Questions That Won't Go Away: Darwin and Intelligent Design


Author: John Monczunski

“I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feeling of anyone,” Charles Darwin wrote in the closing lines of The Origin of Species. It was a nice try at positive spin by the British naturalist, but in the end only wishful thinking. Darwin’s treatise on evolution did, of course, shock his 19th century audience and has continued to upset some people ever since, particularly those Christians who hold a literal understanding of the Bible.

The last few years have been especially upsetting as a protracted public controversy has raged over attempts to introduce an alternate to evolution that critics allege is religion disguised as science._ _ Supporters of Intelligent Design (ID), which argues that complexity in nature suggests a Designer, insist the theory is valid science. The stridency of the debate stems in part from the fact that for some people on both sides this is a religious war, while for others it is a matter of safeguarding the integrity of the scientific method.

Last fall the battleground flared in Dover, Pennsylvania, and in Kansas. Parents sued the Dover school board over a pro-ID statement to be read to students, claiming it was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Meanwhile in Kansas, an intense debate surrounded the state board of education’s new science standards that require teaching gaps in evolution and adoption of a broader definition of science that allows for a theory such as Intelligent Design. More than 30 states have either passed or are considering legislation permitting the teaching of Intelligent Design, while six states have introduced legislation allowing teachers to challenge evolution.

It’s no surprise that such battles over evolution have been a fixture of American history. While the scientific community has long regarded Darwin’s theory to be a bedrock principle of modern biology, it’s been a tougher sell to the broader culture. A 2004 Gallup poll, in fact, found that 35 percent of Americans believe that evolution is unsupported by the evidence and 45 percent believe that human beings were created in their present form about 10,000 years ago.

‘Old theory, new package’

The current challenge to Darwin is an old theory in a new package, says Notre Dame historian of science Phillip Sloan. In fact, Intelligent Design was the reigning principle at the time Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. The argument that a Designer (God) can be deduced from observing order in the universe is a form of natural theology dating back to the 17th century British philosopher John Ray, with even earlier roots going back to antiquity, Sloan observes.

“Strictly speaking, it’s not a biblical argument nor even a Christian argument,” he says, pointing out that it originated with the Greek Stoics. Sloan notes that Catholic arguments for God traditionally have focused on the fact that creation exists at all, not on any perceived order in the universe. Therefore he urges caution “in allying Catholicism with forces that are pursuing an agenda that I suggest involves an inauthentic reading of the Christian and biblical tradition.”

However, Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the influential Catholic journal of religion, politics and culture _First Things, _ sees things differently. Writing in the October 2005 issue, he says, “Intelligent Design, or ID as it is called, is important in deflating the philosophical, and often atheistic, claims that pass as evolutionary science in the classroom.”

The most famous version of the design argument is William Paley’s watch/watchmaker analogy. The 17th century philosopher argued that a close inspection of a watch reveals parts assembled into an intricate machine for the purpose of telling time. From the watch one can infer a watchmaker. Likewise, he says, by observing the intricacies of a living organism one can infer a Designer.

“The marks of design are too strong to be got over,” Paley wrote in his 1802 book Natural Theology. “Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is God.”

Two-hundred years later, in his book _Darwin’s Black Box, _ Michael Behe, a Lehigh University biochemist, harkens back to Paley when he argues for a Designer by citing the complexities of cellular biochemistry. At the cellular level, he argues, life is composed of intricate biochemical machinery that is “irreducibly complex.” In other words, if even one part is missing, the entire mechanism will not work.

For instance, he says that flagella, tiny whiplike structures that propel certain bacteria, are made up of a series of highly specialized proteins that form a complicated machine complete with a universal joint, drive shaft and motor. The system is “irreducibly complex” because if almost any protein part is missing it won’t function.

