As the battle over intelligent design festers nationwide, Ames residents do not have to look much farther than their own backyards to witness a nerve center in the debate.
Iowa State University is home to Guillermo Gonzalez, one of 10 senior fellows at the Discovery Institute, a conservative Seattle think tank leading the intelligent design movement. Supporters of intelligent design regard the research of Gonzalez, an ISU assistant professor of astronomy, as "path-breaking," offering a new theory supporting design in the universe.
In 2004, Gonzalez released "The Privileged Planet," a book that he co-authored with Jay Richards, the vice president of the Discovery Institute. Gonzalez argued that the earth is so unique that it must have been designed and could not have developed through natural causes.
Since then, Gonzalez has come under criticism by the mainstream science community for incorporating the theory of intelligent design in his work. They maintain that proving intelligent causes or agents is not science but the study of theology and philosophy. Some also have accused Gonzalez, an openly non-denominational protestant, of thrusting religion into science.
Earlier this year, Gonzalez premiered a 60-minute film based on his book at the Smithsonian Institution, gaining national prominence with media coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post. That prompted opponents of intelligent design at ISU to speak up.
On Aug. 23, a statement signed by 120 ISU faculty members was submitted to media and university administration detailing the opposition.
"We, the undersigned faculty members at Iowa State University, reject all attempts to represent Intelligent Design as a scientific endeavor," according to the statement.
The statement continued: "Methodical naturalism, the view that natural phenomena can be explained without reference to supernatural beings or events, is the foundation of the natural sciences. ...Whether one believes in a creator or not, views regarding a supernatural creator are, by their very nature, claims of religious faith, and so not within the scope or abilities of science."
Intelligent design opponents wanted the public to understand that while there are some scientists who support intelligent design as a scientific endeavor, many do not, said Jim Colbert, one of the three co-authors of the statement.
"It is not to say it is wrong to believe in intelligent design," he said. "It is simply to say it is not a scientific endeavor."
Hector Avalos, an ISU associate professor of religious studies and a co-author of the statement, said he was concerned the growing prominence of Gonzalez's work was beginning to market ISU as an "intelligent design school."
As a vocal proponent of intelligent design on the ISU campus, Gonzalez said he felt singled out. To him, the statement was an intimidation tactic and personal attack orchestrated by Avalos, who is the faculty advisor to the ISU Atheist and Agnostic Society.
"I think it is outrageous for another professor to be so intolerant of another professor's research that they then try to shut down that professor's research," Gonzalez said.
Avalos contends the statement was not a personal attack on Gonzalez, but rather a wider marketing statement, granting a voice to the other side.
To intelligent design theorists, being open to the idea of an intelligent designer carries the same merit of scientific theory. But the mainstream scientific community doesn't agree.
"Intelligent design is a method of detection, looking for and detecting particular objective elements of design in nature," Gonzalez said, noting that "objective" means it does not depend on any prior philosophical or religious assumptions.
"Anybody with any religious background can look at the data and reach the same conclusions," he said.
Colbert, an ISU associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology, said the basis of science is finding natural explanations for the world.
"Science is not equipped to study or make any comments on the supernatural," Colbert said. "It is simply beyond the scope of science."
Avalos claims that everything in the universe that is unexplainable is just that.
"If you don't know the cause of something, all that means is that you don't know the cause of something," Avalos said. "It doesn't mean that it has got to be supernatural."
Avalos claims there is no way to verify an intelligent designer, thus making it unscientific by its very nature.
Gonzalez said he does not believe that everything unexplainable can be deduced to intelligent design. There is always the possibility that a new law of physics will be found, generating insight into the current mysteries of science, he said.
"That would be an incredibly huge thing, but that is the type of discovery it would take to account for the information content of DNA and its origin," Gonzalez said. "I think holding out for a completely new law of physics takes a lot of faith."
Gonzalez said the first step is being open to the signs of intelligence.
"The existence of that structure which we claim was produced by an intelligent agency, (the mainstream science community) could never accept because they always appeal to some unknown future discovery which they have no clue will be made," he said. "It is just a faith commitment."
Locally, the debate has stretched farther than the academic confines of the ISU campus. Members of the religious world and the Ames community have chimed in, offering their opinions on editorial pages.
Religious leaders say the world was intelligently designed by God, but several have said science is not a way to explain the existence of God.
