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Don’t Question Authority

Diverse probe into Darwinism is met with intolerance at Baptist Baylor

Baylor University in Waco, Texas, is deeply committed to retaining its Baptist identity — so a student solemnly assured me when I visited the campus recently. Many parents pay dearly to send their children to a university that will pass on their Baptist heritage.
Those same parents might be surprised to learn that the Baylor faculty wants to shut down a new center on campus devoted to science and religion. Why? Because it has committed the thought crime of questioning Darwinism.

The focus of the controversy is the Michael Polanyi Center, founded in October 1999. (Polanyi was a renowned chemist and philosopher who argued that life cannot be reduced to physics and chemistry.) MPC director William Dembski comes well credentialed, with Ph.D.s in mathematics and philosophy. His The Design Inference was published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press, and his popular-level Intelligent Design was named among the year’s 10 most influential books by Christianity Today.

In April, the Center held a star-studded conference that should have made any university proud. The topic was whether nature yields evidence of something beyond nature. Exciting new findings in several fields suggest that the answer is yes.

The revolution in molecular biology in recent decades has revealed that the core of life is a message–the DNA code. This recasts the classic design argument as a question about the origin of biological information: Who or what “wrote” the code?

The new field of information theory tells us that messages are not produced by chemical or physical forces in the constituent atoms. Instead, they require an intelligent cause.

Recent evidence from the physical universe is updating the design argument as well. Astrophysicists have learned that the physical constants of the universe are exquisitely fine-tuned to support life (the “anthropic principle”). Who set the “dials” to produce a universe just right for life? Does evidence from nature point to a Mind or Intelligence beyond nature?

The interest these questions spark is reflected in the stature of the scientists who spoke at the conference, including two Nobel Prize winners: physicist Steven Weinberg and cell biologist Christian De Duve. Other speakers included prominent leaders in their field, such as astronomer Alan Guth, philosopher John Searle, and paleontologist Simon Conway Morris.

Conference speakers represented a wide spectrum of views. Proponents of naturalistic evolution engaged with defenders of theistic evolution, such as Howard Van Till, professor emeritus at Calvin College, and Ernan McMullin of Notre Dame. The roster also included leaders of the intelligent design movement, including Michael Behe, author of the celebrated Darwin’s Black Box; Henry Schaefer of the University of Georgia (nominated repeatedly for the Nobel Prize in chemistry); and Steve Meyer, director of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute.

Despite the wide divergence of views, sessions were marked by a spirit of respect and cordiality. The tone was captured at the closing banquet, when Christian De Duve lifted his wine glass and commended participants for conducting discussions with remarkable patience and good humor.

All said, the conference embodied the best liberal virtues of diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness.

Yet, strangely, many of the Baylor faculty refused even to attend. Instead, they denounced design theorists to the local media as “stealth creationists,” whose “pseudo-science” threatens to undermine the university’s reputation.

Days later, on April 18, the faculty senate voted 26-2 to ask president Robert Sloan to dissolve the MPC. President Sloan refused, but promised to establish a peer-review committee, composed of outside scholars, to evaluate the Center.

The irony is that other universities are holding similar conferences, treating questions about design as perfectly legitimate within science. In 1997, the philosophy department at the University of Texas at Austin hosted a conference titled “Naturalism, Theism, and the Scientific Enterprise.” Next month, Concordia University in Wisconsin will hold one on “Design and Its Critics.”

The MPC is raising questions that deserve a fair hearing, and President Sloan is to be commended for standing up to pressure to silence the debate. Even if intelligent design were the same as creationism, it would deserve a hearing–but design theory doesn’t start with the Bible, as creationism does. Instead, design theorists start with the empirical data and look for the best explanation of certain structures.

Sometimes the best scientific explanation is one that posits the existence of something beyond science-and nature does indeed point to a Mind beyond nature.