Debating Intelligent Design

I was astonished to see an article about intelligent design (“Ultimate Questions,” Summer ’06) in the alumni magazine of one of the nation’s leading universities, and my alma mater. It seemed particularly disturbing that the article invoked founding father Thomas Jefferson, who was so clearly a product of the Enlightenment.

Certainly the University is and should be a forum for open debate and the exchange of ideas, and the campus should allow for all kinds of clubs, even those that some might find distasteful. But casting intelligent design as an alternative to the theory of evolution in a feature article lends a level of credence to the concept that seems out of place and wrongheaded.

That this universe is so complex that some force must have created it is a precept to be argued in religion and philosophy classes, not in biology or organic chemistry courses. Science is built on inquiry, not faith. Of course we should question evolution. Scientists question it all the time. That is the nature of science. Evolution is not a “faith,” but a construct that helps us understand the physical evidence we observe in nature. As long as we keep studying nature, we will keep modifying that construct. Faith does not like this notion of ongoing inquiry and change. Faith favors the unalterable.

I can’t help but think that the concept of intelligent design arises from a faith-based community that largely owes its allegiance to a particular religion and a particular view of divinity. I doubt whether its proponents are thinking primarily of a Navajo vision of the cosmos or even a Buddhist one. It is for that reason as well that I find this incursion of religious concepts into the realm of science and academics so disturbing.

John R. “Jack” Greer (Col ’69)
Edgewater, Md.

 

“Ultimate Questions” was very good, but it has several shortcomings. The most notable is the lack of any quote from Thomas Jefferson regarding his views on human endowment by the creator. The other shortcoming, in my opinion, is the article’s subtle bias against the validity of intelligent design.

I’m a believer in the validity of the theory of intelligent design because it appears to me that the salient question is not the survival of the species, but rather the arrival of the species. It seems that the arrival of life and the subsequent arrival of self-consciousness are irreducibly complex events, not able to occur via a random process. However, I’m also a scientist, in that I use scientific methods as an integral part of my work.

The debate about intelligent design is pointing to a flaw in the scientific method, for science attempts to explain the world and the universe without relying on hypotheses that can’t be tested. Science also purports to tell the truth about the universe and how it operates. However, if the truth of the universe really is that there exists an intelligent designer, science will, a priori, deny the truth of what may actually be true. And this is a paradox. If experimental verification of intelligent design is not even sought, then by definition we’ll never find out if it’s true.

John Fornaro (Arch ’76, ’79)
Charlottesville, Va.

 

I would not have imagined coming across a straightforward explanation of intelligent design theory in a university alumni magazine, when newspapers make no effort in that direction. The theory expresses what I’ve believed all of my life, and it seems to me that anyone who believes in God must believe the same.

On the other hand, there is no possible basis for teaching intelligent design in any public educational system. There might be a casual reference made to the fact that some persons believe in it, just as there might be a casual reference to the fact that some persons believe in the tablets found by Joseph Smith. Those are sociological facts, and can be expressed as such, without the arrogance or insidiousness of discussing why such beliefs are held. It seems to me that for intelligent design theory to have integrity, its believers should do zilch to evangelize it.

Gilbert S. Bahn
Moorpark, Calif.

 

In reading the intelligent design article, I suddenly became very aware of how obsessed sometimes we are in trying to figure out what Thomas Jefferson would think or do about something. It seems that he’s often used in a quasi-historical way to legitimize a contemporary argument.

I agree with the basic observation that UVA should be a forum for free thinking and encourage debate. That said, there are “ideas” that are simply wrong and detrimental to otherwise true learning in science and religion. The concept of intelligent design as a science is one such wrong idea. To cast evolution as atheistic dogma and pit it against belief in God simply denigrates both religion and science. Imagine modern debate at the University on “separate but equal” to support segregation of the races. My guess and hope is that there would no articles in the alumni magazine about how Jefferson would encourage open and objective debate on this topic.

Robert Muckenfuss (Col ’93)
Charlotte, N.C.

 

Thank you for your work on the issue of intelligent design and its growing challenge to Darwinism. It merits a major presence in UVA’s alumni magazine. The intellectual clash between Darwinism and intelligent design relating to the origin of life is one of the most important questions today in science.

