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August 19, 2005

Attack on Evolution Is Dressed-up Creationism

I was very disturbed by David Klinghoffer’s attack on science in his August 12 opinion column (“Toward Theological Evolution”). He advocates that “Intelligent Design” — the idea that it is not possible to find naturalistic explanations for some traits in living things — should be embraced by Jews. He claims that Intelligent Design is not creationism and that Intelligent Design’s expert advocates, including biologists, chemists and paleontologists, have no theological ax to grind.

But Intelligent Design is clearly creationism, although its proponents go to great pains to disguise this fact. When Intelligent Design proponents claim, for example, that the human immune system could not have arisen by natural selection, or any natural process, they are clearly implying that the immune system was created supernaturally.

This position stops scientific progress dead in its tracks: Anything that is not currently understood about the evolution of specific traits, according to this reasoning, should be ascribed to the actions of God — or some undefined supernatural entity such as space aliens, as Intelligent Design proponents slyly allow. This would be like a mechanic doing no work, telling someone that his nonworking car is possessed by demons, and taking the person’s money, rather than assuming that there is some naturalistic explanation for why the car doesn’t run that requires further investigation.

Furthermore, Intelligent Design’s advocates are by no means experts. The so-called experts who are paraded out by Intelligent Design think tanks are people such as biochemist Michael Behe and mathematician William Dembski — people who have no degrees in evolution and who do not publish scholarly, peer-reviewed articles on evolution in respected journals. Their books on evolution were not peer reviewed by respected evolutionary biologists, and are not taken seriously by them. Just because these people have degrees in “science” does not make them experts on evolution any more than having a degree in physics enables someone to perform brain surgery.

Finally, the claim that Intelligent Design proponents have no theological ax to grind stands in contrast to the history of the Intelligent Design movement. In the landmark 1982 case McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education, U.S. District Court Judge William Overton ruled that teaching creationism in school amounted to an unconstitutional mingling of church and state. In the aftermath of this ruling, a stealthier movement, Intelligent Design, was born that seeks to infuse religion and creationism into schools in a more subtle manner that skirts the prohibitions against teaching creationism. This is why Intelligent Design proponents are notoriously hard to pin down as to what they mean by an “intelligent designer.” It is no coincidence that both Behe and Dembski are devout Christians, and that all of the prominent Intelligent Design proponents I am aware of are devoutly religious.

Intelligent design, as Leonard Krishtalka, a biologist and director of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, put it, is “nothing more than creationism dressed in a cheap tuxedo.” If America wants to remain at the cutting edge of scientific discovery, we need to train great critical thinkers who can pursue unknown frontiers of science, rather than parrots who say “God did it” whenever they’re stumped.

Josh Banta

Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology and Evolution

State University of New York – Stony Brook

Stony Brook, N.Y.

David Klinghoffer seems puzzled that in the controversy over “Intelligent Design,” “the Jewish community has remained curiously abstracted and irrelevant.” For many Jews, however, the main issue is neither the intellectual controversy nor its theological implications.

Rather, for many Jews the major controversy surrounding Intelligent Design regards its impact on the separation of church and state. To lend support to the doctrine carries the risk of endorsing a form of religious instruction in the public schools. To oppose the doctrine could be seen, in Klinghoffer’s words, as acceptance of Darwinism and the rendering void of Judaism. For some observant Jews, it is a dilemma — and the less said, the better.

Harold Dorn

Professor of the History of Science

Stevens Institute of Technology

Hoboken, N.J.

David Klinghoffer argues that “Intelligent Design” asks probing questions “as yet not convincingly answered by Darwin’s modern champions.” He appears to be suggesting that because evolutionists’ theories do not yet explain everything, “intelligent” — presumably divine — intervention might well explain the rest.

Surely Klinghoffer is aware of the notion of a “god of the gaps” — a god whose existence is indicated by the absence of other explanations for certain phenomena. The liability of this approach is that over time, humans do manage to figure out a few things, and the “god of the gaps” is seen beating a hasty retreat to whatever areas of mystery remain. It is not robust proof of an intervening deity, merely a testament to the changing limitations of human knowledge.

Kurt Hoffman

Brooklyn, N.Y.

If David Klinghoffer wants Yeshiva University to disgrace itself by supporting the Intelligent Design concept of evolution, he should write to the Y.U. president or faculty directly instead of sullying the pages of the Forward.

Darwinian evolution is not on shaky ground. It is a foundation of modern biology as much as the atomic model is in chemistry, relativity and quantum theory in physics, and continental drift in geology. It is no more controversial than any major scientific concept.

The Time magazine article cited by Klinghoffer was newsworthy only because President Bush, for presumably political reasons, suggested that this controversy should be open for discussion in classrooms. There are “historians” who promote the idea that the Holocaust never happened.

Would Klinghoffer be as sanguine if the president wanted that controversy discussed in history classes, too? Just as the Intelligent Designers belong to the Discovery Institute, the Holocaust deniers belong to the Institute for Historical Revision.

Klinghoffer apparently doesn’t like Darwinian evolution because it isn’t compatible with his understanding of theology. He wouldn’t be the first to reject a reality that science has exposed as conflicting with some deeply held understanding.

The Soviet Union didn’t like Darwinian evolution, so it banned it from being taught and instead chose a version of Lamarckian evolution that better suited the system. It was then used as a basis for agricultural development and crop growth in the “five-year” plans. As a result these plans were a disaster, and the genetics departments at Soviet universities were discredited by the rest of the world for many years.

It’s true that Darwinian evolution indicates that we got here by chance — so what? We know that the biological world will change and that we can’t direct it toward a desirable outcome. We also know that environmental change accelerates biological change.

So we must be careful about spraying pesticides, using antibiotics, releasing exhaust from combustibles, altering habitats and continuing population growth, among other things. At the same time, we can cherish and observe the values, traditions and teachings that have been passed down to us and that have enabled us to live and survive.

Stuart Kaplan

Teaneck, N.J.

Shul Joined Orthodox In Pre-egalitarian Age

In an August 12 article, the Forward reports that the BMH-BJ Congregation in Denver joined the Orthodox Union in the mid-1970s, as a result of the egalitarian push in the Conservative movement (“Last Orthodox Shul With Mixed Seats Fighting for Its Traditions”).

In fact, the BMH-BJ Congregation joined the O.U. in 1958, before there was such a thing as halachic egalitarianism.

Marc Shapiro

Weinberg Chair of Judaic Studies

University of Scranton

Scranton, Pa.

Chicago Has Class, Not ‘Gritty Charm’

As a native Chicagoan, I really resent arts and culture writer Saul Austerlitz’s reference to Chicago as having “gritty charm” in an August 5 book review of Adam Langer’s “The Washington Story” (“Windy City Offers a Window Into the Heart of America”).

To name only the highlights, Chicago has probably the best architecture of any city in the United States; world-class museums, especially The Art Institute of Chicago, which has more famous recognizable paintings than any other art museum in the world; a world-class symphony orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; world-class opera, the Lyric Opera, and an unrivaled beautiful lakefront on Lake Michigan with our new Millennium Park, including a Frank Gehry open-air music facility.

I invite Austerlitz to come and see this for himself before he writes off Chicago as having “gritty charm.”

Joan Revsine

Chicago, Ill.

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