Origins of Life, Revisited

The letter against intelligent design [in reference to “Ultimate Questions,” Summer 2006] signed by 49 UVA science faculty is revealing: not only do they oppose ID due to a false characterization of the theory, but they repeat false claims that there are no pro-ID, peer-reviewed science publications.

The faculty wrongly define ID as saying, “The less we know, the greater is the support for supernatural explanations.” In reality, ID limits its claims to what can be learned from the empirical data. ID therefore only appeals to intelligent causes and does not try to address unscientific religious questions about whether the designing intelligence was supernatural. ID is also not an “argument from ignorance.” Rather, design is inferred based upon what we know about the powers of intelligent causes, and detecting in nature informational patterns known to only come from intelligence. As microbiologist Scott Minnich and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer observe, “In all irreducibly complex systems in which the cause of the system is known by experience or observation, intelligent design or engineering played a role in the origin of the system.”

Finally, the letter asserts “no peer-reviewed scientific studies in support of ID have ever been published in any major scientific journal.” In 2004, Meyer published a peer-reviewed paper in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington arguing that intelligent design best explains the rapid “explosion” of biological information in the Cambrian period.

Casey Luskin
President emeritus, IDEA Center


I was mentioned in the article “Ultimate Questions.” I hope to set the record straight about what the issues really are.

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Charles Townes said, “Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real.” Another Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Richard Smalley, wrote, “Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. ... [After studying the origin of life] with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear evolution could not have occurred.”

If world-renowned scientists can accept ID, why should there be such a fuss about pro-ID students at UVA? Acceptance of ID is not a hindrance to the pursuit of science. If that were the case, there would have been no great scientists in the past like Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Pasteur, Mendel and Plank, or Nobel laureates like Townes and Smalley in the present.

The real issue is epitomized by the work of world-class physicists like John Barrow, whose mathematical derivations of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics imply that the source of the universe (and thus all life) is a super-intelligence. Whether Barrow and other ID-sympathetic scientists are ultimately correct is the real issue. Everything else pales in comparison.

Salvador Cordova
IDEA Center affiliate
Falls Church, Va.


Darwinism is now treated like the American state religion, argues author Ann Coulter. Gullible judges impose orthodoxy on the government school system. Americans who reject Darwinism are forced to pay for it to be taught unchallenged in government schools.

Challenges to Darwinism now come from scientists and other specialists, for nonreligious reasons: An embryologist predicts that Darwinism will be seen as one of the greatest deceits in the history of science; a Nobel-laureate physicist calls the theory of evolution an obstacle to thought; a specialist calculates that the probability that the DNA molecule, containing more information than a small library, developed by accident is close to zero. “Where there is information there is a preceding intelligence,” asserts George Gilder (“Evolution and Me,” National Review, July 17, 2006).

Life from dead matter (once), order from disorder, mind-boggling designs with no designer, information without preceding intelligence, transitional forms missing from the fossil record, bogus missing links, a core tautology—believing in godless Darwinism demands more faith than believing in the Supreme Designer.

Lew Lesko (Arch ’72)
Clarksville, Del.


Thanks for publishing my letter in the Fall ’06 issue. Your editing removed one important point of my letter; that is, that the politicization of scientific fields of inquiry can effectively rule out certain lines of research. In this case, the line of research is a determination of whether or not the universe was created by an intelligent designer.

Science has, I think, hampered itself by insisting there is no intelligent designer, rather than exploring the ultimate truth of this hypothesis. There is a long-held fear that acknowledging religion somehow leads to, or actually comprises, its establishment, and it is true that a particular creed should not hold sway over science. But it is also true that science should not arbitrarily direct legitimate lines of inquiry.

If we assume that there is nothing outside of science, as arbitrarily defined, then there is no logic which concludes that there is a higher purpose for mankind. This approach is more likely to lead to disaster rather than divinity.

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


The current controversy over evolution and intelligent design recalls an earlier controversy over the nature of light. Sir Isaac Newton proposed a particle theory, but it was later largely rejected in favor of a wave theory. The scales had tipped so far by 1890 that Heinrich Hertz asserted, “The wave theory of light is from the point of view of human beings a certainty.” However, within a few decades new discoveries led scientists to agree that both wave and particle theories are needed to provide an adequate theory of light, and the phrase “wave-particle duality” was coined to embrace both theories. As familiar as scientists are with this history, it is surprising that most of them are now so hostile to the idea of dual theories to explain life.