Science is the search for truth. Science must follow the evidence, wherever it goes. Scientific paradigms routinely collapse in light of new information. Darwinism—which is 19th-century alchemy—is the next major scientific theory bound for extinction. The intelligent design movement brings progress to science.

Brad Dobeck
Arlington, Va.

 

To me, Professor Bryce Paschal’s rationalization for serving as faculty adviser for [the IDEA Club] rings hollow: since when had intelligent design contributed anything to the issue of “transition species”? In fact, the creationism from which intelligent design evolved denies their very existence! I am glad that at least Paschal admits that his views are “informed by his religious faith.” So, indeed, they must be, and I am glad that his views are somewhat neutralized by his biology colleague William Pearson. It is only in that role, as one of the faithful, that Paschal can legitimately serve as adviser to the intelligent design group. To pretend otherwise lends it a scientific respectability it does not deserve.

It is my opinion that by providing space in a very fine university’s publication for nonsense such as intelligent design, it lowers UVA’s academic standing and thereby the value of my own degree (biology) and that of every other graduate of UVA.

Jeffery J.W. Baker (Col ’53)
Ivy, Va.

 

I am appalled at the intelligent design article. It is astonishing that not one single member of the distinguished faculty of the religious studies department was quoted in this article. Had they been, they might have prevented howlers like, “Modern Christian theology still rests on what Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 14th century in his Summa Theologica.” This claim is utterly preposterous on several levels. First, there is no such thing as a monolithic “modern Christian theology,” much less one that rests solely on Thomas. Indeed, those most likely to be exponents of the design argument are those least likely to have any intellectual commerce with Thomas. Secondly, to claim that their theology rests on the Summa of the 14th century is just plain wrong. Nevertheless, after providing us with Thomas’ own words and a straw-man sidebar version of the intelligent design argument, the writer states her thesis succinctly: “Most scientists firmly disagree.” What follows is the familiar litany of objections to the argument from the usual suspects in the science departments. Yet had the writer made the effort to speak to someone from religious studies instead of confining herself to interviewing the science choir, she would have found that in philosophy of religion the teleological argument is taken by most scholars of religion as inadequate both scientifically and religiously, at least as far back as David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. She could have thus avoided tarring religion with the tired and false charge of being opposed to science.

Barton Odom (Grad ’03,’05)
Stephenville, Texas

 

We were distressed by the article “Ultimate Questions,” not because it raised questions about scientific theory and observations, but rather because it failed to properly characterize the religious basis for an increasingly vocal attack on science. The article failed to state that the purpose of the IDEA Club is not merely to debate evolution and religion, but (as stated in their charter) to “promote, as a scientific theory, the idea that life was designed by an intelligent designer.” The argument that has been made is that gaps in scientific knowledge can be used to prove a supernatural and theological explanation for natural phenomenon. This is an attempt to disguise theology as science, and the simple conclusion would be that the less we know, the greater is the support for supernatural explanations. The great advance of the Enlightenment has been the search for natural explanations for natural phenomena.

While the article appears to represent a balanced view of the controversy, arguments from the proponents of intelligent design are presented without rebuttal. It might be assumed by a reader who is not an expert that valid flaws in evolutionary theory have been exposed. For example, a sidebar in the article presents the example of the bacterial flagellum, a seemingly complicated apparatus used for swimming that contains approximately 40 different proteins. According to the proponents of intelligent design, it “could not have started unless an intelligent agent put the right pieces in place, together at the same time. Proponents of intelligent design argue that the likelihood that such complexity, with so many dependent parts, arose randomly is virtually nil.” What the article fails to discuss is that the flagellar assembly is known to be homologous, that is to share common origins, with the bacterial Type Three Secretion System, and thus evolution can explain how a secretory system evolved into one capable of both secretion and motility.

We think that the attention given to ID is due to the lack of understanding about evolution. It is safe to assume that if the IDEA Club was constituted to promote as a scientific theory the notion that earthquakes are caused by God, and not by plate tectonics, it would receive less favorable coverage. Unfortunately, earthquakes are accepted by more people as a natural phenomenon than is biological evolution. According to the Pew Survey, approximately 50 percent of adults in the United States believe that humans first appeared on the earth in their present form within the past 5,000 to 10,000 years. The notion that humans actually evolved from more primitive life forms, supported by vast amounts of data from fields as diverse as paleontology and molecular genetics, is antithetical to those who do not accept evolution. If humans are the product of an intelligent design, should we also conclude that pathogens, such as Salmonella and HIV, responsible for killing millions of children every year, are also intelligently designed?

