Science - May 26, 2005

Debate / Intelligent design

The Minister of Education, Maria van der Hoeven, wants to organise a hearing on the place of evolutionary theory and ‘intelligent design’ within Dutch education. The minister said this in an interview in the Dutch daily, de Volkskrant, and it led to a commotion in the Dutch parliament and among scientists. The criticism levelled was that the minister is not capable of separating church and state. Is this justified?

Minister of Education Maria van der Hoeven, on her blog:
‘I had an interesting conversation with Cees Dekker, a nanotechnologist in Delft and winner of the Spinoza Prize. He is a supporter of the ‘intelligent design’ body of thought. This comes down to the idea that there is a ‘designer’, a creator behind all existence here on earth. It was an exciting conversation. I was talking to someone who knows how to combine science and personal belief very well. I do not believe in ‘coincidence’ either. One of the binding factors of Islam, Judaism and Christianity is the notion that there is a ‘creator’, regardless of how this notion is further made explicit by the different religions. I see opportunities here to create further links, particularly through academic debate. If we succeed in bringing scientists from different faiths together, we may be able to ultimately introduce the results in schools and lessons. A few people from the ministry of education will continue with Dekker to see how we can shape the debate.’

Dr Herman van Eck, of the Laboratory of Plant Breeding, a Christian and evolution sceptic, but ‘definitely not a creationist’:
‘Darwin looked at different species of finches, and it led to the thought that species arise from other species as a result of evolution. People who support ‘intelligent design’ are aware of the immense complexity of life. That then leads to the thought that there is an intelligent design behind ‘irreducibly complex systems’. Both thoughts are expressions of belief and in my opinion they do not belong within the scientific domain. I make a distinction between micro- and macroevolution. All proof that we have concerns microevolution, like population genetics. Macro-evolutionary theory is as watertight as a sieve. Why can’t we just say, we simply don’t know?

‘I am not a creationist. People who declare that the earth was created in six days are pseudo scientists. What I say is that the theory of evolution is not sufficient. Ask how a living single-celled organism arose out of the primordial soup and the evolutionists have no answer. I think that it requires more belief to accept evolutionary theory as the only explanation for the origin of life than for the belief in an invisible world. Evolutionary theory is a theory, and every theory is provisional. What disturbs me is the arrogance of people who act as if we already know everything. Evolutionary theory then becomes evolutionism, a blind belief in that theory, and that is not scientific. I have no ready-made alternative, but I can see that this theory is not sufficient. In education there should be more emphasis placed on the nuances. Muslims and Christians who question evolutionary theory should not immediately be portrayed as backward people with a medieval mentality.’

Professor of Animal Sciences, Johan van Leeuwen, published recently on the super fast chameleon tongue. Critics of evolutionary theory cite his research results as evidence of a creator:
‘This is not something I have been going around suggesting, quite the opposite. You could regard our results rather as evidence of evolution. The chameleon’s tongue is wonderfully optimised, but not the best design. Lungless salamanders also have a ballistic tongue, but it is actually part of their skeleton which is projected, rather than muscle tissue as in the chameleon. Because the salamanders’ bones are lighter than muscle tissue the speed of the tongue is even faster. A creator would therefore probably have given the chameleon a different tongue; why would you give an animal a suboptimal design? The chameleon provides an example of how nature, given a certain starting point, goes in search of an optimum. The starting point determines where you arrive.

‘It might be a good idea if Maria van der Hoeven attended the introductory lectures in evolutionary biology that are given in Wageningen. There is an enormous body of scientific observations that make it highly unlikely that the theory does not hold up. On the other hand there is no proof of an intelligent design. The minister is confusing two separate domains. Evolutionary theory belongs to the domain of science, intelligent design to that of religion. In the scientific domain you use purely logical arguments. The enormous support that evolutionary theory has just wipes intelligent design off the map.’

Korné Versluis