Photo by Art by Lønfeldt on Unsplash

By Design

A Whitworth professor takes a controversial stand to show that life was no accident Published in Whitworth Today, Winter 1995

The year was 1952. In a laboratory at the University of Chicago, a young graduate student named Stanley Miller set up an experiment that would profoundly affect the way scientists thought about the most vexing and factious of scientific questions: How did life begin on Earth? Using a flask of boiling water, some tubing and a couple of electrodes, Miller began exposing a mixture of reduced gases — methane, ammonia and hydrogen — to an electrical charge. When he popped the top off his flask a week later, he found something astonishing. In addition to the yellow-brown “tar” that had formed on the inside of the flask, the reaction had produced some amino acids — the organic building blocks of protein molecules, which are, in turn, the building blocks of life.

When Miller published his findings the following year, the mainstream press heralded his work as a monumental step in explaining how life on a primordial Earth could have sprung forth from a lifeless sea of chemicals. It was that same year that James Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge University in England ushered in the era of molecular biology when they elucidated the DNA strand and showed how genetic information was stored and transmitted. Science, it seemed, was well on its way to answering the colossal questions posed by life itself.

But 40 years after Miller performed his historic experiment, scientists are not appreciably closer today to discovering how a lifeless pool of chemicals could have possibly organized itself into even the most primitive single-celled organism, said Stephen Meyer, a Whitworth College philosophy professor who has staked out a very controversial position in the origins debate. In fact, Meyer said, the materialistic theories of life’s origin that Miller’s experiment nourished and the accompanying neo-Darwinian view of evolution exhibit all the symptoms of a theoretical research paradigm in distress. As Meyer describes it, making the leap from a few simple amino acids stuck on the side of a flask to a living, functioning, self-replicating cell is the equivalent of trying to take a young child’s first syllables and rearrange them into Stephen J. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. And no one has been able to get past the first steps in the process, Meyer said.

But if nature isn’t capable of generating life by its own devices, as Meyer maintains, how did we get here? According to Meyer, nature had some help. To the consternation of many scientists throughout academe, Meyer and a group of up-and-coming young scientists and philosophers across the country espouse a theory called “intelligent design” to explain the origin of life. In the process, Meyer has become one of the central players in the newest twist of an age-old debate.

Simply stated, intelligent design theory argues that life on Earth arose via the purposeful act of an intelligent agent, which people might choose to view as a deity. At some point when the planet was young, say 3.5 billion years ago, there was an intervention by an intelligent agent that somehow provided what was needed – sequenced information, organic material, energy, etc. – for life to spring forth on a lifeless planet. Furthermore, and this is key to the theory, proponents of intelligent design maintain that evidence of design in even the simplest living organisms is scientifically detectable by applying new mathematical and informational theories.

In the last two years, Meyer’s opinion pieces and columns on the origins debate have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Insight magazine, and many scientific and philosophical journals. Meyer has helped organize origins symposia, presented papers, contributed to books, and engaged one of the most divisive issues of the scientific enterprise with dogged prolificacy. He has spoken at origins conferences from the University of California-Berkeley to Cambridge University, where he gave a plenary address at the “Cosmos and Creation” symposium last summer. At 36, his vita is as thick as those of scholars many years his senior. Currently, with grant support from the Pascal Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Religion, Meyer is writing a book about design with Bill Dembski, an expert in math and complexity theory, and Paul Nelson, who recently received his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Chicago.

Skepticism evolves

A 1980 Whitworth College graduate who majored in physics and geology, Meyer took a job out of college as a geophysicist with Atlantic Richfield. Meyer said that throughout his undergraduate years, he had always reconciled his scientific work and religious convictions by believing that evolution and theism were not incompatible. “I was quite comfortable accepting the standard evolutionary story, although I put a bit of atheistic spin on it — that (evolution) is how God operated.”

While working for ARCO and living in Dallas, Meyer attended a conference that brought together top philosophers, cosmologists and origin-of-life biologists to debate the religious implications of contemporary scientific findings. “I remember being especially fascinated with the origins debate at this conference. It impressed me to see that scientists who had always accepted the standard evolutionary story were now defending a theistic belief, not on the basis that it makes them feel good or provides some form of subjective contentment, but because the scientific evidence suggests an activity of mind that is beyond nature. I was really taken with this.”

