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Monday, Dec. 26, 2005

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

A Japanese take on 'intelligent design'


NEW YORK -- Why do my compatriots, the Japanese, try to copy Americans -- often on the basis of a most tenuous understanding? The wonderment occurred when I checked the Internet to see if the notion of "intelligent design" (I.D.) was known in Japan and at once found that it was, and more.

Among the "intellectuals" who embrace it is Hisayoshi Watanabe, professor emeritus of English and American literature at the University of Kyoto. Asked by the Sankei Shimbun newspaper to explain I.D. for a Sept. 26 article, Watanabe began by noting that U.S. President George W. Bush's remark "heightened its recognition" in the United States. He then defined I.D. as "a theory that proposes to give up explaining the making of this universe and the natural world in terms of aimless, plan-less mechanical forces alone," and to "recognize as science -- other than natural factors like 'inevitability' (natural law) and 'coincidence' -- a 'design' factor."

Asked about the oft-made point that I.D.'s principal promoter is the "Christian right" and that "the intelligent being" assumed to exist in the I.D. argument "is just another name for God in the Creation based on the Old Testament," Watanabe dismissed it by saying, "If it were anything of the sort, not a single scientist would be supporting it."

Really? Did Watanabe stop to think why Bush told reporters in early August that "Both (intelligent design and evolution) ought to be properly taught"? Did he not know that Bush is the first U.S. president in memory who openly points to his own constant communion with God and who has openly, methodically, set out to ignore the doctrine of separation of church and state? Did he not know that the Christian right is Bush's major political base?

The fact is that the U.S. is the most religious among the industrialized countries. Polls consistently show 60 percent of those surveyed cite religion as a vital factor in their lives, compared to about 17 percent in England and 10 percent in Japan. And the overwhelming majority of the believers in the U.S. are Christians. To deny the link between Christianity and I.D. is to miss the whole point.

The reporter who interviewed Watanabe for the Sankei article is more forthright in this regard. On one hand, he indignantly tells us that a Japanese middle-school textbook, "most heavily influenced by Marxism," carried until 2001 a two-page spread contrasting Darwin's evolution theory with biblical creationism and the treatment of Japan's own creation myth in prewar textbooks. Such a comparison strikes me as apt.

The Sankei reporter thinks otherwise: It tells the students to "regard the Bible and myths negatively," he says, adding that the proposition that the monkey is the ancestor of human beings denigrates human dignity or robs us of "romance."

On the other hand, he approvingly cites Yatsuhiro Nakagawa, who dismisses both creationism and evolution as "unscientific." Nakagawa, who teaches international politics at Tsukuba University, stresses that there is a difference between the two. "The myth that 'God created man' gives us the sense of self-awareness and responsibility to guide us toward a nobler development," whereas "the theology that humans are 'descendants of monkeys' encourages them to deny themselves as humans and leads to their regression."

This is inane, but Nakagawa at least gets one thing right: Creationism is the opposite of evolution. And "intelligent design" is just another name for creationism -- or, as McGraw-Hill's Web site for higher education puts it, "a thinly disguised version of scientific creationism." I assume McGraw-Hill puts "scientific" before "creationism" to minimize protests.

In any case, Watanabe's insistence that the notion that "design does not derive from God" is to flaunt ignorance. Christianity's open war against Darwin's theory dates from just a year after "The Origin of Species" was published in 1859, when Bishop Samuel Wilberforce mounted the first assault in what was soon dubbed "the Great Debate." Two of the day's foremost scientists, Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker, vigorously defended Charles Darwin, but the bishop, naturally unpersuaded, claimed victory, though so did Huxley and Hooker.

The "fundamentalist" position that holds certain descriptions in the Old and New Testaments, such as Moses' parting the Red Sea and the Immaculate Conception, to be literal truths emerged around 1910 in the U.S. and has since remained strong.

Watanabe surely has heard about the Monkey Trial of 1925, although it may be assuming too much to think that he is aware of the fact that the Tennessee law allowing the prosecution of John Scopes for teaching evolution in his high school was not amended until 1967, and even then it merely lifted the outright ban.

I also expect him to know that the term "creation science" can be traced to the founding in 1963 of the Creation Research Society, as well as the existence and functions of the deceptively named Discovery Institute. There are also outfits like the Thomas More Law Center, which promotes the cause. That particular law center, in fact, provided legal aid for the defense in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District -- a case that arose from the shenanigans of the education board in Dover, Pennsylvania, to compel the teaching of I.D. in its schools.

But Watanabe, who has started "an academic movement" called "Design of Creation Society," may know all this. As he makes clear in the Sankei interview, his real objection is to "materialism, the mechanistic theory that holds that the universe can have neither purpose nor direction." In short, he is in the realm of religion or theology. But then he shouldn't blunder into the realm of science.

In "The Perimeter of Ignorance" (November 2005 issue of Natural History), astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson gives a quick run-down of how scientists, beginning with Ptolemy, have dealt with God or gods. One episode he cites is particularly telling on the distinction to be made between religion and science, and it has to do with Galileo:

In his 1615 letter defending his position, Galileo quoted an unnamed church official saying that the Bible "tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."

Or, as a lawyer for the plaintiffs during the Kitzmiller trial said to Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University and an I.D. advocate, if I.D. is a scientific theory, so must be astrology. Last Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Jones struck down the Dover education board's policy of teaching I.D. as unconstitutional.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist.


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