Newsweek takes a stab at Intelligent Design

It's time for another one of those posts that begins with a disclaimer. One of the hot Godbeat stories right now is the free speech controversy involving the science establishment and the rowdy band of intellectual rebels who promote what they call "Intelligent Design." I have not written about this much because, for more than a decade, the patriarch of this movement -- Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson -- has been a friend. As a result, I have only written a few columns on the subject and then only in cases when the focus of the story was very narrow and I ran the ideas past my editor first.

As a rule, the mainstream press divides these "evolution" wars into two camps.

On one side are the real scientists in the evolution establishment. It is interesting to note that many in this camp call themselves "theistic" evolutionists, even though this implies some role for a God or gods in creation. Thus, they do not believe that, in a classic statement of Darwinian orthodoxy: "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process which did not have him in mind." In a strict academic battle, the term "theistic evolution" is an oxymoron.

On the other side are "Creationists" who sell fake science. They range from true fundamentalists to, strangely enough, people who believe in the gradual evolution of species over time, but believe there is scientific evidence -- the kind that can be studied in a lab -- that this process was too complicated to be random. These people want to see reporters draw a line between "Creationism" and "Intelligent Design."

On one level, this is a debate about a issue that has not been addressed in the Associated Press Stylebook, but may need to be. On another level, it is simply an issue of trying to offer fair and accurate coverage of two conflicting points of view in a complex and heated debate. It is hard to write news stories that warriors on both sides are going to embrace as accurate, as opposed to favorable. The goal is for leaders on both sides to be able to read a story and say, "My words and point of view were reported accurately." The goal is a fair fight.

Reporter Jerry Adler's "Doubting Darwin" feature in Newsweek gets many parts of this debate right. It contains lively quotes from the usual suspects who say the usual things. But major problems arise, right in the lead:

When Joshua Rowand, an 11th grader in Dover, Pa., looks out from his high school, he can see the United Church of Christ across the street and the hills beyond it, reminding him of what he's been taught from childhood: that God's perfect creation culminated on the sixth day with the making of man in his image. Inside the school, he is taught that Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years from a series of predecessor species in an unbroken line of descent stretching back to the origins of life. The apparent contradiction between that message and the one he hopes someday to spread as a Christian missionary doesn't trouble him. The entire subject of evolution by natural selection is covered in two lessons in high-school biology. What kind of Christian would he be if his faith couldn't survive 90 minutes of exposure to Darwin?

This is interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is that this local United Church of Christ must be a very, very unusual congregation in this most liberal of all oldline Protestant denominations. These are not churches that are known for cranking out young six-day Creationists, or even missionaries, for that matter.

This lead also gives the impression that leaders of the ID movement do not want schools to offer traditional lessons about evolution. This is not the case. If anything, the "teach the controversy" model advocated by Johnson and his associates want to see educators expand their lessons to include some of the hot and even bitter debates inside some of the various Darwinian camps. The goal is to discuss the kinds of gaps and puzzles that scientists get to talk about in places such as China, where no one has to be afraid of raising the God question at all.

This leads to another key point. I don't think I have ever heard anyone inside the big ID tent -- there are lively debates and disagreements inside this flock, as well -- say that public schools should teach anything that is not rooted in open debate about the interpretation of traditional scientific research. Even if ID thinkers proved that the information contained in DNA codes was too complex to have been the product of a random, materialistic process, this would not prove in a scientific sense that any kind of higher power was involved. The goal is free speech about scientific issues in the public square.

Here is an example of a faith statement that cannot be proven in a lab: "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." Of course, the televangelist who made that statement was Dr. Carl Sagan. Traditional religious believers have also been known to make similar statements that cannot be nailed down with data. This is not the stuff of public-school textbooks.

I could make a few more observations about Adler's fascinating report, but let me conclude with this. Near the end, one parent is quoted as saying: "I don't know what to believe. ... I just want my child to go to heaven." Adler writes: "Well, so does the pope, but the Vatican has said it finds no conflict between Christian faith and evolution."

Once again, this raises questions. For, you see, that is not what Pope John Paul II said. Here are some of the crucial quotes from the pope on this issue:

"Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations. ...

"Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person."

Note that the pope said theories -- plural. There are conflicts within these theories. Most of all, John Paul clearly rejected the position that creation was the result of -- to cite one wording -- an "unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process ... that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments." This is a problem, since this is how the National Association of Biology Teachers has defined evolution.

A scientific theory, according to John Paul, only "proves its validity by the measure to which it can be verified. It is constantly being tested against the facts. When it can no longer explain these facts, it shows its limits and its lack of usefulness, and it must be revised."

Amen. Journalists need to get their quotes right, if they are going to cover these debates. It is time to update some of our language and many of our stereotypes.

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