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Students join debate on intelligent design - November 28, 2005

IDEA Clubs were mentioned in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune entitled "Students join debate on intelligent design" by Lisa Anderson. The article is below, and the original article can be read at Students join debate on intelligent design.

Students join debate on intelligent design

by Lisa Anderson

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Dappled with autumn leaves, the manicured campus of an Ivy League university in upstate New York may seem far from the cornfields of Kansas or the rural towns of central Pennsylvania, but it represents the newest of these battlefields in the growing culture war over the teaching of evolution.

The national spotlight recently has focused on school boards in Kansas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that are grappling with calls for including intelligent design, a concept critical of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, in science curricula. But a significant new front in this cultural conflict is opening in the halls of American higher education, spearheaded by science students skeptical of evolution and intrigued by intelligent design.

One of them is Hannah Maxson. A math and chemistry major at Cornell University, she founded an Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Club here this fall.

"In my opinion, both intelligent design and Darwinian evolution are science. Both have philosophical implications. Intelligent design implies the universe is somewhat directed. Darwinian evolution implies a naturalistic worldview," Maxson, 21, said.

Darwin's evolutionary theory, hailed as the cornerstone of modern biology by nearly all scientists, holds that all life on Earth shares common ancestry and developed through natural selection and random mutation. In science, a theory is generally a principle developed from facts rigorously tested over time.

Intelligent design, or ID, posits that there are complexities of life not yet explained by evolution that are best attributed to an unnamed and unseen intelligent designer. Opponents, including every major U.S. scientific organization, deride it as "neo-creo," or a high-tech version of creationism, the account of creation in Genesis in the Bible.

Cornell's IDEA Club is one of about 25 such campus organizations across the country, including a new club established at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The clubs operate under the auspices of the IDEA Center, founded in 2001 as a non-profit educational organization whose goal is "to promote intelligent design theory purely on its scientific merits," according to the organization's mission statement. The center provides clubs with organizational help, books, videos and primarily non-financial support, according to Casey Luskin, co-founder of the center and the first campus IDEA Club begun in 1999 at the University of California, San Diego.

He said the center, which has a budget of less than $10,000, remains separate from and receives no funding from the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based advocate of intelligent design.

However, several institute fellows are on the center's advisory board, including such prominent ID advocates as William Dembski and Michael Behe, and Luskin recently became the program officer for public policy and legal affairs at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.

"We have done a lot with very little. I attribute that to the fact there are so many students out there who want to talk about this issue but are not given the opportunity in their classes," Luskin said.

David Masci, a senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C., said, "As this issue has bubbled up into the national consciousness over the last 10 years, it makes sense that it would have a presence on college campuses."

God does well in poll

Masci pointed to a March Gallup Youth Survey of teens age 13 to 18. It showed that 38 percent believe "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years" and 43 percent agreed that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process." Only 18 percent said humans developed over millions of years without divine guidance.

Such numbers are nothing new for Will Provine, a biological sciences professor at Cornell University. In his annual course on evolution for non-biology majors, Provine hands out questionnaires asking students' views on evolution.

Since he began the course in 1986, the number of students saying they believed humans came about due to divine direction--whether through creationism, intelligent design or simply God's guidance--has fallen below 70 percent on only two occasions, Provine said.

"I'm really thrilled to have everyone in the course, whether you're a creationist or not," said Provine, who identifies himself as an atheist. "If they are deeply religious, I don't try to change their minds. I just encourage them to sort it out."

He said he differs from most in the evolutionary biology field because he welcomes all views and ridicules none.

That kind of tolerance is too rare, said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

"I think many of the scientific organizations have felt they had to demonize ID in order to win the argument. I think by ruling out ID in science journals and science discussions, they have given the impression that they are not willing to listen and really engage the other side," Haynes said.

Cornell student Maxson said it was such derision and lack of knowledge about intelligent design that led her to found her IDEA club, which quickly registered about 60 members.

"I was surprised at how much interest there was," said the junior from California.

She also was surprised at how much controversy ID is generating on campus.

