An Intelligent Discussion about Life

Bruce Chapman
The Seattle Times
April 17, 2008
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"Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" is a trenchant new film by actor/economist Ben Stein, the man first made famous in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." He's now tackling with humorous dudgeon the classic example of ideological science, Darwinian evolution. Stein shows Darwinists insistently misrepresenting the scientific case against their theory. Where facts and reason might fail to persuade, personal attacks are employed, sometimes even by organizations supposedly committed to civil discourse.

When I was taught Darwin's theory in college more than four decades ago, it was represented as unassailable. But I also was taught in those days to respect academic freedom, which is a good standard to apply in any field. In the 1990s, before intelligent design was added to the ideas studied at Discovery Institute, I learned about an assault on the academic freedom of Dean Kenyon, a biologist and author at San Francisco State University who had come to view Darwin's theory as flawed.1 At first, the effort to restrain him from teaching seemed like just another skirmish over political correctness.

Then, following the Kenyon case, I began to examine the account of life's development that I once had been taught so dogmatically. One after another of the demonstrations of the theory that supposedly were "certain" and "conclusive" when I was a student - such as Ernst Haeckel's embryo drawings that showed various animals looking almost identical in the earliest stages of life - have been abandoned or replaced.2 What has not changed is the dogmatism.

I soon came to realize that differences over the development of life, unlike other disputes, spark so much controversy because the collateral stakes are higher than they seem. Where you stand on the origins question often influences your worldview on issues of human life, ranging from cloning to euthanasia. Are we ultimately the product of purpose and design? If so, we would seem to be heirs to a more-or-less settled moral reality. Or, is man the unguided "result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind," as Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote?3 In that case, perhaps we can conceive our own values.

Public discussion on evolution is complicated further by confusion over words that lack any constant and agreed meaning. Terms like "evolve" and "theory" have different definitions in science than they do in everyday speech. Even among scientists, they are subject to varying understandings.4

People frequently use the word "evolve" as a genteel way of saying "change," as in, "The Toyota Camry has not evolved much this year." But that makes no sense as a scientific expression. Cars don't "evolve" in the way most Darwinists mean - an undirected process of small, incremental mutations acted on by natural selection to produce new species. Cars are designed. Intelligence is involved. Auto designs - like ideas or fashions or cities - don't "evolve."5 My own ideas on evolution didn't evolve; I changed my mind.

Unfortunately, people sometimes are told that Darwinian evolution simply demonstrates "changes over time." If that were so, how could any sensible person object to it? Even ardent critics of Darwinism accept "microevolution" - change over time within species. Animal and plant breeding, after all, are kinds of human-guided microevolution. Nature, too, plainly conducts microevolution.

But classical Darwinists such as Francisco Ayala and Richard Dawkins assert much more. Dawkins, for example, acknowledges that living organisms "give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose."6 But, he argues that this appearance of design is completely misleading because undirected Darwinian processes - random mutations and natural selection - can produce the features of living systems that look designed. In Ayala's words, natural selection produces "design without a designer."7

Advocates of the theory of intelligent design see things differently. They think there are discernible features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process like natural selection. They don't dispute that life changes over time; they dispute that undirected processes produced all of that change. They see evidence of actual, not just illusory, design.

For example, my colleague, philosopher of science Stephen Meyer, argues that digital code stored in the DNA molecule points to intelligent design. He notes that DNA stores information using sequences of chemicals that "function just like alphabetic characters in a written text or binary digits in a software code." This discovery has profound implications.

As he explains, "Whenever we trace information back to its source - whether we are looking at an ancient hieroglyphic, a headline in a newspaper or software code in a computer program, we always come to an intelligent agent - to a mind, not a material process. So when we find information in life in the form of the digital code in DNA, the most likely explanation is that DNA also had an intelligent source." In a forthcoming book Meyer shows that the theory is scientifically testable.8

Still, many Darwinists charge that intelligent design, or ID, is "creationism in disguise." But the case for ID is based on scientific evidence, not Scripture.9 Indeed, some creationists attack ID for not making a case based on the Bible and for employing evidence that shows the Earth is billions of years old.10

None of this is to say that intelligent design doesn't have larger implications. Arguably, ID is friendly to theism, just as Darwinism is friendly to atheism. That is what upsets the fervent atheist Richard Dawkins, who in "Expelled" says he can consider intelligent design as an explanation for the origin of life if it means space aliens brought life to Earth, but could not allow any possibility that God might have had a role in design.

