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INTELLIGENT DESIGN IN MEDICINE AND MEDICAL SCHOOLS

 

NEW YORK, 22 October 2005—The intensifying and already heated debate over Intelligent Design has become a significant issue and media topic in the United States in part because the movement to teach intelligent design in schools has spread from elementary public schools to the highest levels of the academic community. Dr. Robert S. Schwartz, a deputy editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, fears that this movement will spread to American medical schools. In a recent article entitled, Faith Healers and Physicians - Teaching Pseudoscience by Mandate, Dr. Schwartz, questions and argues against the inclusion of intelligent design in the teaching or practice of medicine.

To understand why intelligent design constitutes an insidious menace to medicine, it is helpful to trace its roots. In part, it evolved from creationism, which takes the Genesis story of creation literally. Creationism has been discredited, however, by indisputable physical evidence - carbon dating, for example...Still, a large part of the public believes in creationism and yearns for a return to God in public schools...Detractors of the theory of evolution contend that there are too many holes in it: it is inconsistent with the fossil record, they say, and it fails to fully account for what we see today in the living world. Worse, it cannot tell us about the meaning of life...At its root, intelligent design is a medieval theological proposition that is based on faith, not logic, and certainly not science. It is theology dressed up as science...

First and foremost, intelligent design should concern physicians because the debate influences education at all levels. Now that Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader and a graduate of Harvard Medical School, has come out in favor of the teaching of intelligent design, medical students may soon be learning that only a hidden hand could be responsible for the complexities of oxidative metabolism in mitochondria. (An intelligent student might ask why the designer made mitochondria in the first place.) Moreover, the confusion between faith and science at the highest levels of public education can hardly be an asset to the pool of applicants to medical schools and graduate schools in the sciences.

What would it mean to take intelligent design seriously at the medical school level? Its proponents tell us that gaps in our knowledge of how living organisms evolved vitiate the theory of evolution. Might we conclude, then, that the cancer cell and its evolution are so complex that a creative designer must be the cause of cancer? But if the designer created cancer, is it against the hidden hand's will to find a cure for cancer? Is it in accord with the plan of the intelligent designer to receive a treatment for cancer? After all, a Jehovah's Witness would rather die than receive a blood transfusion...

The main need now is to begin to understand what the debate is about and to consider its consequences for the future of medicine.

--The New England Journal of Medicine



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