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Just months before he died, Harvard professor Stephen J. Gould co-signed a letter with his scientific rival Richard Dawkins. In it, these two eminent biologists vowed never to debate the proponents of “intelligent design theory.” This theory holds that the complexity of life could not have arisen through the chance mutations and natural selection that underlie contemporary evolutionary theory. Rather, “intelligent design” says the source of evolution is some unknown, mysterious intelligence that fiddles with our genes.
Why would two eminent biologists make a pact to avoid denouncing such a far-fetched idea? Indeed, design proponents have published exactly zero papers on their views in the major peer-reviewed scientific journals. The theory ranks alongside phrenology and geocentrism in its scientific usefulness, since the intelligence it postulates is entirely mysterious and cannot be observed or proven false. The reason for Dawkins’ and Gould’s non-debate pact is that “intelligent design” thrives on denunciations. Simply by debating them, scientists lend respectability to “intelligent design” proponents. But this dalliance with the irrational must stop. The proponents of “intelligent design” must be denied any legitimizing platform for their views. They must be exposed for abusing scientific criticisms of evolution in their push for a theory straight out of orthodox religion. And this unmasking should begin at Harvard.
Harvard should be at the forefront of this campaign because the university has already allowed design to gain legitimacy in a University-sponsored debate. In November of 2001, the design proponent Jonathan Wells (a devotee of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon) managed to secure a debate at the Kennedy School of Government with Harvard Professor of Biology Stephen Palumbi. The actual debate was uneventful, with both men agreeing that evolutionary biology had many outstanding questions. Nevertheless, design proponents later cited the exchange as a crushing victory. It lent respectability to an idea that no Harvard biology professor could endorse.
What is this idea causing so many headaches for serious scientists? It is two things, really. First, it is an attack against contemporary evolutionary theory. This theory has been overwhelmingly successful in explaining observations from genetics and paleontology, despite it still being a work in progress. Second, “intelligent design” seeks to argue that the observed complexity of living things could not have emerged by chance—that there must be some force that designed the various forms of life. (In a bow to political correctness, many intelligent design proponents leave the question open as to whether the designer is God.) The major proponents of intelligent design include scientists who are more successful at catching the attention of the media than their scientific colleagues. The problem is that the supporters of design have serious internal disagreements. Refute one, and another will pop up with a slight variation on the argument. As a result, publications that run pieces on design get hit with an explosion of letters that look like a debate. But the internal debate is actually helpful to design proponents trying to get themselves heard.
Such an unseemly explosion happens too often in the non-scientific press. For example, the conservative-intellectual magazine “Commentary” has been the scene of an unseemly “intelligent design” melee over the past few months. It started when writer David Berlinski wrote an article in the December issue titled “Has Darwin met his match?” In it, Berlinksi derides both “intelligent design” and contemporary evolutionary biology as problematic. The March issue contains a massive selection of letters both from opponents of intelligent design and its most flamboyant supporters. The irony is that Berlinski had serious problems with “intelligent design.” Nevertheless, his sympathetic discussion of it opened the pages of the magazine to its rabid proponents. In his willingness to take issue with “intelligent design,” he played right into the hands of its strongest supporters.
Those same proponents of intelligent design will likely squawk that my “dogmatic Darwinism” has caused me to stifle a debate because I have previous commitments to philosophical naturalism. So let’s set the record straight. Evolutionary theory is a tumultuous field where many differing views are now competing for dominance. Moreover, “intelligent design” cannot even be considered among possible alternatives because it fails the basic tests of any scientific hypothesis. First, it cannot be proven false. Second, it explains nothing about the actual mechanism of evolution, and can make no predictions about the natural world. These problems should exclude it from scientific debate, no matter how many hysterical born-again biologists try to make arguments for it. Intelligent design is a question for theology, not for science.
Undoubtedly, proponents of “intelligent design” will take this column as an invitation to public debate. But I hope the public does not take the bait. The University may be a marketplace of ideas, but the truly senseless ones should be ignored.
Jonathan H. Esensten ’04 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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