Why is the concept of evolution so troubling to proponents of ID? Not only does evolution clash with religious dogma, but it undermines the significance that some would like to give to the place of humans in the universe. Most people are unaware of the resistance 400 years ago to the notion that the earth revolves around the sun, a climate that led to Galileo’s public recantation of this notion under the threat of torture. The opposition to a heliocentric theory of the solar system was due to the conflict with religion, and was sustained by the desire to imagine that we occupy a special place in existence. It appeared more comforting to those who opposed Galileo to believe that we were the center of the universe, rather than that the earth is one of many planets that revolves around the sun, which is but one of many stars. It is quite disappointing that 22 percent of U.S. adults recently surveyed by the Washington Post (reported in the March 30 issue) thought that the sun revolves around the earth, rather than vice versa, so while progress has been made since the time of Galileo, it is not as rapid as one might have hoped.

The current conflict between the science of evolution and attempts to teach creationism or ID disguised as science can be seen in the same light as the resistance to a heliocentric theory of the solar system. It may be more comforting to some to imagine that we were created in our present form than that we share common origins with chimpanzees, mice and even bacteria. The article did a disservice to the extensive body of data in support of evolution by placing the religiously motivated remarks of a few on a seemingly equal footing with real observations and experiments. It was stated that “Few peer-reviewed scientific studies [in support of ID] have been published in the major scientific journals,” but a more accurate statement would be that no peer-reviewed scientific studies in support of ID have ever been published in any major scientific journal.

Jefferson recognized that reasoned debate and the free exchange of ideas constituted the very core of democracy in America. However, theories such as ID, that invoke religious themes due to a purported lack of scientific facts, have no credibility or standing in the teaching of science in the United States.

Adler, Paul N. – Department of Biology
Auble, David T. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Bauerle, Ronald H. – Department of Biology
Beyer, Ann L. – Department of Microbiology
Bradbeer, Clive – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Brautigan, David L. – Department of Microbiology
Brown, Jay C. – Department of Microbiology
Bullock, Timothy N. – Department of Microbiology
Burke, Daniel J. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
DeSimone, Douglas W. – Department of Cell Biology
Dutta, Anindya – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Egelman, Edward H. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Fox, Jay W. – Department of Microbiology
Grigera, Pablo R. – Department of Microbiology
Hamlin, Joyce L. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Hammarskjold, Marie-Louise. – Department of Microbiology
Horwitz, A. Rick – Department of Cell Biology
Kedes, Dean H. – Department of Microbiology
Khorasanizadeh, Sepideh – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Kupfer, Gary M. – Department of Microbiology
Lannigan, Joanne A. – Department of Microbiology
Ley, Klaus – Department of Biomedical Engineering
Li, Chien – Department of Pharmacology
Li, Rong – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Lindorfer, Margaret – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Lynch, Kevin – Department of Pharmacology
Macara, Ian G. – Department of Microbiology
Macdonald, Timothy L. – Department of Chemistry
McDuffie, Marcia J. – Department of Microbiology
Menaker, Michael – Department of Biology
Minor, Wladek – Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Moskaluk, Christopher A. – Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Nakamoto, Robert – Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Noramly, Selina – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Osheim, Yvonne – Department of Microbiology
Rissman, Emilie – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Rivera-Nieves, Jesus – Department of Internal Medicine
Roberts, Margo R. – Department of Microbiology
Ross, William G. – Department of Internal Medicine
Schwartz, Martin A. – Department of Microbiology
Smith, Michael F. – Department of Microbiology
Stukenberg, P. Todd – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Tamm, Lukas K. – Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Taylor, Ronald P. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Thompson, Thomas E. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Wertz, Gail W. – Department of Pathology
White, Judith M. – Department of Cell Biology
Wiener, Michael C. – Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Wotton, David – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics

 

I was intrigued by the four pages given to intelligent design in the summer issue. May I look forward to similar coverage of other topics of hot scientific debate like “The Earth: Flat or Round?” and “Gravity: What Is God Trying To Tell Us?”

Thomas M. Hamilton (Col ’84)
Orange, Va.


