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Planet Earth

The NIH Must Defend Evolution

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJanuary 20, 2006 7:15 PM


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There's a very interesting, lengthy editorial about politics and science in the journal Cell by Paul Nurse, the president of Rockefeller University. Nurse articulates the scientific community's standard complaint about levels of research funding, but also goes much farther, dealing with the "intelligent design" issue as well as other political attacks on science. I particularly appreciated Nurse's stand on ID and the National Institutes of Health:

When the NIH Director, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, was asked by Science magazine whether he was personally concerned about the Intelligent Design movement taking off in schools, he said, "I am very concerned about it. And I don't think it's a good direction." But in the same interview when asked why NIH had not been very visible in the debate over Intelligent Design, his response was "Why should it? Why do you think NIH should be visible in that debate?" One answer is that if human pathogens are being intelligently designed in response to the evolutionary pressures brought about by prolonged exposure to antibiotics, changes will be required in the current NIH strategies used to combat infectious diseases. Dr. Zerhouni has a difficult job spanning the political and scientific worlds, but it is crucial that great US scientific institutions like the NIH are unequivocal in their defense of science, especially over an issue that is as fundamental to biomedicine as Darwinism. This is a very important matter because the failure of the leadership to robustly support science will eventually be damaging for the whole scientific enterprise in the US. [Italics added]

To this I can only say, Bravo! It is critically important that the leaders of science in America--university presidents and administrators of major research institutions most of all--band together and defend scientific knowledge expansively and aggressively when it's under attack. We're starting to see more and more of this, and in this light I think Nurse's demand that the NIH cease to sit on the sidelines is extraordinarily significant.

Biomedical researchers cannot try to take a pass, or view themselves as somehow untouched by the attack on evolution. Not only does evolution play a critical role in much biomedical research--just think about how flu viruses evolve--but the attack on evolution is an attack on the naturalistic methodology of science itself, and that has the potential to literally undermine the very nature of modern research. All scientists are implicated; and all should therefore unite in a common cause. The sooner this happens--and the sooner this kind of holistic thinking takes hold--the better.

P.S.: All of this applies to the CDC as well, and to many other agencies of the federal government.

P.P.S.: Not that we would expect any U.S. government agency to robustly defend evolution during the Bush administration...

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