Panel opens debate on evolution

As part of Community Learning Day, Donald Lovett, associate professor of biology, helped coordinate “The Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent Design Conflict in Public Schools: Understanding the Issues from Historical, Scientific and Sociological Perspectives” panel.

The goal of the panel, according to Lovett, was “to get civil discussion where you did not need to attack the other side.” Unfortunately, no “other side” was present at the panel to represent the views of those in favor of intelligent design.

The event featured a three-person panel consisting of Lovett, Eugene Cohen, a former professor at the College in the department of sociology and anthropology, and William Behre, interim dean for the School of Education.

The panel was primarily concerned with the theory of evolution. This theory, made famous by biologist Charles Darwin. It suggests that changes occured gradually within species by a process of natural selection. According to evolution, slight changes to primal apes may have resulted in the modern man.

It is this concept that has sparked fierce debate. According to Cohen, Darwin’s proposal of a primate ancestor has widened the divide between evolutionists and those who believe in intelligent design, the concept that certain features of the universe and of living things exhibit the characteristics of a product resulting from an intelligent cause or agent, not an unguided process such as natural selection.

The problem, Behre said, goes beyond science. He stressed that teachers have to be aware of where they are teaching and in what context. “You have to teach what they say to teach,” he said.

Behre also said that there is a difference between banning the teaching of evolution in public schools and removing intelligent design from a science course. “It is subtle but different,” he said. “There is no rule that says that I can’t say (that intelligent design is possible).”

Cohen agreed, saying that the difference is that intelligent design may violate the separation of church and state. In pursuit of “civil discussion,” the issue was opened to members of the audience.

Stephen DeRose, freshman biology and psychology major, challenged the theory of evolution. He quoted Michael Behe, author of “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,” saying that in order for organisms to develop to where they are today, change would have had to happen far quicker than evolutionary theory suggests. DeRose called this theory “debilitating for evolution.”

Lovett said he thought the panel was a success, adding that it was an opportunity for people to see the issue from a different point of view.

Students attending the panel seemed to agree.

“I liked how they opened it up for anyone,” Emily Barranco, sophomore philosophy major, said.

Nora Beirne, sophomore English major, was even more emphatic. “When I heard that (Cohen) was doing this I had to show up,” she said, adding that when she was a student in Cohen’s class, people who were not in the course would come to hear him lecture.

Scott Blair, sophomore history major, said that the panel was “a little one-sided.”

“If you feel it’s not balanced, I agree,” Lovett said. However, he pointed out that those in favor of intelligent design were invited to speak as part of the panel.

Danielle Dalafave, associate professor of physics, said in an e-mail, “I was asked to participate in the panel only about four weeks ago. This would have been ample time to prepare had I not broken my right hand a few days prior (to being asked to participate).”

Matt Esposito, senior history education major, was also invited by Lovett to speak on behalf of intelligent design. Lovett said that he assumed Esposito would be interested because he had written about the subject last year in the Opinions section of The Signal.

“I was invited to be a part of the panel and I declined because when I talked to (Dalafave) we determined that we didn’t have enough time,” Esposito said.

He pointed out that while Lovett has been teaching biology for years, he is only a student. Esposito also said that when two sides with “conflicting scientific reasoning” or “ideologies” come together, there is bound to be debate.

For those disappointed by the lack of support for intelligent design at the panel, there is still hope for a debate in the future. “I hope to participate in a more balanced panel on this subject at any time this or next semester,” Dalafave wrote.