News your connection to The Boston Globe

Science vs. design: no debate

PRESIDENT BUSH has suggested that we ''teach the debate" concerning intelligent design and evolutionary biology. Impossible. To a have a debate, you and I must speak to the same question and use evidence we both accept.

Let's illustrate: We can all agree that the Bengal tiger is a wonder of nature. A biologist points to the tiger's stripes and says: ''What are these, and how did they come to be this way?" An intelligent designer, who argues that nature is too complex to be explained away by science, might ask: ''Why do these stripes form such an astonishing pattern? Who or what could have done this -- to what end?" The poet William Blake wondered much the same:

Tyger! Tyger! Burning brightIn the forests of the night:What immortal hand or eye,Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?For that matter, what immortal hand or eye framed our symmetry? At bottom, that's what intelligent designers think they know, that's what they want to teach, and that's exactly where science will not venture. Science can describe the tiger's stripes. But who or what made the tiger, other than the forces of natural selection? No testable hypotheses there.

Biologists and intelligent designers may point to the same tiger, but because one asks how and the other why, they talk past each other. It's a nondebate. And that's what we can teach. Throughout history, into our own day, how and why -- both, neither alone -- have defined the human project. Nations that would be guided by one question, not both, usually make a mess of things.

How has given us Einstein and Euclid; why, Virginia Woolf, Homer, Moses, and Mother Teresa. Have we not learned, even yet, to untangle these questions? They should be, and have ever been, debated endlessly, but never with much success in the same breath. We need both but must pursue each alone.

At the end of life, no one wants another description of the tiger's symmetry. We want what William Blake did: to know that those stripes, and our lives, are not accidents of matter colliding in the void. Until scientists, the masters of how, can give us that, we will ask why.

There is no debate over intelligent design, only different ways of knowing and the mystery of tigers burning bright.

Leonard Rosen teaches at Bentley College.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search