University separates itself from professor in Dover suit
Monday, October 17, 2005
BY BILL SULON Of The Patriot-News
When Lehigh University professor Michael Behe testifies today at the high-profile federal trial on intelligent design, his fellow faculty members won't be beaming with pride.
Behe, a biochemistry professor, is one of the leading proponents of intelligent design -- the belief that some parts of the universe are so complex that they must be the work of an intelligent designer.
He's also in the minority among scientists on campus and beyond.
In his book "Darwin's Black Box," Behe argues that many molecular systems in the cell are "irreducibly complex" -- meaning that they cannot function if they are missing just one of their many parts -- and that such systems "were deliberately designed by an intelligent agent."
Fellow professors say Behe has the right as well as the academic freedom to embrace his hypothesis. But they also say intelligent design is not science.
Behe will be the first witness to take the stand on behalf of the Dover Area School District, which is in court defending its policy requiring that a statement referring to intelligent design be read to ninth-grade science students at the start of an evolution unit.
Behe is prominent in the intelligent-design community. Once he testifies in the trial, which has attracted global media attention, his name and that of his university will be linked in countless news reports.
On his Web page as a faculty member at Lehigh's department of biological sciences, Behe says his ideas about irreducible complexity and intelligence are his own.
Because of the increased unwanted publicity Behe is generating at Lehigh and comments made by President Bush in support of intelligent design, Behe's department chairman and his colleagues posted a disclaimer of their own on their department's Web site.
The department's faculty members are "unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years," said the statement, posted Aug. 22. "The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of 'intelligent design.' While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific."
Department Chairman Neal Simon said he and his colleagues issued the disclaimer because they "felt it was necessary to take a more public position reflecting that professor Behe's views on intelligent design are not science and should not be treated as science."
To emphasize the point, the department invited noted biologist Kenneth R. Miller to speak on campus last week. Miller, who co-authored the "Biology" textbook used by a third of the nation's high school students -- including those in Dover -- testified two weeks ago in the federal trial, during which he criticized Behe and intelligent design.
"Certainly, the position he is articulating is fully consistent with all other members of the faculty," Simon said of Miller, a Brown University biology professor.
Miller testified during the trial that neither "Darwin's Black Box" nor "Of Pandas and People" -- another book critical of evolution and supportive of intelligent design -- provide scientifically testable evidence for their theories. "Pandas" is mentioned in the Dover statement as a reference book available to students interested in learning about intelligent design.
"Both books rely entirely on negative inferences by saying that if evolution has problems, if evolution is wrong, then we can go ahead and say it's a designer," Miller testified. He later added, "The logic of picking out intelligent design, which is inherently untestable, and saying that any evidence against evolution is evidence for intelligent design employs a logical fallacy that I think most scientists reject."
Outside the courtroom, Miller wore a mousetrap as a tie clip. He referred a reporter with a question about the mousetrap to "Darwin's Black Box." Behe said in a phone interview that Miller removed one of the parts of the mousetrap and wore it as a tie clip to send a message that the mousetrap can work without all of its parts.
In his book, Behe refers to a mousetrap as an object that needs all of its parts to work.
Behe, who attended the opening days of the trial, said in an interview that he was "astounded" by the intense media interest in the Dover dispute, which he described as "a local happening in a local school district."
"I view this as a pretty obvious idea -- to question whether Darwinian evolution can account for all life," he said.
Simon said he has assuaged concerns of some parents who wondered if Behe's views are shared by others at the university, and said he has seen no evidence that Behe's prominent position among proponents of intelligent design has hurt the university.
"I know we've been in the media much more," Simon said.
The number of students applying to Lehigh has increased annually since 1998, as have the average SAT scores and class standing of those students, he said. Despite those trends, Simon said he was left with little choice but to post the disclaimer and speak out against Behe.
"As chairman of the biological sciences department, I am acting in ways I believe are in the best interest of the department and its reputation," he said, adding that his decision also was aided by a comment that President Bush made in August about teaching intelligent design.
Bush, speaking to reporters at the White House, said, "Both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about. Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. ... You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
Intelligent design could be taught in classes on philosophy, religion or the history of science, but not in science class, Simon said.
"I believe it's a political and religious issue," he said. "It's not considered science."
Behe has accepted his role as an outsider in the scientific community and on campus.
"Let's face it, I'm the best-known person in this controversy, so it's understandable they would do that," he said of the university disclaimer.
Behe and his colleagues in the department swap smiles but little else on campus, he said.
Asked if he eats lunch with his fellow professors, Behe said, "I was never one to mix. I'm kind of a shy guy. Even before all this, I ate at my desk."
BILL SULON: 255-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org
©2005 The Patriot-News
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