News of the Week
Science, Vol 308, Issue 5727, 1394 , 3 June 2005
Is Holland Becoming the Kansas of Europe?
AMSTERDAM–Well, not quite Kansas–after all, this is the country that legalized euthanasia and invented gay marriage. But when science and education minister Maria van der Hoeven recently announced plans to stimulate an academic debate about “intelligent design” (ID)–the movement that believes only the existence of a creator can explain the astonishing complexity of the living world–she triggered an uproar not unlike that raging in the sunflower state.
Prominent biologists have denounced Van der Hoeven, a member of the Christian-Democratic Party and a Catholic, for blurring the line between church and state. Last week, she faced a barrage of hostile questions in the House of Representatives of the Dutch Parliament, where she was compared to the Kansas school board members who want to introduce ID in the classroom. “Does she want to go back to the Dark Ages?” the usually sober daily NRC Handelsblad lamented in an editorial. The minister has called the issue a “storm in a teacup” and claims she has been misunderstood.
Van der Hoeven’s plan came to light in March, after she had what she called a “fascinating conversation” with Cees Dekker, a renowned nanophysicist at Delft University of Technology who believes that the idea of design in nature is “almost inescapable.” ID could be a tool to promote dialogue between the religions, Van der Hoeven wrote in her Web log that week: “What unites Muslims, Jews, and Christians is the notion that there is a creator. .. If we succeed in connecting scientists from different religions, it might even be applied in schools and lessons. A few of my civil servants will talk further with Dekker about how to shape this debate.”
Except for a plan to hold a hearing about evolution and religion at her department in the fall, Van der Hoeven has issued few details about what she has in mind; instead, she has mostly been defending herself. In Parliament last week, the minister said she isn’t a supporter of ID and isn’t planning to impose or ban anything. But she insisted that she has the right and the duty to stimulate debates. (Van der Hoeven declined to be interviewed.)
That doesn’t convince the scientists who have scolded her. “It’s not a minister’s job to get involved in biology,” says biochemist Piet Borst, a former director of the Netherlands Cancer Institute. Vigilance is important, he adds: “Even in Holland, there are plenty of people ready to castrate Darwin.” Borst has declined an invitation to the hearing, as has geneticist Ronald Plasterk, who heads the Hubrecht Laboratory in Utrecht. “I think Kansas has made us all a bit more sensitive,” says Plasterk.
Dekker says he’s puzzled by the outcry but chalks it up to a “Pavlov reaction” to ID. “Many scientists associate it with conservative Christians, Kansas, and George Bush–so it has to be bad,” he says. He hopes the debate will get more serious after the impending publication of a collection of 22 essays about ID and related themes, most of them by Dutch scientists, which he has co-edited. Van der Hoeven has agreed to receive the first copy of the book at a ceremony in The Hague next week.
Meanwhile, Van der Hoeven’s initiative is welcomed in the real Kansas. Says managing director John Calvert of the Intelligent Design Network in Shawnee Mission: “I think it’s a dynamite idea.”