Although he enjoyed his work in the oil industry, Meyer had always wanted to go to graduate school. He applied for a Rotary International Scholarship to Cambridge University but finished runner-up to the former Miss Texas. A year later, when oil prices took a plunge and his level of job security followed, he again applied for the Rotary Scholarship, received it, and was off to Cambridge University. There he studied the philosophy of science, wrote his dissertation titled “A Methodological Interpretation of Origin-of-Life Research,” and earned his Ph.D. Meyer returned to Whitworth College in 1990 as an assistant professor of philosophy and was named the1993-94 recipient of the Dean’s Award for Junior Faculty Achievement. This fall he was promoted to associate professor. In addition to his philosophy courses, he is a member of the teaching team for CORE 350, an interdisciplinary course that explores the scientific tradition and its impact on the world.

Purposefulness vs. Purposelessness

It was in 1859 that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species rocked the scientific and theological worlds by declaring that life, in all its diversity, complexity and splendor, had evolved from the simplest of life forms over billions of years. Human beings were not the handiwork of a divine creator, but rather, in the words of the late Har-vard evolutionist G.G. Simpson, “Man was a result of a purposeless process that did not have him in mind.”

“The biggest question at the root of the origins debate is purposeless chance versus intelligent design or guidance,” said Meyer. “Is life the result of purposeless or purposeful causes? At the most basic, most fundamental level , you see incredible evidence for intelligent design. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the ordinary processes of nature that we see in operation now do not produce the kinds of structures and complexity that we see at work in a cell.”

Meyer argues that by using modern information and probability theory, evidence of design in the form of non-random information sequencing in living organisms is detectable. He points out that astrophysicists are already using a similar technique to search for evidence of intelligence in another realm. The $100-million Search for Extraterrestrial Life project, or SETI, is essentially a giant interstellar microphone that monitors the cosmos for non-random messages. The purpose of the project is to detect evidence of intelligent life in the universe.

Meyer said the same mathematical approach can be applied to biology to probe for intelligent design. Within each living cell there is a chemical code or language that exhibits non-random, aperiodic complexity. To Meyer and his colleagues, the non-random sequences of these chemical messages strongly suggest design. Even the simplest single-celled organisms show daunting complexity and organization, Meyer said. These organisms exhibit a functional integration of parts, information storage and transfer mechanisms, regulatory and feedback loops, hierarchical levels of organization. “If we were to see these kinds of features in any other artifacts, we would immediately infer that they were designed.”

Horse Heads in the Clouds

But Meyer’s critics, who would constitute the bulk of the scientific community at research universities around the world, say Meyer has hopped the fence that separates science from philosophy and theology, and has dressed up an antique creationist theory as science.

“There’s a feeling of deja vu here – we’ve been through all that and it’s plowed ground,” said Richard Dickerson, professor of biochemistry and geophysics at UCLA, and former director of the Molecular Biology Institute there. “Intelligent design is a disguised form of creationism. To say that a life form arose because of a designer goes beyond science. That’s philosophy. It’s religious apologetics, which is not necessarily a bad thing so long as it’s not done in the name of science.”

Ken Kardong, an associate professor of zoology at Washington State University who teaches evolutionary biology, agrees that intelligent design is an incarnation of an idea that has its roots in the early 19th century, and the same flaws apply. “These kinds of views are fun to discuss and play with, but I would be very reluctant to see these old arguments recirculated,” said Kardong, who said he has his own problems with some aspects of neo-Darwinism, but believes that the theory will evolve to solve more and more riddles of the origins debate. “When you start calling something in nature ‘designed,’ it is an inference, not a fact. It steps outside of the context in which scientists do their work.”

Kardong likens intelligent design theory to looking at a bank of white fluffy clouds. When you see a cloud that’s shaped like a horse head, does that mean it’s been designed; does that mean a purpose can be inferred? No, said Kardong, not if you want to stay within the realm of science. The problem with intelligent design is the same because it does not start with a neutral point of view. “If you look at enough clouds, you’re going to see a horse head.”

Lee Anne Chaney, associate professor of biology at Whitworth, also offers a dissenting view of intelligent design theory. “As a Christian, part of my belief system is that God is ultimately responsible. But as a biologist, I need to look at the evidence. Scientifically speaking, I don’t think intelligent design is very helpful because it does not provide things that are refutable — there is no way in the world you can show it’s not true,” she said. “Drawing inferences about the deity does not seem to me to be the function of science because it’s very subjective.”

Yet Meyer disputes the demarcationist argument that intelligent design is inherently unscientific. “Scientists make design inferences all the time,” he said. “No geologist, for example, would attribute the origin of the faces on Mount Rushmore to wind and erosion, nor would an archaeologist insist that the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone are the result of purely natural causes. In the case of the Rosetta Stone, we infer design because we know that only intelligent agents have the capacity to produce the encoded information that the inscriptions contain. There is an important and clear difference between a “picture” in a cloud and an encoded message. And modern probability theory entirely supports this conclusion.”