Walter S. Friauf (Engr ’64)
Bethesda, Md.


Jefferson’s own words on the ID issue speak for themselves. In a letter to John Adams in April 1816, Jefferson wrote: “I hold, on the contrary, that when we take a view of the universe; ... the movements of the heavenly bodies so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces; the structure of our earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere; animal and vegetable bodies, whether an insect, man or mammoth; it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a Fabricator of all things from matter and motion” (The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson, Charles B. Sanford, University of Virginia Press, 1984). Jefferson goes on to say the creation indicates a “first cause, possessing intelligence and power, power in the production, and intelligence in the design” and in the “constant preservation of the system.”

One of the first quotations most of us would remember from Jefferson is “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” I cannot help but think he would have been disappointed by those wishing to suppress your provocative article.

Robert F. Baldwin Jr. (Com ’62, GSBA ’68)
Alexandria, Va.


Although I am inclined to agree that intelligent design is not a science in the traditional sense, the emotion in the letter from Professor Beyer et al. is as palpable as it is inappropriate. The problem with most defenses of the theory of evolution is that, instead of stating clearly and succinctly why opponents are mistaken, the defenders pose as selfless and long-suffering seekers of truth and respond self-righteously with more fallacies than a sophomore logic quiz.

The truth is that the theory of evolution is based almost solely on the fairly limited adaptability of species, as chronicled by Darwin and others over the years, to environmental conditions. The problem with relying on adaptation is that neither the fossil record nor any laboratory experimentation has demonstrated more than modest intraspecies changes. Thus, the theory requires faith that the hypothesis will ultimately be vindicated by evidence of transspecies adaptation that, at present, simply does not exist. The theory also requires faith not only that the living organism that started the miraculous evolutionary process was generated spontaneously out of muck, but also that scientists will ultimately be able to demonstrate the initiation of life in the laboratory.

The theory also has serious probability problems. What is the likelihood that life forms generated on their own and not only survived, but multiplied exponentially and grew increasingly complex by random forces?

Equally troubling is the irreducible complexity problem (illustrated in the article by the bacterial flagellum) that Beyer et al. sweep aside with this blow-one-by-the-rubes smokescreen: “[T]he flagella assembly is known to be homologous ... 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.” This pedantic eyewash should have embarrassed every scientist in every science department at UVA.

Typical of defenses of evolutionary theory, these selfless seekers of truth unsheathed their big gun: the ad hominem in which any person who is not bowled over by evidentiary fluff is compared to people who think earthquakes are God’s handiwork and the earth is the center of the universe. The selfless seekers then pluck Galileo from the pages of history to shame unbelievers into acquiescence and unmask the errant forces of religion. They fail to note that, prior to Galileo, most people (including the scientific community) thought erroneously that the sun circled the earth. They also fail to note that scientists initially thought that the earth is flat; that bacteria in milk resulted from exposure to air; that humans’ mental and physical constitution was determined by “humors.” The history of science is so strewn with bogus hypotheses that it should engender not the arrogances of Beyer et al.’s letter, but a profound and deeply felt humility.

J. William Lewis (Law ’68)
Fairhope, Ala.


Hundreds of scientists are studying intelligence: human intelligence, animal intelligence, and, for that matter, artificial intelligence. Is it the contention of these biologists [Beyer et al.] that none of that is science? That all their research should only be allowed in a religious discussion? That would be absurd. Intelligence is not a mystical fantasy; it is a known natural phenomenon that scientists define, measure and study, and therefore it could also be the cause of other phenomena.

The biologists ask, “Why is the concept of evolution so troubling to proponents of ID?” But that question cuts both ways. Why is ID so troubling to the proponents of Darwinism? The Darwinists are afraid of a debate because they are not confident that the evidence supports their theory. They are afraid of a debate because they don’t think they can win it.

Sonja (Nutley) West (Grad ’89)
Auburn, Wash.

The letters from the fall issue referenced here—and the intelligent design article—are located here: Fall 2006 Letters and “Ultimate Question”.—Ed.

Restless Spring

I remember well the unrest on the Grounds during 1970 (“Unrest on Grounds,” Fall 2006). During that time I had been corresponding with my younger brother, who was serving in Vietnam. His commitment to the war did not allow him to understand why university students were demonstrating.

My Ph.D. adviser was physics professor Frank L. Hereford, then provost of the University (and later president). I was laboriously typing my dissertation when I heard about the unrest. Out of respect for my brother, I could not allow myself to get involved in the unrest. I had grave concerns whether the University would stay open.

