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Published in Print: November 9, 2005, as On the Record: Intelligent Design Is Not Science

On the Record: Intelligent Design is Not Science

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On Oct. 21, 2005, Cornell University’s interim president, Hunter R. Rawlings III, devoted his State of the University Address to the intelligent design vs. evolution controversy. He told members of the Ithaca, N.Y., academic community that “the political movement seeking to inject religion into state policy and our schools is serious enough to require our collective time and attention.” Below are excerpts from that speech.

"[T]his is not the first time the country has experienced serious disagreement about evolution. In 1860, a year after Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, many Americans eagerly followed accounts of the Wilberforce-Huxley debate before the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The controversy came up again 80 years ago in Tennessee, pitting William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow to decide the fate of John Scopes, a high school biology teacher accused of violating the state’s law against teaching evolution. In his opening statement, Bryan claimed that “if evolution wins, Christianity goes,” while Darrow argued, “Scopes isn’t on trial; civilization is on trial.” Although the decision in the case achieved less than Darrow had hoped, it provided a significant deterrent to anti-evolution legislation that in 1925 was pending in 15 other states.

It arose a third time in 1987, when the [U.S.] Supreme Court ruled, in Edwards v. Aguillard, that Louisiana’s “creationism act” was invalid. That act forbade the teaching of evolution in public elementary and secondary schools unless accompanied by instruction in “creation science,” and the Supreme Court found that the Louisiana act “lacks a clear secular purpose.”

Now, with the well-organized, resolute intelligent-design movement, the issue is back again. What adds urgency to this iteration of the dispute is the fact that this country is so polarized, both culturally and politically. When we divide ourselves into “red states” and “blue states”; into the people who watch Fox News and those who watch PBS; into “people of faith” and “secular humanists,” when ciphers substitute for nuanced ideas, is it any wonder that this debate now concerns matters as fundamental as what we teach in our primary and secondary schools, what academic standards universities require, and what rhetoric candidates adopt in political races? When ideological division replaces informed exchange, dogma is the result and education suffers. …

[S]hould creationism or intelligent design be taught in science courses? A substantial fraction of the American people and of our own students accept creationism or intelligent design, so what is the harm?

The answer is that intelligent design is not valid as science, that is, it has no ability to develop new knowledge through hypothesis-testing, modification of the original theory based on experimental results, and renewed testing through more-refined experiments that yield still more refinements and insights. …

We should not suspend, or rather annul, the rules of science in order to allow any idea into American education. Intelligent design is a subjective concept. It is, at its core, a religious belief.

What about including ID in public policy discourse? After all, it is an important view of the world shared by many Americans. Many religiously based views enter the public arena and inform our policy debates, and they should. Religiously derived arguments, in my view, must bear two burdens: They must be clearly identified as such, that is, as propositions of faith; and, in acknowledging that others do not share these propositions of faith, they must be supported by other arguments.

When religion moves beyond the private realm and into the public square, it must do so with great care; otherwise, it creates serious potential danger to the civic polity and to religion itself. That is why James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, was at such pains throughout his long public life to separate church and state. In 1785, when his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry proposed that a small tax be imposed to support the churches of the commonwealth for the avowed secular purpose of improving the general morals of society, Madison responded with his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” the single most influential document in American history on the subject of the separation of church and state.

Vol. 25, Issue 11, Page 37

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