Our Nuclear Past

Thank you for letting me stroll down memory lane as I read “The Cerenkov Blue: When UVA Went Nuclear” (Summer ’06). I immediately pulled out my U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license, issued Oct. 12, 1979, for I was one of those undergraduate nuclear engineering students who had the part-time job during my fourth year (1979-1980) running the reactor during the around-the-clock research project for Westinghouse Electric.

The shift, with one other student, was an eerie experience, what with walking once an hour around the darkened building to read gauges and meters. I can still recall how surreal it felt at 3 and 4 in the morning to be standing above the blue-glowing pool in the darkened containment room, dizzy from lack of sleep, hoping not to fall in! At shift’s end, there was a full day of tough nuclear engineering classes to look forward to.

My senior thesis addressed emergency planning around nuclear reactors, inspired by the March 1979 Three Mile Island Accident. I pulled that thesis out to show my son, Casey, an upcoming third-year systems engineer at UVA. The article and that thesis impressed him, especially that the 100 pages had to be typed on a typewriter! He now has a small insight into my UVA experience.

Lt. Col. (ret.) Marianne Consolazio (Engr ’80)
Virginia Beach, Va.

 

It was a distinct pleasure to read the article on the University’s nuclear reactor. I was particularly pleased to see the description of the breadth of the research at the reactor facility. It was also nice to see that the building is still being used productively. I was disappointed that there was no mention of the late Dr. J. Lawrence Meem, Dr. W. Reed Johnson and Dr. James L. Kelly. These gentlemen provided leadership, guidance and instruction for many graduate students over a long period, beginning with the earliest days of the facility. They built the graduate program to the high status it enjoyed and were key contributors to bringing the undergraduate program into existence. They were role models and mentors for a great many students over the years and their work and writings contributed to many aspects of nuclear technology. It is true that Meem, Johnson and Kelly have been gone from the reactor facility for many years and that many of their students are themselves nearing retirement, but the contributions of these men endure and are still appreciated by those who knew them. My contemporaries and I owe them a great deal.

Carl A. Detrick (Engr ’68)
Rozet, Wyo.

 

I was on Grounds when nuclear was very much “the future,” which I believe it will be again, even if not at UVA. During my first year, while trying to decide on a major, I received a welcome letter announcing the undergraduate nuclear engineering program, and I signed up right away.

Your article mentioned a few faculty and staff, but omitted so many wonderful professors. Dr. Kelly gave us enthusiasm and rigor in computations. Dr. Johnson gave us the sense of being a nuclear professional and how the industry actually worked. Dr. Meem tied our studies to national lab research and to nuclear theory, through his 2-group neutron text. Dr. Williamson gave us valuable lab experiences and wise counsel. Dr. Reynolds championed nuclear safety. Mr. Ball sat next to us unlicensed undergraduates at the console as we manipulated the UVAR control rods for the first time.

After graduation, I worked in commercial nuclear power for 32 years. The Virginia “nukes” that I worked with or interfaced with were almost always in leadership roles or on the fast track to getting there. In a relatively small industry where it is easy to know all the leaders, this was a great source of comfort and pride.

At my recent class reunion, President Casteen expressed pride in UVA schools that have excelled. He found no occasion to mention engineering. That is a shame, because nuclear engineering is something that UVA did exceptionally well.

Jack Peele (Engr ’71)
Cornelius, N.C.

 

Reading the account of the end of the UVA reactor made me very sad. Doc Quarles was so proud of what he said was the first university-designed reactor in the country, and it apparently filled the needs of engineering, physics and biology, which was something of an advance for that time. I can’t help but wonder what “the age of biology” is going to do without reactors to irradiate seeds for them.

But Doc and I always argued over what you do with the ashes—a problem that still hasn’t been resolved, even today. That, more than Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, seems to be the main block to the development of nuclear energy.

Leo F. Goeller Jr. (Engr ’53)
Haddonfield, N.J.


Corrigan’s Legacy

I would like to make one correction to the article about Gene Corrigan in the Summer 2006 issue. The article mentioned that Debbie Ryan was the only holdover from Mr. Corrigan’s tenure. Mark Bernardino, head swimming and diving coach, was also hired by Mr. Corrigan. Bernardino is entering his 29th season as the head coach of the swimming and diving team.

Tom Woodworth (Educ ’98)
Waynesboro, Va.