Secular High Priests

Beyond the weighty issue of how life originated, the origins debate raises big questions about the nature and philosophy of science. Just what is science, and when it comes to the issue of origins, what delineates science from philosophy and theology? Is science only concerned with the material universe and the laws of nature, the observable, the physical, the empirical, the falsifiable? Or with the contentious question of life’s origins, where direct observation is not possible, can science make room for something more?

According to Meyer, no case better illustrates the politics of origins than the plight of San Francisco State University Biology Professor Dean Kenyon. Although his supporters and critics disagree as to the value of his work in the discipline, Kenyon co-authored the 1969 textbook, Biochemical Predestination, which was considered one of the most authoritative explanations of how a living cell could have organized itself from lifeless chemicals in the “primordial soup.”

But by the 1980s, Kenyon had begun to have his doubts about the dominant scientific paradigm he had worked hard to advance, and he began to share those doubts, along with information about intelligent design, with his students. In 1992, following complaints from several students that Kenyon was teaching creationism, the head of the biology department at SFSU removed Kenyon from the classroom. The Kenyon case became something of cause celebre for Meyer and others working on intelligent design. After Meyer did an op-ed piece about Kenyon’s case in The Wall Street Journal, and pressure from SFSU’s Academic Freedom Committee and the American Association of University Professors mounted, Kenyon was reinstated. Nevertheless, the biology department at SFSU has proposed a ban on further discussion of intelligent design theory because it is “unscientific.”

“The Kenyon case teaches us a lot about who de-fines the rules of the debate,” said Meyer. “Kenyon was silenced not because any of his data were inaccurate, or because his students didn’t like him. He was silenced because his dean sought to impose a definition of science that made Kenyon fall out of bounds.”

In order to justify this kind of thinking, many in the scientific establishment use self-serving definitions of science to justify excluding intelligent design, Meyer said. But the “rules of science” that exclude intelligent design are applied selectively. “Dean Kenyon was accused of violating the canons of the scientific method because he had inferred an unobservable entity — an intelligent designer. Yet scientists, including evolutionary theorists, routinely infer the existence of entities that cannot be seen, such as fields, forces, quarks and past mutations, to name a few.”

Meyer said that, in any case, attempts to draw a rigid line separating science from philosophy or religion do not work. “Origins theories invariably have religious and philosophical implications one way or the other. There’s a lot more going on here than just a debate over data. There is also a power struggle over who will get to tell the creation story for our culture. For years, materialistic-minded biologists have functioned as a secular high priesthood. They have defined what the questions are, what the rules are, and what answers can be considered. Now, as more scientists are realizing that nobody really has any idea how nature could have produced the complexity and information in the first cell, many are challenging the authority of that elite. Unfortunately, some in the scientific establishment are resorting to intimidation to stifle dissent.”

The Insect and the Elephant

In a recent edition of Insight magazine, Meyer debated these issues with Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, Calif. Scott, who also believes that intelligent design is dressed-up creationism, gave her appraisal of Meyer’s place in the origins debate. Scott likened Meyer to an insect next to the elephant — “a minor annoyance if it’s noticed at all.”

Meyer said that ad hominem comments aside, he realizes that as a proponent of intelligent design theory, he is vastly outnumbered in the scientific world. But that is starting to change as more scientists begin to look for an alternative to strictly materialistic theories, he said. “There’s tremendous optimism and enthusiasm — a whole network of people are working on this.”

And indeed, intelligent design does appear to be catching on in some circles. At the Cambridge University conference last summer, several senior scientists, including biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University, cell biologist David Shotton of Oxford University and polymer scientist Walter Bradley of Texas A&M University gave sympathetic papers in a seminar that Meyer had organized on “Detecting Design in Creation.” Recently, Princeton University plasma physicist Robert Kaita gave intelligent design theory favorable mention, calling it “eminently reasonable” in a Wall Street Journal piece on the origins debate.

In fact, Meyer and other scientists and philosophers who are pursuing intelligent design theory have started their own E-mail bulletin board on the Internet, where they exchange ideas, critique each other’s work, and chart out a new theoretical research program to test their hypothesis. Today there are more than 130 scientists and other academicians contributing to the E-mail network. It’s like talk radio for the scientifically disenfranchised.

“In the history of scientific revolutions, numbers don’t mean much,” said Meyer. “Very few people can cause meaningful changes if they have the goods and can deliver them. Right now we’re in the very early stages of a new approach to things.”

