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Intelligent Design Theories Chip Away At Darwinian Evolution’s Stronghold

BY Molly Mulqueen

March 8-14, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/8/98 at 2:00 PM

 

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Charles Darwin's theory of evolution has been embraced and revered by the world scientific community since it was first promulgated in his book On the Origin of Species, in 1859. For many scientists in disciplines ranging from biology to paleontology, Darwin's particular spin on evolutionary theory is considered a first principle, a cornerstone, a fact. Some criticisms of Darwin's theory based on new scientific information are receiving attention, however, both in and outside of the scientific community.

Darwin was not the first scientist to suggest that life forms on earth have “evolved,” or changed over time so that the descendants of a species differ from their ancestors. But to understand the current debate, a distinction must be made between “micro-evolution,” which refers to small changes in a species, such as the reshaping of finches' beaks to allow them to adapt to a new food source, and “macro-evolution,” which refers to a major genetic leap, such as an invertebrate animal gradually becoming a vertebrate animal.

Micro-evolution is not disputed among scientists, or among most Christians for that matter. But Darwin's unique contribution was the idea of macro-evolution, which depends on “natural selection”—commonly known as “survival of the fittest”—and, perhaps more importantly, “random variation”—the idea that every permutation along the evolutionary road was a chance occurrence.

Today, some scientists are using scholarly research to build a case for the “intelligent design” of life on earth. This is not a new theory; in fact, it is older than Darwin's. But new scientific information not available in Darwin's era—especially in the fields of biochemistry and genetics—enhances the scientific credibility of the intelligent design theories. The intelligent design scientists conclude from their research that life forms on earth are so complex that they could not have developed as a result of “random variation.”

In his book, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Michael Behe posits that the intricate and interdependent machinery of the cell, the basis of all life forms, could not have happened as the result of es biochemistry at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., said he feels “certain” that the cell is the work of an intelligent designer, and thinks a convincing scientific case can be built to prove it.

“Most evolutionary biologists hate my book—simply hate it,” Behe said. “[P]eople look at me point blank and say ‘You can't involve intelligent design—it is illegitimate.’ They say science is material, and Darwin's theory of evolution is the only naturalistic explanation of how life got here.

“It is fascinating to me to read science papers where complex systems are described and the writer will say, ‘Isn't Darwinian evolution marvelous?’ without a shred of doubt,” Behe said.

Missing Links

Even many of Darwin's loyal followers have to admit that there are gaps in his explanation, Behe said. For example, the fossil record to date does not show evidence of the kinds of transitional changes from one species to the next that Darwin himself hoped would be discovered to bear out his theory. Many scientists who accept Darwin's theory feel confident that future paleontological discoveries will be made to fill in these gaps.

“Scientists have a great emotional commitment to evolutionary theory,” Behe explained. “If one admits that there are gaps here [in the fossil record], you have to let go of a huge emotional commitment first.

“Are the die-hard evolutionists having second thoughts? Maybe not, but they are starting to get defensive.”

Late last year, the National Association of Biology Teachers slightly revised its long-standing platform on teaching evolution. Before, it read, “The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process.” The new version dropped the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal,” which leaves the door open, if just a crack, for the possibility of an intelligent designer.

For its part, the Catholic Church has long treated evolution as a “serious hypothesis” worthy of “serious study,” as long as one did not “set aside the teaching of Revelation” (Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis).

In October 1996, Pope John Paul II made a statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the topic of evolution. Due to a poor translation from the original French, he was widely misquoted in English as saying that evolution was “more than one hypothesis” about creation. In fact, as was later clarified, the Pope meant the theory of evolution is more than merely a hypothesis. In his remarks, he went on to stress that there are many variations of the theory of evolution, some of them purely materialistic—and thus incompatible with accepted Catholic teaching—and others that allowed for a supreme Creator.

Although Catholics and other Christians who find fault with Darwin's theory are not in complete agreement on many of the details concerning the origins of life on earth (the age of the planet, when the dinosaurs lived, etc.), for the most part, they are willing allies in the fight for credibility against purely materialistic scientific explanations.

