Drawing from sources ranging from Cornell’s founders to Voyager space missions, Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III condemned the push to teach intelligent design in public schools Friday. The attack came during the president’s State of the University Address before a joint session of the Board of Trustees and University Council.
Calling intelligent design “a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea,” Rawlings made the unusual move of addressing a larger public policy issue rather than giving an assessment of the University’s recent performance and upcoming initiatives.
This contrasts sharply with last year’s address, in which then-President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 unveiled a vision for expanding Cornell’s international and scientific breadth, proposing a new computing and information science facility and recapping a year of building relationships with foreign universities.
Absent new major University initiatives, Rawlings instead used the opportunity to join a national debate on the topic which he said held “fundamental educational, intellectual and political implications.”
“I am convinced that the political movement seeking to inject religion into state policy and our schools is serious enough to require our collective time and attention,” he said.
Intelligent design is the belief that nature and complex structures were ultimately designed, directly or indirectly, by a higher intelligence, rather than mechanistic chance.
Rawlings said that the belief, lacking the ability to be tested and modified based on experimental results, was not valid science.
“We should not suspend, or rather annul, the rules of science in order to allow any idea into American education. Intelligent design is a subjective concept. It is, at its core, a religious belief,” he said.
Citing a Pew Research Center poll stating that 38 percent of Americans favor teaching creationism instead of evolution in schools, Rawlings acknowledged that the topic was a highly contested one. “Even here at Cornell, there are sharp divisions on the issue,” he said. “Each year in his large course on evolution for non-majors, Will Provine, the C.A. Alexander Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, asks his students a set of questions about evolution.”
“The exact percentages vary a bit from year to year, but typically about half the students come out in favor of some sort of ‘purpose’ informing the process through which life develops and half come out on the side of mechanistic evolution,” he said.
Tracing anti-evolution movements from the Wilberforce-Huxley debates to the modern day, Rawlings argued that, with intelligent design proponents “well-organized” and “resolute,” the issue takes on a new urgency, especially given a “culturally and politically” polarized nation.
“When ideological division replaces informed exchange,” he said, “dogma is the result and education suffers.”
The current widespread belief in intelligent design, Rawlings argued, made it a good subject for social scientists and humanists, but its lack of scientific basis left it outside the bounds of biology and evolutionary study.
“This is above all a cultural issue, not a scientific one,” he said.
Drawing on the traditions of University founders Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, Rawlings said that Cornell has a responsibility, as a non-sectarian institution, to promote inquiry into issues of science, humanities and faith.
Quoting Andrew Dickson White’s assertion that Cornell “be under the control of no political party and of no single religious sect,” Rawlings noted that theological plurality and the defense of science had long been hallmarks of the University.
To underline the former point, he read a letter placed by Ezra Cornell in the cornerstone of Sage Hall on May 15, 1873:
“… the principal danger, and I say almost the only danger I see in the future to be encountered by the friends of education, and by all lovers of true liberty is that which may arise from sectarian strife,” Cornell wrote. “From these halls, sectarianism must be forever excluded, all students must be left free to worship God, as their conscience shall dictate, and all persons of any creed or all creeds must find free and easy access, and a hearty and equal welcome, to the educational facilities possessed by the Cornell University …”.
Pointing to 26 Cornell United Religious Works-affiliated groups and an array of religious course study, Rawlings said that Cornell’s non-sectarian nature encourages religious diversity to flourish.
He drew a parallel between Cornell and the United States in this respect, saying that James Madison’s life-long quest to separate church and state ultimately led to an America more accepting of all religions.
“The United States, it is worth noting, where church and state are most rigorously separated, is also the country where churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship flourish, where a healthy pluralism predominates and where everyone is free to worship as he or she chooses.”
Echoing Madison’s words, he cautioned that “when religion moves beyond the private realm and into the public square, it must do so with great care, otherwise it creates serious potential dangers to the civic polity and to religion itself.”
Rawlings said intelligent design, actually religion rebranded as science, presents such a danger, one that must be confronted by the academic world, including the University.
“We have at Cornell great intellectual resources to deal with the current attacks on science and reason,” Rawlings said, asking Cornell academics to “venture outside the campus to help the American public sort through these complex issues.”
“When professors tend only to their own disciplinary gardens, public discourse is seriously undernourished,” he added.
He encouraged social scientists to question how, if at all, intelligent design fits into the public discourse, and what would constitute evidence for an “intelligent designer.”