Fair Wage Protests

I was truly impressed by President Casteen’s recent letter, “Fair Wages.” While I think that many in spirit agree with the nature of the protests (who doesn’t wish that everyone earned enough on which to live well?), it is clear that this protest has escalated to a level that is detrimental for the entire University. The doubts I had as to the beneficence of the University’s official response in dealing with these protestors were allayed by the gentle, cautious and sensitive way in which he described the events. In taking care to show the errors made by—and for—the students involved, not using his position for ad hominem attacks on these people who have so dramatically disrupted his life, he clearly demonstrated the method he used during these negotiations. I applaud his efforts in this matter.

Joshua Eyer (Col ’03)
Mobile, Ala.

 

I was glad to see the short snippet on the students who staged a sit-in at Madison Hall for higher wages for UVA employees. When I was at UVA, there was a heightened concern over town-school relations. I think it is great when Charlottesville sees another side of the students at UVA—students who care about the community they live in.

LaKisha Simmons (Col ’03)
Ann Arbor, Mich.

 

I have followed the living wage campaign from an academic perspective, informed by my interest in the intersections of race and labor. Unfortunately, my participation in events has been somewhat remote as I am studying race and labor in South Africa’s second poorest province.

I wanted to share a lesson I learned here. Through a series of events, I found myself responsible for the life of another person—a woman who would have bled to death one morning if I had not called for help. She is an illegal immigrant, and by summoning help for her, I entered an unanticipated and at times utterly terrifying world of legal and medical bureaucracy. One night, one of my South African “mothers” found me weeping over the situation I found myself in. She scolded me gently and said, “Don’t you know about ubuntu?”

Ubuntu does not translate easily into English, but the best version I have found is “I am because you are,” or “we all exist through our relationships to other people.” My South African mother was telling me that I had done the right thing, that indeed I had no choice but to help the sick woman because my relationship to her meant that I could not in good conscience allow her to remain bleeding on the floor.

I would suggest that the students and faculty engaged in the living wage protest are demonstrating “ubuntu,” concern for the people that they find themselves in relationships with. I am not, at this juncture, interested in making a dollars-and-cents argument about the viability of a living wage. What I want to make is a moral argument. “Ubuntu,” the spirit of honoring our responsibilities to one another, demands it.

Clare Terni (Grad ’03, ’08)
University of Venda, South Africa

 

For information from both perspectives on the living wage issue, visit www.virginia.edu/wages, http://livingwage.wordpress.com/ and http://www.virginia.edu/insideuva/2006/08/living_wage.html. —Ed.


The Price of Honor

Few, if any, of the “Honor Under Fire” letter writers in the Summer ’06 issue addressed the central issue: the agenda of appeasement and nonintervention espoused by the rising generation to whom we have entrusted the most cherished of our University experiences.

I agree with Henry Gilbert, who wrote that students who cannot commit to the code belong elsewhere. But if they choose instead to stay and whine until they get a tenderized code, then let them be willing to accept a watered-down degree. It would contain a disclaimer: “The University does not vouch for the purity of the academic achievement claimed by the above captioned candidate.” And they can hold the commencement at Kinko’s.

J. Taylor Buckley Jr. (Col ’61)
Chestertown, Md.

 

I was heartened by my fellow alumni’s unanimously positive response to the Honor System and their agreement that its visceral importance to our University experiences becomes increasingly more evident the older that we become.

Let me offer a real-world example of why honor is so important, and why UVA’s Honor System used to differentiate us from other universities. The spring of 1974, my fourth year, a third-year law student was caught by a part-time UVA undergrad working at a Lucky Seven stealing a soda and some candy. The undergrad turned him in and he was expelled by the Honor Board. This became public because the law student tried to get the verdict overturned in federal court, but was rebuffed by the judge. The law student pleaded that he was a Law Review distinguished graduate and had already accepted employment from a Wall Street firm, concluding that the transgression was “only a few dollars.” The case was dismissed for jurisdictional reasons, but the judge threw in a great admonition to the now disgraced law student, asking if his next moral transgression in a potential multi-million-dollar legal case should be dismissed “because it was only $50,000.” Honor has no dollar limits, and unethical behavior begets further unethical behavior.

Thomas M. Neale (Col ’74)
Baltimore, Md.