Newsweek takes a stab at Intelligent Design

DNA.jpgIt’s time for another one of those posts that begins with a disclaimer.

One of the hot Godbeat stories right now is the free speech controversy involving the science establishment and the rowdy band of intellectual rebels who promote what they call “Intelligent Design.” I have not written about this much because, for more than a decade, the patriarch of this movement — Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson — has been a friend. As a result, I have only written a few columns on the subject and then only in cases when the focus of the story was very narrow and I ran the ideas past my editor first.

As a rule, the mainstream press divides these “evolution” wars into two camps.

On one side are the real scientists in the evolution establishment. It is interesting to note that many in this camp call themselves “theistic” evolutionists, even though this implies some role for a God or gods in creation. Thus, they do not believe that, in a classic statement of Darwinian orthodoxy: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process which did not have him in mind.” In a strict academic battle, the term “theistic evolution” is an oxymoron.

On the other side are “Creationists” who sell fake science. They range from true fundamentalists to, strangely enough, people who believe in the gradual evolution of species over time, but believe there is scientific evidence — the kind that can be studied in a lab — that this process was too complicated to be random. These people want to see reporters draw a line between “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design.”

On one level, this is a debate about a issue that has not been addressed in the Associated Press Stylebook, but may need to be. On another level, it is simply an issue of trying to offer fair and accurate coverage of two conflicting points of view in a complex and heated debate. It is hard to write news stories that warriors on both sides are going to embrace as accurate, as opposed to favorable. The goal is for leaders on both sides to be able to read a story and say, “My words and point of view were reported accurately.” The goal is a fair fight.

Reporter Jerry Adler’s “Doubting Darwin” feature in Newsweek gets many parts of this debate right. It contains lively quotes from the usual suspects who say the usual things. But major problems arise, right in the lead:

When Joshua Rowand, an 11th grader in Dover, Pa., looks out from his high school, he can see the United Church of Christ across the street and the hills beyond it, reminding him of what he’s been taught from childhood: that God’s perfect creation culminated on the sixth day with the making of man in his image. Inside the school, he is taught that Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years from a series of predecessor species in an unbroken line of descent stretching back to the origins of life. The apparent contradiction between that message and the one he hopes someday to spread as a Christian missionary doesn’t trouble him. The entire subject of evolution by natural selection is covered in two lessons in high-school biology. What kind of Christian would he be if his faith couldn’t survive 90 minutes of exposure to Darwin?

This is interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is that this local United Church of Christ must be a very, very unusual congregation in this most liberal of all oldline Protestant denominations. These are not churches that are known for cranking out young six-day Creationists, or even missionaries, for that matter.

This lead also gives the impression that leaders of the ID movement do not want schools to offer traditional lessons about evolution. This is not the case. If anything, the “teach the controversy” model advocated by Johnson and his associates want to see educators expand their lessons to include some of the hot and even bitter debates inside some of the various Darwinian camps. The goal is to discuss the kinds of gaps and puzzles that scientists get to talk about in places such as China, where no one has to be afraid of raising the God question at all.

This leads to another key point. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone inside the big ID tent — there are lively debates and disagreements inside this flock, as well — say that public schools should teach anything that is not rooted in open debate about the interpretation of traditional scientific research. Even if ID thinkers proved that the information contained in DNA codes was too complex to have been the product of a random, materialistic process, this would not prove in a scientific sense that any kind of higher power was involved. The goal is free speech about scientific issues in the public square.

Here is an example of a faith statement that cannot be proven in a lab: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Of course, the televangelist who made that statement was Dr. Carl Sagan. Traditional religious believers have also been known to make similar statements that cannot be nailed down with data. This is not the stuff of public-school textbooks.

I could make a few more observations about Adler’s fascinating report, but let me conclude with this. Near the end, one parent is quoted as saying: “I don’t know what to believe. … I just want my child to go to heaven.” Adler writes: “Well, so does the pope, but the Vatican has said it finds no conflict between Christian faith and evolution.”

Once again, this raises questions. For, you see, that is not what Pope John Paul II said. Here are some of the crucial quotes from the pope on this issue:

“Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations. …

“Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

Note that the pope said theories — plural. There are conflicts within these theories. Most of all, John Paul clearly rejected the position that creation was the result of — to cite one wording — an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process … that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.” This is a problem, since this is how the National Association of Biology Teachers has defined evolution.

