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Intelligent Design vs. Evolution Debate in Seattle Plays to Sold Out House

Last night, the Seattle Times Talk of the Times at Town Hall Seattle featured a debate over evolution and intelligent design between CSC Director Stephen Meyer and US paleontologist Peter Ward. The event was sold out with 800+ in attendance for what turned out to be a really good debate.

David Postman of the Seattle Times did a fine job as the moderator of the debate. If you saw my post yesterday about Postman's front page article in yesterday's Times you know that I had some misgivings about his being the moderator. However, I have to congratulate him for his objectivity and balance, and his overall good job in keeping the debate both substantive and enlightening.

I especially appreciated the way he opened with the definitional question: what is intelligent design? Because his definition in yesterday's paper inadequately described intelligent design, I think that this was a very good way to get the discussion started.

In speaking with many people afterwards --including both ardent ID supporters and staunch Darwinists-- it was obvious to everyone that Meyer clearly prevailed. Both debaters were engaging, but everyone I spoke with found Meyer to be more substantive and thoughtful with his answers. Meyer above all successfully showed that there is a debate about evolution and intelligent design and he showed that it is based on science, regardless of ancillary (and academically irrelevant) political or religious implications on both sides.

The debate last night was almost ALL about science--from gene sequencing, to nanotechnology, to the Cambrian explosion, to the philosophy of science that decides how to define the terms in the first place. Both scientists are experts in their fields and the audience was eager to hear what they had to say. No matter how much Darwinists claim there is no debate, and that intelligent design somehow kills curiousity, you can't argue with hundreds of people showing up to eagerly hear what both sides have to say about the issue. Clearly they were curious about the debate that doesn't exist.

TVW and Seattle Channel both filmed the debate and over the next few weeks it will be broadcast statewide, and even into parts of Oregon and Idaho. So, residents of the Northwest will have a great chance to view the debate for themselves. We will find out when the debate is scheduled to air and post those times in our event listings on Discovery's main page, www.discovery.org.

Below is an excellent blow-by-blow account of the debate submitted by a Discovery colleague who attended and took careful notes.

Intelligent Design vs Evolution, Town Hall Seattle, Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A packed house at Seattle's Town Hall saw Dr. Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute debate Dr. Peter Ward of the University of Washington on the topic of "Intelligent Design v. Evolution." Meyer was excellent in his overall presentation. In my view, Meyer convincingly prevailed.

The two had previously debated for over an hour on a local Seattle radio program. That radio debate was a rather lopsided exchange, with Meyer clearly outshining Ward. Meyer made clear and reasonable arguments about the theory of intelligent design (ID) from scientific data, whereas Ward had offered little-to-no scientific response. Instead, Ward simply attacked Meyer's personal motives and made wild claims that students learning about the theory of intelligent design would somehow result in scientific decline and an undermining of our national security.

Back to Town Hall. This time Ward did not rely so thorougly rely upon wild claims about the theory of ID being the death of science itself. But attacks of that sort still seemed to be the mainstay of his arguments. He claimed that if students were to learn about the theory of intelligent design that the United States would fall behind in science and technology to China, Japan and other nations. Allowing the teaching of the theory of ID would lead to "intellectual mediocrity" in America, he stated. (To a large number of boos from the audience, I might add.)

Ward, in fact, asserted that ID is not a theory at all. He claimed it wasn't science because science excludes the supernatural. Ward also repeatedly asked Meyer why he used the terms "neo-Darwinian" or "Darwinist." At a later point in the debate, Ward claimed that ID proponents used those terms as a caricature to knock down. He also insisted that ID was neither testable nor falsifiable.

Specifically, Ward challenged Meyer to explain how the theory of ID could be tested or falsified. Meyer stated that the competing explanations of Drs. Michael Behe and Kenneth Miller concerning the bacteria flagellum and Type III Secretory Systems is something that could be tested to determine which one came first. Meyer countered that neo-Darwinian evolution had been heuristically unfruitful in leading science to think that non-encoding DNA was simply "junk." Meyer insisted that design assumptions more readily led one to conclude there was purpose in such "junk DNA." And he also cited Dr. Jonathan Wells' hypothesis concerning centrioles and its implications for cancer as research inspired by a design theoretic.

Furthermore, Meyer cited a recent article in Science purporting to "refute" Behe's ideas concerning irreducible complexity. Meyer insisted that he and Behe and others disputed the weak claims to have refuted irreducible complexity, but that the important fact was that the scientists were taking the idea seriously enough to try to combat it through scientific research and argument.

