Warning: This journal contains evolution


For its April 28, 2005, issue, the illustrious science journal Nature put a "warning label" about evolution on its front cover. The warning label reads:

This journal contains material on evolution. Evolution by natural selection is a theory, not a fact. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.
This, of course, is a parody of the warning labels currently affixed in all biology textbooks mentioning evolution in Cobb County, Georgia. In January 2005, U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ruled the evolution warning labels unconstitutional, although the decision is under appeal. Nature is not the first publication to mock the practice of treating evolution in the same way the Surgeon General treats cigarettes; other lampoons have appeared in The New York Times and Scientific American.

Within the issue, Nature carries a feature news story by Geoff Brumfiel ("Intelligent design: Who has designs on your students' minds?", 434 (7037), pp. 1062-1065). The story examines interest in "intelligent design" among college students, focusing especially on clubs organized under the auspices of the San Diego-based Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center, such as the George Mason University chapter of the IDEA Center, headed by young-earth creationist Salvador Cordova. A sidebar quotes Robert T. Pennock as recommending that scientists decline invitations to debate "intelligent design" at such clubs, with NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott adding that "it's appropriate for scientists to meet with students and educate them about what the real science is saying," as the University of Oklahoma's Victor Hutchison and his colleagues have done.

Although a sidebar is devoted to discussing attempts to teach "intelligent design" at the university level, Brumfiel emphasizes that "Most scientists overwhelmingly reject the concept of intelligent design," later adding, "The political goals associated with intelligent design lead many scientists to reject it outright as little more than creationism in a cheap tuxedo," and quotes Bruce Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Science, as saying, "Its proponents say that scientific knowledge is incomplete and that there's no way to bridge the gap except for an intelligent designer, which is sort of saying that science should stop trying to find explanations for things." Noting that "Christian fundamentalist groups have seized on ["intelligent design"] as a possible way to force creationism back into the classroom," the article claims, "For intelligent-design researchers who would like to see the concept peer-reviewed and accepted by the scientific community, the politics are frustrating, and potentially dangerous."

As far as college students are concerned, Brumfiel suggests, part of the appeal of "intelligent design" derives from the attitudes that students bring with them; the results of Gallup polls revealing a correlation between acceptance of evolution and level of education are cited. Also relevant, argues Kansas State University's Keith Miller, himself an evangelical Christian, is a common crisis of faith among religious students interested in science: "They've so identified their faith with a particular view of what creation means, that it becomes an all-or-nothing kind of thing," he told Nature. "I do think intelligent design offers an alternative, although I would argue it's not a good one."

Toward its conclusion, the article returns to NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott to sum up the issues:

Scott, who is perhaps the nation's most high-profile Darwinist, is frustrated by the scientific community's inability to grapple with the issue. "The point here is that Americans don't want to be told that God had nothing to do with it," she says. "And that's the way the intelligent-design people present evolution." Scientists need to do a better job of explaining that science makes no attempt to describe the supernatural and so has no inherent conflict with religion, she argues. "College professors need to be very aware of how they talk about things such as purpose, chance, cause and design," she says. "You should still be sensitive to the kids in your class."

In addition to the feature news article, the editors of Nature commented on the issue ("Dealing with design," 434 (7037), p. 1053). Offering advice reminiscent of Scott's, they wrote:

Scientists would do better to offer some constructive thoughts of their own. For religious scientists, this may involve taking the time to talk to students about how they personally reconcile their beliefs with their research. Secular researchers should talk to others in order to understand how faiths have come to terms with science. All scientists whose classes are faced with such concerns should familiarize themselves with some basic arguments as to why evolution, cosmology and geology are not competing with religion. When they walk into the lecture hall, they should be prepared to talk about what science can and cannot do, and how it fits in with different religious beliefs.
The editorial concludes by emphasizing the importance of educating future science professionals in both science and in public education about science:
Students often return to their home communities and become teachers, doctors and engineers. It is as local community leaders that those students will become invaluable allies when more conservative religious groups try to halt the teaching of scientific theories in schools.