A Call to Action Against Intelligent Design

Cornell president says it has no place in science courses -- and also acknowledges the theory's popularity.
October 24, 2005

Cornell University's interim president, Hunter R. Rawlings III, used his "state of the university" address on Friday to denounce "intelligent design," arguing that it has no place in science classrooms and calling on faculty members in a range of disciplines to engage in public discussions about why the anti-evolutionary theory is both popular and wrong.

Rawlings devoted the entire talk to intelligent design and to the role of Cornell and other universities in defending science from religious attacks. And he said it was time to do so again.

"I.D. is a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea. It is neither clearly identified as a proposition of faith nor supported by other rationally based arguments," Rawlings said. "As we have seen all too often in human history, and as we see in many countries today, religion can be a source of persecution and repression. As Pascal, the great French philosopher, said, 'Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.' "

In recent months, the presidents of the Universities of Kansas and Idaho have also spoken out against intelligent design, which the overwhelming majority of scientists believe is a sham. The speech by Rawlings differed from some other recent criticisms of intelligent design by noting it has strong supporters among some students on his own campus (who promptly denounced his speech) and in his call for professors across fields to get involved in the debate.

Rawlings stressed that urging people to engage in debate does not mean that intelligent design has any place in the science classroom as a valid explanation. "A substantial fraction of the American people and of our own students accept creationism or intelligent design, so what is the harm?" he asked, before answering:

"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."

Rather than treat intelligent design as valid science, he said, faculty members should explore the issues raised by the theory's spread.

"Social scientists should be asking questions such as: 'How, if at all, might I.D. influence the public policy debate in the United States, given our strict separation of church and state?' 'What would constitute evidence of a conscious or intelligent designer of the universe?' Humanists should be asking questions such as: 'Are reason and faith polar opposites?' 'Are they inevitably antagonistic to one another?' 'How have the aesthetic roots of religious belief and the exploration of the spiritual shaped literature, music, art, and culture?' 'How might we frame conversations to talk about when human life begins amidst assertions that a definition of human life may be so inherently subjective as to preclude reaching a consensus?' These are large and important questions. They go to the heart of our American democracy and to the essence of the human experience," Rawlings said.

In an interview Sunday, Rawlings said that "this is really a cultural issue, in my view. This is not one scientific theory against another. This is religion and science."

At the same time, he stressed that he did not view the defense of evolution as anti-religion. "I am concerned that we in the academy often do not take faith seriously enough and do not take religion seriously enough and we are often dismissive, and I don't think we should be at all. I take faith very seriously, and religion is enormously important in the American experience," he said.

In his speech, Rawlings cited a survey done regularly in a biology course at Cornell and noted that it indicated that many students shared some views that are similar to intelligent design. In the interview, he said he was initially surprised to find this level of support among Cornell students and nationally. "I'm surprised at how widespread it now is, and I think it's particularly a problem right now in the public schools and within certain states, but it manifests itself elsewhere, too."

William Provine, the professor Rawlings mentioned, asks students each year a series of questions at the beginning and end of an evolution course he teaches for non-majors in biology. While only very small percentages endorse the literal truth of the Bible or intelligent design in full, he said that fully half of students at the beginning of his course, and 40 percent or so at its end, say they agree that there is some "purpose" in the way evolution works.

Provine said that he encourages students who believe in intelligent design to defend their views and to challenge his, which is that intelligent design "is anti-science" and that those who are trying to add it to the school curriculum in some way "are trying to teach religion in science classes."

Evolution does pose a challenge for some students' religious beliefs, Provine said, and that is why he believes it is under attack right now. "I find that evolution is the most effective engine of atheism ever invented by humans, and I think the creationists are really afraid of something," he said.

Provine praised Rawlings for calling for broader discussions of intelligent design and said such discussions were needed right now. He also stressed that rejecting intelligent design as science doesn't mean you can't engage with its proponents, as he has done many times.

Proponents of intelligent design at Cornell attacked Rawlings. A statement released by Intelligent Design Evolution Awareness, a student group, called the president's speech "unscrupulous" and "unknowledgeable."

Rachel Staver, vice president of the group and a nutrition major at Cornell, said that the organization has about 50 students on its mailing list and that 10 students participate in weekly discussions. "It's very hard to get new ideas introduced into science because of the strength of scientific dogma and orthodoxy," she said. Staver called Rawlings's criticism of intelligent design censorship, adding that if science professors "were really confident of evolution," they would accept the teaching of intelligent design as an alternate theory.

The Cornell student group is one of 23 that have been created recently at colleges and universities in the United States.

As intelligent design groups seek to spread their ideas, many scientists are fighting back. One recent petition drive gathered support from 7,733 scientists in four days. The petition was conducted in four days to contrast with the four years that it took the Discovery Institute, a leading proponent of intelligent design, to gather 400 signatures of scholars backing its views.


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