"With all due respect to the science, the Bible transcends the 'scientific method' and embraces a divine-human encounter that is grasped by faith, a God-given way to live," said Rev. Russell Melby in a June 13 letter to the editor.
John Donaghy, the campus minister for St. Thomas Aquinas church in Ames, said the existence of God is not a scientific explanation. Donaghy said any explanation would be unverifiable through modern scientific methods.
"I think you would make a jump from scientific analysis to a notion of a creator, a jump that would be non-scientific in the modern sense of the word," he said. "Modern scientific knowledge gives us some access to the truth, but it doesn't give us the whole truth."
Rev. Randy Abell, a literal creationist, said his work is not to prove God as fact, but religious faith is about believing God exists.
"If you believe the Bible is God's Word like I do, it's just a very simple matter-of-fact thing you believe," he said. "To me, God and my Lord Jesus are as real as me going out in the driveway and getting in my truck."
Abell said he believes evolutionary theory has run its course and is no longer defendable.
"If I could speculate, I would say it won't be many more decades and people will look at the evolutionary theory as just a 20th-century fad," he said. "At least I have a book called the Bible that is thousands of years old that is the basis for my belief."
The future of intelligent design at ISU
ISU President Greg Geoffroy and faculty senate leadership decided that intelligent design is a topic best left to the individual departments in which it affects.
In a letter to the faculty last week, Geoffroy welcomed the debate and stressed the importance of academic freedom at the university.
"It is precisely the kind of activity that should take place at a public university where academic freedom is one of our most deeply held principles," Geoffroy wrote. "One of the hallmarks of any great university is to encourage vigorous debate and discussion on controversial topics, and intelligent design is most certainly one."
Avalos has already publicly expressed interest in holding an open forum, lecture or panel discussion on the topic of intelligent design.
"Our thought has always been for discussion of it, not for silencing discussion of it," Avalos said. "Basically, you will then get two sides if the other side is willing to do their side."
Gonzalez said he will not participate in a debate or forum on intelligent design if it involves Avalos or John Patterson - a retired ISU professor and verbal critic of intelligent design.
As for teaching intelligent design in his classes, Gonzalez has never done it.
It has never come up, he said.
Gonzalez said that if the opportunity does arise, he would not add intelligent design into his curriculum without the "approval and blessing of my fellow colleagues in the physics and astronomy department."
William Dillon can be reached at 232-2161, Ext. 361, or William.Dillon@amestrib.com.
Earth as The Privileged Planet
Regardless of his position as a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, Guillermo Gonzalez said he never begins his research with the outright outcome of intelligent design. As a Christian, I believe in God, he said. But as a design theorist, I have to be open to not finding evidence of design. Gonzalez rejects accusations that he is force-fitting his faith into his science. I would be a total fraud, he said. Those are some serious charges. But the only conclusion Gonzalez found in his research detailed in The Privileged Planet was that of intelligent design. Intelligent design is defined as the idea that certain features found in the universe and life exhibit signs of being created by an intelligent agent or cause. That assertion centers around the theories of irreducible complexity and specified complexity. Irreducible complexity introduced in a 1996 book by biochemist Michael Behe claims that evolution and natural selection cannot account for such things as molecular machines that need all parts in place in order to function. Behe argues that evolution could not have created these materials through small changes at a time. The probability of all these pieces coming together at once naturally is extremely small, Gonzalez said. Specified complexity introduced by intelligent design proponent William Dembski claims that when something is both specified and complex, it is the product of an intelligent cause or agent. Dembski claims that not only do the worlds materials have complexity, but they also conform to an independent specification or pattern. Intelligent design theorists also say that there are only three possibilities for everything found in nature: Natural law, chance or intelligent design. In The Privileged Planet, Gonzalez argues that the number of factors deemed necessary for complex life to exist is about 20. Multiplying the probabilities of each of these factors happening at the same time in the same place, creates a probability so small that it points in the direction of an intelligent designer and not natural occurrences, Gonzalez said. According to Gonzalezs calculations, the chances for complex life to exist on a privileged planet are smaller than what Dembski said is the bound for chance.
THE CLARIFICATION(Original run on Sept. 8)
In clarification of a story in Tuesdays Tribune, Guillermo Gonzalez, an Iowa State University, assistant professor of astronomy and physics, argues for intelligent design based on the link between the conditions required for life and the conditions required for doing science.