Tree of Life Review



AIRMAIL: Bodhi Blues — A Year in India: Questioning The Maitreya Project by Jessica Falcone

COLUMN: Storiedmusic — The Night I Walked Out by DJ T’challah

NOVEL EXCERPT: In a State of Partition by Aneesha Capur

UP THE CREEK: Editor’s Notes — Art, Yoga, and Abu Ghraib

On the Rocks: Global Warming

and the Rock and Fossil Record —

An Interview with Peter Ward


In the first part of our interview, Peter Ward discussed his career as a paleontologist and astrobiologist, as well as his latest book on global warming Under A Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past and What They Can Tell You About Our Future.

When I asked Ward how he viewed his role as a scientist, he spoke without hesitation. “Well, it is my belief that it’s a scientist’s responsibility to yell, stand up and debate, and to talk to the public. ”

So it’s no surprise that Ward appeared in a public debate in Seattle last year — a debate which few of his scientific colleagues approved. Ward debated Stephen Meyer, an Intelligent Design advocate and Senior Fellow for the Center of Science and Culture at Seattle’s Discovery Institute.

As we revisit Ward’s experience, I’ll turn to the words of the moderator of the Seattle Intelligent Design/ Evolution debate when he noted that, “the semantic frame of the issue [might prove to be] debatable itself... and hotly so. ”

Intelligent Design advocates, such as Stephen Meyer claim that their term rests on scientific principles that should be taught alongside the scientific theory of evolution in schools.

Academic scientists, such as Peter Ward, on the other hand, reject placing Intelligent Design in the same scientific realm as evolutionary theory, which is at the heart of the life sciences (including medical discoveries).

Peter Ward

As we head toward the 2008 presidential election, it is noteworthy that three of the ten Republican candidates at the first Republican presidential debate raised their hands when asked who among them did NOT believe in evolution.

Is the Intelligent Design advocates’ call to “teach the controversy” fundamentally misleading, as many scientists charge? Do you agree with Peter Ward that scientists should debate such issues (perhaps impossible to resolve) publicly, especially, as Ward points out, when federal funding for science programs and the education of future generations is directly affected by public opinion?

Wild River Review invites you to write your comments, thoughts, and opinions about evolution and intelligent design to

WRR: I wanted to turn to the debate with the Discovery Institute: Tell me about your experience of that...

Well, I generally love talking to audiences, but on this occasion there were hecklers and I’ve never in my life experienced that before. And some of the hecklers were surrounding my nine-year-old boy and he began to get terrified. I mean here were these people booing his father in a rather threatening way. It was a scene from a nightmare.

WRR: You described a scene where your son watched as a man “dripping hatred” demanded to know if you were an atheist. Why in your view is there so much anger around this issue?

I’m not sure. And to set the stage there was a debate I had with the same man about two months ago on the radio, so I really should have seen this coming. The Discovery Institute is so well organized they had people calling in and jamming the phone lines. And the question that kept coming up over and over was, “Admit that you’re an atheist.” Over and over again, “Admit that you’re an atheist. You don’t believe any of this; you don’t believe in evolution; you’re just trying to push an anti-God agenda.”... So this same question came up again at the live debate, this, “Tell us the truth. You don’t believe in God.” It really, just well, it still really surprised me.

WRR: Your colleagues really tried to talk you out of the debate. As I understand it debates like this really are rare. I don’t think there are many scientists who are willing to participate. What convinced you to take part in it?

I, rightly or wrongly, and it depends on the day that you catch me, think that the reason we are losing the ideological battle is that we are not engaging. And that when we walk away and don’t appear on stage with those who think differently than we do, we think others won’t go up on stage themselves, and of course they do and they do so extremely effectively. These are professional people trained very well in the art of persuasion and public relations. We have underestimated them, every step along the way and continue to. And the fact that scientists will not walk up and talk to these folks is hurting.

There’s actually another good reason to go forward with these debates, though. Because even ten years ago, before Intelligent Design, the creationists had put forth incredibly good debaters... And in almost every single public debate, the evolutionists had their clocks cleaned. We academically-minded people think that that lecturing and classroom skills equate to debating finesse. And it’s not true. We need practice.

