Shirley L. Tilghman, Princeton University’s president, happens also to be a molecular biologist. Now she joins the ranks of Cornell’s Hunter Rawlings in attacking ID.
Tilghman criticizes intelligent design
By Matt Davis
In a lecture at Oxford University last week, President Tilghman
pointed out potential clashes among science, politics and religion and
defended Darwinian evolution against the challenges presented by
proponents of intelligent design.
Her remarks at the prestigious annual Romanes Lecture mark the
second time in the past month that Tilghman has publicly criticized
intelligent design. In an interview Wednesday, she explained why she
passionately and frequently defends the scientifically accepted theory
“It’s one of the two monumental pillars on which modern biology
rests,” Tilghman said. “When you have a group of people challenging one
of the central tenets of biology, it’s very serious.”
Tilghman said opposition to Darwinian evolution began with “a small
group of evangelical Christians” who, after creationist theory failed to
gain popularity, “went back to the drawing board” and started pushing
intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinism.
Proponents of intelligent design assert that Darwinian evolution is
only a theory and that their theory is an alternative and equally valid
explanation of the same observed phenomena.
Tilghman, however, said the approach lacks the substance of a
“Evolution is a theory that has arisen in the scientific field and
has been tested and challenged for 150 years,” she said. “Intelligent
design is a philosophical position that can be taught in social science
classes or philosophy classes, but it’s not science.”
She also noted that advocates do not follow standard scientific
“The proponents of intelligent design are not working in the
mainstream of modern biology,” Tilghman said. “They don’t publish
papers. They don’t do experiments.”
According to Tilghman, the methods of intelligent design supporters
are comparable to an attack on Einstein’s famous E = mc^2 equation from
an opponent who suggested a new relationship among mass, energy and the
speed of light without any experimental evidence.
When asked what she thinks of those who support teaching evolution
and intelligent design in the same classroom, Tilghman responded, “I
think they’re undermining scientific education.”
She argued that an academic comparison of evolution and intelligent
design would “require you to compare apples and oranges.”
Tilghman noted that intelligent design supporters have played
politics effectively. Because voter turnout for school board elections
is typically very low, for instance, a small minority can have a
But she praised the recent election in Dover, Pa., in which school
board members who supported teaching intelligent design were voted out
“I think it is a very positive sign that the voters of Dover,
Pennsylvania, showed up in force … and voted for the teaching of
evolution,” she said.
In Oxford last week, Tilghman pointed out that discrepancies between
scientific and religious thought are not a recent phenomenon.
“From the very beginning, science and politics, especially
religiously inspired politics, had the potential to become ‘strange
bedfellows,’ by which I mean working at cross purposes with one another
rather than in harmony,” she said. But she added that the “potential for
conflict seems greater now than at any time in my career.”
This is especially disturbing, she said, because of the extreme
importance of Darwinian evolution in biology.
“It is virtually impossible on the problem at hand,” Tilghman said.
“Time and again in the course of my career, I have encountered a
mysterious finding that was explained by viewing it through the lens of
In addition to addressing intelligent design as a potential source
of academic conflict, Tilghman’s speech also touched on political
influence in American space exploration.
The Bush administration, she said, has ignored the analysis of
scientists and the progress made by unmanned space vehicles, such as the
Voyager missions and the Hubble telescope, pursuing instead the
“tangible — even romantic” goal of manned space exploration.