New York Times Reports on Differing Opinions on Intelligent Design from Catholic Leaders, Implies that Evolution is a Fact

Robert L. Crowther, II

The New York Times today has a story pitting Design against Darwinism and implying that Darwinism is being embraced by the Catholic church. While they acknowledge some differences of opinion the article clearly tries to lead readers to believing that the Church is endorsing Darwinian evolution, and renouncing intelligent design.
We knew yesterday that the story was in the works based on a call from Times science writer Cornelia Dean. We responded to her, and immediately posted that response publicly on this site. It seems that it had an impact since their article reports on previous statements by the Pope that were all but ignored by the Times.

The Times story leads off by reporting: “The official Vatican newspaper published an article this week labeling as ”correct” the recent decision by a judge in Pennsylvania that intelligent design should not be taught as a scientific alternative to evolution.
”If the model proposed by Darwin is not considered sufficient, one should search for another,” writes evolutionary biologist Fiorenzo Facchini …”
I’m not sure if Dr. Facchini understands that this is exactly what the Center for Science & Culture is doing in researching intelligent design and related science issues. We don’t think Darwin’s model is sufficient, and some of our scientists are advocating an alternative theory. They are not “pretending to do science,” they are doing science, and we certainly don’t think they are straying from the field of science.
Times reporters Cornelia Dean and Ian Fisher note that: “The article was not presented as an official church position.” Of course, they can hardly believe that the Church might not agree with Darwin wholeheartedly. So unbelievable is that in fact, that they try to make clear the subtlety and ambiguousness they see in the Vatican. “But in the subtle and purposely ambiguous world of the Vatican, the comments seemed notable, given their strength on a delicate question much debated under the new pope, Benedict XVI.” I’m no Church theologian but lots and lots of ‘official’ Church views are hardly subtle or ambiguous
In a surprising twist, what makes this New York Times article interesting is what IS in the article, not what was left out. Yesterday I posted my response to Dean’s inquiry for our comment about the L’Osservatore article writing in part:

Not surprisingly, The New York Times did not the cover the Pope’s approving mention of intelligent design in one of his Wednesday speeches last November, yet it seems to take seriously as Vatican policy an op-ed by a little known writer published in the L’Osservatore Romano. We reported about this at length ourselves at

Apparently they got the message because they don’t just quote from the e-mail, they go ahead and report about some of the important facts that the MSM have conveniently ignored in the recent past. For that at least they are to be applauded.

But Robert L. Crowther, spokesman for the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle organization where researchers study and advocate intelligent design, dismissed the article and other recent statements from leading Catholics defending evolution. Drawing attention to them was little more than trying ”to put words in the Vatican’s mouth,” he said.

Of course, my whole point was that the New York Times has not just not drawn attention, but ignored recent statements from leading Catholics critical of Darwinian evolution. To the Times’ credit, they do go on to report here about some of that, though not at length as we have on this site (here, here, and here).
Suddenly the article shifts into editorial mode and explains that the views in L’Osservatore can only be seen as the official views of the Vatican. Says who? Who provided this opinion? Since no attribution is given it would seem to be that of Dean and Fisher.

L’Osservatore is the official newspaper of the Vatican and basically represents the Vatican’s views. Not all its articles represent official church policy. At the same time, it would not be expected to present an article that dissented deeply from that policy.

Back in news gear, they go on to remind readers of Cardinal Christoph Schonborn’s comments on the Times’ op-ed pages in July, and to finally acknowledge the Pope’s remarks supportive of intelligent design.
Then it’s back into editorializing gear, though I’m sure they don’t see it that way.

“There is no credible scientific challenge to the idea that evolution explains the diversity of life on earth, but advocates for intelligent design posit that biological life is so complex that it must have been designed by an intelligent source.”

