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April 07, 2006

Professor Denied Grant Over Evolution

AGENCY wants proof Darwin is correct; But McGill says committee's reasoning is faulty
PEGGY CURRAN and RANDY BOSWELL, The Gazette; CanWest News Service

A clash between McGill University and the key federal agency that funds social science research in the country is sparking a scholarly debate in Canada about the theory of evolution.

McGill University says the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council made a "factual error" when it denied Professor Brian Alters a $40,000 grant on the grounds that he'd failed to provide the panel with ample evidence that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is correct.

Jennifer Robinson, McGill's associate vice-principal for communications, said the university has asked the SSHRC to review its decision to reject Alters's request for money to study how the rising popularity in the United States 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 council, is titled Detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution's intelligent design theory on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators and policymakers.

Alters, director of McGill's Evolution Education Research Centre, told CanWest News Service yesterday he was shocked at SSHRC's response and that it offers "ironic" proof that his premise about intelligent design gaining a foothold in Canada is correct.

Alters said he read the letter at a public lecture last week in Montreal and there were "audible gasps" from the large audience.

"Evolution is not an assumption and intelligent design is pseudo-science," Alters said.

"I think SSHRC should come out and state that evolution is a scientific fact and that intelligent design is not."

"There are all kinds of reasons to deny a grant proposal," Robinson said. "We don't want to assume anything." But she said McGill is obviously concerned by what it sees as a mistake in the committee's reasoning.

In its decision to deny the grant, the SSHRC panel said Alters had not supplied "adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent design theory, was correct."

"McGill considers this a factual error," Robinson said.

"The theory of evolution is well-established science, while intelligent design is a form of religious belief."

Janet Halliwell, the SSHRC's executive vice-president and a chemist by training, acknowledged that the "framing" of the committee's comments to Alters left the letter "open to misinterpretation."

Halliwell said confidentiality obligations made it difficult for her to discuss Alters's case in detail, but she argued that the professor had taken one line in the letter "out of context" and the rejection of his application should not indicate that SSHRC was expressing "doubts about the theory of evolution."

However, Halliwell added there are phenomena that "may not be easily explained by current theories of evolution" and that 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 United States, between creationists and advocates of the theory of evolution championed by Darwin.

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