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Academics weigh in on evolution debate

Academics take a cool look at the heated issue of evolution versus ”intelligent design,” during a panel discussion convened in conjunction with an exhibit on Charles Darwin.
A visitor to the "Darwin" exhibit at New York's American Museum of Natural History inspects a display using skulls to illustrate the evolution of humans.
A visitor to the "Darwin" exhibit at New York's American Museum of Natural History inspects a display using skulls to illustrate the evolution of humans.Mary Altaffer / AP
/ Source: Reuters

A panel of academics took a cool look at the increasingly heated issue of evolution versus ”intelligent design” 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 that they are best explained as the work of an unnamed designer or higher power — as opposed to the result of 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 last month approved new public school science standards that cast doubt on the theory of evolution.

In Dover, Pa., a local school board was ousted over its requirement that teachers refer to questions about evolutionary theory as well as a book on intelligent design. Several parents have sued the school district over the policy, saying that it violates the constitutional ban on the state establishment of religion.

Agreement and differences
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 state.

Florida State University's 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,” he said. Others concurred, saying that the schism was part and parcel of a broader cultural war over contentious issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control.

Growing global issue
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 South Korea and most surprisingly, Russia 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 P.R. campaigns we’ve seen in recent years,” he added, “is intelligent design.”

What's being taught?
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 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 the concept is a thinly veiled version of creationism, the biblical version of human origins, which the Supreme Court barred from the classroom decades ago.