(Investigator 109, 2006 July)

After many years of traditional "scoffing" at the apparent popularity of fundamentalist Christianity amongst members of the American intelligensia, the current (23/6/06) Times Higher Educational Supplement (THES) devotes its front-page lead-article, " Intelligent Design creeps on to Courses", together with another full page, highlighting the increasing encroachment of senior lecturers, at British universities, advocating Creationism and Intelligent Design.

For the benefit of naïve readers, the THES editors simplistically define Creationism as 'belief that biblical mythology is scientific fact': the Earth, created in six days, is only 6,000 years old, that 'evolution' and 'big bang' are unsubstantiated mythology, that all humans descend from Adam and Eve and fossils are 'remnants' from the days of Noah's flood.

The editors define Intelligent Design as beginning with the conviction life is much "too complex" for any explanation other than there must have been "a designer" – the most frequent example of this "complexity" is that chosen by Charles Darwin himself, the eye.

A distinction between creationist and intelligent designer is that whereas the former accepts a single creator, the latter is more flexible – there may well have been more than a single creator! In like fashion, the intelligent designer accepts our universe may indeed be millions of years old, and that species undergo small changes over time.

Among the institutes of higher education faced with this 'potential infection' (terminology I have plagiarized from Richard Dawkins, a theme on which I shall expand below) are Leeds University where compulsory lectures on creationism and intelligent design will be incorporated, before Christmas 2006, into the second year syllabus for zoology and genetics undergraduates, and Leicester University where academics already devote part of their lecture inputs to third-year undergraduates to creationism and intelligent design.

At both institutions the declared intention is to present the controversial theories as "fallacies irreconcilable with scientific evidence".

That these 'alternatives' to evolutionary theory are proposed for formal discussion has provoked concern within the UK's science community – indeed, David Reed, vice president of the Royal Society insists: "It would be undesirable for universities to have to spend a lot of precious resources teaching students that creationism and intelligent design are not based on scientific evidence. It is pretty basic stuff."

However, THES investigators report having located at least fourteen academics in university science departments describing themselves as 'creationists' – for them the world is thousands, not millions of years old and Noah's flood does indeed explain fossil remains! In addition, investigators found several lecturers, proponents of Intelligent Design, who reject evolution as a 'discredited theory'.

Some of these individuals are heads of departments, seven lecture in 'life sciences', another seven are professors employed in universities such as Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Southampton and Warwick – Jon Swingler, head of the School of Engineering Science in Southampton, insists dinosaurs co-existed with humans; George Marshall, lecturer in neuro-biomedicine at Glasgow University, is quoted as saying 'complexity of the eye' makes him "balk at evolutionary theory".

Independent research carried at Glasgow found no less than 10% of science students studying there do not believe in evolution!

Stuart Burgess, head of mechanical engineering at Bristol University, is well known in fundamentalist circles for his book, Hallmarks of Design, where he states, "Evolution is disastrous because if you teach people that they are animals then it is inevitable that they will behave like animals". He told the THES "many engineering scientists are sceptical because they are very aware that complex systems do not appear without intelligent design".

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University claims scientists teach evolution as a proven "dogma" because biologists are afraid of religious people! Readers may remember this is the same 'Stephen Fuller' who pleaded, unsuccessfully, last year to a judge in Pennsylvania for creationist alternatives to evolutionary theory to be included in school curricula. An enthusiastic crowd greeted him following the hearing, as he echoed the words of their song: "We didn't happen by chance or a million years of evolution. I don't believe in evolution, I know creation is right".

Viruses of the Mind (re-visited)!

Readers will recall the 1992 Voltaire Lecture of Dr Richard Dawkins. Viruses of the Mind, where he began his discussion with reference to his own daughter:

"A beautiful child close to me, six and the apple of her father's eye, believes that Thomas the Tank Engine really exists. She believes in Father Christmas, and when she grows up her ambition is to be a tooth fairy… This little girl is of an age to believe whatever you tell her. If you tell her about witches changing princes into frogs she will believe you. If you tell her that bad children roast forever in hell she will have nightmares. I have just discovered that without her father's consent this sweet, trusting, gullible six-year-old is being sent, for weekly instruction, to a Roman Catholic nun. What chance has she?"
Using examples from computer technology as illustration, Dawkins develops the theme of how a virus 'takes over' the young mind. He describes the two characteristics of the virus; a parasitic replicator, a readiness to replicate information accurately and a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated.

Dawkins reminds us of the difficulty in detecting the presence of these viruses. He takes his parameters from a textbook of psychical pathology: The patient impelled by a deep, irrational 'inner conviction', a faith that is strong and unshakeable although based on no objective evidence, the conviction that unexplained 'mystery' per se is a good thing, intolerance of 'unbelievers' (the pagan's disbelief is bearable, the heretic should be destroyed), that beliefs come from the social situation, not from having 'thought it all out' for oneself from 'first principles' – as Shaw's Henry Higgins could place a speaker in his 'locality' (we do not choose our language or our dialects), one's religious views originate likewise (how many of your children, reader of this article, have joined the Mithraic religion practised in ancient Rome, or the Rashan cult from the Bombay province?)

Richard Dawkins is referring to the critical years of early childhood when our young minds are especially vulnerable to infection by the religious virus. The concerns reported and discussed in the current Times Higher relate more directly to the years of early adolescence when young people, inhabiting a developing body, ceasing to be children and becoming young men and women, find themselves (bodily, physically) unstable and unsure, vividly aware and experiencing their own very real insecurities and uncertainties, especially vulnerable to the mythical certainties and promises offered by religion. As is well known, these are the years of religious conversion.

One has only to look at the world modern America would build in the image of George Bush and the all powerful religious right of the USA, a president who tells us that God told him to "go get those weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, to warn us that any sign that the UK may be emulating the American model is a very legitimate cause for concern.

Richard Dawkins concluded his lecture by reminding us that "many children emerge unscathed from the worst that nuns and mullahs can throw at them", but many do not! It only takes one or two of these 'infected' individuals to be posited with their fingers poised above nuclear buttons, to raise the ominous threat of the ominous destruction of the human world.

The Times Higher Education Supplement is correct to highlight this very worrying recent development in the institutes of higher education in the UK.