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Deans' Corner —
Unintelligent Designs and the Responsibility of Educators

Robert Holub, Dean of the Undergraduate Division

March 14, 2005


Letters & Science is a college of five deans, reflecting the disciplinary scope and diversity of Berkeley's largest school or college. In the "Deans' Corner", they take turns reflecting on topics of current interest. The "Deans' Corner" is a virtual "Op Ed" page, or — if you prefer a concrete metaphor — a Sproul Plaza.

In this contribution, Undergraduate Division Dean Robert Holub discusses 'intelligent design' and the responsibility of educators to promote scientific literacy.

Dean Robert Holub

At a recent academic cocktail party I had the occasion to speak with two colleagues, both fellow humanists, about various topics in higher education. At one point the conversation turned to the notion of intelligent design, and much to my amazement both colleagues indicated a great deal of sympathy for this alternative to "Darwinism." I was shocked, and although I told them that few, if any, reputable biologists in the country subscribe to intelligent design, I could tell that they were not persuaded. Somewhat dismayed, I turned to other, more congenial issues.

That even intelligent people fall for intelligent design was disquieting. I had read the news stories describing the large numbers of people who believe that intelligent design should be taught along side Darwin's theory of natural selection, and the somewhat smaller, but more alarming group that advocates creationism or intelligent design be taught instead of Darwinism. But until that conversation with my colleagues I thought that misconceptions about evolution were a phenomenon of communities far away from Berkeley, not members of faculty of the most distinguished university in the country.

Above all I used to believe that controversies around Darwin involving genuine intellectuals belonged to the historical past. Indeed, in the decades following the initial publication of the Origin of the Species in 1859 many leading scientists took exception to the notion of natural selection and substituted something involving "design" as an alternative.

Karl Ernst von Baer, for example, a renowned zoologist whom Darwin himself lauds in the Origin of the Species, granted partial validity to natural selection, but found that there were too many questions left unanswered by a theory that relied on chance variation and required enormous spans of time for the realization of species development. In a book from 1876 von Baer lists five questions for Darwinian theory, all of which are fairly typical for the thought of his contemporaries, and which have resurfaced in some form in many discussions today. First, with regard to the creation of the first organism, from which all other organisms then develop, de Baer asks why it must occur only once? Second, if one species gradually transforms itself into another, why do we not find a wealth of transitional stages? Third, if there are deviations in one generation, why would they not revert to the norm when they procreate with the non-deviant population? Fourth, how can Darwin explain the relative stability of species? According to his view shouldn't a chaos of unstable organisms be the normal state of affairs? And finally, why do we find no historical verification for transitional stages either in the fossil record or in other evidence, such as mummies?

Von Baer's own solution to what he conceived as Darwin's dilemma was derived from an analogy to the discipline he knew best: embryology. Just as organs in an embryo are transformed in various stages on their way to a final goal, so too, von Baer reasons, the species develop with a direction and a purpose. Asserting the presence of a "goal-directedness" (Zielstrebigkeit), von Baer, like today's dissenters from Darwinism, postulates a controlling or supervising force for evolution.

Indeed, as Peter J. Bowler, the prolific historian of biology, notes, in the years following the appearance of Darwin's book, the most frequent objections to his theory came from religiously inclined individuals, or from individuals who held onto teleological notions similar to those in Christianity, all of whom advocated a type of "design." "By the end of the century," Bowler continues, "theistic, or designed, evolution was no longer under serious consideration by the scientific community" (Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism, 15).

That we are experiencing the recrudescence of a theory dismissed by knowledgeable individuals over a century ago should give us pause. And the fault lies not solely with those individuals who are uncritical, uninformed, or dogmatic in their beliefs, but also with educators, including faculty on the Berkeley campus and on college campuses across the country. In our zeal to pursue our own scholarly goals and research achievements, we have neglected one of our most important duties: the education of a general public, and even the general student public, on issues central to an informed citizenry in the twenty-first century.

I assume that all students of the biological sciences know why almost every reputable scientist subscribes to natural selection and no biologist of any stature acknowledges intelligent design. But it is not enough for scientists and students studying science to have this knowledge. English majors, political science majors, prospective law students, and social welfare graduates – everyone on the Berkeley campus should be exposed to the arguments supporting real science and to the fallacies of views based on guesswork and unfounded hypotheses.

At issue is the scientific method itself and its misunderstandings in the world of non-scientists. The ambiguous word "theory" has misled critics into believing that what Darwin proposed was something only slightly stronger than an opinion, and that other opinions, whether founded on evidence or concocted out of thin air, are therefore equally valid. But scientific theories are more than personal views asserted in public, since they are discarded by the scientific community if they have been proven false. Once they fail to account for the empirical facts and for new discoveries, they must be altered or rejected as a valid explanation. "Theories" based on mere conjecture, by contrast, are resistant to refutation because they were not developed from, nor do they insist on, accounts involving objective evidence. The difference between Darwin's theory of natural selection and the "theory" of intelligent design is exactly that the former is a scientific theory, susceptible to falsification, while the latter is a conviction, belief, or guess without foundations in facts and new discoveries.

Students need to acquire knowledge in all areas of the university. They need to think critically, but they also need to be informed about how faculty and researchers on campus go about their investigations, and why their methods make sense. Apparently, as I found out recently, even some faculty members remain unenlightened about central issues and areas of knowledge, and I must assume many students are similarly misinformed. Until we dedicate ourselves to the task of purveying the vital information and insights of our disciplines to a general public of students and colleagues, phenomena like "intelligent design" will continue to be a blight on our intellectual landscape.

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