Deconstructing Darwin

Textbooks often answer where life came from with a simple answer: Evolution. But for William Harris, a medical professor at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, the usual mechanisms of evolution are not enough.
“I’ve found that there are a lot of holes in Darwinian theory that most people don’t want to acknowledge,” says Harris, who holds an endowed chair in metabolism and vascular biology at the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Medicine.

Harris’ skepticism led him to consider intelligent design, a concept largely dismissed by the scientific community, that allows for a ‘designer’ in evolution. Most scientists believe an unguided, natural process produced all life.

Ninety-nine other scientists joined Harris in September 2001 to declare that Darwinian evolution cannot fully explain the complexity of life. The Discovery Institute, a non-profit think tank in Seattle, sought scientists to sign the statement, which was published widely as an advertisement in the New York Review of Books and other publications.

Intelligent design theory may not pass accepted scientific muster, but the approach, the debate surrounding it and those who support it all highlight a part of science that few people outside labs or university halls know about, the continual questioning and refinement of even the basic foundations of science.

The new critique alleges there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate two of evolution’s foundational tenants, natural selection and random mutation. These ideas, first proposed in the mid-19th century, have been combined with later developments in science to form a broad based theory of different mechanisms that might help explain the process of evolution.

This conventional wisdom has guided work in other scientific areas. Garland Allen, a biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, says many advances in plant science have been based on evolutionary ideas. Some of these same ideas, Allen says, “have changed the way we practice medicine” in the fight against disease.

Allen, who also studies the history, philosophy and sociology of science, cites a thesis defended in his department that applied models based on conventional evolutionary ideas to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The virus can mutate rapidly, requiring changes in medical treatment to match its evolution.

The latest challenge to the traditional mechanisms of evolution counters PBS’s “Evolution” series, which aired in September. The Discovery group disagrees with the program’s claims that Darwinian evolution “fully explains the complexity of living things.”

“Primarily, we’re a research institution,” says Mark Edwards, a spokesman for the group. Some of the research includes study of natural structures that design proponents say are too complex to have developed simply by chance or due to natural laws.

Proponents of Intelligent Design

Supporters of intelligent design claim that configuration of these structures provide evidence for design in nature. Bacterial flagella, complex spindly appendages bacteria use to move through liquid, are often cited as an example.

Harris, who received his doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota, counts himself among the supporters of intelligent design. In 1999, Harris helped form Intelligent Design Network Inc., a non-profit organization that works to increase public awareness about science education and evolution.

The Intelligent Design Network was organized in response to the debate over science education standards in Kansas. That debate led to a formal de-emphasis of evolution in the state’s science standards. The Kansas Board of Education re-emphasized evolution in the curriculum in 2001.

Harris explains he is not a Bible-thumping creationist, but he does think Darwinian evolution has explanatory limits. Students, Harris says, should be told about these limits. DNA, the genetic code for life, is a prime example.

“If you look at DNA and ask, ‘Where did the information come from?’ the Darwinian model can’t explain it,” says Harris, the co-director of the St. Luke’s Lipid and Diabetes Research Center. “We ought to be able to explain that to kids. There’s an unspoken censorship of anything but Darwinism in schools.”

For Harris and other proponents of intelligent design theory, DNA also stands as evidence for the existence of a “designer.” Strands of DNA contain information in a molecular code consisting of four different chemical bases that can be arranged in different orders. This code is translated into sequences of amino acids, which then join to form proteins, the building blocks of life.

“Every other code in the world came from a mind,” Harris says, who did his dissertation research at the Mayo Clinic. “Biological information is the fingerprint of intelligence.”

Intelligent design theory says only that evidence for a designer exists. The theory is silent about who or what the designer is. “Intelligent design goes as far as it can and then it stops,” Harris says. Supporters of the approach say this separates their views from some previous religious challenges to evolution.

Harris acknowledges any discussion of evolution, Darwinian or otherwise, involves deep philosophical and religious issues regarding the possible existence of a creator. Harris says his approach encompasses theism, but does not require it. The problem with the Darwinian perspective, he contrasts, is it suggests a lack of design and tends to exclude other interpretations.

