The cultural storm over ”intelligent design” has generated a squall over Cambridge and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, or CfA.
Intelligent design is the theory that the universe follows a precise, purposeful blueprint that is not fully explained by evolution, and that perhaps is the work of a divine draftsman. On March 1, Sir John Polkinghorne, a physicist and Anglican priest who believes in both evolution and God, is to talk at a private dinner/discussion at the CfA on Garden Street.
Given that in some parts of the country, religious believers are using intelligent design as a battering ram against the teaching of evolution in schools, some CfA scientists worry that this is a dangerous topic to broach. Others fear that by mentioning ”Smithsonian” on the invitation, the organizers might have left the inaccurate impression that the center is sponsoring the event.
”The announcement seems to imply that the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is in some way hosting this event, which is not true, and which is not appropriate for a federal organization,” astronomer Lee Hartmann, who is traveling abroad, said by e-mail. The CfA is a collaboration between the Smithsonian and Harvard observatories.
But Owen Gingerich, another astronomer who is chairman of the Polkinghorne event, said the dispute is a supernova in a teapot.
Harvard owns the property and allows other groups to hold events there, including Alcoholics Anonymous, he said. The Polkinghorne event is a private, invitation-only affair; and Polkinghorne believes in both evolution and a purposefulness to existence.
The dinner/talk is ”simply a venue to bring together a group of faculty members at MIT and Harvard and other institutions around here . . . who have interest in these types of questions,” Gingerich said. The sponsor, he said, is the Roundtable on Science, Art and Religion, an Amherst-based group of professors and a few chaplains who support dialogue between Christians and academics on science and religion.
The Rev. David Thom, the coordinator of the Roundtable, said he explored several locations for the Polkinghorne event. The CfA, which offered its building for free, was chosen ”based on access and parking, and what we’d have to pay for rent.”
Most of the roughly 50 invitees are scientists, with a smattering of other disciplines, including a few scholars from Harvard Divinity School, said Thom.
Those on both sides acknowledge the incendiary national backdrop to Polkinghorne’s visit. Some school districts mandate the teaching of alternatives to Darwinism, and in others, some teachers avoid the subject, The New York Times reported.
This is not the first time the issue has riled the CfA. Last year, a forum called ”Fitness of the Cosmos for Life: Biochemistry and Fine-Tuning” stirred similar concern. That forum was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, which promotes communication between science and religion.
”Such fine-tuning might require some kind of intelligent design or creator,” said Hartmann. ”But once you’ve appealed to the creator, you’re done with science; you can explain any and everything, which means you are at a dead end.”
”People are entitled to their personal religious/philosophical views,” Hartmann wrote. ”But these kinds of meetings are misused by activists in this country to suggest that there is a real scientific debate about whether evolution occurs, and therefore to reduce or eliminate the teaching of evolution and natural selection.”
Gingerich, a Christian, shares that last concern.
”I believe in intelligent design, lower case I and D,” he told National Public Radio earlier this month. ”And I do have a problem with Intelligent Design, capital I and capital D, because it’s being sold as a political movement, as if somehow it’s an alternative to Darwinian evolution.”
”Evolution is today an unfinished theory, and there are definitely many details it doesn’t answer. But I just don’t think that’s grounds for dismissing it.”
A key difference between intelligent design advocates and Darwinians is that the latter contend that natural selection and random mutations over time created life in all its complexity. Intelligent designers say such complexity suggests a conscious design rather that randomness.