First, the statement that there “is no credible scientific challenge to the idea that evolution explains the diversity of life on earth” is both untrue and misleading. A colleague here commented that an English professor would have slapped him had he written a sentence so vague and over general.
We’ve addressed these sorts of concerns, that there is no controversy over ‘the fact of evolution’, repeatedly:

This claim turns on a profound ambiguity. What does “evolution” mean when asserted to be a “fact”? If it simply means changes in species over long periods of time, there seems to be little doubt the claim is true. If it means universal common ancestry (UCA), the claim is more controversial; reasonable scientific evidence exists both in favor of and against it. But, if “evolution” means UCA plus the Darwinian mechanism of unguided natural selection acting on ran-dom mutation–together giving rise to all the complex-ity and diversity of the living world–then “evolution” is certainly not a “fact.” There is very limited scientific evidence supporting this view, and powerful evidence against it. (Six Myths About Evolution)

There is a wealth of information that challenges key aspects of Darwinian evolution. So much so that nearly 500 scientists have signed a statement that reads: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” And these are credible scientists including members of a number of National Academies of Science from around the world, scientists at renowned research institutions and over 80 in the biological sciences. And more are signing onto the statement all the time.
Second, the latter half of Dean’s and Fisher’s comment –the part seemingly defining what intelligent design is– simply throws up a strawman caricature of intelligent design that does not accurately represent the theory in part or in whole. Intelligent design theorists do not say “life is so complex that it must have been designed by an intelligent source” or a higher power, or a creator, or an alien, or god, or whatever you want to tack on to the end of that particular caricature. Intelligent design theory is not an argument based on what we don’t know, but rather an argument from what we do know.
Intelligent design theorists argue in favor of design theory based on the recognition of things like the digital information in DNA and the complex machines found cells. They do so because invariably we know from experience that complex systems possessing such features always arise from intelligent causes.

As the pioneering information theorist Henry Quastler observed, “Information habitually arises from conscious activity.” A computer user who traces the information on a screen back to its source invariably comes to a mind, that of a software engineer or programmer. Similarly, the information in a book or newspaper column ultimately derives from a writer–from a mental, rather than a strictly material, cause. Thus, what we know about the present cause and effect structure of the world suggests intelligent design as an obvious explanation for the information necessary to build living systems.
There are also strong positive reasons for inferring design from the intricate machines and circuits now found in cells. Michael Behe has shown that these systems are irreducibly complex, that is, they need all of their parts in just the right place to function at all. This is significant, not only because (as Behe shows) natural selection cannot produce irreducibly complex structures such as the bacterial flagellar motor, but also because we know that irreducible complexity is a property of systems that are known to be intelligently designed. In fact, every time we know the causal history of an irreducibly complex system (like a car engine or an electronic circuit), it always turn out to have been the product of an intelligent cause.
Thus, the inference to design in biology is not based upon ignorance or religion, but instead upon our knowledge of the cause and effect structure of the world. In particular, it is based on our knowledge of what it takes to build information rich and irreducibly complex systems. Cells contain miniature machines, complex cir-cuits and sophisticated information processing systems, exquisite nanotechnology that in any other realm of experience would immediately, and properly, trigger recognition of prior intelligent activity. (Six Myths About Evolution)

I understand that the New York Times doesn’t have the space to go into as much detail as I do, but you’d think they could at least use the definitions that design theorists themselves use such as: “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things — such as the digial code in DNA and the molecular machines in cells– are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” When defining intelligent design many reporters leave out the important first half of that definition and focus on the secondary clause at the end — a very annoying mistake that makes a big difference.
The Times also reports that Dr. Facchini said “Catholic thought did not preclude a design fashioned through an evolutionary process.”
I would hope that Dr. Facchini doesn’t think that Catholic though precludes a design fashioned through an intelligent agent.

Robert Crowther

Robert Crowther holds a BA in Journalism with an emphasis in public affairs and 20 years experience as a journalist, publisher, and brand marketing and media relations specialist. From 1994-2000 he was the Director of Public and Media Relations for Discovery Institute overseeing most aspects of communications for each of the Institute's major programs. In addition to handling public and media relations he managed the Institute's first three books to press, Justice Matters by Roberta Katz, Speaking of George Gilder edited by Frank Gregorsky, and The End of Money by Richard Rahn.