Of course, you don't have to be religious to support ID. The British philosopher and longtime atheist, Antony Flew, for example, has embraced intelligent design.11 On the other hand, you don't have to be an atheist to accept Darwinism; a few churches even celebrate "Darwin Day."12 Most ID scientists (but not all) do believe in God and most Darwinists (but not all) do not. A 2003 Cornell University survey of leading evolutionary biologists showed that 87 percent rejected the existence of God.13

Scholars seeking a compromise that brings religion directly into the scientific discussion have offered the comforting possibility that God did the creating, but did it through Darwinian evolution. Guidance of an unguided process is the idea. But this vague proposition contradicts what almost all leading Darwinist scientists, including Dawkins, emphatically contend. In Darwin's universe, natural selection is blind, mutations are undirected and humanity is an unintended outcome.14 If the evolutionary process is guided, then it no longer is Darwinian. And if the evolutionary process is unguided, it allows no room for God. Logically, not even God can guide an unguided process.

The public hasn't been told most of what I have just described. Many in the media typically define ID as a proposition that "life is so complex it must have been the product of a supernatural power."15 But that mixes a scientific proposition with its philosophical implications. ID scientists don't do that.

Media also typically greet reports of evolutionary success with uncritical acclaim, while growing scientific dissent from Darwinism (more than 700 scientists have signed a "Dissent from Darwin" statement16) and production of peer-reviewed science publications by pro-ID scientists are ignored.17 Even a federal judge in Pennsylvania copied a false American Civil Liberties Union and Darwinist canard that there are no such peer-reviewed publications friendly to ID.18

Some of the misinformation is purposeful, such as the effort to disallow ID by misdefinition, while some is due to ignorance and a bland assumption that one can understand a complex scientific dispute easily. We even read of politicians who profess to agree with ID, but misstate what it is. (Save us from our friends.)

On the other hand, you don't have to be a genius to grasp the evidence for and against Darwin's theory. We teach evolution in 10th grade, after all.

With all this in mind, you would think that people could agree that differences over matters of evidence on issue of life's origins can best be resolved if different sides are asked to face off with their best spokesmen and their best arguments.

But instead of following such a policy, most Darwinists have avoided debates, and in universities have stooped to denial of academic tenure, promotions and even graduate-student status to dissenters.19 They either ignore the case against Darwin'stheory or debunk a straw-man version of it.

The film "Expelled" explores a number of cases of academic persecution, making clear that what is taught in high school, however important in the public eye, probably matters less to the future of science than whether dissenting scientists are able to teach and conduct research in universities.20

Precisely because the majority in science has been wrong on note-worthy occasions, progress often does depend on courageous dissenters. The principle is clear: "A fair result can be obtained only by fully balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question."21 So wrote Charles Darwin.

FOOTNOTES:
1See Stephen C. Meyer, "Danger: Indoctrination A Scopes Trial for the '90s," Wall Street Journal (December 6, 1993), at http://www.discovery.org/a/93.

2See Jonathan Wells, "Survival of the Fakest," American Spectator (December 2000 / January 2001), at http://www.discovery.org/a/1209 or Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution: Why much of what we teach about evolution is wrong (Regnery, 2000). NOTE: Some Darwinists-for example, the film "Flock of Dodos"-assert that there are no currently used textbooks that include Haeckel's embryo drawings. In fact, Discovery Institute presented the producer of that film with several such current textbooks that include the Haeckel drawings.

3George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, page 179 (Yale University Press, 1949).

4For discussions of the evolving definitions of these terms, see Stephen C. Meyer, Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker, Paul A. Nelson, and Ralph Seelke, Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism, pages 7-9 (Hill House Publishers, 2007); Casey Luskin, "Is 'Evolution' a 'Theory' or 'Fact' or Is This Just a Trivial Game of Semantics?," at http://www.discovery.org/a/6401.