A scientific theory, according to John Paul, only “proves its validity by the measure to which it can be verified. It is constantly being tested against the facts. When it can no longer explain these facts, it shows its limits and its lack of usefulness, and it must be revised.”

Amen. Journalists need to get their quotes right, if they are going to cover these debates. It is time to update some of our language and many of our stereotypes.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://virusdoc.net erik

    One aspect of this controversy that is often disregarded by the media is the fact that although there are academic squabbles about the precise nature of the evolutionary mechanism or its kinetics, there is no real controversy about the central core of evolutionary theory. The media–and the ID movement–like to accentuate the controversy about the details. But everyone arguing about punctuated vs. gradual evolution or natural vs. other forms of selection agrees on the core theory–or they wouldn’t be talking to eachother. There is one Theory; many auxiliary hypotheses that undergird specific aspects of that Theory.

    Using the academic squabbles among evolutionists as a reason to teach ID theory is the equivalent of saying that since there is some disagreement among physicists about the precise nature of several yet-to-be-isolated subatomic particles (and there is), we should force high school physics teachers to teach theories that question the very validity of quantum mechanics.

  • dpt

    I’ve seen the misuse of the Pope John Paul II statemnt many times, as some obviously apply it to stifle debate. One has to question are they just uniformed of the context or is it deliberate.

    My experience is that there are equally fervent fundamentalists on the evolution side of the debate, and what is often described as evolutionary science enters the bounds of philosphy. There is nothing wrong with this and the debate about our existence/being that it brings to question.

  • Tom Harmon

    One aspect to this story that has gone woefully underreported has been the allergy to talking about philosophy, those “philosophies which inspire them,” that JPII talks about.

    For instance, it seems to me that a major part of the controversy has to do with the conflict between positivist models of science and models of science that see a role for form and teleology. These are debates that include reference to research in the natural sciences, but below most properly to metaphysics. Of course, Americans don’t really like metaphysics very much.

    Also, let’s talk about assumptions and starting points that scientists bring to the table! Do they do science with a precritical acceptance of materialism? Is their scientific practice methodologically materialist?

    That seems to me to be a big story.

  • David

    About that United Church of Christ in the Newsweek story.

    I live in Lancaster County, PA, just east of York County, where Dover is. I read the story on MSNBC, and I don’t see the original story making any point about that particular church, beyond it being generally representative of “God-talk.” At the same time, UCCs in south-central PA are heir to two constrasting non-liberal traditions, both of them deriving from the German Reformed strand: an evangelical revivalism, and a liturgical reform movement from the 1860s, known as “Mercersburg Theology.” The latter was confessionalist and orthodox, both theologically and liturgically. Given the conservatism of the area, it is quite possible that that church represents one or the other of the two traditions–more likely, the revivalist side.

    BTW, I teach adjunct at York College, and my fellow adjuncts moan all the time about the religious morons in Dover!

  • Craig

    Roger Ebert, in his review of the movie “Aliens of the Deep,” recently gave his two cents on this issue.

    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050127/REVIEWS/50114003/1023

    He writes:

    “It drives me crazy when people say evolution is ‘only a theory,’ since that reveals they don’t know what a scientific theory is. As the National Geographic pointed out only a month ago, a theory is a scientific hypothesis that is consistent with observed and experimental data, and the observations and experiments must be able to be repeated. Darwin passes that test. His rival, creationism, is not a theory, but a belief. There is a big difference.”

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    “The goal is to discuss the kinds of gaps and puzzles that scientists get to talk about in places such as China, where no one has to be afraid of raising the God question at all.”

    Please ask your friend Johnson for the references for this mysterious body of Chinese ID scientific scholarship that is being suppressed in the West. An alleged quotation from an unnamed Chinese scientist as reported by Jonathan Wells is not sufficient, especially as TalkOrigins has debunked the whole story.

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/wells/iconob.html#chinesepaleo

  • E C Jacobson

    If there is a scientist out there who thinks he has experimentally verified Darwinism, he should certainly provide the data to the scientific community for review. Said scientist would be guaranteed scientific immortality because he would be the first. No one in recorded history has ever seen like beget unlike. And evolutionists admit this fact when they think no one else is listening. Perhaps in the meantime our scientist could be kind enough to answer the following. Given that man is nothing but a sophisticated chemical reaction, can he explain:

    1) Conscience?

    2) Self-awareness?

    3) The brain-mind connection?

