Two Ivy presidents take stand on intelligent design

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The presidents of Cornell and Princeton have publicly blasted intelligent design in recent months, while faculty at these universities, as well as at Brown, have been similarly outspoken in their support of evolution.

Intelligent design – which holds that patterns and designs in life on Earth reveal the role of an “intelligent designer” – is “an idea that’s gained some traction in the American imagination,” said Professor of Biology Kenneth Miller. The movement has garnered support from coast to coast and has permeated the science curricula of several U.S. school districts. At the same time, it has alarmed educators and raised questions about the future of science learning.

In his State of the University Address in October, Cornell President Hunter Rawlings III spoke out against the potential danger of allowing the intelligent design movement to take flight.

“I am convinced that the political movement seeking to inject religion into state policy and our schools is serious enough to require our collective time and attention,” he said in an Oct. 24 Cornell Daily Sun article.

“When religion moves beyond the private realm and into the public square, it must do so with great care, otherwise it creates serious potential dangers to the civic polity and to religion itself,” Rawlings said.

Princeton President Shirley Tilghman also criticized intelligent design at a science symposium in early November. She expressed concern over how Americans use scientific knowledge, citing general disbelief of global warming, NASA’s reprioritizing of manned flights to Mars over other projects and the debate on evolution.

“I can see a growing disconnect between what is happening in science and the way scientific information is being challenged and used by the public,” Tilghman said in a Nov. 8 Daily Princetonian article.

For Tilghman, it is “most troubling” and “shocking” that in some schools Darwin’s concept of natural selection is considered “controversial.”

Proponents of intelligent design are reluctant to attach the word “God” to their statements to avoid entangling the current movement with the problems that plagued creationists two decades ago, Miller said.

The creationism movement reached its peak in the 1980s when two states – Arkansas and Louisiana -required the teaching of “creation science” and other states considered similar policies, Miller said. However, legislation at both the local and national levels invalidated these laws, and a 1987 Supreme Court ruling found that creationism is a religious idea that cannot be promoted by the government.

“It took the movement about 10 years to decide what to do next,” Miller said, “and what emerged is intelligent design: an effort to appear entirely scientific and avoid the word ‘creation’ at all costs to get around the Supreme Court decision. What we’re seeing now is the fruition of very successful public relations and political strategy.”

But just as the intelligent design movement has gained momentum recently, so too has opposition from the academic community.

“People should come to their senses and realize that intelligent design is thinly veiled theology,” Lee Silver, professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton, told The Herald.

“It’s not an issue anywhere else in the world,” he said. Those involved in education and science are “worried about the future of scientific education in this country,” since a compromised curriculum could be a “loss for the children of America.”

While the debate is a national one, Silver said that its battles are fought in small communities and “the religious fundamentalist people in these communities aren’t going to listen to Ivy League professors.” Nevertheless, Silver believes the way to limit the movement is to open dialogue between the academic community and local school boards.

Silver praised Tilghman, who was appointed to the presidency from Princeton’s molecular biology department. “When you have a president that is a scientist, she feels it’s her responsibility to speak out about an issue like this,” Silver said.

Glenn Altschuler, dean of continuing education and professor of American studies at Cornell, agreed that “people with academic knowledge need to reach out to those involved in educational decisions and educational funding.” It is crucial that “teachers and educators at all levels participate in a discussion about what makes something appropriate for the curriculum and how we settle on the subject matter for a curriculum,” he said.

Rawlings places some responsibility on university faculty to move the debate in a positive direction. “When professors tend only to their own disciplinary gardens, public discourse is seriously undernourished,” Rawlings said in his Oct. 21 address. Because he believes “this is above all a cultural issue, not a scientific one,” Rawlings called upon professors of the social sciences and humanities to address the problem.

Miller agrees that academics should take a stand in the debate over evolution.

“We live in a participatory democracy, and it is incumbent upon all who understand science and public education to take back the public square and make this an issue,” he said. “The scientific and educational communities are waking up.”