Meyer held his own against Ward, and then some. At the outset he defined the theory of ID as holding that certain aspects of the universe and of living systems are best explained by an intelligent cause, rather than an undirected cause. He also made clear that the theory of ID is not necessarily antithetical to "evolution." Meyer proceeded to delineate three different definitions of "evolution," to which he would occasionally refer back to throughout the evening: 1) "evolution" as "change over time"; 2) "evolution" as "common ancestry" or "universal common ancestry" of all biological life; and 3) "evolution" as natural selection acting upon purposeless or unguided processes such as random mutation. Along these lines, Meyer also made clear that the theory of ID is not merely a negative argument against the creative powers of neo-Darwinian evolution. The theory of ID, in its positive aspects, is simply the inference to the best explanation of observable data based upon our general knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships that we experience on a daily basis. (He went back to this many times for reinforcement.)

Meyer spoke at some length about the digital code contained in DNA. He described how, in our everyday experience, we attributed software code to software designers. Meyer likewise pointed to intricate molecular machinery and nanotechnology found in living systems. He then cited Richard Dawkin's dictum about biology being the study of living things that gave the appearance of being designed for a purpose. Meyer insisted that he took the opposite view of Dawkins, in that living systems appear designed because they really are designed.

The earlier part of the debate also included some debate over the fossil record. Ward adamantly asserted that the "missing links" some had speculated were non-existent after studying the Burgess Shale had been uncovered in China. Meyer challenged him on this point. Ward kept cutting Meyer off, saying "trust me." Meyer cited to J.Y. Chen as a scientist familiar with those same fossils who concluded that Darwin's tree of life is not the picture of the history of life on earth. In reality, it is upside down. Meyer even managed to fit in that choice quote from Chen about how in China one can criticize Darwin but not the goverment, but that in American one can criticize the government but not Darwin. (A lot of applause on that one.)

Debate also turned to whether scientific curiosity would by stymied if students ever learned about the theory of ID. Ward, obviously, contended that people would give up on science and lose curiosity in the study of nature if students thought that living systems were designed. Meyer cited the fact that so many people attended the debate as a sign that curiosity is raised by controversies. Meyer got to briefly discuss the "teach the controversy" approach in public school science education.

Ward's supporters in the audience didn't take to Meyer's statement that peer-review science journals are largely controlled by Darwinists. Meyer cited the fallout from the publication of his own article in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, and all that was done to the editor who published it. Ward said he read that article, but he jumped on the peer review issue quite a bit. Ward insisted that there were millions of papers in the literature supporting evolution, but almost none supporting the theory of ID, and none offering detailed explanations about how living systems are designed.

In terms of substantive arguments about science and philosophy of science, Meyer certainly surpassed Ward. He was better spoken and the most articulate. Ward's strength, however, came in his laid-back, casual attitude. Ward made a lot of jokes and wise cracks. (Meyer displayed good humor, as well.) Ward came across as someone who would probably make for an entertaining professor. However, on many occasions his jokes were simply flippant dismissals of Meyer's arguments and of the theory of ID, in general. Attitude can sometimes make up for lack of substance in a debate, and to some degree that was the case here.

Perhaps the most galling thing Ward said was in response to a question about his views of Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez's work in formulating ID in cosmology. Ward said that Gonzalez did some good science concerning the birth of stars. But he just insulted Gonzalez's book, The Privileged Planet, co-authored with Dr. Jay Richards. If I got the quote correctly, Ward simply said: "His book's a bunch of crap. It's trash." Ward had initially called the book "The Perfect Planet," before being corrected.

That was particularly galling to me. I read Ward's book "Rare Earth" and enjoyed it. That Ward couldn't get the title of Gonzalez's book straight simply showed his contempt for it.

In contrast, Ward mentioned some reading he did like. He cited and read from Judge Jones's awful anti-ID opinion from Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board. If I got his quote right, Ward described it as "an intersting bit of reading that I think every American ought to read." He read from a portion of the opinion where Judge Jones wrote that the Dover Area School Board members were lying. Ward waved the opinion around as an authoritative source on the matter. (See DI's newly published response to Judge Jones, Traipsing Into Evolution.)

Meyer shot back effectively that science isn't decided simply by a judge in central Pennsylvania.

The issue of personal, religious beliefs and the influence that might have on the respective debaters viewpoints came up. Meyer acknowledged that he was a Christian and that his outlook probably made him more open to more explanations about reality and the natural world than philosophical materialists. Meyer insisted that scientists should decide things based upon evidence, rather than by motive-mongering. Ward, by contrast, would not answer about his own views. He stated he thought Dawkins was foolish for using evolution to carry the banner for atheism, since there were many devoutly religious scientists who accept evolution. Ward claimed that science and religion are in completely separate hemispheres, far apart from one another.

Overall, I think the debate went very well for Meyer and for the theory of ID.