When Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, most scientists were skeptical and said the theory lacked sufficient evidence.
Now, nearly 150 years later, the vast majority of scientists accept evolution as the best explanation for life’s diversity.
Nevertheless, a small contingent of scientists is pushing for an alternative. They call it “intelligent design.” And just as the early evolutionists, their theory has met with widespread skepticism.
On Sunday, Paul Nelson, a philosopher of science from the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and a leading proponent of intelligent design, appeared in a debate sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Rational Solutions.
His opponent was Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Tennessee. More than 150 people braved snowy streets to attend the event in the sanctuary of Saint Paul United Methodist Church, 1144 M St.
Unlike religious creationists, scientists who theorize about intelligent design do not use the Bible or faith-based arguments to support their case. Instead, they try to show that intelligent design offers the best explanation of the empirical evidence,Nelson said.
He noted the complex protein molecules in intestinal bacteria and the wide difference in structures of various sea creatures as examples of phenomena he believes could better be explained as the result of intelligent design than evolution.
By refusing to consider evidence for intelligent design, scientists are limiting their knowledge, Nelson said. “Even if I were an atheist but a curious human being I would want that tool in my arsenal.”
Pigliucci argued that the concept of intelligent design “is founded on an argument from ignorance.” Proponents of the theory say, “I cannot explain x, therefore x must have been intelligently designed,” he said.
He noted that scientists were not opposed to considering intelligent design, for example, when seeking evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence by monitoring radio signals from outer space. But scientists reject “supernatural” explanations based on intelligence that has no natural explanation, he said.
The theory of evolution is not intended to explain the origin of life or how the entire universe came to exist, Pigliucci said. Instead, it confines itself to the development of living organisms.
“We don’t know how life originated,” he said. “The only conclusion I can draw from that is that we don’t know.”
After nearly an hour of debate, the two took questions from the audience. One former biology teacher said he could see no evidence that different species of plants and animals were the result of evolution.
Nelson said he disagreed with those who pressure schools to teach intelligent design alongside the theory of evolution. Once the theory gains acceptance by scientists, he said, it will be taught.
One questioner said 90 percent of parents wanted creationism taught in schools, yet “evolutionary atheists,” who make up about 5 percent of the U.S. population, have a “stranglehold on public education.”
In response Pigliucci noted that very few people were brain surgeons, yet would trust one if they needed surgery. He added that as “a professional evolutionary biologist” he is qualified to teach the subject.
Asked how much he knew about religion, Pigliucci replied, “Nothing. That’s why I’m not teaching it.”
Reach Bob Reeves at 473-7212 or [email protected]