My prayers were soon answered when Hereford showed up for my oral defense on May 14. He walked into the lecture hall forlorn; it turned out that he had been up three days and nights, without sleep, along with Edgar Shannon, addressing the needs of the University.

Fortunately, my oral defense went well, and Hereford’s signature is clearly legible on the title page of my dissertation. My brother returned home from Vietnam about a year later.

Glenn E. Spangler (Grad ’70)
Lutherville, Md.

College Bound

Thank you for the outstanding article “College Bound and Determined” (Fall 2006). I am a school administrator and an International Baccalaureate coordinator at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va. The article provided a very good overview for parents and students about the process at UVA and made some very important points about what students should be doing to prepare for college in general and UVA in particular.

IB diploma candidates are particularly competitive. The biggest problem they have is overload, often because they are trying to “out-guess” the college admissions process. I especially liked the advice you gave, “Drop out of a club or sport if your academic load is too much; the admission office won’t think you’re a quitter.” I hear this a lot from my students who think just that.

The end of the article suggests that taking a substantial number of honors classes and at least one Advanced Placement class in a student’s junior year is a characteristic of successful applicants. I suggest that you include IB courses as well as AP courses. IB diploma candidates at UVA have lower dropout rates, higher GPAs and virtually none of the transition problems that other students have—including their AP counterparts—yet they were not recognized at all in your article.

Marilyn Leeb
Arlington, Va.

Another Perspective on Honor

It’s been with a great deal of fascination that I’ve read the letters from alumni regarding the Honor System and how wonderful it truly was in “their day.”

Here’s the reality of the Honor System today. If you’re a minority student, an international student or an athlete, you are more than four times more likely to have a case initiated against you than if you’re a white nonathlete. So few cases are reported that probably more than 3,000 honor violations go unreported every year. The biggest difference? Our University is no longer a small community, but a huge one. A single-sanction system is simply no longer feasible.

Ending the single sanction has nothing to do with saying dishonesty is OK. No one here wants lying, cheating or stealing to be approved of, and it is utterly absurd to suggest we do. Instead, we want a system where all violations are punished, a system that allows people who make mistakes to be punished without being expelled (because today a mistake means you’re either expelled or completely unpunished), a system that is not racist, and a system that doesn’t encourage students to lie (after all, if you’re guilty and are accused, your safest bet is to lie your way through the process).

Sam Leven (Col ’07)
President, Hoos Against Single Sanction
Vienna, Va.

In Katrina’s Wake

Hundreds of cable and satellite TV channels, with their infinite capacity for angst, have been showing us endless post-Katrina documentaries “from the viewpoint of those most affected.”

In the magazine of a great university, post-Katrina, some of us hope for an engineering article examining the flood-control measures that did perform as they were designed, and why, and the lessons they teach. We might learn some of the unique aspects of demography and sociology still evolving in the aftermath of America’s largest abrupt population dislocation. If we’re really blessed, we might read a study of motivation comparing the rapid recovery of rural Cajuns with the struggles of urbanites that attempts to explain the difference.

Barry R. Plotnick (Col ’59)
Charlottesville, Va.


What steps are being taken to reverse the loss of the marshlands so critical to the life of Louisiana and New Orleans? Surely the most critical move to prevent further catastrophes is to allow Mother Nature the opportunity to begin healing the damage.

Elizabeth C. Gathright (Col ’74)
Batesville, Va.

Christina Melton, producer of the documentary Washing Away and subject of the Fall 2006 article “After the Storm,” responds:

There is hope for Louisiana’s coast, but no easy solution. Scientists no longer believe massive Mississippi River diversions would quickly rebuild lost land. Instead, a combination of projects is working—including small-scale river diversions, beach restoration and sediment transfer—but not on a scale large enough to counter massive losses. The cost of such an undertaking is more than Louisiana, alone, can bear. But as the nation has seen, the cost of not protecting its most productive coastal ecosystem and its vital energy and navigation infrastructure is exponentially greater.

Louisianans understand this is a matter of survival. In September, 80 percent of voters approved constitutional changes to reform regional flood control and dedicate all future offshore oil and gas revenues to coastal protection. Unfortunately, Congress has failed to reconcile House and Senate bills that would give the state a share of more than $5 billion the government earns annually from oil and gas that passes through Louisiana’s fragile wetlands. One thing is for certain: time is running out.