This is significant, Behe contends, because he says it is impossible to imagine the propulsion system developing in a step-by-step fashion over many generations, as Darwin’s theory would predict. In Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” principle, only traits that already work are passed on to the next generation. The propulsion system doesn’t work until all of its pieces are in place, so they could not have gradually assembled from components in earlier generations. Since Darwin’s natural selection can’t account for the propulsion system, Behe argues that an Intelligent Designer, which is never specified as God, must be behind it.

He does not, however, suggest that the Designer miraculously intervenes directly. Behe says undetected secondary causes or laws of nature may yet explain the development of life, but these, too, would be the result of design. Further, the Lehigh professor says ID is not an outright denial of evolution. He acknowledges the validity of “micro-evolution,” such as when an insect species becomes resistant to a pesticide over generations, but contends that natural selection does not explain “macro-evolution,” the emergence of new creatures.

Behe argues that what evolutionists call an illusion of design in nature, the product of chance, can be proven to be a product of real design. “Evolution no longer looks like a random process to me,” he says. “It looks like a set-up job.”

Besides Behe, the other major scientific theoretician of the ID movement is William Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher who directs the Center for Science and Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Dembski’s contribution to ID theory has been the concept of “specified complexity,” a complicated mathematically based argument which states that certain complex patterns found in living organisms are “markers” of design by an intelligent agent. He argues that it is statistically improbable that natural selection could produce the diversity of life on Earth.

Intelligent Design proponents also argue against evolution by asserting that it can’t explain the so-called “Cambrian explosion,” when a wide variety of new organisms including shellfish, insects and animals with spinal cords “suddenly” appeared on the Earth over several million years. They argue that this burst of creativity, which was quick in geologic terms, could not have come about through the slow, gradual steps of random selection. They also contend that the fossil record shows no evidence of transitional stages from simpler to more complex organisms, an assertion critics dispute. Finally, they say evolution can’t explain “abiogenesis,” namely how lifeless organic chemicals in the primordial ooze at some point spontaneously sprang to life.

ID and the scientific community

If Darwin has been a tough sell to the American public, however, Intelligent Design has been an even tougher sell to the mainstream scientific community. The science establishment has been unimpressed with the ID camp’s attacks on Darwin via the Cambrian explosion, the fossil record and abiogenesis. None of those issues casts doubt on the basic validity of evolution, they assert. The scientists also point out that simply because science can’t explain something today does not mean it won’t explain it tomorrow. Such has been the history of science. Cornell biology professor Will Provine scoffs, “Any time the intelligent designers find a mystery that scientists can’t explain, they shout ‘See! See!’”

Intelligent Design is fighting an uphill battle, says Notre Dame’s Sloan. He points out that opponents can easily counter any pro-ID argument with an equally valid Darwinian explanation. The apparent design can come about through chance processes working over enormous lengths of time, evolutionists would say. “Neither side seems able to declare victory in this classic dispute, although scientific consensus is heavily against the ID position.”

As for Behe’s complexity argument, Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and the author of _Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, _ says it doesn’t stand up. Behe’s assertion that a complex biological machine like flagella could not evolve from individual components is wrong, Miller contends. He says the evidence shows that systems evolve, not individual components. In the process of evolution these systems gradually expand and take on new roles.

Miller cites the small bones in the ear that transmit sound vibration as an example. He says the fossil record shows that as mammals evolved, bones which had been part of the rear reptilian lower jaw gradually became smaller and migrated to the middle ear. There they took on the new function of carrying sound vibrations.

He points out that the fossil record includes a transitional species which has a double articulation of the jaw joint, allowing the animal to hear and eat. Despite Behe’s contrary arguments, Miller says, nothing suggests that evolution can’t operate similarly on the cell biochemistry level. In fact, Miller cites the work of the biologist Russell Doolittle, who, he says, has demonstrated how evolution modified proteins originally used in the digestive system to produce the vertebrate blood-clotting system.

