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Darwin Would Love This Debate

Originally published at The Seattle Times

Which option (“A” or “B”) represents your view?

“A. Biology teachers should teach only Darwin’s theory of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it.”

“B. Biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.”

Only 15 percent of adults nationally, according to a 2001 Zogby poll, agree with “A,” while 71 percent agree with “B.” (Not sure: 14 percent.)

Some, like Mindy Cameron (“Theory of ‘intelligent design’ isn’t ready for natural selection” column, June 3), would prevent students from hearing scientific evidence that challenges Darwinism. Cameron suspects that critics of Darwinism — especially those that advocate the alternative theory of intelligent design — want to place “the Christian God in science classrooms in America’s public schools.”

Others — like Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, a Darwin-only advocacy group — deny the existence of any scientific debate. Scott states that “I don’t know of any evidence against evolution.”

Yet, last fall, 100 scientists, including professors from institutions such as MIT, Yale and Rice, published a statement questioning the creative power of natural selection. Many of these scientists see evidence that points to an intelligent design of life.

So what’s going on? Is there scientific evidence challenging Darwinian evolution? Is there evidence pointing to intelligent design? If so, should public school science students learn about such evidence?

Current biology instruction presents only half the scientific picture. For example, few high school biology texts even mention the Cambrian explosion, arguably the most dramatic event in the history of life. Indeed, fossil studies reveal “a biological big bang” near the beginning of the Cambrian period 530 million years ago. At that time, 40 separate major groups of organisms or “phyla” (including all the basic body plans of modern animals) emerged suddenly without clear precursors. Fossil finds have repeatedly confirmed a pattern of explosive appearance and prolonged stability in living forms — not the gradual step-by-step change predicted by neo-Darwinian theory.

Or consider another example. Many biology texts tell about the famous finches in the Galapagos Islands whose beaks have varied in shape and length over time. Such episodes are presented as conclusive evidence for evolution. And indeed they are, depending on how one defines evolution.

Yet, few biology textbooks distinguish the different meanings associated with “evolution” — a term that can refer to anything from trivial change to the creation of life by strictly mindless, material forces. Nor do they explain that the processes responsible for cyclical variations in beak length or wing color do not explain where birds came from in the first place. As a host of distinguished biologists have explained in recent technical papers, small-scale “micro-evolutionary” change (as in the finches) cannot be extrapolated to explain large scale “macro-evolutionary” innovation. Leading evolutionary biologists know this distinction poses serious difficulties for neo-Darwinism. Students should, too.

Indeed, students should not only know the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian theory, they should know about alternative theories. Most importantly, they should know that many scientists do not accept the Darwinian idea that life arose as the result of strictly mindless processes — that many scientists see powerful evidence of intelligent design.

Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, for example, has examined the evidence for design in the intricate microscopic world of the cell. In his best selling book, “Darwin’s Black Box,” Behe examines, among other evidences, the complex machinery of the rotary engines that drive the propeller-like tails of certain bacteria. Behe shows that these motors display an “irreducible complexity” characteristic of machines designed by engineers. He also shows that this complexity exceeds the creative power of natural selection.

Other scientists see evidence of design in the circuitry, control systems and software (i.e., the genetic information) present in the cell and in the so-called “fine tuning” of the laws of physics.

Cameron apparently objects to informing students about such evidences because they might lead some students to conclude that the intelligent source of life is the Christian God. She also suspects design-friendly scientists of having religious motivations.

In fact, not all such scientists are even religious; some are agnostic. But if all were religious, so what? What matters — in science and in a free society — are not the private religious views of those (on either side) of a scientific argument but the quality of the evidence they marshal.

Nor should the implications of a scientific theory exclude it from study. Most origins theories have religious or philosophical implications. Many current biology texts, for example, make no attempt to hide the anti-theistic implications of Darwinism. Douglas Futuyma’s book tells students that Darwinism makes “theological explanations” of life “superfluous.” Kenneth Miller’s book insists that “evolution works without either plan or purpose.”

To prevent ideological indoctrination and to promote academic freedom, the U.S. Senate voted 91-8 to support an amendment by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., to the new “No Child Left Behind” education act. Later, a version of the “Santorum Amendment” was placed in the final report guiding implementation of the act.

It says, “[A] quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist.”

Ironically, Darwin himself probably would have supported this approach. As he stated in the “Origin of Species,” “A fair result can only be obtained by balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and The Return of the God Hypothesis (2021). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.