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Strong reaction to UI stance

The University of Idaho has received several hundred responses to President Tim White’s statement this fall that the school would teach only evolution in its science classes, and the reaction hasn’t died down.

“I get a letter or two a day about this,” White said Thursday. “It was a strong response.”

He said the reaction has been generally supportive, though some critics accuse him of stifling academic freedom and fostering anti-religious bias by limiting subjects like intelligent design to philosophy or religion classes.

The move drew media coverage from around the country, and has prompted an ongoing back-and-forth among letters to the editor at newspapers in the region. White’s statement is mentioned in an article in this week’s Newsweek, and the current New Yorker has an article on intelligent design that quotes trial testimony from Scott Minnich, a UI biologist, in support of the theory.

White said he views the debate as a positive development – especially considering the violent turn the controversy took in Kansas this week, where a professor who proposed a class debunking intelligent design was beaten by two men apparently angered by comments he’d made about Christians.

“Anytime there’s this kind of public debate, it helps advance society,” White said Thursday morning during a news conference at the UI’s offices in Coeur d’Alene.

White’s Oct. 4 statement banned “alternatives” to evolution from biology curriculums, making the UI one of the few universities in the country to craft such an explicit policy. White’s statement came as proponents of intelligent design – including Minnich – were making news around the country.

Intelligent design proposes that certain biological systems are too complex to have evolved via random mutation, and so it can be inferred that they were designed. Most scientists reject it as creationism in disguise, and say evolution has a scientific track record that dwarfs the objections presented by intelligent design supporters.

National scientific associations, as well as presidents at Cornell and the University of Kansas, have taken stands similar to White’s, and faculty members on the Moscow campus seem generally to support it. The Discovery Institute, a Seattle organization that promotes intelligent design, harshly criticized White’s move as a restriction of academic freedom.

Minnich is one of a few scientists who have become public figures in favor of intelligent design, though he has emphasized that he does not teach the theory in his classes at the UI.

In early November, he testified on behalf of the Dover, Pa., Area School Board, which voted in 2004 to require students to hear a statement about intelligent design and “gaps” in the theory of evolution in biology classes. Eight families sued, saying the policy violates the constitutional ban on state promotion of religion because it essentially promotes a biblical view of creationism.

A judge is expected to rule before the end of the year.

Minnich studies the bacterial flagellum, a tiny whiplike motor that intelligent design supporters cite as an example of “irreducible complexity.” He could not be reached Thursday.

Intelligent design supporters say they’re not attempting to force biblical creationism into the science classroom, though the idea has been embraced by creationists. They argue that certain systems – such as the bacterial flagellum or the eye – could not have evolved piece-by-piece, because if you remove any single part they stop functioning.

Most scientists dispute this view, and some have presented arguments that such systems evolve and change functions as they do so. They also argue that intelligent design fails basic tenets of what constitutes science – it cannot produce hypotheses that can be tested, and it can’t be proven untrue.

White said his statement wasn’t an attempt to distance the university from Minnich, whom he called “a valued member of the faculty,” though he did want to clarify what the UI considers science.

“It’s pretty clear there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there about what constitutes science in America,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to think we have, in our science curriculum, anything other than science.”

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