On Oct. 21, about two weeks before Kansas redefined state science standards to include the supernatural and while a Pennsylvania federal court heard a landmark case concerning the constitutionality of teaching ID in public schools, Cornell's acting president devoted his entire state of the university address to an impassioned attack on intelligent design.

Calling it an urgent matter "of great significance to Cornell and to the country as a whole," Hunter Rawlings said, "The issue in question is the challenge to science posed by religiously based opposition to evolution, described, in its current form, as intelligent design."

He said bluntly, "ID is a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea."

Shocked by Rawlings' speech, Maxson shot back with a news release posted on the IDEA Club's Web site. She criticized Rawlings for his "blatant disregard for the facts concerning intelligent design" and for "blasting the emerging intelligent design theory as unscientific and religious in an unscrupulous, unknowledgeable manner."

Sitting over lunch in Cornell's wood-paneled Ivy Room restaurant on a recent rainy afternoon, the slight, soft-spoken Maxson said, "I expected it would be controversial in that some people would be down on it, but not controversial to the extent you would have the president of the university making a major speech on it."

But Rawlings is not the only academic leader to affirm evolution and oppose ID in recent weeks.

In September, Robert Hemenway, chancellor of the University of Kansas, sent a letter to faculty and students in which he said, "The attack on evolution continues across America and compels me to again state the obvious: The University of Kansas is a major public research university. . . . As an academic, scientific community we must affirm scientific principles."

On Monday, the university's religious studies department announced a new course to be offered in the spring: Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies.

In October, Timothy White, president of the University of Idaho, sent a similar letter to students and faculty saying, "I write to articulate the University of Idaho's position with respect to evolution: This is the only curriculum that is appropriate to be taught in our bio-physical sciences."

Emphasizing that he has a "very high respect for people of faith," Cornell's Rawlings said during a recent interview that his speech drew a strong positive response from scientists as well as other university presidents.

"I think, perhaps, more academics will get involved in this debate, and I think they should. [Earlier] they didn't want to dignify intelligent design and, second, they didn't think they had to. They didn't take this seriously as a movement. But it is now gaining a place in many public schools, and that means we'll be dealing with the results for years to come," said Rawlings, noting that he welcomed the dialogue with Cornell's IDEA Club.

"These IDEA clubs are going to face a lot of opposition on college campuses, I would predict," said Haynes of the First Amendment Center, who is an expert on religious liberty and educational organizations.

"It's a very interesting idea, so to speak, because it's students saying, `Let's have the debate. If we can't have the debate in the classroom, then we'll do it ourselves.'"

That was Jaclyn Wegner's goal when she established the IDEA Club at the U. of I. this semester.

U. of I. student's opinion

"Just hearing about how the scientific community was handling [ID], it seems that a lot of people are being kind of closed-minded, and it's causing them to be discriminatory against scientists who even question Darwin's theory. That's what has driven me to start this club," said Wegner, 21, a senior from Frankfort in south suburban Chicago who is majoring in integrative biology.

Already, she said, a Darwin Club has popped up in response, headed by a friend of hers.

"That's really cool," she said. "We are going to try to hold events together. We are not competing. We're all interested in the same issues. We are just coming from different sides."

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IDEA club chapters around the world

Armstrong Atlantic State University (Georgia)

Baraboo, Wis.

Boise State University (Idaho)

Braeside High School (Kenya)

California State University-Sacramento

Cornell University (New York)

Fork Union Military Academy (Virginia)

Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio)

George Mason University (Virginia)

Hillsdale College (Michigan)

James Madison University (Virginia)

Midwestern State University (Texas)

Myers Park High School (North Carolina)

University of Mississippi

Poway High School (California)

Pulaski Academy (Arkansas)

Seattle Central Community College

South Mecklenburg High School (North Carolina)

Stanford University (California)

Tri-Cities IDEA Club (Washington)


University of California, Berkeley

University of California, San Diego

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Missouri-Columbia

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

University of Oklahoma

University of the Philippines, Tacloban College

University of Texas at Dallas*

University of Victoria (British Columbia)

University of Virginia

Vanderbilt University* (Tennessee)

Wake Forest University (North Carolina)

Western Baptist College (Oregon)

Westminster College (Missouri)

*currently inactive

Source: Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center