October 26, 2005

Provine Talks on Intelligent Design Debate

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William Provine, the C.A. Alexander Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, gave a lecture entitled “Evolution and Intelligent Design” at Alpha Delta Phi fraternity last night.

The lecture came on the heels of Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III’s condemnation of the push to teach intelligent design in public schools during the his State of the University Address. Provine played video clips of debates between himself and Phillip E. Johnson, a former U.C.-Berkley American law professor. Johnson is considered by many to be the father of intelligent design, the theory that many, if not all, natural realities are too complicated to have developed by chance and instead explain them as designed by an intelligent force.

As noted in a Sun article earlier this week and as mentioned in Rawlings’ University address, Provine said surveys of his own students over the years show a range of 50 to 70 percent believe in a “purpose driven,” rather than mechanistic, evolution.

“When I asked him about humans and chimpanzees – ‘Do they share a common ancestor?’ – he immediately offered up the theory that genetic similarity offers no guide for relations,” Provine said. “He said it doesn’t make any differences if chimpanzees have 99 percent of the same genome.”

According to Provine, Johnson affirmed that his belief that God gave humans an immortal soul and free will comes into his reasoning about whether humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor.

“But he also said I.D. has nothing to do with religion,” Provine said.

He described this assertion as either “naive, dishonest, or possessing judgement of how to get their way in government and the schools of this nation.”

Similarly, he categorized Johnson as a “theocrat,” but noted that Johnson would likely deny such a claim.

Provine said he welcomes intelligent design debates brought on by inquiring students in his own classes and in classes throughout the country, but said “you can’t teach I.D. in the public schools, because it’s illegal to teach religion in the schools. Unless they all get changed the way Phillip Johnson wants to have them changed. Then we can do that. Then we go back to the way it was when I was a kid in school.”

“I don’t actually have any problem about talking about moral behavior in any class,” Provine said. “I think it’s a great thing for people to do, and I don’t think we do enough of it at Cornell.” “Is [intelligent design] taking over our schools? No, it’s not,” Provine said.

Provine also described intelligent design as an “utterly boring” theory, one that offers the “same answer for every irreducible mechanism.”

Provine said he once asked Prof. Michael Behe, biological sciences, Lehigh University, a major proponent of intelligent design, why he was not “bored to tears” by the theory, to which he paused for a while before answering, “I don’t find it that boring at all.”

Despite serious academic disagreement, Provine mentioned his personal affection for Johnson and appreciation of diverse and lively debate throughout the lecture. Provine described an incident during a debate with Johnson at Ithaca College, where an audience member rushed the stage and accosted Provine, apparently in response to the professor’s disbelief of the existence of free will.

According to Provine, Johnson acted quickly to stop the attacker. Provine also shared his reservations over what he categorized as Johnson’s negative views on same-sex marriage and Islam.

Thomas Chandy ’03 said he was amazed by Provine’s “openness to other theories and thoughts, and interest in discussing and debating those other theories and thoughts,” but felt that one does not have to reject religous miracles to believe in evolution, as Provine does.

Ryan Weggler ’06 said he was “dumfounded by creationists and how they throw God into the mix at all. Whether or not you believe in God or have your specific religion, you can’t refute evolutionary biology.”

The lecture was part of their Faculty Speaker Series open to the entire Cornell community. Previous speakers in the series include National Book Award recipient A.R. Ammons, Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer, and the late Carl Sagan, the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Cornell Laboratory for Planetary Studies.

Archived article by Brian Kaviar
Sun Staff Writer