They’ve heard all of the arguments before and they’ve practiced and practiced. I don’t have ten people sit me in a room and practice for debate questions that might be coming. I did go see a lot of people, but you need an absolutely first line, well-trained debater who is also a scientist, not a scientist who thinks because he or she can lecture that they are also a good debater.

WRR: You write, “Science can only test the natural, and the supernatural gets a free pass. It is as if they are using motorcycles in a horse race.”

I’m not a theologian. But, it’s really the difference between belief and theory. A scientific theory must, by its very nature, be able to withstand being proven or disproven — and that’s not something religions normally test for which is why it’s actually impossible to win one of these debates. Because I was well coached I went out with my biggest bullet and the bullet went right through them — unmarked. It’s impossible to disprove a belief.

WRR: Is there something you would have done differently had you been able to go back and do it again?

Yeah, I wouldn’t have gotten mad. And I did get mad. They got me. They rattled me and I was especially upset about my son. I got sarcastic and started belittling my opponent. And Meyers stayed absolutely calm. Part of me was saying, “Do you really believe this; is this a political belief? If you are as smart as I think you are you can’t possibly believe this. It’s just too far fetched.”

And the other thing I wish I had done more was to say the following, “What if you’re right and I’m wrong? On the other hand, what if I’m right and you’re wrong and yet we follow your lead and do irreparable harm to the future national security of the country?” Because I think our greatest national security threat comes not from Al Qaeda but from China and Northern Europe and to our way of life.

What do we produce? And I pointed this out. We don’t produce cars that anyone wants to buy. We don’t produce electronics. What we produce are great ideas still and software and great mental leaps. If that goes away we’re cooked. My point is, if you embrace Intelligent Design to the point that you tell kids, “Well, you know kids, electrons — hey who knows what those damn things are — it’s too complicated. Hey, God put them there.” You know there would be no radio, no television, nothing. Biology and electronics are the great frontier because computers will become biological. This is the century of that integration. Those are hard problems and we need trained scientists to figure them out.

That challenge will not be met if we simply dismiss it and say that some things are made by God and we’ll never be able to figure it out anyway. That’s national security. And I really thought that should be the most telling argument.

WRR: I’m wondering what concerns you about the way the debate over intelligent design has been framed.

What concerns me most is that the president and the cabinet have both endorsed it. They’ve de facto endorsed it. Because when you say, “Teach the debate,” which the president said, when John McCain says the same thing, how much higher do you have to go? That’s an indication of trouble. Trouble in river city.

WRR: Can religion and science coexist in harmony?

I’ve never been religious and by that I mean I’ve never believed in the supernatural... Personally, I don’t understand. I know that Dawkins has a book out and of course it’s the big rage right now. To me it would be so uncomfortable to say that yes, I’m a scientist and I believe in all of these natural processes. But by the way, a man died on the cross and he was resurrected. How can you believe in the scientific process and believe that? I know so many people believe in both, but I personally don’t get it. It would be such a cognitive dissonance in me that I just couldn’t do it.

WRR: What is your philosophy as a teacher...what do you want to pass on to the next generation?

One of my students had a committee meeting yesterday and I told him,“ If you don’t love it, don’t do it.” You know a Ph.D. isn’t a sprint, it’s a long distance race, and the only thing that will sustain it is your love. If you don’t fall in love with it, don’t do it. Love is a funny word, but I think it’s exactly the right word to describe what’s necessary. It must be a strong emotion that attracts you, makes you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, and comply with a rigorous set of rules. You’ve got to love your science and it’s my view that you either do or you don’t.

WRR: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes, for any student, you have to give yourself a chance. That’s what school is: giving yourself a chance... to find something to love. Just like the dating scene, the best way to go is to give yourself the greatest chance to meet the greatest number of potential partners. Well, what scares me about school so often is that we’ve reduced that dating scene. You’ve got to experience lots of intellectual dating partners before you fall in love with one of them. And that’s what intelligent design wouldn’t let us do.