News Articles

Intelligent Design debate hits New York Times’ front page

NEW YORK CITY (BP)–The debate over whether students should be taught about the controversy surrounding evolution, which may include a discussion of the emerging Intelligent Design theory, was spurred on recently by President Bush’s endorsement of such teaching and by the Kansas State Board of Education’s decision to allow instructors to “teach the controversy.” Now the debate has made its way to the front page of The New York Times.

In a series it called “A Debate over Darwin: Squaring God and Evolution,” which started Aug. 21, The Times examined the debate over the teaching of evolution and the “politically astute challenge led by the Discovery Institute.”

The first installment focused on the genesis of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank leading the national discussion about Intelligent Design, which contends that some features of the natural world are best explained as the products of an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.

“After toiling in obscurity for nearly a decade, the institute’s Center for Science and Culture has emerged in recent months as the ideological and strategic backbone behind the eruption of skirmishes over science in school districts and state capitals across the country,” The Times said, adding that the Discovery Institute is making the debate over evolution more an issue of academic freedom than a confrontation between biology and religion.

The Times noted that a “scattered group of scholars” are at the intellectual core of the institute and have propelled “a fringe academic movement onto the front pages.” President Bush even “embraced the institute’s talking points” during a roundtable discussion in early August by saying students should be exposed to different views regarding evolution.

Discovery Institute scholars are intentional, though, about treading careful ground in their push to educate the public, The Times said, urging schools simply to include criticism of evolution rather than actually teaching Intelligent Design.

Jay W. Richards, a philosopher and a vice president at the institute, told The Times the hits they have been taking from evolutionists in the public spotlight lately are expected.

“All ideas go through three stages — first they’re ignored, then they’re attacked, then they’re accepted,” he said. “We’re kind of beyond the ignored stage. We’re somewhere in the attack.”

Discovery Institute was founded 15 years ago as a branch of the Hudson Institute and named after the H.M.S. Discovery, a vessel that explored the Puget Sound in 1792, The Times noted. Its president, Bruce Chapman, once served as director of the Census Bureau in the Reagan administration. Grants and gifts to the institute grew from $1.4 million in 1997 to $4.1 million in 2003 — an example of its growing popularity. Donors include conservative religious billionaires and also people like Bill and Melinda Gates, The Times said.

The second story in The Times’ series carried the headline “In Explaining Life’s Complexity, Darwinists and Doubters Clash” and featured commentary from representatives on each side of the controversy.

Michael J. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and a leading Intelligent Design theorist, told The Times a biological marvel such as the cascade of proteins that cause blood to clot is indicative of a designer.

If any one of the 20-plus proteins required for clotting is missing or deficient, he said, clots will not form properly. Such a complex system could not have developed through evolutionary change, Behe told The Times.

But Russell F. Doolittle, a professor of molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego, said at some point a mistake in the copying of DNA in a more simple system resulted in the duplication of a gene that led to the more complex blood clotting system known today.

Stephen Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, told The Times the design approach may be compared to the work of archaeologists investigating an ancient civilization.

“Imagine you’re an archaeologist and you’re looking at an inscription, and you say, ‘Well, sorry, that looks like it’s intelligent but we can’t invoke an intelligent cause because, as a matter of method, we have to limit ourselves to materialistic processes,” he said. “That would be nuts.”

“Call it miracle, call it some other pejorative term, but the fact remains that the materialistic view is a truncated view of reality,” Meyer added.

The Times also quoted William A. Dembski, a mathematician who recently joined the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as the Carl F.H. Henry Professor of Science and Theology. He has worked on mathematical algorithms that purport to tell the difference between objects that were designed and those that occurred naturally, The Times said.

Dembski told The Times that designed objects, like Mount Rushmore, show complex, purposeful patterns that point to the existence of intelligence. Mathematical calculations like those he has developed could detect such patterns and distinguish Mount Rushmore from Mount St. Helens, for example.

Discovery’s Chapman welcomed the exposure his institute received in the first two articles of The Times’ series but said they still didn’t get the story exactly right.

“The New York Times’ successive two front page, above the fold articles on Discovery Institute and Intelligent Design were better than we feared, which means we moved from the 90 percent negative view long evident on the Times’ editorial page and the comments of executive editor Bill Keller to, oh, about 60 percent negative, 40 percent positive in these two unprecedented analytical news articles,” he said in a news release Aug. 22. “This is progress.”

The third article in The Times’ series, published Aug. 23, examined whether a person could “be a good scientist and believe in God.” It’s a typically held view that most scientists do not believe in God, but The Times said “disdain for religion is far from universal among scientists.”

“And today, as religious groups challenge scientists in arenas as various as evolution in the classroom, AIDS prevention and stem cell research, scientists who embrace religion are beginning to speak out about their faith,” The Times reported.

The newspaper quoted Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, who believes that religious beliefs and scientific theories can coexist. Until relatively recently, Collins said, most scientists believed in God.

“Isaac Newton wrote a lot more about the Bible than the laws of nature,” Collins told The Times.

But Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas, said “the experience of being a scientist makes religion seem fairly irrelevant. Most scientists I know simply don’t think about it very much. They don’t think about religion enough to qualify as practicing atheists.”

And those scientists who do believe in God, Weinberg posited, believe in “a God who is behind the laws of nature but who is not intervening.”

Collins said he believes some scientists are reluctant to profess faith in public “because the assumption is if you are a scientist you don’t have any need of action of the supernatural sort,” The Times reported. Other scientists are simply unwilling to confront the big questions religion has tried to answer.

“You will never understand what it means to be a human being through naturalistic observation,” Collins told The Times. “You won’t understand why you are here and what the meaning is. Science has no power to address these questions — and are they not the most important questions we ask ourselves?”

    About the Author

  • Erin Curry