I suggested here last week that the established authorities of every age act consistently. They become vigilantly militant against non-conforming dissidents who challenge their assumptions.

Thus when the dissident Galileo challenged the assumptions of the 17th century papacy, it shut him up. Now when the advocates of “intelligent design” challenge the scientific establishment’s assumptions about “natural selection,” it moves aggressively to shut them up. So the I.D. people have this in common with Galileo.

I received a dozen letters on this, three in mild agreement, the rest in scorn and outrage. This calls for a response.

Where, one reader demanded, did I get the information that 10 percent of scientists accept intelligent design? I got it from a National Post (newspaper) article published two years ago, which said that 90 percent of the members of the National Academy of Science “consider themselves atheists.” Since if you’re not an atheist, you allow for the possibility of a Mind or Intelligence behind nature, this puts 10 percent in the I.D. camp.

I could have gone further. A survey last year by Rice University, financed by the Templeton Foundation, found that about two-thirds of scientists believed in God. A poll published by Gallup in 1997 asked: Do you believe that “man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man’s creation?” – essentially the I.D. position. Just under 40 percent of scientists said yes. So perhaps my 10 percent was far too low.

Two readers called my attention to a discovery last week on an Arctic island of something which may be the fossil remains of the mysteriously missing “transitional species.” Or then maybe it isn’t transitional. Maybe it’s a hitherto undetected species on its own.

But the very exuberance with which such a discovery is announced argues the I.D. case. If Darwin was right, and the change from one species to another through natural selection occurred constantly in millions of instances over millions of years, then the fossil record should be teaming with transitional species. It isn’t. That’s why even one possibility, after many years of searching, becomes front-page news.

Another letter complains that I.D. cannot be advanced as even a theory unless evidence of the nature of this “Divine” element is presented. But the evidence is in nature itself. The single cell shows such extraordinary complexity that to suggest it came about by sheer accident taxes credulity. If you see a footprint in the sand, that surely evidences human activity. The demand – “Yes, but whose footprint is it?”– does not disqualify the contention that somebody was there. “Nope,” says the establishment, “not until you can tell us who it was will we let you raise this question in schools.”

Another reader argues that Galileo stood for freedom of inquiry, whereas I.D. advocates want to suppress inquiry. This writer apparently did not notice what caused me to write the column. It was the rejection by a government agency for a $40,000 grant to a McGill University anti-I.D. lobby to suppress the presentation and discussion of I.D. theory in the Canadian schools. Suppressing discussion is an odd way of encouraging “freedom of inquiry.” Anyway, the I.D. movement doesn’t want to suppress evolution. It merely wants it presented as a theory, alongside the I.D. theory.

Why, asked another reader, did I not identify the gutsy woman who stated the reason for the rejection, bringing upon herself the scorn of scientific authority. That’s fair. Her name is Janet Halliwell, a chemist and executive vice president of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council. She said that evolution is a theory, not a fact, and the McGill application offered no evidence to support it.

The McGill applicant was furious. Evolution, he said, needs no evidence. It’s fact. Apparently Harvard University doesn’t quite agree with him. The Boston Globe reports that Harvard has begun an expensive project to discover how life emerged from the chemical soup of early earth. In the 150 years since Darwin, says the Globe, “scientists cannot explain how the process began.”

The most sensible letter came from a research scientist. “I think that the current paradigm of evolution by natural selection acting on random variation will change,” he writes. “I think that evidence will accumulate to suggest that much of the genetic variation leading to the evolution of life on earth was not random, but was generated by biochemical processes that exhibit intelligent behavior.”

Then he urges me not to disclose his identity. Saying this publicly would threaten his getting tenure, he fears. Galileo would understand.

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