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Evolution under Fire

by Rudy Baum, Editor-in-chief
August 29, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 35

Earlier this year, I wrote an editorial on "Intelligent Design," the argument that life is too complex to have arisen through unguided processes and that, therefore, life is the result of continuous intervention by an intelligent force (C&EN, Feb. 7, page 3). In the editorial, I took strong exception to this notion as a scientific alternative to evolution for explaining the vast diversity of living organisms that exist and have existed through the course of Earth's history. I also said that intelligent design should not be taught in high school biology classes as an alternative to evolution.

A large number of readers wrote letters responding to the editorial, a selection of which was published in the April 18 issue of C&EN (page 6). Many of the letters I received strongly objected to the views I expressed. In forceful terms, they insisted that the theory of evolution cannot account for life as we know it, that evidence is mounting for intelligent design, and that both evolution and intelligent design should be taught in biology classes.

Those letters led to an even larger number of letters, many of which expressed varying measures of disbelief that so many members of the American Chemical Society reject evolution and embrace intelligent design. My inclination was to let the matter drop.

A couple of weeks ago, however, President George W. Bush raised the issue of intelligent design. The Washington Post reported that the President said during a roundtable interview with reporters from five Texas newspapers that schools should discuss intelligent design alongside evolution.

"I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," the Post reported Bush as saying. "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas; the answer is yes."

It is depressing that President Bush would embrace teaching intelligent design in biology classes. It is also depressing that the Kansas Board of Education recently approved state science standards that weaken the role of evolution in teaching about the diversity of life and encourage inclusion of ideas such as intelligent design in the science curriculum.

A number of scientific organizations have issued statements criticizing the President's comments. Robert P. Kirshner, president of the American Astronomical Society, for example, wrote the President: "Scientific theories are coherent, are based on careful experiments and observations of nature that are repeatedly tested and verified. They aren't just opinions or guesses. Gravity, relativity, plate tectonics, and evolution are all theories that explain the physical universe in which we live. What makes scientific theories so powerful is that they account for the facts we know and make new predictions that we can test. ... 'Intelligent design' is not so bold as to make predictions or subject itself to a test. There's no way to find out if it is right or wrong. It isn't part of science."

"[Intelligent design] is a philosophical statement that some things about the physical world are beyond scientific understanding. Most scientists are quite optimistic that our understanding will grow, and things that seem mysterious today will still be wonderful when they are within our understanding tomorrow. Scientists see gaps in our present knowledge as opportunities for research, not as a cause to give up searching for an answer by invoking the intervention of a God-like intelligent designer."

I think it is also important to note that ACS's Board of Directors recently approved a statement that urges "state and local education authorities to support high-quality science standards and curricula that affirm evolution as the only scientifically accepted explanation for the origin and diversity of species."

I have decided to publish a selection of the letters we received after printing the first batch of letters in April because opposition to teaching the theory of evolution simply will not go away (see page 4). Many readers wrote persuasively and cogently about evolution, intelligent design, the nature of science, and the nature of religious belief. Even this extensive set of letters is a small fraction of the letters I received on this important subject, and I thank every reader who took the time to write.

Thanks for reading.


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