Professor denied federal research funds for assuming evolution
to be scientific fact
The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
A clash between McGill University and the key federal agency that
funds social science research in the country is sparking a scholarly
debate about the theory of evolution.
The university is urging the Ottawa-based Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council to reconsider its rejection of a funding
bid from prominent McGill professor Brian Alters, who claims he was
turned down on the basis that his proposed study assumed evolution to
be a scientific fact.
Mr. Alters, director of McGill's Evolution Education Research Centre,
had requested $40,000 from the research council to examine how the
rising popularity in the U.S. of "intelligent design" -- a
controversial creationist theory of life -- is eroding acceptance of
evolutionary science in Canada.
The planned project, submitted last year to the research council, is
titled: "Detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution's
intelligent design theory on Canadian students, teachers, parents,
administrators and policymakers."
In denying his request, the research council's peer-review committee
recently sent Mr. Alters a letter explaining he'd failed to
"substantiate the premise" of his study.
It said he hadn't provided "adequate justification for the
assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not
intelligent-design theory, was correct."
Mr. Alters said yesterday that he was "shocked" at the
council's response and it offers "ironic" proof that his
premise about intelligent design gaining a foothold in Canada is
He said he read the letter at a public lecture last week in Montreal
and there were "audible gasps" from the audience.
"Evolution is not an assumption, and intelligent design is
pseudo-science," said Mr. Alters. "I think SSHRC should come
out and state that evolution is a scientific fact and that intelligent
design is not."
Jennifer Robinson, McGill's associate vice-principal of
communications, said "intelligent design is a form of religious
belief" and evolution is "well-established science"
beyond serious questioning.
"For the committee to say there was inadequate justification for
that assumption -- in our view, that's an incorrect statement,"
said Mr. Robinson. "We're asking for them to review their
Janet Halliwell, the research council's executive vice-president and a
chemist by training, acknowledged yesterday that the "framing"
of the committee's comments to Mr. Alters left the letter "open
Ms. Halliwell said confidentiality obligations made it difficult for
her to discuss Mr. Alters' case in detail, but argued the professor
had taken one line in the letter "out of context" and the
rejection of his application shouldn't indicate they were expressing
"doubts about the theory of evolution."
However, Ms. Halliwell added there are phenomena that "may not be
easily explained by current theories of evolution," and the
scientific world's understanding of life "is not static. There's
an evolution in the theory of evolution."
Intelligent design -- the idea that life on Earth was shaped by the
guiding actions of some intelligent force rather than through natural
selection -- has become the latest battleground, particularly in the
U.S., between creationists and advocates of the theory of evolution
championed by famed 19th-century British scientist Charles Darwin.
Mr. Alters recently appeared as an expert witness in a U.S. court
battle over a Pennsylvania school board's decision to begin teaching
intelligent design theory to its students.
The high-profile case had ignited debate in the U.S. about the primacy
of Darwin's theory in American society and the place of religion in
schools. A federal judge ruled on the case in December, stating
intelligent design advanced "a particular version of
Christianity" and couldn't be taught in classrooms without
violating the U.S. constitution.
'Assumption' Sinks Grant Application
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's letter to McGill
professor Brian Alters:
"The committee found that the candidates were qualified.
However, it judged the proposal did not adequately substantiate the
premise that the popularizing of Intelligent Design Theory had
detrimental effects on Canadian students, teachers, parents and
policymakers. Nor did the committee consider that there was adequate
justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of
Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct. It was not
convinced, therefore, that research based on these assumptions would
yield objective results. In addition, the committee found that the
research plans were insufficiently elaborated to allow for an informed
evaluation of their merit. In view of its reservations the committee
recommended that no award be made."