Professor denied federal research funds for assuming evolution to be scientific fact
Randy Boswell
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 correct.

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 decision."

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 to misinterpretation."

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."