Common Ground on Intelligent Design

October 7, 2005

The heads of the Universities of Kansas and Idaho recently declared in open letters that “intelligent design” is not appropriate material in science classrooms.

While scientists agree, many faculty members in natural science departments around the country see little need for an administrative decree, because, as Neal Simon, chair of biological sciences at Lehigh University, put it: “The scientific community has recognized that this is a social and political issue … and that this is not science.”

Proponents of “intelligent design” like to boast that scientists at secular universities back their views. But interviews with some of those professors suggest that even they go out of their way not to teach it in science courses.

Michael Behe, a Lehigh biology professor, is a proponent of “intelligent design.” Behe has a disclaimer on his own site informing readers that his ideas are not endorsed by the university, and that, “in fact, most of my colleagues in the department strongly disagree with them.” The department posted its own statement, identifying Behe as the “sole dissenter,” and pledging “unequivocal...support of evolutionary theory.”

Behe said he briefly makes some “skeptical noises” when the book in his biochemistry class talks about the origins of life. But otherwise, “we talk about gene duplication and protein evolution, but we don’t deal with organismal evolution,” he said, so there really is no jumping off point for any controversy.

Behe also teaches a freshman seminar called “Popular Arguments on Evolution.” In that class, students read authors both in favor and against evolution by natural selection. The class is currently being reviewed by a faculty committee, and may be placed under a different department. Simon noted that Behe is a scientist, and understands that his feelings about intelligent design are not a pertinent topic in biochemistry, and thus are not treated as such in the classroom.

Robert Disilvestro, a professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University, has a chance to express his support of intelligent design when he talks about electrolyte balance. Some textbooks note that electrolytes are balanced in humans the way they are because we evolved from the sea. “I pretty much just leave it out,” Disilvestro said of a discussion on alternative theories of evolution.

Disilvestro, is, however, involved in a controversy over a graduate student. In June, Ohio State called off a dissertation defense by a graduate student whose work sought to legitimize intelligent design, and whose committee had the only two faculty members who have spoken in defense of intelligent design. Disilvestro was on the dissertation committee, and said he does expect the waters to be roiled when the university eventually figures out how to handle the situation. Disilvestro said he has never been pressured by his department as to what to teach, but that he does not see the discussion as an essential component of his class.

Earle Holland, senior director for research communications at Ohio State, said the departments trust their faculty members to “teach what is appropriate,” and that a specific topic would only be addressed if someone made a complaint, which no one has. Holland added that, at a place as large as Ohio State, with great diversity among faculty members in every department, trying to control details of classroom instruction on any topic would be like “herding cats.” Added Holland, “It’s not a question of whether intelligent design should be taught. It’s what role does it have in science instruction. People can believe what they want to believe, but testability and reproducibility … is dogmatically required.”

As far as what is pertinent in the classroom, said Disilvestro, “there really isn’t a controversy.” Mark Failla, chair of the human nutrition department, said he would discuss it with Disilvestro if a student complained, “just as I would if any professor were making routinely political statements,” Failla said, but he has not had to do so. “We’re not talking about Darwin, we’re talking about how molecules interact.”

Failla said that, while in high schools teachers may discuss ideas about origins, university professors realize that “theory” does not mean the same thing to a scientist as it does “when most people say, ‘I have a theory on that.’” He said that, “on the typical secular campus” professors realize that physical science classes are taught based on empirical evidence. “I just don’t see scientists get hung up on this, even at Notre Dame.”

He’s right. “I think [faculty members] feel it’s not a controversy. They believe evolution is a scientifically valid process, with a testable hypothesis,” said Charles Kulpa, chair of biological science at the University of Notre Dame. “It hasn’t been an issue here. If it comes up, it’s up to the instructor to deal with it.” Many people interpreted Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn’s comment to The New York Times in July, that an “unguided, unplanned process of natural selection” was not “true,” to mean that the Vatican no longer accepted the theory of evolution as compatible with Roman Catholic teachings. Cardinal Schoenborn has since distanced himself from the comment, but maintained that evolutionary theory cannot disprove the existence of a creator.

J. Michael Mullins, a biology professor at Catholic University of America, said, “There certainly has been no controversy here. Science is in the realm of science, and others things can be in the appropriate realm.” Mullins said he thinks any notion that there is a controversy is just spillover from discussion in school boards and that “it simply hasn’t been an issue here. I take a bit of time when I teach evolution for entering freshmen. I say ‘Other ideas are not scientifically based, so they don’t belong in our discussion.’"

Ralph Seelke, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Superior, said, like many of the biology professors interviewed, that the topics in a college science course are usually narrow enough that talk about origins is irrelevant. Seelke, a proponent of intelligent design, said he “has no compunction in using the ‘D-word’” when I talk about a certain process.” But Seelke said he recognizes that ideas about ultimate origins “are opinions,” and that he thinks “it is appropriate to identify that this is my opinion, if the opinion differs from others.”

The head of Seelke’s department would not comment, but Seelke, who noted that he has tenure, said he has never felt pressured as to how to run his classroom. He does, though, think “it’s hilarious that our department has gone on record supporting the [American Association for the Advancement of Science] view on intelligent design, that it shouldn’t be taught. That’s highly against the spirit of science. We don’t vote on theories. They essentially either arise because of the weight of evidence or fall.”

Failla, like the majority of scientists interviewed, including many of those who believe intelligent design is correct, said that it’s hard to even pinpoint the controversy because ideas about creators are simply untestable and beyond science. “I’m just a dumb scientist,” Failla said. “I don’t understand these things. They’re opinions.”

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