Notre Dame evolutionary biologist Hope Hollocher finds Intelligent Design unbelievable in part because she finds so much un-intelligent design in nature. “If I were going to design something intelligently, I would certainly design it to work well, not sort of work,” she says.

“There are countless examples of imperfection in nature,” she adds. “Just one example is that human beings are prone to back problems because we still carry around our tetrapod past. Our bodies aren’t all that different from a dog’s with respect to having four limbs.” Further, Hollocher asks, “Or why would you leave a pelvis in a whale when it has no legs, and it’s not attached to anything? The bone is just ‘there,’ and it’s really strong evidence of a history of connection between different organisms.”

One gauge of the level of mainstream science disapproval of ID is illustrated by the feat of the archaeologist R. Joe Brandon, who singlehandedly gathered more than 8,000 scientist signatures on a “Scientific Support for Darwinism” statement in a few weeks last fall. That effort contrasts with the four-year, 400-scientist signature “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” drive by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank. Also, in 2002 the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the primary science organization in the United States, passed a resolution opposed to the teaching of ID theory in U.S. science classes.

Meanwhile, the biology department at Behe’s own university, Lehigh, has distanced itself from him on the topic, issuing a statement last fall that the department is “unequivocal in its support of evolution” and that it believes “Intelligent Design has no basis in science.” The biology department at Baylor University, the Southern Baptist school where Dembski formerly taught, also issued a statement supporting evolution and disavowing Intelligent Design.

The ID theorists are unfazed by the rejection. Behe, in fact, claims Intelligent Design will one day lead to a paradigm shift in biology. ID supporters acknowledge that only a small minority of scientists currently supports the concept, but they assert that the movement is growing. They point out that within the last year three articles discussing ID have been published in mainstream scientific journals and within the past five years books on the issue have been published by the academic presses of Cambridge, MIT and Michigan State University.

Case Western Reserve physicist Lawrence Krauss says ID leads to a scientific dead end. “If you say a creator guided the process, as the Intelligent Design people do, then there’s nothing more to investigate. You can’t look further for understanding.” Dembski counters that Design offers a whole new set of research questions often overlooked. “Once we know that something is designed we will want to know how it was produced, to what extent the design is optimal, and what is its purpose.”

The fray and public schools

One reason the scientific establishment has been upset with the ID movement is that they see it as illegitimately trying to worm its way into the public school science curriculum. Normally, something doesn’t appear in a textbook until there has been a consensus of expert approval after testing and re-testing in peer-reviewed journals. ID, however, under the auspices of the Discovery Institute, the think tank that is the primary mover of the cause, has subverted that process through an aggressive political lobbying and public relations campaign. The route has been through courts, Congress and pressure-group politics on school boards rather than through peer-reviewed journals. The critics ask: Should something be taught merely because a group agitates for it?

Because Intelligent Design hasn’t passed the muster of scientific scrutiny, it doesn’t belong, critics argue. They allege it sets a bad precedent for science education. If an untested, overwhelmingly rejected theory like Intelligent Design can be forced into the curriculum, what is to stop other untested, fringe theories from being taught simply because a pressure group wishes it so? The ID movement does a disservice, many scientists say, by attempting to pit “the people” against “the experts.”

In response to such criticism, the Discovery Institute shifted gears from urging the installation of ID into science curricula to its “Teach the Controversy” campaign. That was launched in 2002 during the contentious debate over ID before the Ohio State Board of Education. Since then the institute has urged schools to teach the “pros and cons” of evolution, and to permit, but not require, the teaching of Intelligent Design. That policy notwithstanding, pending legislation in many states often requires ID as an alternative.

“Teach the controversy” is a bad idea, at least in science classes, says Gary Belovsky, Notre Dame professor of biology. “In the classroom, we don’t give alternatives to gravity, do we?” he asks rhetorically. “We don’t, because gravity is the accepted scientific explanation. Among established biologists, evolution is the accepted scientific explanation.” To present alternatives that have long ago been rejected would be counter to the scientific process, he asserts. “It implies evolution is really questionable, when in fact the weight of the evidence has been overwhelmingly in its favor.”

Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that the existence of strong debate on the topic means it should be taught as a matter of principle in science classes. Still, he acknowledges that this may not be the best venue. “A lot of the important issues are broadly philosophical and theological, and biologists typically don’t want to get involved in that sort of thing.”

The war of Darwinism

Indeed, while the current battle may be in biology over the nature of evolution, the real war is in the philosophical implications science has for the broader culture. It’s a conflict that goes back to the beginning. As Notre Dame’s Sloan notes, the ink was hardly dry on The _Origin of the Species _ when “Darwin’s scientific theory was transformed into ‘Darwinism,’ a comprehensive materialistic philosophy used to combat revealed religion and any claims to a divine origin or even a divine aspect to humankind.”

In recent years, the British zoologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker, along with Cornell biology professor Will Provine and Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett, have been considered the leading proponents of this brand of Darwinism. They contend that the mounting evidence of evolution logically leads to an atheist materialist worldview.

Plantinga is critical of Dawkins and others who intermingle philosophy with science. “Dawkins presents his science as a big melánge,” he contends. “A lot of the things he says are philosophy or metaphysics or theology, but he presents them with the force of science.”

The Dawkins/Dennett/Provine school of thought attempts to extend the chance-like character of natural selection into a complete worldview of “how things are,” Sloan says. But the Notre Dame philosopher argues that such an extension is an unwarranted rhetorical flourish.

It is this philosophical Darwinism, however, that is the real target of many in the Intelligent Design movement. The attack on evolution is a means to an end: an overthrow of the secular materialist worldview. The reasoning goes: If it is true, as Dawkins famously said, that Darwin made atheism intellectually credible, then the way to make it incredible is to attack evolution.

In his 1997 book Defeating Darwinism, the retired Berkeley law professor and Discovery Institute program adviser Phillip E. Johnson wrote, “If we understand our own times, we will know that we should affirm the reality of God by challenging the domination of materialism and naturalism in the world of the mind. With the assistance of many friends, I have developed a strategy for doing this.” Integral to that strategy, known as “The Wedge,” is the advancement of Intelligent Design in the public arena.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s Discovery Institute colleague Dembski wrote in a 2005 article for the website, "The problem with materialism is that it rules out Christianity so completely that it is not even a live option.

Thus, in its relation to Christianity, Intelligent Design should be viewed as a ground-clearing operation that gets rid of the intellectual rubbish that for generations has kept Christianity from receiving serious consideration."

Notre Dame’s Ernan McMullin doesn’t see it that way at all. “These Intelligent Design proponents don’t do believers any favors,” the emeritus philosophy professor argues. “They make it seem as if Christian faith and mainstream science are incompatible. It’s ironic. It begins with some scientists like Richard Dawkins making a bad inference from science, namely that evolution demands atheistic materialism, and then the ID people accepting it, saying if that’s the case, there must be something wrong with evolution.”

McMulllin points out that a “chance” event is “as much the work of the Creator as are the laws of nature themselves.” He adds, "There is absolutely no reason why long-term selection over random hereditable variations should not have been the Creator’s way to bring about the Creator’s ends. . . . Indeed, there might have been a reason why this would be the way the Creator would choose.

“If the broad framework of the Darwinian thesis is sound, as almost all today’s working biologists believe, there_ might_, just might, I say, have been no other simple way in which the complexities of the living world could have been brought about without the need of further intervention in the natural order on the Creator’s part,” he says.

J. Matthew Ashley, a Notre Dame theology professor whose field is the intersection of faith and science, believes some of the problem in the raging ID debate may be that people are locked into an antiquated image of God. “William Paley’s ‘Designer God’ is good as far as it goes,” he says. “But all of our images fail to capture the reality of God, and we need to be open to new ones as our understanding grows and changes.” Since science has moved beyond a 17th century understanding of the world, we may need to find a new image that squares with our expanded understanding of it.

