Stephen Meyer remembers the parade of prominent provocative thinkers who traipsed through McFarlin Auditorium in the mid-1980s when he was studying graduate-level mathematics at Southern Methodist University. So he's bemused by the stance of the university's science professors, who recently tried to shut down a conference he organized for April 13-14 at McFarlin with co-sponsorship by the SMU law school's Christian Legal Society. Dubbed "Darwin Versus Design," the confab will focus on intelligent design, or the theory that life has its genesis in intelligence rather than Darwinian randomness and natural selection.
"The largest objection began with the title itself," says Larry Ruben, chair of SMU's biology department. "This was going to be some kind of a scientific debate, Darwin versus intelligent design."
Ruben protests the conference is misleading and dishonest—not really a debate about competing origin-of-life theories at all, since there are no Darwinists on the conference panel. It is simply an intelligent design binge. "What really irked the most was it appeared to be a program on science on something that scientists don't accept as being science."
Michael Keas, professor of the history and philosophy of science at Biola University in Southern California and a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, an I.D.-promoting group that is organizing the conference, makes no apologies for the exclusion of Darwinists. "The other side has traditionally had a monopoly in higher education," he says. "So this is a good opportunity for design theorists to make their case."
But Meyer, who as director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture is a featured speaker at the conference, says objections such as Ruben's stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of intelligent design theory emanating from distorted media portrayals and U.S. District Judge John E. Jones' December 2005 ruling in a Dover, Pennsylvania, lawsuit challenging a school board's requirement that biology teachers mention I.D. Jones ruled intelligent design is not science because it doesn't put forward any testable hypotheses.
"The main misimpression that's been given of intelligent design is that it is a religious or faith-based theory," Meyer says. "In fact the theory is based on scientific evidence."
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What evidence? Item one, Meyer says, is the presence of the vast amounts of sophisticated information encoded in DNA molecules. "[T]here is only one cause that is sufficient to produce information, and that cause is intelligence," he says.
Meyer insists I.D. theory is not opposed to the idea that life evolved over billions of years. It is opposed to the idea that life arose purely through undirected material processes. "The God part is not part of the theory," he says.
But it seems conference organizers have taken Ruben's criticisms to heart. Late last week the Discovery Institute issued a letter to the chairs of the SMU science departments who sought to shut down the conference and invited them to join the public discussion.
Meyer has doubts they'll join in. Academics fear such participation dignifies the I.D. discussion with legitimacy, he says. "This is an exciting discussion," Meyer says. "People actually find that we don't drool and drag our knuckles."