Memories of Busing

I enjoyed the article on the University Transit Service and the experience of being a student bus driver (“Student Driven,” Spring 2006). I served in UTS for over two years and during that time amassed over 3,000 hours of driving time.

The most valuable and lasting experience from my time with UTS was that of meeting my future wife, Noelle Wainwright (Col ’90), who was also a UTS driver. We were married 16 years ago, shortly after graduating from UVA.

The esteem that Noelle holds for bus driving was evident at our wedding. At one point during the festivities, Noelle’s grandmother approached her and commented, “Dear, when you told me you were engaged, you said you were marrying the best bus driver at UVA. You didn’t mention that he was also going to medical school!”

Harrison F. Warner, M.D. (Col ’89)
Nashville, Tenn.

On Time

I enjoyed Paul Evans’ article, “Clock Work: Exploring the Essence of Time” (Fall 2006). Brooks Pate’s interest in mechanics, Gene Block’s and Michael Menaker’s interest in chronobiology, David Germano’s understanding of Tibetan reincarnational time, and Jim Clawson’s presentation of time as just one of the tools for optimizing “energy management,” are interesting and fun.

There was a clock maker named Effingham Embree who plied his trade in New York City in the 1780s and 1790s. His clocks can be viewed in the White House, at the Henry Ford Museum, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, and at the Florence Griswold Museum, among other places.

Effingham Embree had a descendent who attended the University—a religious studies major, as a matter of fact. The University’s education being a well-rounded one, he was well schooled in religious, physiological, mechanical, and business and personal understandings of “time.”

What is the lyric from the old Chambers Brothers’ tune, “The Time Has Come Today”? My soul’s been psychedelicized.

Laurent LeBien (Col ’84)
New Orleans

Passing of a True Cavalier

On May 10, 2006, the University and the Commonwealth of Virginia lost a true Virginia gentleman when my uncle and godfather, Norman R. “Jiggs” Tingle Sr. (Col ’47), passed away. His obituary appeared in the Fall 2006 issue, but it just didn’t capture who Jiggs was and what the University meant to him.

He loved the University. He loved the history and the Honor System and all that the University had to offer. Within days of my acceptance at Virginia, a gift arrived in the mail from Jiggs: a blue-and-orange tie. He and I talked over the years, but not often enough, about the football or basketball teams. He was always the optimist, ending many of our calls with a familiar phrase, “This year will be Virginia’s year.” I was proud when I could offer him tickets to a game because he so enjoyed cheering for his Hoos.

Jiggs was a simple man. He was honest, unselfish and respectful. He was a Cavalier, and I will miss him.

John C. Merriwether (Col ’87)
Naples, Fla.

Nuclear Enrichment

Having read with great interest Maura Singleton’s article about UVA’s early nuclear research [“The Cerenkov Blue,” Summer 2006] and the suspension of this country’s gas centrifuge enrichment program in the 1980s, we thought you would be interested to learn that U.S. centrifuge technology is alive and well.

Today, our company, USEC Inc., is in the midst of demonstrating and deploying a new centrifuge enrichment plant based on the technology developed by the U.S. Department of Energy and building on the work done by Jesse Beams of UVA. The American Centrifuge will feature expected improvements in efficiency through the use of modern materials, control systems and manufacturing processes.

As opposed to once being considered a technology with darkening prospects, the future of nuclear energy these days is looking brighter than ever. Countries around the world, including the United States, now recognize that nuclear energy is the only baseload power source that does not emit harmful greenhouse gases and is our main tool in the battle to limit global warming. Companies around the world are busily recruiting nuclear engineers to meet the demand for new nuclear power plants. A number of leading universities across the United States have seen enrollment in their nuclear engineering programs double over the last five years, thanks to the growing call for nuclear scientists and engineers under the nuclear renaissance.

Timothy B. Hansen (Law ’89)
Senior vice president, general counsel and secretary, USEC Inc.
Vienna, Va.

Robert Van Namen (Engr ’83, ’84)
Senior vice president, USEC Inc.
Chevy Chase, Md.

Car Trouble

An item appearing in the Fall issue of Virginia Magazine on Robert Montague (Col ’56, Law ’61) and his 1922 Lincoln Model L incorrectly stated how Montague obtained the car. Mr. Montague inherited the car from the estate of Mrs. Joseph E. Willard, the first cousin of his grandfather; thus the car has remained in Montague’s family since its original purchase. —Ed.