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Lee Cullum: A problem at its genesis

Pitting intelligent design against Darwin won't work

06:26 AM CDT on Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Intelligent design has a fundamental problem: Its proponents refuse to understand who and what they are. Hence, they have created an awkward situation for Southern Methodist University, where a conference called "Darwin vs. Design" is scheduled for McFarlin Auditorium on April 13 and 14. Some scientists at the university have questioned, justifiably, whether this is an appropriate place for a gathering as intellectually confused as this one.

Those who favor intelligent design seek to prove that evolution is impossible because the complexity of human systems is beyond the capacity of the Darwinian process to accomplish. Hence, humankind must have been created by a supreme designer.

Yet they have not toppled Darwin or his theory – and show no signs of coming close to that.

Their mistake is presenting themselves as a science and Charles Darwin as their natural enemy when, in fact, they are arguing from a religious base.

The principal funder of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, sponsor of this confab along with the Christian Legal Society at SMU's Dedman School of Law, is Howard Ahmanson, who long has shown interest in conservative religion.

If advocates of intelligent design would assemble a conference with their own speakers and professors versus, say, Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and an evolutionary biologist, that would be a solid and fascinating program.

But putting intelligent design in opposition to Darwin is like offering a program on faith healing versus oncology. Faith healing is worth discussing, but not as a scientific alternative to medical treatment – though some may shun doctors and choose that path.

Science has its own limitations. It need not be regarded as the only avenue to truth. Also, truth and proof are not always the same thing. Sharon Turner, an Episcopal priest, calls the imperative to prove up Intelligent Design the last gasp of the Enlightenment, when religious certainty gave way to the experiments of science. But, she added, there is knowledge that is far deeper than the literal or the scientific.

What she understands is this: For all the gains of the scientific method, it did limit the life of the spirit for those unable to imagine more broadly. Perhaps we were better off when science and philosophy were part of the same discipline. Aristotle, remember, formed his categories of plants and animals with all the assurance of both persuasions.

Certainly Leonardo da Vinci embraced the two worlds as one, which may be the main reason for his current popularity. It did not occur to anyone then that they could be separate.

Perhaps that's what the Discovery Institute is trying to achieve – a return to unity of knowledge. But to do this, adherents of this effort are now the Peter of religion, denying it at every turn.

Sen. John McCain gave the keynote speech at a gathering of the Discovery Institute earlier this year. Several months before, he told a newspaper that he happens to "believe in evolution" but that "Americans should be exposed to every point of view." Should intelligent design "be taught in as a science class?" he asked. "Probably not."

Don't count on Mr. McCain to express that view between now and the 2008 election, but he is right. Intelligent design is not science, and SMU, though unassailable in its defense of free speech, needs to rethink its policy regarding future use of its facilities and their implied prestige.

The university does not have a First Amendment obligation to provide a venue to intellectually suspect arguments, unless they are framed in a way that does not violate settled history (the Holocaust) or settled science. Care must be taken, of course, in discerning which bodies of knowledge are rooted in fact and which are not. But an institution devoted to the life of the mind does have a right and a duty to make those choices.

Lee Cullum is a Dallas journalist and host of "CEO," which airs the last Friday of each month at 7:30 p.m. on KERA-TV. Her e-mail address is lcullum@swbell.net.

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