“Children are left with the point of view that we are just accidents,” Harris says. By limiting science curricula to only natural explanations, Harris adds, states show inadvertent bias in their education standards. “When the state gets involved in teaching origin science, it has touched religion.”

Harris also worries that scientists, by relying only on natural laws and processes to explain phenomena, limit what they can learn. In the context of evolution, Harris says an automatic adherence to naturalistic causes eliminates even the consideration of non-natural or supernatural causes.

Harris has been mindful of these concerns in his own research.

In 1999, he led a research project that compared the conditions of patients in a coronary care unit who were prayed for with those who were not. Those who were prayed for did better than the others, according to the study, which was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. “I reject the idea that you can’t study non-physical things with science,” Harris says.

Not everyone agrees

Others in the scientific community disagree with Harris’ view and the intelligent design movement as a whole.

Jan Weaver, director of environmental studies at MU, has followed creationism arguments for the last 25 years and says statements like the one advertised by the Discovery Institute show a lack of understanding of evolution, its mechanisms and the calculation of probabilities. In particular, says Weaver, the statement ignores several other mechanisms for evolution like symbiosis and jumping genes.

Weaver also doubts the nature of the evidence cited by proponents of intelligent design. “There is no objective, independent way to determine if something is designed,” she says. The majority of her peers in the scientific community, Weaver says, agree.

A more troubling implication, Weaver says, is that intelligent design’s proponents attack the secular purposes of evolution science but allegedly camouflage their educational and public policy motives. Allen, sharing this concern, describes the theory as “watered down creationism.”

Weaver explains including a concept like intelligent design in science curricula could lead to the introduction of other subjects that lack the underpinnings of prior scholarship and evidence, which are the hallmarks of Western education since the Renaissance. “That could be a dangerous door to open,” Weaver said. Behind this door, Weaver says, lie other unverifiable concepts like alien abductions, astrology, mind reading and ghosts.

The dissent raised by Harris and others may not soon be incorporated into mainstream biology. But more positively, Allen says the Discovery Institute’s dissent and the ensuing debate underscores that science is always open to challenge. Debates in science, he explains, often confuse many non-scientists because they misunderstand that science always evolves.

“It’s (science is) a process, not a list of immutable facts,” Allen says.

Allen cites a Colorado effort, funded by the National Science Foundation, to develop a science curriculum that teaches evolution as an example of how the science process works. Efforts like these, Allen says, can help raise awareness of how science is done.

Even theories that represent fundamental attempts to explain how things work are not immune to what Allen calls a “self-corrective process.” “Every theory we’ve (science has) ever had has changed over time,” Allen says. “We may someday have an evolution theory that looks very different from what we have now.” But Allen does not believe that future refinements of the theory will “invoke a mystical part” similar to ideas advanced by intelligent design advocates.

As the recent debate over science education in Kansas shows, educators, religious leaders and policy makers are often caught in the middle of the sometimes messy scientific process, pressed to make difficult decisions whether to seize on these and other concerns and alter conventional thinking.

While emphasizing the importance of education based on evidence, Harris, for his part, offers a piece of advice for those in the debate: “I think scientists should simply say, ‘We don’t know’ more often.”

Evolutionary terms

Natural Selection: In The Origin of Species, Darwin described the struggle that exists in nature between various forms of life. Any traits that provide a reproductive advantage are preserved and forwarded to future generations. In the same way that humans breed animals for certain characteristics, Darwin wrote, the struggle among organisms big and small for limited resources results in a natural selection.

Random Mutation: This refers to what evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma described in a 1995 book on evolution as the “source of all genetic variation” and, ultimately, genetic change. Unlike religious dissents in the past, the group challenges conventional wisdom about evolution’s causes and cites weaknesses in evidence. The Discovery Institute’s ads suggest evolution’s acceptance as scientific fact is unmerited. The group’s arguments are countered by local scientists who believe the new critique misrepresents evolutionary science and could have dangerous implications for education.