affairs, says intelligent design is bad science and bad theology.

And Richard A. Rosengarten, who is dean of the University of Chicago’s divinity school, says that “it would be the rare divinity school that would be sympathetic” to intelligent design.

Even though opposition to intelligent design can be found in classrooms of prestigious institutions, supporters of the theory are by no means uneducated.

The leaders of the intelligent design camp hold Ph.D.’s in biochemistry, philosophy, and mathematics and can be found on college and university faculties.

As a result, their rhetoric has taken on an academic tone that previous arguments for God’s role in creation lacked.

The intelligent design debate most recently came to a head when the Kansas Education Board voted earlier this month to teach theories that challenge evolution in that state’s high schools.

And the theory’s champions continue to fight for curriculums nationwide and the opinion of the broader American public.

For now, Americans remain divided: according to an May 2005 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of respondents said they favored teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools.

‘GOD OF THE GAPS’

Edwards, who has just finished writing a book about religion on campuses, says he sees intelligent design as a “sad” theological argument.

“It only invokes god when there is no natural explanation,” Edwards says. “But science keeps coming up with explanations.”

The tradition of invoking a “God of the gaps” has its roots in the creationism debates that predate even the 1925 trial of Tennessee teacher John T. Scopes.

“Intelligent design had its heyday in the 19th century when natural science was first introduced into colleges in the pre-Civil War era,” Edwards says. “The intelligent design movement now is just a variant on the creationism debates.”

Edwards says a bizarre twist of fate caused an alliance between science and religion.

He adds that when the natural sciences weren’t taught in American colleges, some scientists justified their discipline by saying it provided evidence of the existence of God.

“The irony is now that the tables are turned,” Edwards says.

‘IRREDUCIBLY COMPLEX’

Many leading advocates of intelligent design debates are far from uneducated. Michael J. Behe, one of the most vocal and prolific advocates of intelligent design, received a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in biochemistry.

He is currently a professor of biology at Lehigh University.

Consequently, the language of articles advocating intelligent design is often sophisticated, academic, even scientific.

Behe used language such as “irreducibly complex,” “subcellular compartments,” and “ultrasophisticated molecular machines” in an article in Natural History magazine.

Edwards attributes the academic bent of intelligent design’s verbiage to the fact that scientific arguments are seen as more credible.

“They’re paying homage to science,” Edwards says. “They’ve got to have their own science and they’re trading in that language.”

But Behe says that the intelligent design argument is purely scientific and is in no way related to the creationism debates of the early twentieth century.

“Its an inductive argument. It uses logic which is normally used in science,” Behe says. “It does not come form any scriptures or revelations from anybody.”

However, Diane L. Moore, director of the program in religion and secondary education at HDS, insists that the arguments of intelligent design should not be given credence as an alternative to evolution.

“The proponents of intelligent design want to promote it as a theory, but it doesn’t follow the basic claims of science,” Moore says. “It’s not something you can prove.”

As a result, both Moore and Edwards agree that intelligent design should not be taught in a science classroom as an alternative to evolution.

“If you teach it in a science class you give it credence as an alternative scientific theory,” Moore says. “Intelligent design is not an intelligent scientific theory.”

But Moore says that intelligent design raises questions that could be answered in a social science classroom where issues of culture and philosophy could be thoughtfully addressed.

“Why are people so anxious about it? Why are there incredible debates in local school communities?” Moore says.

A POLITICAL DEBATE

Behind the theological and scientific questions raised by intelligent design is a political issue. Moore says that a very specific branch of Christianity is shaping the relationship between science and theology.

“It’s not about science or religion,” Moore says.

Edwards says conservative evangelicals are responsible for the framing of the intelligent design debate.

“Evangelicals thrive on being embattled­—their identity is tied up into being attacked and their defending principles,” Edwards says. “Being attacked by science only validates their position.”

But Philip D. Powell ’06, an Orthodox Christian, says he believes the intelligent design debate points to a larger desire to leave open the possibility for God in the universe.

However, like Edwards and Moore, Powell says evolution and belief in God are not mutually exclusive.

“In general I would allow for the possibility that God chose to use evolution for his main means of developing the world,” Powell says.

“One should read the Genesis creation accounts in a largely figurative manner.”

Edwards has a simpler explanation for the persistence of a contentious dialogue between science and religion.

“One quarter of the population is evangelical,” Edwards says. “They aren’t very sophisticated.”

But Behe sees the issue as one of democratic representation.

“As a democratic country, even evangelical, unsophisticated people have a right to voice their opinions on how governmental institutions should be run,” Behe says. “I find it distasteful to people look down their noses on people who want to participate in government.”

—Staff writer Sarah E.F. Milov can be reached at milov@fas.harvard.edu.