ID at the AAAS 2009 Annual Meeting (Part I)

You won’t find any well-known intelligent design advocates among the speakers at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held recently in Chicago. But that does not mean ID was not there — quite the contrary. Like the social outcast left uninvited to the garden party, who nevertheless becomes the main topic of conversation, ID was on the lips of most of the speakers at an overflow Sunday (2/15) afternoon session, Evolution Makes Sense of Biology. One could be forgiven for leaving the session thinking that evolutionary biology was defined largely by its opposition to ID.

This was, of course, not the point the sessions organizers (Eugenie Scott and Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education [NCSE]) meant to convey. In their remarks, both Scott and Rosenau stressed that controversies about evolution exist, not for any genuine scientific reason, but because of political, cultural and religious agitation from organizations such as the one sponsoring this website.
Subsequent speakers, however, presented evidence and data that they said challenged ID, contradicting the “politics not science” opening (see forthcoming entries in this AAAS series).
Rosenau took his theme from T.H. Dobzhansky’s famous (1973) aphorism, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” After showing data indicating that most Americans remain skeptical of Darwinian (undirected) evolution — a skepticism, he noted, that does not exist for other scientific theories or claims, such as continental drift or the uselessness of antibiotics against viruses — Rosenau gave examples of findings in a variety of fields that (he said) could only be understood via evolution. The development of the medicine Taxol™ , for instance, or the engineering of General Electric jet turbines and radio antennae by evolutionary algorithms, or integrated pest management (IPM) methods, make sense only in the light of evolution. Evolution is for everyone, said Rosenau, flashing a slide with the cover of David Sloan Wilson’s book Evolution for Everyone (Delacorte, 2007).
I was attending the session as a reporter, and felt it would be out of place to engage Rosenau in an argument (we are friendly acquaintances). But his recommendations, both of Dobzhansky (1973) and Wilson (2007), show why NCSE policy and educational advice is doomed only to prolong the controversies Rosenau and his colleagues so earnestly wish to lay to rest.
Let’s start with Dobzhansky (1973). While it is reasonable to assume that Rosenau has actually read this essay, that probably wasn’t true for nearly all of his AAAS audience. This isn’t surprising; most professional biologists I’ve met know only Dobzhansky’s famous aphorism, but have never read the 1973 essay itself.
They should. You can read it here. (A pdf of the original is available here.) The essay represents Dobzhansky’s passionately-argued theological case against intelligent design and for evolution as God’s method of creation. Dobzhansky writes that biological diversity becomes understandable

if the Creator has created the living world not by caprice, but by evolution propelled by natural selection. It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s, method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still underway. (1973, 127)

This is theology — or more precisely, theology and science entangled so thoroughly that, like a color tint mixed into a can of white paint, the result is irreversible.
The same is true of Wilson (2007). Unlike Dobzhansky, Wilson is not a religious believer. He is, however, deeply interested in religion as a central feature of human existence, and how religious behavior makes evolutionary sense.
Here is the first paragraph of Wilson’s book:

This is the book of tall claims about evolution: that it can become uncontroversial; that the basic principles are easy to learn; that everyone should want to learn them, once their implications are understood; that evolution and religion, those old enemies who currently occupy opposite corners of human thought, can be brought harmoniously together. (2007, 1; second emphasis added)

Later in the book, Wilson repeats this point: “Evolution and religion can no longer occupy opposite corners of human thought” (2007, 253).
Again, it’s reasonable to assume that Rosenau read the materials he recommended to the AAAS audience. But if Dobzhansky and Wilson are right, a biology classroom is exactly the correct venue to raise theological issues, such as God’s method of creating, or the content and function of religious belief.
Now this is hardly what the NCSE officially advises the public. Science and religion, they say, should be respectful, but very much separate, neighbors.
Alas, that is advice for a world that does not, and never did, exist. That the NCSE and Rosenau may find Dobzhansky’s particular theology congenial, for example, does not change the fact that Dobzhansky’s view is theological, and hence, subject to legitimate dissent on equal terms.
Simultaneously telling people, however, that the science classroom is off limits to theology — except for this God-used-evolution-and-it’s-blasphemy-to-suggest-otherwise view, advocated by a leading neo-Darwinian biologist, and maybe a couple of other tolerable theologies — guarantees an ongoing controversy. A philosophical rule decreed by those holding institutional power (whether in the courts or national science and education organizations), but violated by those very same institutions in practice, is not a rule anyone else will follow — nor should they.
But what most belied the NCSE approach was the remainder of the symposium. It turns out that evolution makes sense of biology because, despite what the ID folks tell us, the origin of life is nearly solved, and — in cell and organismal biology — a really intelligent designer would not have done various things.
Dobzhansky T.H. 1973. Nothing In Biology Makes Sense Except In The Light Of Evolution. American Biology Teacher 35:125-129.
Wilson, David Sloan. 2007. Evolution for Everyone. New York: Delacorte.
Up next: David Deamer on the origin of life

Paul Nelson

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Paul A. Nelson is currently a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute and Adjunct Professor in the Master of Arts Program in Science & Religion at Biola University. He is a philosopher of biology who has been involved in the intelligent design debate internationally for three decades. His grandfather, Byron C. Nelson (1893-1972), a theologian and author, was an influential mid-20th century dissenter from Darwinian evolution. After Paul received his B.A. in philosophy with a minor in evolutionary biology from the University of Pittsburgh, he entered the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. (1998) in the philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory.