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Darwin and design

Physicist asks science to move away from intelligent design

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October 2, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CST

The evolution-creationism debate encompasses more than the fish or fish-with-feet bumper stickers and centers on what should be taught in science classrooms. One argument that sprang from creationism, intelligent design, seeks to provide a scientific explanation for a creator by saying that complex organisms had to be created and could not evolve. Truman State University professor Taner Edis, who will be speaking at Columbia Public Library Oct. 4, says ID is not scientific and is no longer of interest to scientists.

Edis is a physicist by profession but is interested in what he calls fringe sciences, such as parapsychology and creationism, which led him to take a closer look at the scholarly arguments surrounding ID. He has authored three books in the past six years that attempt to disprove ID and has co-edited another book on the topic. He has also penned several articles about the subject, including how it relates to Islam.

EVENT INFO

What: Taner Edis
When: Sat., Oct. 4, 2 p.m.
Where: Columbia Public Library
Cost: Free

In the preface to Why Intelligent Design Fails, Edis defines ID as “a conservative religious agenda masquerading as a scientific alternative to evolution.” This book features several authors who weigh in on how they think the concept fails. They all have different approaches because ID proponents make several arguments — based in fields from philosophy to biology.

As a physicist, Edis’ interest naturally lies in the physics aspect of ID. This is part of the focus of his book The Ghost in the Universe. He mixes science, religion and philosophy to discuss the nature of God. Although Edis says finding a god behind Darwinian mechanisms might be hard, he writes that we might still find reasons to believe in a god, but this won’t come from an ID argument. Definitely not light reading.

For those lacking a degree in physics, the ID debate is approachable. In Debating Design William Dembski, a major pro-ID player, says, “The claim is simply that there must be something more than ordinary natural causes or material mechanisms, and moreover, that something must be intelligent and capable of bringing about organisms.” As Dembski says later, nature is not enough.

Edis’ main complaint is that pro-ID arguments don’t succeed. He focuses on information-based theories, which question where the basic information to form complex structures comes from. Organisms use information encoded in DNA to form complex structures. Pro-ID arguments say this information can’t occur at random. Edis says physics allows for the information to be generated through combinations of randomness and physical law.

Edis also notes that religion tends to factor into ID debates. However, the religion does not necessarily have to be Christian. Having spent half his life in Turkey, Edis is informed on how ID, evolution and Islam interact. He says that Islam differs in how it opposes human evolution, mainly because the Quran does not have a detailed creation story. His book An Illusion of Harmony further explores the relationship between Islam and science, especially the debate about Darwinian evolution.

Although Edis refutes ID, he does not view philosophy and science as mutually exclusive. “The dividing line can be somewhat arbitrary,” Edis says. He likes to consider himself a philosophically minded scientist. Most scientists seem to be in agreement that ID doesn’t effectively explain things, but religion and science don’t have to be at odds. Allen Gathman, a Southeast Missouri State University professor, says religion and science can coexist, but “ID is not the way to go about it.”

The religious community also doesn’t seem to discount evolution. John Yonker, minister at First Christian Church, says, “The fossilized record of humanity is no threat to my faith.” But he also mentions that the Bible is not meant to be read as a scientific book, and the story of creation does not require a literal reading.

Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom echoes Yonker when he says, “The traditional Torah has never taken creation as literal.” He also mentions that they don’t have the similar heated debate about creationism in the Jewish community. Maybe scientists and religious leaders can be friends after all.

Edis believes that no interesting scientific debate concerning ID exists. He views it as a more religious and political dispute and sees the debate going on for a long time. However, the bumper stickers will remain.

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