Fordham theologian Elizabeth Johnson has suggested thinking of creation as a jazz improvisation. Ashley thinks that may be just right. “It’s one thing to play a Bach toccata with design evident all over the place,” he says. “But it is very different from listening to a jazz trio. Contingency and chance is what makes jazz work, but you can’t say there isn’t purpose. It’s not a Bach toccata; it works very differently.”

The Catholic Church and evolution

A desire to disassociate the Catholic Church from a Dawkins-style understanding of evolution was the apparent intent, although not clearly expressed, of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s celebrated op-ed essay in The New York Times last July. The piece raised eyebrows and concerns, especially in the mainstream Catholic science community. Schönborn, who was the general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and is a member of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education as well as a confidant of the pope, appeared to be suggesting a change in Church policy. He seemed to say that Neo-Darwinian biology, which refers to the modern synthesis of natural selection, genetics and reproductive biology, might not be consistent with Catholic doctrine.

The cardinal appeared to throw the weight of the Church on the side of Intelligent Design proponents in his essay headined “The Official Catholic Stance on Evolution.” The article generated a whirlwind of reaction, including competing viewpoints on the Notre Dame website. While Notre Dame philosophy professor Plantinga, who has argued on behalf of creationist views, applauded the essay, Notre Dame biology professor Belovsky was appalled. Belovsky wrote, “If Cardinal Schönborn’s perspective became doctrine, no Catholic university could maintain a reputable biology or science program, because the vast majority of scientists acknowledge that overwhelming evidence supports Neo-Darwinian evolution.”

The cardinal’s essay caught nearly everyone by surprise because, as McMullin notes, “Evolution has not been an issue for Catholics for years and years. It’s been taught in parochial schools for an eternity, and no one has so much as raised an eyebrow.”

Indeed, in 2004, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on science and human values, advised his fellow bishops, “Catholic schools should continue teaching evolution as a scientific theory backed by convincing evidence, assured that scientific truth and religious truth cannot be in conflict.”

Part of the problem seems to be that Schönborn apparently conflated “Neo-Darwinism” with the philosophical ideas of such scientists as Richard Dawkins. In the process, the Vatican prelate appeared to be dismissing the core of modern biology. For his part, Plantinga says, “I don’t think Cardinal Schönborn was saying that the scientific theory of evolution was incompatible with Catholicism. He was talking about these naturalistic glosses on it.”

And it appears so, based on clarifying remarks Schönborn made during a lecture last November. The cardinal said, “I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained. . . . When science adheres to its own method, it cannot come into conflict with faith.”

However, Schönborn did cite three examples in which he said scientists transcended data and theories to make philosophical claims, such as when the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins wrote, “Humanity should accept that science has eliminated the justification for believing in cosmic purpose, and that any survival of purpose is inspired solely by sentiment.”

Schönborn acknowledged that the question of design is proper, but one currently engaged outside of science. “The acceptance of purposefulness, of design, is entirely based on reason,” he said, “even if the method of modern natural sciences may require the bracketing of the question of design. Yet my common sense cannot be shut out by the scientific method. Reason tells me that plan and order, meaning and goal exist, that a time-piece does not come into being by accident, even less so the living organism that is a plant, an animal or, above all, man.”

There is one certainty in all this: The debate in the United States will continue to go round and round. Fortunately for Catholics, neither orthodox Darwinian evolution nor Intelligent Design are dogmas of the faith. As Catholics Michael Behe, Richard John Neuhaus, Gary Belovsky, Phillip Sloan and Kenneth Miller attest with their varied views, members of the Church of Rome are free to believe what they will on the matter. Although from the perspective of the scientific establishment, Intelligent Design clearly is heresy.

John Monczunski is an associate editor of this magazine.

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