Panel: Darwin caught up in cultural battle


New York - A panel of academics took a cool look at the increasingly heated issue of evolution versus "intelligent de­sign" on Thursday, variously holding up the latter as a cultural battle, a global phenomenon or even a brilliant marketing scheme.


The "Darwin's Legacy" discussion, con­vened in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History's exhibit on the naturalist who developed the theory of evolution, came as legal battles played out over the teaching of evolution and "intelligent design" in US schools.


Intelligent design holds that some aspects of nature are so complex they must be the work of an unnamed designer or higher power, as opposed to the result of random natural selection as argued by Darwin. Policies that would promote teaching alternatives to evolution are being considered in at least 30 states, and the Kansas Board of Education earlier this month approved new public school sci­ence standards that cast doubt on the theory of evolution.


In Dover, Pennsylvania, a local school board was ousted over its requirement that intelligent design be taught, and a group of parents has sued, saying that such teaching violates the constitutional separation of church and state. In a broad-­ranging discussion, the panelists agreed as often as they differed, with. several noting that the debate over evolution and intelligent design was rife with paradox.


James Moore of Britain's Open University noted religion was not taught in US schools, yet this was a "very religious nation". In contrast, fewer than 5% of adults attend church services in Britain, a Christian country where religious edu­cation is mandatory and there is no separation of church and state.


Florida State University Michael Ruse, author of The Evolution-Creation Struggle, echoed that; calling America “a peculiarly religious country” which was also a “science powerhouse”.

"How can it be such?" he asked.


Mr. Ruse suggested the answer lay partly in history, not least being the Civil War after which Southerners turned to the Bible, and evolution "was taken to rep­resent everything about the North that they disliked".


The result, he said, was the "red state-­blue state clash -it's not science versus religion as such - but very much a cultural clash that we've got in America today". Others concurred, saying that the schism was part and parcel of a broader cultural war over contentious issues like abortion, gay rights and gun control.


But the University of Wisconsin-­Madison's Ronald Numbers viewed the phenomenon as a growing global issue, saying intelligent design had made sig­nificant inroads in Australia, throughout Latin America, in Korea and most sur­prisingly, Russia and even China, which remains a communist state.


"And it's not just a Christian phenomenon," he added, citing a Turkish edu­cation minister who pushed for intelligent design in schools, as well as inroads made within both Judaism and Islam.


Mr Numbers said that at heart, the proponents of intelligent design “want to change the definition of science” to include God.


In the only remark to draw applause from the large audience, Edward Larson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 book on the Scopes monkey trials, said the "problem is partisan officials trying to tell science teachers how to do their jobs".