But what is Meyer’s place in the origins debate? Is he just an insect next to the elephant? Definitely not, said Phillip Johnson, the Jefferson E. Peyser professor of law at the University of California-Berkeley, author of Darwin on Trial, and initiator of the E-mail bulletin board. Johnson, who also supports intelligent design theory, said Meyer is on the leading edge of an effort that is attracting more and more researchers and could ultimately lead to a paradigm shift in the scientific world. “Right now the intellectual ground is being plowed for a critical debate whose time has come. Steve and his colleagues are raising some tremendously important issues,” Johnson said.

Young Earth Creationists – NOT!

As important as it is for Meyer and his colleagues to articulate precisely what their views are in order to establish some credibility in the mainstream scientific community, it may be equally important for them to establish firmly what their views do not represent. That may be the greatest obstacle they face – not being grouped with the marginal characters of the origins debate.

“It’s interesting – when I first came to Whitworth, some people thought I must be one of those people from the young Earth creationist camp, which is simply not true,” Meyer said. “We’re not absolutists, we’re not fundamentalists in the sense that we want to commit to a certain story and we’re not young Earth creationists, We’re fairly minimalist. What we want to say is that however life arose, design is certainly detectable from the things we see.”

Meyer does not dismiss all aspects of evolutionary theory; he says it’s clear that over time life has evolved and diversified. “That’s microevolution and no one disputes that,” Meyer said. “The big question involves macroevolution, the origin of new structure, the origin of new information, the proper sequencing of that information, the origin of major body parts and functionally integrated systems. Those are unsolved questions. And yet we have this great extrapolation from very little data, and it is promulgated, pushed and advertised to the culture as what science has discovered.”

Purposeful Tension

It is no accident that Steve Meyer has taken up shop at Whitworth College. It is a place where faculty purposefully integrate their Christian faith into the disciplines they teach. But it is also a place with a solid academic reputation where faith and the pursuit of knowledge do not stand in the way of one another, he said. That purposeful tension allows Meyer to vigorously pursue an alternative approach to the origins issue without fear of reprisal or of being relegated to the fringe.

“Whitworth doesn’t have the reputation of being a stridently fundamentalist school and it does have a strong academic reputation,” Meyer said. “It’s a place where I can speak on these issues and not bring immediate scorn and eye rolling. A lot of my colleagues at secular universities could not have spoken out on the Kenyon issue.”

How do his colleagues at Whitworth view Steve Meyer? Several faculty members said that Meyer is a razor-sharp intellect, a great teacher, a dynamic lecturer who energizes his students, and a prolific writer and researcher who has vigorously engaged the most challenging issues of his discipline. Yet his unabashed advocacy of a controversial theory does not come without some intellectual discord. Some faculty members also said Meyer can be too polemical and that he tends to turn the scientific method on its head.

Meyer knows that there will never be a shortage of people to disagree with him. “Howard Stien (professor emeritus of biology) and I used to go around and around on this issue,” Meyer said. “People thought we were great enemies and that we didn’t like each other, but we were actually great friends. Howard was just more willing to wait for the Darwinists to solve the problem while I was looking for another approach.”

Lois Kieffaber, professor of physics and one of Meyer’s CORE teaching partners, finds herself a bit torn when asked about intelligent design theory and its philosophical implications for the scientific world. “I do not rule out the possibility that a supernatural or design event could leave a footprint in the materialistic world that could be interpreted and read,” she said. “However, whenever you try to put forth a theory like this to explain what’s happened in the past, you have no way of proving it false. It’s both exciting and scary to think about the boundaries of science being pushed back. Can the material world give evidence of the immaterial world? That would be a dramatic change in the way science works.”

Hans Bynagle, Whitworth’s library director who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University, said he believes Meyer is fighting an important philosophical battle on an issue that challenges the governing rules of science. And Bynagle believes science needs to open up if it seeks to find elusive truths. “We divide up knowledge into boxes for the sake of organization and convenience. But we can’t assume because we draw those boxes that when we look at reality, everything is going to fit neatly in those boxes; nor can we rule out certain things because they don’t happen to fit neatly into those boxes.”

Whether they agree or disagree with him on the origins issues, students taking a class from Meyer can be assured of lively, thought-provoking discussions that force people to think through their assumptions about the world. Perhaps Forrest Baird, professor of philosophy at Whitworth, puts it best. “Steve brings diversity to Whitworth and he brings a very important kind of diversity – diversity of ideas.”

For Meyer, this debate is just beginning. Discussion of these issues is taking place on a level that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, he said. The pinhole is becoming a crack. “We are trying to create space in those branches of science that are concerned with ideologically charged questions,” said Meyer. “We want to show that there is an evidential basis for intelligent design and that the evidence is there. The next 10 to 15 years are going to be very interesting.”