June 30, 2002

A Shift Toward Substance; ID Network Conference


By Mark Hartwig

Inch by inch, the origins debate is shifting to a more substantive focus. One sign of this was the Plain Dealer editorial I mentioned in my last update. But there have been other signs as well. Here are some of the more noteworthy ones.

American Museum of Natural History
On March 12, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York took the unprecedented step of hosting a debate on intelligent design-jointly organized by the museum's education department and Natural History magazine, the museum's flagship publication. The debate pitted design theorists Michael Behe and William Dembski against Kenneth Miller and Robert Pennock from the Darwinist camp.

Plans for the debate had apparently caused a furor behind the scenes. Richard Milner, a member of Natural History's editorial board, introduced the debate with a brief account of what transpired. According to Milner, "Several prominent scientists emphatically disagree with our plan to sponsor this forum. We should ignore intelligent design proponents, they urged, and offer them no credibility by giving them a platform in the magazine or at the museum. This institution, after all, is a bastion of evolutionary biology."1

Milner's, and presumably the museum's, response was that "whether or not intelligent design proposes a serious threat or challenge to Darwinian biology, it cannot be ignored as a sociopolitical phenomenon at least. And I know this from first hand experience: In my travels around the country … I've often been asked about intelligent design. So Natural History has decided not to ignore the dissidents but instead to turn a spotlight upon the controversy."

This is not so say, of course, that Milner et al. take ID seriously on the intellectual plain. But they realize, at least, that they can't win the sociopolitical war without engaging the intellectual issues. And getting those issues on the table is precisely what the ID movement is about.

Natural History Magazine
At the AMNH debate, museum officials distributed copies of April's Natural History magazine, which contained a "special report" on intelligent design. The "report" featured one-page "position statements" by ID proponents Michael Behe, William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, followed by critical responses from Kenneth Miller, Robert Pennock and Eugenie Scott. The section was capped with a concluding essay from philosopher Barbara Forrest.

The point of the whole exercise clearly was to trash ID. Thus, Behe, Dembski and Wells were given no chance to reply to their critics. Which is shabby, but not surprising. The editor's column that month indicated that running the "report" was as controversial as holding the debate. No doubt, the magazine didn't want to overdo it with fairer arrangements.

Fair or not, however, the net result was that three leading ID theorists got to state their case in the Darwinist heartland-in the same magazine that for 25 years was home to Stephen Jay Gould's column, "This View of Life."

Scientific American
Even Scientific American is being pulled into the substantive fray. In its June issue, the magazine featured a major blast by editor-in-chief John Rennie, titled, "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense." A broadcast version of the article aired June 26 on National Geographic Today, a program on the National Geographic Channel.

The reason for joining the substantive battle, say the editors, is that "unfortunately, skepticism of evolution is more rampant than might be supposed."

They added, "Readers of Scientific American are well placed to expose ignorance and combat antiscientific thought. We hope that this article, and a new resource center for defending evolution at www.sciam.com, will assist them in doing so."

Much of Rennie's article is disingenuous, and in places factually wrong. The rhetoric is also a bit overblown. But the important thing right now is that every time a SciAm reader hands a copy to a skeptical friend, he's issuing an invitation for a substantive debate.

The New York Times
Finally, On June 18, The New York Times ran a piece on the peppered moth, one of the "icons of evolution" that Jonathan Wells criticized in his book by that name. The article, penned by veteran science writer Nicholas Wade, begins by noting, "A leading example of evolution given in biology textbooks has come unglued."

Wade is plainly reluctant to let go of the peppered moth story, and concludes by stating, "In retrospect, biologists may have accepted the simple version of the peppered moth story too eagerly. … [But] the moth is no myth, and the [moth's defenders'] continuing efforts may one day get it ready for evolutionary prime time again."

Yet the evidence Wade cited in his article made it clear that the peppered moth story is indeed in trouble. Moreover, his bottom line-though stated in a backhanded manner-is that the peppered moth story is not ready for evolutionary prime time. So despite the tough language, the net result seems in our favor. In any case, it is significant that Wade and The New York Times thought that a substantive issue raised by a design theorist warranted an article.

Obviously, Darwinists and the media are not falling over themselves to join the intelligent design movement. Nor have we seen the last of the "religion card," which has been played over and over. But the shift toward substance is a hopeful sign. We'll see if it continues.


Incidentally, if you want to learn more about intelligent design and what it means for our schools and society, the Intelligent Design Network will be holding its annual "Darwinism, Design and Democracy" symposium on July 26-27 in Kansas City, Mo. The symposium covers the waterfront-from biology, education and constitutional law to journalism and the media. Featured speakers include molecular biologist Michael Behe, molecular and cell biologist Jonathan Wells, philosopher J.P. Moreland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Pamela Winnick and constitutional lawyer Steven Gey.

1. Special thanks to the Discovery Institute's Brian Robertson, who transcribed the text of Milner's introduction.

Copyright 2002 Mark Hartwig. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 6.30.02