Weight of Evidence


Before Peter Nichols CGS’93, my colleague at Penn who edits the School of Arts and Sciences’ alumni publication, approached me last fall with the proposal to write a story about him, I had not known that Eric Rothschild L’93 was representing the parents and teachers in the headline-making lawsuit against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board over their insistence that a statement questioning the theory of evolution and promoting intelligent design as an alternative be read in class before ninth-graders took up the study of Darwin. Still, if I’d had to guess which side a Penn alumnus would find him or herself on in this particular intellectual debate, evolution would have been my, um, natural selection.

I was much more surprised, frankly, to learn that one of the star expert-witnesses for the defense was also a Penn alumnus, Michael Behe Gr’78, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. The confrontation between the two of them—in which Behe’s argument concerning “irreducible complexity” in nature was refuted by the literal weight of evidence in the scientific literature produced by Rothschild—is a highlight of Peter’s description of the trial, which ended with a very clear-cut legal decision in favor of the plaintiffs and against intelligent design’s claims to science. (Behe didn’t respond to requests for an interview, but judging from his comments elsewhere, he appears unfazed by the ruling.)

The will to believe is a powerful thing, and it can be blinding—but not always. A century before the two Penn alumni squared off in a Harrisburg courtroom, the University’s Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism was examining a movement that had gained wide sympathy among the most respected members of society—including the commission’s chairman, renowned Shakespeare scholar Horace Howard Furness. Still, as Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 recounts in “Feet and Faith,” the commission took its charge seriously, returning a verdict that no proof of spiritualism’s truth was to be found, and, he adds, it was the only study of the time intellectually honest enough to do so.

It’s an open secret that Penn is preparing a major fundraising campaign, the first University-wide endeavor of this type in more than a decade, and designed in part to narrow a perceived resource-gap with its peers. Skeptical observers might be moved to ask where the largest employer in the City of Philadelphia, possessor of annual revenues of $4.05 billion and the 12th largest endowment in higher education, comes off crying poor. “Whence the Money”—the reference is to a 1914 editorial on this theme, a perennial one—takes a stab at an answer.

Leaving Penn in particular aside, are the many billions raised and spent on higher education in this country wasted anyway? Penn sociologists Ivar Berg and Randall Collins, profiled by freelancer Noel Weyrich in “Failing Grades,” might well say yes, at least when it comes to higher education’s efficacy as a vehicle for upward mobility—a key article of faith in the U.S., but one, according to their separate research, with little basis in fact.

Berg and Collins do not discount higher education as a means of self-discovery and personal enrichment, however. For a vivid account of that type of educational experience, please see “The Passion of Paul,” Dan Kaplan’s piece—half tribute, half biography—on his mentor Paul Hendrickson, currently the most sought-after writing instructor on campus.

Kaplan, incidentally, was one of the first two winners of the Nora Magid Mentorship Prize (www.noraprize.com), established a few years ago by the grateful students of another legendary writing teacher, Nora Magid, who taught here from the mid-1970s until her death in 1991.

—John Prendergast C’80

©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/03/06

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