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Design Theory: Creationist dogma or evolutionary punk rock?

In the beginning, nature created the heavens and the earth.

For 142 years, scientists have praised natural law and random chance for giving us life. Charles Darwin’s theory that all living organisms evolved from a common ancestor through a process known as natural selection has become the bedrock of biology.

But there’s a growing restlessness among scientists who have done the math and discovered Darwinism doesn’t add up. These scientists believe in intelligent design, the theory that all life is not the result of random chance or natural laws, but some systems – especially in biology – show evidence of design.

“There is a lot of support for design theory from people who are tired of the dogmatic, authoritarian, reductionist way of doing science,” said Baylor University research professor William Dembski, 40, who specializes in the study of probability. The author of “The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities” (Cambridge University Press 1998), Dembski holds doctorate degrees in mathematics and philosophy.

“I think things will change, especially when you have a younger, new generation of scientists able to look at the lack of evidence for Darwinism.”

Mathematician Wolfgang Smith, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University, agrees.

“The intelligent design theory is the first rigorous refutation of Darwinism on a scientific and mathematical basis,” said Smith, helped solve the re-entry problem for space flight when he worked for Bell Aircraft.

“This impresses me as a major, scientific breakthrough which, hopefully in time, will be recognized by the scientific community at large,” Smith said.

Intelligent design has teetered on the edge of science and religion. This past spring, the New York Times sent a science writer to cover design theory while the Los Angeles Times sent a religion writer, according to Dembski.

Intelligent design is getting lots of attention from the National Center for Science Education which promotes the teaching of evolution. The Oakland-based center has been fighting what it calls a “festering problem” with a Washington high school biology teacher’s efforts to include design theory in his lessons about natural selection.

“If you’re going to build a scholarly position, you can’t treat your ideas as dogma,” said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “You have to change your ideas in light of criticism.”

Design theorists call themselves “punk rockers of evolutionary biology” because they ask tough questions that shake the status quo, said Mark Edwards, spokesman for the Discovery Institute and Center for the Renewal of Science & Culture in Seattle.

While naturalists attribute life to chance or law, design theorists offer a third possibility – design. Edwards explains it like this – a pile of leaves on the ground likely fell from a tree, while leaf piles spaced every six feet probably fell out of a rolling barrel. But leaf piles spelling out, “Welcome to the Jones,'” show evidence of design.

“There is a concern that design can explain everything – it really can’t,” Dembski said. “Design is not a catch-all or blanket answer.”

Take the example of a detective encountering two dead men – one with a knife sticking out of his chest and the words, “Die Frank, die,” scrawled nearby and the other a 90-year-old who appears to have died in his sleep.

Which case shows evidence of murder? Dembski asks.

“The detective isn’t going to increase his work load if there’s no evidence for murder; he’ll look for natural causes,” Dembski said.

Dembski developed a procedure called the explanatory filter to help
determine how elements occurred in nature. A Stanford mathematician describes Dembski’s filter as a three-level stone sorter: the course screen catching events with high probability such as dealing a poker hand with at least one face card; the finer screen catching events with intermediate probability such as holding the winner out of 1 million lottery tickets; and the finest screen catching highly-improbable, complex events assumed to be the result of design. One example of such a complex system is bacteria flagellum, a microscopic motor-like force that gives bacteria the ability to move from place to place, spinning at about 15,000 revolutions per minutes. It’s such an efficient motor that some engineers are trying to copy its design for industrial applications, according to Roger Christianson, head of Southern Oregon University’s biology department.

“It’s a pretty elaborate device, especially for bacteria, which have a fairly simple kind of cell construction,” said Christianson, explaining the complexity of bacterial flagella. He is not a design theorist. “You look at something like this and say, ‘Where did it come from?'”

“There is really no fossil record showing the fine structure of ancient bacterial flagella. On one side you’ve got people who say, ‘It evolved over time; we just don’t know the process.’ On the other side you’ve got people who say, ‘It’s so complex, it’s impossible to imagine how it could have evolved, therefore that’s evidence for design.’ ”

Like a clerk feeding an original document through a copy machine or a banker tracking a bad check, design theorists ask what is the origin of information of such complex systems, Dembski said.

“What we find is that the Darwinian mechanism can’t account for how you got the original information in the first place,” Dembski said. “You fill a hole by digging another, but you haven’t gotten rid of the hole. It’s not just design theorists picking up on this. There are evolutionists, the Santa Fe Institute, for example, who are becoming quite critical of Darwinism. They make the same point that Darwinian mechanism is not a way to generate biologically- relevant information. It can express it, but it needs to be front-loaded with information.”

A Santa Fe Institute professor Stuart Kauffman is such a dissenter. He’s a medical doctor and executive director of BiosGroup, a scientific brain trust that works with Fortune 500 companies in product development and other areas.

In his book, “The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution” (Oxford University Press 1993), Kauffman says natural selection isn’t the only source of order – cells also self organize.

Yet Kauffman is no friend of intelligent design. He believes design theorists fail to state the criteria they use to distinguish design from natural selection, random accidents or self-organization.

“If they do have such criteria, they’d be on the edge of being able to do science,” Kauffman said.

Design theorists say they have criteria. An object needs to be complex and specified if scientists are to know that it is designed. The probabilities involved in showing that something is designed are in some cases unfathomable, according to Dembski. Such probabilities, for instance, require looking at all the particles in the known universe.

“It’s like flipping a coin and getting 1,000 heads in a row,” Dembski said.

“You start asking questions like, ‘Is it a double-headed coin?'”

While he has no problem with Dembski’s mathematical equations, Keith Devlin, executive director of Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Language and Information, said intelligent design is not a scientific theory.

“It is a belief (namely Creationism) dressed up in scientific-sounding terminology,” according to Devlin. He critiqued Dembski’s work in the July/August 2000 publication of the New York Academy of Sciences. “Anyone is entitled to believe in intelligent design, if they wish. But beliefs should not be passed off as scientific theory.”

Santa Fe Institute’s Kauffman doesn’t lump intelligent design with creationism, but he doesn’t grant it scientific status either.

“In order to take creation science seriously, you’d have to give up the foundation of what we know about geology, physics, biology, the solar system, the age of the universe, the age of the earth…the bulk of science,” Kauffman said.

“Our current understanding of how the planet evolved and how old it is – 4.6 billion years old – how old life is, knocks the hell out of creation science. I don’t think creation science is a science at all. It’s reasonably articulate arguments meant to support the biblical story of creation.”

Dembski has no plans to change his mind, but he has been fine-tuning and updating his work. His forthcoming book “No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence,” (Roman and Littlefield) is listed with It is due out in September.

“‘No Free Lunch’ applies the theory of ‘The Design Inference’ specifically to biological systems and shows why design is the only coherent explanation of biological complexity that is currently available,” Dembski said.

As evolution’s punk rockers, design theorists believe they should share the stage with the symphony. And the music won’t be too loud for OSU’s Smith. Intelligent design connects with his own theory of “vertical causality,” the notion that causality can be instantaneous and can act outside of time. It’s described in his book “Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key” (Open Court Publishing Co 1995).

“The fact that a new kind of causality has now been documented by intelligent design is enormously important in many domains,” Smith said. “Intelligent design has enormous implications for the study of man, for the study of human intelligence and how it acts on the external world.”