    4) The mathematical improbability of even one RNA molecule forming by chance? (Order of 10 to the minus 125th power)

    6) The causal force behind existence? (Note that chance is not a causal force. Chance for example describes radioactive decay. It does not explain why any particular particle decomposes at any given time.)

    7) Why killing someone is a morally significant act – say more significant than ripping hydrogen atoms off a ring of benzene?

    8) The meaning and purpose of life? Is a dead planet like Mars really any less significant than Earth? The sun is going to explode one day, and who will care or even know we existed?

    But answering such questions isn’t the point really. Evolution allows a man to explain his existence without reference to the transcendent. “God is dead. I am Free!” That is the primary axiom. Unfortunately, the first corollary is easily derived: “My existence is therefore meaningless.” Small price to pay for freedom.

    ECJ

  • Doc
  • http://wetzell.blogspot.com/ dlw

    There are always anomalies that a theory/paradigm cannot explain very well. At issue is whether or not their explanation can be deferred or not.

    I think part of the problem with evolution is that many of the issues do intersect with philosophy/theology and that one needs to also teach some social theory to explain how the conflict over creation vs. evolution arose in the first place.

    I think approaches like that of John Angus Campbell should be given more attention by the media. He recontextualizes the debate in lieu of the situation in which Darwin was writing originally. Check out his book.

    http://www.arn.org/arnproducts/books/b080.htm

  • tom

    Mr. Jacobson

    > No one in recorded history has ever seen like beget unlike.

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/

    1) Conscience? Psychological

    2) Self-awareness? Monkeys are.

    3) The brain-mind connection?

    What do you mean by that?

    4) The mathematical improbability of even one RNA molecule forming by chance? (Order of 10 to the minus 125th power)

    You wouldn’t accept evolution if you accept it from a creationist standpoint. What you ask is like telling someone how improbable that beach glass could appear naturally, out of nowhere. What you’ve left out is the time and the water. If you leave out time and evolution (that is, the ability to go from very simple to very complex), then you aren’t going to believe that complex things can form.

    6) The causal force behind existence? (Note that chance is not a causal force. Chance for example describes radioactive decay. It does not explain why any particular particle decomposes at any given time.)

    You’re debating the wrong issue. Please look up Abiogenesis.

    7) Why killing someone is a morally significant act – say more significant than ripping hydrogen atoms off a ring of benzene?

    Psychology? Animals tend not to kill their own. Organisms with instincts to kill excessively will not survive under Darwinism.

    8) The meaning and purpose of life? Is a dead planet like Mars really any less significant than Earth? The sun is going to explode one day, and who will care or even know we existed?

    Again, look up abiogenesis or perhaps the beginning of the universe. This conversation is about evolution.

    > But answering such questions isn’t the point really. Evolution allows a man to explain his existence without reference to the transcendent. “God is dead. I am Free!” That is the primary axiom.

    However, that isn’t the point really. Because you’re ignoring truth and using an utilitarian moral philosophy, which isn’t compatible with science in any sense.

    > Unfortunately, the first corollary is easily derived: “My existence is therefore meaningless.” Small price to pay for freedom.

    Do you know the meaning of life or is your faith just a comfortable lie? If you knew it was a lie, then would you still believe it to give your life meaning? If you knew the meaning of your life, would you need your faith?

    I’m out.

  • Joe McFaul

    You’re having difficulties because of so many false statemetns and assumptions:

    Here’s one:”in a classic statement of Darwinian orthodoxy: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process which did not have him in mind.” In a strict academic battle, the term “theistic evolution” is an oxymoron.

    The statement is incorrect. There are atheists who are evolutionary biologists but they don’t speak for me on matters of religion. On the other hand, there are a number of theologians who fully accept evolution.

    “If anything, the “teach the controversy” model advocated by Johnson and his associates want to see educators expand their lessons to include some of the hot and even bitter debates inside some of the various Darwinian camps.”

    Also incorrect: the “teach the controvery model” sponsored by Johnson is on the Discovery Institute weebsite. Did you read it? Your description is not accurate at all. Read their literature before you tell us inaccurately what it says.

  • Molly

    Someday, I am going to get one of those Darwin critters and a Christian fish and put them on my bumper face to face – like “kissin’ cousins”. Which is what evolution and creationism are.

    Meanwhile, I don’t want just the fish because if I advertise that I am Christian, I will have to drive like one.


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