Intelligent Design Puts Darwinian Evolution on Trial
SEATTLE — Alone among developed nations, America has not wholeheartedly embraced Darwinian evolution. Polls reveal that as many reject it as accept it, and this has been cited as proof of American backwardness. But if the intelligent design movement is right, Americans will be proved ahead of the curve.
In fact, the case for intelligent design — which holds that the complexity and amazing organization of living organisms could not have occurred randomly — recently won a surprising European convert, Antony Flew.
Formerly the world’s most influential atheist philosopher, Flew confessed late last year, “Biologists’ investigation of DNA has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce [life], that intelligence must have been involved.”
Much American opposition to Darwinism comes from religious fundamentalists who believe in the literal truth of Genesis. Proponents of intelligent design, commonly known as ID, are not Biblical literalists or even, necessarily, Christians. They tend to get infuriated when evolutionists routinely conflate their ideas with creationism.
So what do ID believers believe? It would be more relevant to describe what they do not. Michael Behe, Lehigh University biology professor and author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, put it this way in the Feb. 7 New York Times: “Intelligent design proponents do question whether random mutation and natural selection completely explain the deep structure of life.”
He cites cells, of which all organisms are composed. Scientists have only recently discovered that cells are fantastically complex, each one being akin to a power plant in its structure and purpose. IDers say it’s ridiculous to assume such structures came about accidentally and incrementally, especially as all of their parts must be present for them to work. Therefore, the structures must have had a designer.
Millions of people call this intelligence “God”; others, such as Flew, who rejects revealed religion and an afterlife, do not.
Flew’s spectacular change of mind — “I want to try and correct the enormous damage I may have done,” he said — caused a sensation worldwide. Militant atheists were so scandalized they falsely insisted Flew remained one of them and circulated an obsolete essay by him as proof.
Bruce Chapman, on the other hand, was delighted.
Chapman, former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and Reagan White House aide, co-founded the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank. He said, “Flew acknowledged he’d been influenced by American intelligent design theorists.”
The institute, founded in 1990, is involved in many aspects of public policy but is best known as the headquarters of the ID movement. Chapman first became involved when he read of the case of Dean Kenyon, a San Francisco State biology professor “who was being persecuted because he had changed his mind about Darwin. Even though he had tenure, they tried to drive him out.”
Asked whether free inquiry is not the hallmark of science, Chapman responded, “One would think so, but people lose their jobs over this.” He then cited mathematician William Dembski, fired in 2000 for his ID views as director of the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University, a Baptist institution.
And then there’s the case of Richard Sternberg.
Sternberg is not even an intelligent design proponent, but his career at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History hangs by a thread, Chapman said, because he had the audacity to publish, in the Smithsonian’s biological proceedings, a peer-reviewed article by a Discovery Institute fellow.
Sternberg, who is Catholic, found afterward that his colleagues were demonstrating an obsessive interest in his theological beliefs. He has filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel alleging religious discrimination.
David Klinghoffer, an Orthodox Jew who defended Sternberg in the Wall Street Journal, said, “Darwinism … is an essential ingredient in secularism, that aggressive, quasi-religious faith without a deity. The Sternberg case seems, in many ways, an instance of one religion persecuting a rival.”
Richard Dawkins, the British scientist who is arguably the world’s most influential atheist, wrote, “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist.”
Not all believers in Darwinian evolution are non-believers, however. Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller is, like Sternberg and Chapman, a Catholic. The author of several scientific textbooks and Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, said that intelligent design is “very poor science and very poor theology, [but] I think it’s brilliant politics.”
He explained, “[ID] is a movement that has advanced primarily by political means. It has gone nowhere with the scientific community because it has no scientific evidence to back it up and because the essential scientific arguments it tries to make are bogus and fall apart on inspection.
“Where it has made headway has been by appealing to government: state governments, local governments, boards of education, those [bodies] who feel as though the political arguments that are made in terms of finding a way to make science education hospitable to religion deserve government support.”
In reply, Chapman cited the 300-plus scientists who have signed the Discovery Institute’s declaration of skepticism on Darwinism. He said the question of how evolution is taught in schools is a legitimate “public-policy matter.” That issue, particularly the recent decision by a Pennsylvania school board to teach intelligent design, has generated national headlines in recent months (see sidebar).
Miller pointed out that evolution’s claims are strongly supported by no less than Pope John Paul II himself. “The Holy Father in 1996, when he wrote on the subject of evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Science, said that one of the most important arguments in favor of the theory of evolution is ‘the convergence in the results [‘following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines’] of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought.”
However, the Pope also told the academy, “In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points”— primary among them that “The spiritual soul is created directly by God.”
Benjamin Wiker, a Discovery Institute fellow and lecturer in science and theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, said that the Holy Father’s address to the Pontifical Academy is a “sticky situation because his statement that evolution is ‘more than a hypothesis’ could be construed to mean anything.” Specifically, it was not clear exactly what the Pope meant by “evolution.” So, Wiker said, “That ambiguity cries out for clarification.”
Wiker, co-author of Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, is convinced that Darwinism is as old as the hills, or at least as old as Greek Epicureanism. The modern form of this materialist philosophy permeated Western culture after the Renaissance and “annihilated religious belief,” he said.
Like Chapman, Wiker is thrilled by Flew’s apostasy from atheism.
“He is arguing that indeed if you’re looking at current scientific arguments, you are led to theism as a conclusion,” he said. “That’s why the atheists are so angry.”
Catholic journalist and author Tom Bethell agreed with Wiker.
“Some of the people who are anti-Darwin don’t really understand what is going on,” he said. “This is not about science versus religion; it’s about philosophy versus science. Darwinism is basically the philosophy of materialism read into biology.”
Bethell, who wrote the first modern mainstream critique of Darwinism in Harper’s magazine in 1976, said ID is now tolerated to the point where academics outside the sciences can propose it and survive.
“But,” he warned, “anyone who takes a pro-intelligent design position while teaching biology will likely be run out of town.”
Kevin Michael Grace writes from Victoria, British Columbia.
DOVER, Penn. — The Dover School Board is the first school district in the United States to officially teach students about the theory of intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
On Jan. 18, in the first stage of instruction about intelligent design, a four-paragraph statement saying that Darwinian evolution is only a theory was read to ninth-grade biology students in the Dover Area School District.
“Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view,” the statement said.
The school board’s decision to offer intelligent design instruction to students has triggered a federal lawsuit, and all three of the board members who voted against the decision have resigned in protest.
The lawsuit was filed in December on behalf of 11 parents by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The plaintiffs contend the school board’s decision violates their religious liberties “by promoting religious beliefs to their children under the guise of science education.”
“Teaching students about religion’s role in world history and culture is proper, but disguising a particular religious belief as science is not,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walczak. “Intelligent design is a Trojan horse for bringing religious creationism back into public school science classes.”
The Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center is defending the Dover school district.
“Biology students in this small town received perhaps the most balanced science education regarding Darwin’s theory of evolution than any other public school student in the nation,” Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the center said in a statement Jan. 18. “This is not a case of science versus religion, but science versus science, with credible scientists now determining that based upon scientific data, the theory of evolution cannot explain the complexity of living cells.”
— Register Staff
- March 6-12, 2005