Today Programme: Transcript

Staff
BBC Radio 4
August 1, 2005
Print ArticleHost: In the United State there are currently 20 states involved in some kind of dispute over the teaching in schools of Darwinian evolution. Why? Local lobbyists, mostly Christians, want it replaced by a sort of creationism called Intelligent Design. In a moment we will get the views of Sir David Attenborough, but first our science correspondent Paul Abgosh (Ph?) explains.

Paul Abosh (Ph?): Intelligent Design can be thought of as an upgrade for the creationist argument. Unlike creationism, ID, as it is called, doesn’t say that the universe was created in six days or that the Earth is just 10,000 years old, but it does argue that Darwin’s theory of natural selection cannot completely explain the complexity if living organisms. In particular it points to discoveries in molecular biology. Blood clotting, for example, requires ten proteins to work in sequence. Now that couldn’t have been developed by a series of single genetic mutations, according to ID. Because the process requires each component to exist already and work in concert.

This argument though isn’t a new one. In 1860 an English clergymen, William Paley, wrote “if you found a watch in a field you’d infer that so fine an intricate mechanism could not have been produced by unplanned, unguided natural processes. It could only have been made by an intelligent being. But scientific studies have shown that natural processes can indeed explain the complexity of life. Evolutionary biologists argue that modern ID falls into the same trap as the Watchmaker argument of offering seductively simple but ultimately incomplete logic. They say it’s a form of anti-science dressed up as science and that, for them, makes it especially dangerous. It’s enabling ID proponents to drive their arguments through the American education system. In Georgia one local school district stuck labels on their textbooks saying “evolution is a theory not a fact.” Dover Pennsylvania has become the first district to require students to be made aware of gaps and problems in Darwin’s theory. There are thought to be similar disputes in twenty of fifty states, but what’s wrong with highlighting gaps in Darwin’s theory? Why not consider the possibility that god might well have played a part. Advocates of ID ask for people to keep an open mind. Critics though say that they effect is to close rather than broaden minds. It’s easier for the school boards to avoid controversy and not teach evolution at all, which is what some are now doing. Evolutionary theory has long been a target for some because they believe it argues against the existence of god. However, many of the scientists who developed the theory, including Darwin, had strong religious believe themselves. They say that evolution doesn’t deny god. Science and religion are each in their own way wonderful and inspiring, but as America’s First Amendment requires it’s best for both if the two remain separate and distinct.

Host: That was Paul Abgosh (Ph?).Well the Seattle-based Discovery Institute is one of the pressure groups calling for intelligent design. It’s director Dr. Stephen Meyer joins us on the line and Dr. Sir David Attenborough is in our radio car as well. Gentlemen, good morning.

David Attenborough: Good morning.

Host: Dr. Meyer fist of all. You heard there the critics say that this ID is criticized as a sort of anti-science dressed up as science, how do you answer that charge?

Stephen Meyer: Well the first thing to understand is the situation is a little bit different in the States than your piece presented. Those of us who arguing for the theory of intelligent design are not asking for the theory to be pressed into the public schools and most of the states that are considering action on this are considering proposals to allow students to learn about some of the scientific criticisms of the theory of as they exist in the scientific literature. The theory of intelligent design itself is not anti-science but is rather based on some of the most extraordinary scientific discoveries of the last fifty years. In particular the exquisite nanotechnology that is turning up in cells, the turbines, the pumps, the sliding clamps, the rotary engines and especially the fascinating digital code that directs the construction of all the protein parts that make the cell run. So the argument from intelligent design is argument not from ignorance of our scientific discoveries but actually it is based on science itself and is in the best traditions of science.

Host: Well Sir David Attenborough, is there any room for this argument that there is a guiding hand behind the science.

David Attenborough: Well I think the two things are very different and the way that you go about discovering the truths are very different. Science recons to look at the facts and try and investigate them. Look for proof, look for evidence, look for rational argument, but religion looks at something and looks for inspiration in your own mind and not in the outside world. Now in evolution if you come to something you don’t understand a scientist says “well let’s look at the various structures” and that kind of inquiry led to the proteins that have just been discussed, but if you say “well we don’t understand how it works, therefore that is god” that is not science and to call it so is a real confusion and a dangerous one.

Host: Do you feel in your heart convinced that natural processes can explain the complexity of life. The blood clotting process, for example, or indeed something like the human eye.

David Attenborough: Oh yes well the human eye was one of the problems that was put out as it were in the 19th century and now we have done enough research to know exactly the processes by which the human eye came into existence every one of which is viable. We are now having a re-run at that because we see something else in nanotechnology and the nanosciences, which is to say, how extraordinary these molecules are, we don’t understand them. Now if you’re a scientist you say “okay we’ll go looking and investigate this.” and bearing in mind that there were at least two thousand five hundred million years before these molecules became a part of animals as we know them, two thousand five hundred million years in an enormous length of time in which you can get molecular evolution.

Host: Dr. Meyer, then in that case there is an argument then to continue to stick with scientific logic, there didn’t necessarily have to be god thinking behind the science.

Stephen Meyer: The current argument for design is based on standard scientific logic and reasoning and like other forms of evolutionary thought it is an argument based on what is called uniformitarian reasoning . That our knowledge of the present cause and effect structure of the world should be our guide in reconstructing what happened in the past. Just to give an example of one of the arguments for design emerging out of these discoveries of nanotechnology that particularly fascinates me is DNA which is a four character digital code. It literally stores and transmits information. Richard Dawkins says it’s like a machine code. Bill Gates says it’s a software program and one of the things we know about software programs is that they require programmers. In fact one of the things we know from our uniform and repeated experience of the world around is that information always arises from an intelligent source whether it’s in a software program or a hieroglyphic. So the inference to design is based on our present knowledge of cause and effect structure of the world as any inference in the historical sciences should properly be so it’s not a departure from scientific reasoning but rather something that is based on the standard canons of scientific reasoning.

Host: Let me just go back briefly to Sir David Attenborough. Do you think that there is any room for exploring these different theories in our schools here in Britain?

David Attenborough: I don’t think there is room for exploring ID as if it were a science. I think there is room for looking at it as a philosophy just as there is for many other philosophical thoughts but to call it science is not accurate and dangerous.

Host: Sir David Attenborough, Dr. Stephen Meyer, thank you both very much.