Baylor’s Bastard Child
If you only heard about Bill Dembski from his enemies, you would think Baylor University was well rid of him as head of the Michael Polanyi Center, an institution that Baylor invited Dembski to found in 1999. According to faculty opponents, Dembski posed a threat to the science department at Baylor with his ideas about intelligent design. In published stories last year, some even accused him of practicing pseudo-science.
Dembski is a leader in the intelligent design movement and the author of severalgroundbreaking books, including The Design Inference (Cambridge University Press) and Intelligent Design (InterVarsity). (In March, Signs of Intelligence [Brazos Press], an expansion of Touchstone’s 1999 issue on intelligent design, was released, edited by Dembski and me.)
A Front for Creationism?
So why was Dembski fired as director of a center dedicated to intelligent design theory—at a Christian school? Essentially because intelligent design is not considered legitimate science by many in the academic establishment and because Dembski tired of playing the part of second-class citizen expected of him.
Intelligent design is opposed by scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, who are philosophically committed to Darwinism, essentially a purely naturalistic explanation for everything that exists: the cosmos, life, and everything that makes us human beings. But materialist scientists are not the only ones fiercely fighting Dembski and others. Some Christian scientists committed to Darwinism (such as those at Baylor, a Baptist school) oppose intelligent design as science because they believe it may be too closely associated with “creationism,” and creationism is not welcome in serious academic circles. Creationism, generally speaking, takes as its starting point Genesis 1, a “religious text,” and seeks to conform scientific findings to what is read (often literally, i.e., six 24-hour days) therein.
But Dembski and his intelligent design associates have limited their claims for intelligent design to purely scientific research and data. In April 2000, Dembski organized a conference at Baylor on “The Nature of Nature,” which brought scientists together to debate intelligent design. Did the conference—boycotted by most of the Baylor science faculty—live up to its opponents’ billing as a front for creationism? Hardly. Prominent scientists opposed to intelligent design, including two Nobel laureates, dominated the three-day event. And at the closing dinner of the conference, Christian De Duve, the Nobel laureate from Belgium and one of the world’s leading cell biologists and evolutionists, rose and publicly complimented the scholarly quality of the conference and the civility of the debate. He toasted the organizers of a conference that had been, in his words, “intelligently designed.”
Despite such affirmations, Dembski was treated as a bastard son of real science. His critics tried to put Dembski in his place, but he didn’t behave himself.
Shortly after the conference, the Baylor faculty voted to ask President Sloan to close the center. Sloan formed a review committee. In October the committee released its report, recommending that Dembski’s work be recognized as legitimate science. They also said that the Faith and Learning Center, under which the Polanyi Center had been operating, should be free to run programs dealing with intelligent design. But they also said the Polanyi name should be dropped, effectively closing the center as it had been established. Further, they moved the new unnamed entity under the umbrella of the Faith and Learning Center, stipulating that Dembski could work there under an advisory board.
Dembski cannily issued a public memo expressing his appreciation for the vindication of his work on intelligent design, and his determination to carry on his research “unabated” under a reorganized center as approved by the committee. Then he went on to say that the opponents of intelligent design had “met their Waterloo.” He closed by commending Baylor “for remaining strong in the face of intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression.”
This was too much for Dembski’s opponents and a firestorm of protest broke out on campus. Dembski was asked by Sloan to retract his celebratory memo. Unwilling to do this, he was removed from the directorship for “uncollegial” behavior. (For a fuller account and analysis of this story, see Angus J. L. Menuge’s “Few Signs of Intelligence” in this issue, pp. 54–55.)
To understand Baylor’s perspective of Dembski and attitude toward him, think of Baylor as a well-heeled family and Dembski as a bastard son (in their view) who wants to be admitted to the family plantation (legitimate science). Well, after the family examines his claim, they can’t deny that this is indeed the son of one of their boys (Cambridge University Press and a peer-reviewed book). But he is a bastard and racially mixed (intelligent design seems to play into the hands of those creationists). They admit him to the plantation (it would be scandalous to turn him away), and they will take care of him (honor their contract with him). They are stuck with him. But they will be darned if he will have the privileges of the other family members. He really can’t live in the same house and eat his supper at the same table. He can live on the plantation, but in the servants’ quarters where he will work (under Baylor supervision). The poor boy needs to remember his place.
Well, when he hears this, crazy ol’ Bill thanks the family for recognizing his pedigree and for letting him move in (his memo). He walks right into the house and gives thanks (his memo again) that justice has been done and that bigotry has been set aside in his favor. He asks one of the ladies of the house what’s for dinner and might he be shown to his bedroom so he can tidy up beforehand. Crazy Bill is hustled (demoted) back to the servants’ quarters. He may be related to the family, but he sure enough is not going to be treated as an equal.
Apparently at Baylor, a Christian university, if an intelligent design theorist is given a place (under supervision), he’d best not get uppity. This is a shameful way to treat someone initially hired to direct a new center for scientific research, even if it is on a controversial theory.
We think that Baylor’s loss is sadly, well, their loss, and eventually will become someone else’s gain. For it would seem that when his contract is up, Dembski could do better than work at a school that treats him as Baylor has. Oxford University is sometimes remembered by admirers of C. S. Lewis as the place where he taught most of his academic career and yet couldn’t get a professorship, largely because of his popularization of Christian doctrines and his apologetic work. Lewis eventually received a professorship at Cambridge.
If someday intelligent design theory—contrary to the devout wishes of many of the Baylor science faculty—is established as the best scientific explanation for life, it would be ironic (and fitting) if Baylor is remembered as the place that demoted Bill Dembski.
—James M. Kushiner, for the editors
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“Baylor’s Bastard Child” first appeared in the May 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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