Evolving perspectives in the life sciences place Texas — with its persistent controversy over biology textbooks — in the hot glare of the national spotlight.
Because we are the country’s second-largest purchaser of textbooks, the continuing debate between Darwinists and proponents of intelligent design theory (IDT) has more than academic interest.
The basic issue is this: Either the existence of intelligent humanity and the sheer complexity of living organisms can be accounted for by natural causes, or they point to an intelligent designer independent of nature.
Few participants in this debate are aware that it has a distinguished lineage that predates Charles Darwin by more than 2,000 years. One of America’s most insightful philosophers of science, Larry Arnhart, traces the intelligent design debate to Book 10 of Plato’s dialogue The Laws. A careful reading will repay the effort.
A professor of political science at Northern Illinois University and author of several books, including his 1998 Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, Arnhart notes that law professor, biochemist Michael Behe and mathematician William Dembski have provided IDT with an intellectual pedigree that “creation science” (with its largely Scripture-based arguments) could never achieve.
Criticism of Darwin’s theory is hardly news. Darwin himself devoted more than a third of the chapters in his Origin of Species to a consideration of “difficulties” with his theory and answers to his critics.
The irony today is that just as IDT has gained some scientific traction, discoveries in biology have weakened many of its most potent points.
For example, Behe’s 1996 blockbuster Darwin’s Black Box claimed that “irreducibly complex” molecular structures point to an intelligent designer — such structures have never been demonstrated to evolve “by numerous, successive, slight modifications,” which Darwin said was necessary for this theory not to “absolutely break down.”
But if Behe’s claim was valid in 1996, it became questionable shortly thereafter. As biologist Kenneth Miller demonstrated in his 1999 book, Finding Darwin’s God, several studies have recently “described in great detail the structural and biochemical changes” that Darwinian evolution require.
For example, shortly after the publication of Behe’s book, Miller notes, a study showed that the Krebs cycle (the process of converting food into energy) evolved out of opportunistic use of molecular structures that had developed for non-metabolic purposes.
So has Darwinism already “won” the debate? Let’s just say that random mutation and natural selection explain almost everything we observe in living organisms.
But Darwin himself insisted that his theory would be considered “probable” if his “facts and arguments” are given a fair hearing. And he wrote that the “mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us.”
Arnhart has it right. In a wonderful speech last November at Hillsdale College, he said: “I believe that allowing students to study the arguments for intelligent design in comparison with the arguments for Darwinian evolution would give students a deeper understanding of science and the relationship of science to religion, morality, and politics.”
Arnhart suggested using the Norton Critical Edition of Darwin’s writings, which places articles by Johnson and Behe next to Darwin’s text. “If students,” he observed, “were permitted to study this disagreement, they might discover that all explanation depends on some ultimate reality that is unexplained.”
In a proper debate, the fittest theory should survive.
Don Erler is president of General Building Maintenance.