April 27-29, 2006

This seminar will consider the challenge of teaching evolution in the United States today, setting the issue of evolution in its broader intellectual, institutional, and political contexts in order to consider what is at stake in recent debates. We will pay particular attention to the increasingly powerful Intelligent Design movement, charting the movement’s claims, history, and its relation to earlier forms of creationism. Like “creation science” before it, Intelligent Design aims to present itself as scientific theory rather than as a religious movement, using ideas like “irreducible complexity” or the nature of biological information to argue against evolution. Yet only one article supporting Intelligent Design has ever been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Moreover, in a document called “The Wedge Strategy,” the movement states its aims in clearly religious terms: to construct a wedge that “can split the trunk [of materialistic science] when applied at its weakest points,” in order to create “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

Many scientists and theologians deny that there is any conflict between evolutionary science and Christian and theistic convictions, since, as Pope John Paul II put it, “consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seem irreconcilable.” On this view, science is defined by methodological and not metaphysical naturalism: it is a distinct domain of knowledge that leaves room for others. Supporters of Intelligent Design charge that science is both methodologically and metaphysically naturalist and they call for a science that would be neither, while critics argue that this “theistic science” would undo the disciplinary and epistemological grounds of science itself. This seminar will set the issue of evolution in this important scientific and methodological context: looking at different understandings of naturalism, as well as at the operation of evolution in various scientific fields, from cosmology to medicine.

As many scholars and journalists have pointed out, current debates about evolution are often articulated not in scientific but in legal, philosophical or political terms: in terms of constitutional protections, educational accountability, parental rights, majority rule, censorship, academic freedom or fairness. This seminar will use its interdisciplinary setting to consider these legal and the philosophical issues that surround the teaching of evolution. For even as evolution is accepted as fact by almost all scientists, about half the respondents of a 2000 survey of Americans in general said that evolution is "far from being proven scientifically," and a 1999 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans favor teaching both creationism and evolution in the public schools. How are science educators to address the divide between their profession and the public?

Finally, the seminar will ask what these debates over evolution mean for the academic community, for scholars in the social sciences and the humanities as well as in the sciences. As many commentators of the debates have remarked, theorists in the humanities and the social sciences have long sought to redefine science in the name of the political left: proclaiming the end of objectivity as they expose the construction of knowledge or its necessary connection with power. Now, in terms that often resonate with a sympathetic public, politicians invoke phrases like “lack of scientific certainty” to question global warming, or to cast evolution as “just a theory” underwritten by a dogmatic materialist ideology. In this current situation, this seminar will ask, what is the status of science, of fact, or of objectivity? What is the task of critique?

Presenters will include: Sean Carroll (Physics), Robert Perlman (Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science), Robert Richards (Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science), Richard Rosengarten (Divinity School), Albert Alschuler (Law), William Wimsatt (Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science)