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Intelligent Design: A Pandemic of Presidential Polemics

Sorry for the alliterative title — it just sort of popped out as I was thinking of a catchy title. I’m referring to yet another instance of another college president, this time Hunter Rawlings of Cornell, railing against intelligent design.

I think this is the first post I’ve written on ID, so it’s worth stating a couple of things up front.

  • Not having done a satisfactory amount of research on ID and evolution, I haven’t completely made up my mind on the subject.
  • From what I have read, I’m leaning in favor of ID over the orthodox scientific understanding of evolution. At the very least, there are some intriguing ideas within ID that resonate with me, including reasoning from information theoretic principles and a critical examination of complexity (in this case, biological complexity). By the way, I used to accept the orthodox version of evolution without question.
  • The defenders of orthodoxy don’t help themselves by equating ID with creationism. It comes across as an attempt to turn ID into a religious argument. In fact, creationists often try to distance themselves from ID, since many (maybe most?) IDers don’t believe in a literal six-day creation (among other things).
  • The ill-informed shouting down of ID by many defenders of orthodoxy only makes me want to know more about it (not to imply by any means that all arguments against ID are ill-informed).

On that last point, let’s get back to our story, found in today’s Inside Higher Ed. As noted in the story (and my clever title), Rawlings is only the latest in a line of university leaders to denounce ID, and even more, to call for its banishment from science classrooms. Well. I guess academic freedom has its limits after all. I mean, are college presidents dictating what is taught in other classrooms?

Now for a few choice quotes:

“I.D. is a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea. It is neither clearly identified as a proposition of faith nor supported by other rationally based arguments,? Rawlings said.

I read over Rawlings’ speech, so I don’t see how this follows from his previous descriptions of ID. He knows of Michael Behe’s work on irreducible complexity, even if he dismisses it. Valid or not, there are a lot of arguments in ID that are indeed “rationally based.”

“As we have seen all too often in human history, and as we see in many countries today, religion can be a source of persecution and repression. As Pascal, the great French philosopher, said, ‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.’

Ooga booga! Who’s repressing whom, President Rawlings? IDers aren’t asking that evolution not be taught. And what’s a College President doing talking about evil? Isn’t that a religious concept best relegated to the, um, Religion department? :-) This reminds me of comments made by the President of Swarthmore some time back. ID = the Spanish Inquisition.

Here’s my favorite from the article, although this time not a quote from Rawlings:

Evolution does pose a challenge for some students’ religious beliefs, (Cornell Biology Professor) Provine said, and that is why he believes it is under attack right now. “I find that evolution is the most effective engine of atheism ever invented by humans, and I think the creationists are really afraid of something,? he said.

As I read this article, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s the “creationists” (or even the IDers) that are afraid.

I still think Robert over at brightMystery had an intriguing proposal for examing this whole issue in the classroom. Not sure President Rawlings would agree, though.

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