Humanists, he added, should be asking if “reason and faith [are] polar opposites.”
“These are large and important questions,” he said. “They go to the heart of our American democracy and to the essence of the human experience.”
Closing his speech, Rawlings compared the missions – and fruits of – science and academics to those of the missions of Voyager and Voyager II.
“They are the results of scientific method and experimentation, but also of imagination and creativity,” he said. “They inspire us to emotions we associate with both religion and science: awe, wonder, curiosity and an intense desire to know more.”
Rawlings said that this Cornell spirit of discovery and innovation, in addition to giving the University the knowledge that drove two rovers across a vast Martian plane and earning Cornellians MacArthur fellowships, gave the University the responsibility to “pursue knowledge and truth unfettered by political and religious dogma.”
“Cornellians who do so,” he said, “will be acting in the great tradition of Cornell’s founders, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White.”
Rawlings told The Sun that he chose the high-profile event to bring up intelligent design because it “is a very important subject … that has so much effect on education.”
He said that the speech, for which he consulted science faculty members, received a lot of positive comments.
In the end, intelligent design raises very serious questions about the larger issue of the “role of religion in broader public life.”
He said that he did not believe the speech would offend religious alumni, because “I tried to be very careful in stating that Cornell has been a great home for religion since the beginning.”
He said he was not concerned about the speech’s effect on donations, and that the use of religion for political purposes was a practice which concerned him.
Provine, referenced several times in the speech, said he was a puzzled by the remarks. “It’s not exactly clear to me what he’s saying in it,” he said.
He said that, when Rawlings discussed the poll of Provine’s
class, the president used only last year’s figures. Rather than being typical, Provine said that in prior years 70 percent of his students believed in a “purpose-driven,” rather than mechanistic, evolution – 20 points higher than the number Rawlings cited, suggesting that the number of students who believe in one form or another of intelligent design taking the course has recently dropped sharply.
“I don’t see Cornell under any pressure from the I.D. people,” he said. He added that he did not believe it was a large problem nationally, either.
He said that 50 percent of Americans believe in creationism, and that 80 percent of the rest believe in a deity-guided form of evolution.
“Is [noted intelligent design proponent] Philip Johnson speaking to a receptive audience? Sure he is,” he said. However, he said that there were still defenses from the teaching of intelligent design in schools.
“To me, the teaching of I.D. in the public school system is flatly illegal, and no I’m not particularly worried about it,” he said. A bigger problem, he said, was teaching outdated evolutionary theories that had not been updated in decades.
“I would rather [Rawlings] try to get more classics in the high schools, rather than fighting I.D.,” Provine said. “More Plato, more Aristotle, more Thycudides.”
Provine also took issue with Rawlings’ implication that intelligent design does not have any place in a science classroom.
“I don’t have to teach creationism,” he said, “but the students raise the issue, then we’ll discuss them. I’m 100 percent in favor of that, discussing that in a science class. It’s my class.”
Prof. Glenn Altschuler Ph.D. ’76, dean of continuing education, also referenced in the address, said he applauded the president for “taking on an important issue in our society and culture.”
He said that intelligent design is “indeed a perspective that has its origins in religious belief.”
The danger in it, Altschuler said, was that it “doesn’t identify itself as religious even though it is.” “Religious imperialism is growing in both confidence, influence, and in the scope at which it seeks to assert itself,” he said.
He said that this imperialism could well appear again with the recent and pending Supreme Court confirmations, as the lines between church and state are redrawn.
Hannah Maxson ’07, president of the Intelligent Design Evolution Awareness Club, state in a press release that Rawlings’ speech had a “blatant disregard for the facts concerning Intelligent Design.” The statement defended the belief: “It follows the principles of the scientific method, scorns the bias of either religion or naturalism, and attempts to follow all the available evidence to a valid conclusion.”
The statement added that “ID is testable and falsifiable, and so far it’s [sic] predictions have repeatedly been shown to be accurate.”
“We’re disappointed that [Rawlings] seemed so closed minded to all this,” Maxson told The Sun. Board of Trustees Chair Peter Meinig ’62 said that the speech was “outstanding” and that “it is great for a president to present a topic of great interest.”
“From time to time the presidents of major universities should make major statements,” he added. Also during the joint meeting, a new plan to allow applicants to apply to a primary and secondary school was announced. The board of trustees authorized the construction of the Life Sciences Technology Building.
Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun News Editor