Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Intelligent Design Study Appears

By Trevor Stokes

The publication in a peer-reviewed biology journal of an article which sounds themes often heard in discussions of "intelligent design"–a theory one critic calls "the old creationist arguments in fancy clothes"–has drawn criticism from the members of the society that publishes the journal, and from others.

In an article entitled "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," which was made available online on August 28 by the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Stephen Meyer concludes: "what natural selection lacks, intelligent selection–purposive or goal-directed design–provides." Meyer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, which, according to its Web site "supports research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design."

Intelligent design, or the design hypothesis, is the "idea that the origin of information is best explained by an act of intelligence rather than a strictly materialistic process," Meyer told The Scientist.

Eugenie C. Scott, executive director at the National Center for Science Education, learned of the article when several members of the Biological Society of Washington called her office. "Many members of the society were stunned about the article," she said, describing it as "recycled material quite common in the intelligent design community." Intelligent design, she said, is "an evolved form of creationism that resulted from legal decisions in the 1980s ruling that creationism can't be taught in schools."

"There hasn't been anything in peer-reviewed literature about intelligent design," Scott said. "Members of the intelligent design community are very hungry to get articles in peer-reviewed journals."

The article was the subject of a detailed critique on Panda's Thumb, a Web log that focuses on issues in evolutionary science. The critique calls Meyer's article "a rhetorical edifice out of omission of relevant facts, selective quoting, bad analogies, and tendentious interpretations."

"It's too bad the Proceedings published it," Scott said. "The article doesn't fit the type of content of the journal. The bottom line is that this article is substandard science."

The Biological Society of Washington has about 250 members. The journal has an impact factor of 0.284, according to Thomson Scientific, giving it a rank of 2678 out of 3110 scored journals in all science disciplines. Scott described the journal as a "tiny fairly descriptive journal read by people in museums and systematics."

Richard Sternberg, a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information who was an editor of the Proceedings at the time, told The Scientist via E-mail that the three peer reviewers of the paper "all hold faculty positions in biological disciplines at prominent universities and research institutions, one at an Ivy League university, one at a major US public university, and another at a major overseas research institute."

"The reviewers did not necessarily agree with Dr. Meyer's arguments but all found the paper meritorious, warranting publication," Sternberg said.

Sternberg said he was concerned that some in the science community have labeled him and Meyer as creationists. "It's fascinating how the 'creationist' label is falsely applied to anyone who raises any questions about neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory," he said. "The reaction to the paper by some [anti-creationist] extremists suggests that the thought police are alive and well in the scientific community."

Sternberg has ties to the intelligent design community, but he identifies himself as "a structuralist who has given several papers and presentations critiquing creationism." He is on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group at Bryan College, Dayton, Tenn. Baraminology, a term introduced in 1990, views biological creation as happening instantly, rather than through evolutionary descent. Sternberg is slated to attend a meeting in October entitled "Evolution, Intelligent Design, and the Future of Biology." The meeting's Web site describes Sternberg's talk as an explanation of why "biology is better understood as a product of intelligent design."

Robert L. Crowther, director of communications at the Discovery Institute, drew a clear distinction "between the scientific theory of intelligent design and creationism."

"Dr. Meyer is a well-known proponent of intelligent design and that is what his paper is about," Crowther wrote in an E-mail to The Scientist. "To try and characterize him as a creationist is just an attempt to stigmatize him and marginalize his paper, all the while avoiding the scientific issues that it raises."

Meyer said: "I have received a number of private communications from scientists expressing their agreement or intrigue with the arguments that I develop in my article. Public reaction to the article, however, has been mainly characterized by hysteria, name-calling and personal attack." Labels, he said, "are ultimately a diversion."

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