One of the most prolific proponents of the intelligent design theory is not a scientist, but an accomplished legal scholar. Philip Johnson, who teaches law at the University of California at Berkeley, became interested in the topic of evolution a number of years ago, shortly after he became a Christian. Now he devotes much of his time to writing, lecturing, and debating on the subject of evolution.

Material Seekers

For Johnson, the accepted theory of evolution is built on very poor assumptions and factual data, which he has refuted in his three books on the subject, most recently Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. In his opinion, many scientists are willing to accept this theory, however weak the evidence, because they are naturalists who seek exclusively material causes and effects for everything found in nature.

“Biologists tend to be strict materialists, and to reject the possibility of intelligent design in organisms with horror and outrage,” Johnson said. “A designer who does something after the Big Bang—during the emergence of life, that is—is much closer to us and hence much more unwelcome to materialists. Despite the claims that science and religion are separate realms, evolutionary biologists are strongly committed to materialism regardless of the evidence.”

Johnson disagrees with many Catholics and other religious individuals who share his belief that God created the universe, but are open to the possibility that evolution may simply be part of his creative process.

“Evolutionary science aims to explain everything about the living world, including the human mind, as a product of strictly materialistic processes in which God played no part. From this viewpoint, religion itself is a product of brain activity,” Johnson explained.

“When asked about this, many evolutionary scientists respond like White House spin doctors: they have the greatest respect for ‘religious belief,’ etc., but they will not repudiate the basic commitment of their science to materialism ‘all the way up,’” Johnson said. “They cannot afford to do so precisely because the evidence for the supposed vast creative power of natural selection is so weak. Let that divine foot in the door, and the whole structure is in danger of collapsing.”

‘We see this as a debate of faith versus faith…’

But in his 1996 statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, John Paul II made it clear that the Church does not see evolutionary science as an “all or nothing” proposition. The idea that God, as the intelligent designer behind creation, uses evolutionary processes is an acceptable possibility. Only theories that are purely materialistic, and thus leave out the necessity for a Creator, are incompatible with the Catholic faith.

Although Johnson does not mind being called a “creationist,” meaning one who believes that there is a Creator, his opinions differ somewhat from the traditional creationists that were immortalized in the movie Inherit the Wind. Creationists, by strict definition, believe that God created the universe directly, in literally seven days, as written in Genesis.

For many years, scientists and other academics showed little respect for creationists, whose arguments against evolution were perceived as unintellectual. Creationists have attempted to improve their reputations by establishing think-tanks for “creation science,” where scientists with advanced degrees engage in research aimed at disproving Darwin's theory.

Faith vs. Faith

Frank Sherwin is a creation scientist who holds a master's degree in zoology from a respected secular university. Currently he works as director of curriculum development at the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, Calif. The Institute has a staff of 60 who conduct research, operate a museum, and direct educational programs, including a graduate program in life and the physical sciences. He calls the Institute an “unashamedly Bible-based organization—Genesis through Revelation,” whose goal is to “expose the myth of- macro-evolution.”

“We see this as a debate of faith versus faith—it is adamantly not creationism versus science,” Sherwin said. “No one has ever observed hydrogen becoming people, and no one has ever observed God creating. In which do you put your faith?

“For so long, the biological community in particular has had no competing viewpoint,” Sherwin said. “Slowly, this is being challenged due in large part to the intelligent design theorists. We are disappointed that they don't go as far as we think that they should, but we won't throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Father Robert Brungs SJ of the Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology at St. Louis University and editor of a forthcoming book about creation and evolution agrees that faith is at the center of this debate.

“Belief in a creator requires faith, and I think a lot of biologists just don't have the faith … they will only allow for impersonal design, if any,” the priest said. “Faith in itself is a supernatural gift, you either have it or you don't. You can argue with them all you want, but I don't think too many people come to faith by argument.

“Darwin's stuff was done out of a knowledge that he had, and it wasn't as wrong then as it is now. We've come a long way since Darwin died,” Father Brungs said. “I think the evolution of humans is different from the evolution of other animals and plants.… I think the human in creation is set apart.”

Molly Mulqueen writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.