5For a discussion of this, see Phillip Johnson, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, pages 62-64 (InterVarsity Press, 1997) and Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution: Why much of what we teach about evolution is wrong, pages 68-70 (Regnery, 2000).

6Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, page 1 (W.W. Norton 1996, new edition).

7Francisco J. Ayala, "Darwin's greatest discovery: Design without designer," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 104:8567-8573 (May 15, 2007).

8For a discussion of the testable predictions of intelligent design, see Casey Luskin, "The Positive Case for Design," at http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?id=986. Meanwhile, NOTE: the attempt to tag intelligent design scientists as "creationists" is one of many straw man arguments developed to prevent reasoned debate on evolution. It relies on changing the meaning of "creationism" from support for a young Earth and a literal interpretation of Genesis-which is the ordinary meaning of the term-to a new, but merely implicit meaning; that is, that "creationism" is any position that opposes Darwin's theory and posits an alternative that might have a design inference.

9For a rigorous explanation of the scientific methodology underlying intelligent design, see William A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

10See Henry M. Morris, "Intelligent Design and/or Scientific Creationism," Back to Genesis, Institute for Creation Research (April, 2006); Henry M. Morris, "The Design Revelation," Back to Genesis, Institute for Creation Research (February, 2005); Henry M. Morris, "Design Is Not Enough!," Back To Genesis, Institute for Creation Research (July, 1999).

11See http://www.biola.edu/antonyflew/.

12For a discussion of Darwin Day, see John G. West, Darwin Day in America: How our politics and culture have been dehumanized in the name of science, pages 209-230 (ISI Books, 2007).

13See the results of the Cornell Evolution Project at http://www.cornellevolutionproject.org/.

14For a discussion of these consequences of neo-Darwinian evolution, see Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, page 5 (3rd ed., Sinauer Associates Inc., 1998); Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, pages 12-13 (W.W. Norton, 1977); The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity: Nobel Laureates Initiative (September 9, 2005) at http://media.ljworld.com/pdf/2005/09/15/nobel_letter.pdf .NOTE: This topic is bound to spark varied reactions, because many people refuse to recognize what Darwinism and its leading proponents plainly say, and to construct on their own an interpretation of the theory that is conveniently congruent with the their theological views. Some foundations fund speculative studies that hope science someday can show "purpose" in the universe apart from any form of active design. But the main keepers of the Darwinian flame-in sync with Darwin himself-make it plain that in their theory there is no role for intentionality or real design. Imagining otherwise, it seems to me, is a form of comforting self-delusion.

15For examples of poor definitions of intelligent design, see Letter to Janet Babin and NPR Ombudsman at http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?id=89 or Casey Luskin, "Philly Inquirer Associated Press Article Has GOOD Definition of Intelligent Design," at http://www.evolutionnews.org/2005/12/pennsylvania_associated_press.html.

16See A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism at http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/.

17For a listing of peer-reviewed scientific articles explicitly supporting the claims of intelligent design, see Peer-Reviewed & Peer-Edited Scientific Publications Supporting the Theory of Intelligent Design (Annotated) at http://www.discovery.org/a/2640.

18For a discussion, see John G. West and David K. DeWolf, A Comparison of Judge Jones' Opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover with Plaintiffs' Proposed "Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law," at http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=1186.

19For discussions of some of the harassment and persecution of dissenters from Darwinism, see any of the following links:
Dean Kenyon: http://www.discovery.org/a/316 http://www.discovery.org/a/93
Dr. Robert Marks: http://www.discovery.org/a/4206
Guillermo Gonzalez: http://www.discovery.org/a/2939
Richard Sternberg: http://www.discovery.org/a/3022 http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=2399 http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/12/the_house_government_reform_su.html http://www.souder.house.gov/_files/IntoleranceandthePoliticizationofScienceattheSmithsonian.pdf
Bryan Leonard (graduate student): http://www.discovery.org/a/2661
Dr. Caroline Crocker: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/02/one_long_article_washington_po_1.html

20For information about Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, see http://www.expelledthemovie.com.

21Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species 66 ed. J. W. Burrow (London: Penguin Group, 1985, originally printed 1859).