Enlisting Science to Find the Fingerprints of a Creator

Believers in 'intelligent design' try to redirect evolution disputes along intellectual lines. Originally published at The Los Angeles Times

BURLINGTON, Wash. — In this rural farming community, a high school biology teacher named Roger DeHart set out to question Darwin’s theories of evolution. He never mentioned God.

He dissected such scientific topics as bacterial flagella, fossil records and embryonic development. Examine the evidence, he told the students, and ponder the Big Question: Is life the result of random, meaningless events? Or was it designed by an intelligent force?

Over nine years, DeHart would introduce ideas about this theory of “intelligent design.” Then a student protested that DeHart was pushing religion. Then the ACLU filed a complaint. In 1999, school authorities ordered DeHart to drop references to design and stick to the textbook.

Last week, DeHart was told he could not even introduce materials questioning Darwin’s theories. Now DeHart is being portrayed as a martyr in the movement promoting intelligent design, the newest twist in the timeless debate over the origin of life.

The idea that an intelligent force guided creation is as old as Plato. But it is sparking modern battles as a new breed of mostly Christian scholars redefines the old evolution-versus-creationism debate and fashions a movement with more intellectual firepower, mainstream appeal and academic respectability.

The scientific establishment generally rejects the theory. But design advocates aim to reshape modern intellectual culture by marshaling scientific evidence that life was created by a transcendent mind, rather than by impersonal, random natural forces.

“Our work will alert people to the possibility that God is real rather than a projection of the mind,” declared Phillip Johnson, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of law whose 1991 book, “Darwin on Trial,” laid the foundation for the emerging movement.

Arguments about the theory’s use have arisen in public schools from Washington to Minnesota. On Saturday intelligent-design theorists made their first appearance at the National School Board Assn. convention in San Diego to explain to school system attorneys why their ideas should be allowed in classrooms.

Unlike biblical literalists who believe God created the world in six days, most theorists of intelligent design are reputable university scholars who accept evolution to a point. But they question whether Darwinist mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection can fully account for life’s astonishing complexity.

Instead, using arguments ranging from biochemistry to probability theory, they posit that some sort of intelligence prompted the unfolding of life–say, by producing the information code in the DNA.

Some proponents are doing theoretical work: seeking systematic ways to detect intelligence in life, for instance, or evidence to argue that intelligent design is a better explanation than Darwinism for such events as the abrupt appearance of advanced organisms during the “Cambrian explosion” 500 million years ago.

Others are more experimental, analyzing DNA thought to be useless junk for actual functions as a way to show that an intelligent agent designed it that way for a purpose.

The scientific applications of the work are less important than their cultural ramifications, Johnson says. Huston Smith, renowned religion scholar and intelligent-design supporter, argues in a recent book, “Why Religion Matters,” that “narrow scientism” has suffocated the human spirit and debased the culture.

One 1999 national survey by Scientific American magazine showed that fewer than 10% of National Academy of Sciences members believe in God. By contrast, 90% of Americans not only believe in God but say God played at least some role in creation, according to the Gallup Organization.

“We are taking an intuition most people have and making it a scientific and academic enterprise,” Johnson said. In challenging Darwinism with a God-friendly alternative theory, the professor, who is a Presbyterian, added, “We are removing the most important cultural roadblock to accepting the role of God as creator.”

Most design scientists are more circumspect about identifying the designer as God. But the work’s clear religious implications have propelled the issue beyond science into passionate arguments about the separation between church and state, academic freedom and societal values.

Is intelligent design research “stealth creationism” funded by evangelical Christians? Is it legitimate science that students should be able to debate? Will it renew the culture by reawakening the human spirit from decades of materialism?

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, said most scientists do not accept intelligent design as valid science.

For example, Ken Miller, a Catholic biochemist at Brown University and a leading critic of intelligent design, argues that design advocates are simply wrong on the science.

In one oft-cited case, Miller took on leading design theorist Michael Behe, a Catholic biochemist at Lehigh University. Behe has won fame in the movement by fashioning a theory called irreducible complexity. He argues that some complex organisms–the whip-like tails that propel bacteria, for instance–cannot be simplified or they will lose their ability to function. To Behe, that raises questions of how they supposedly evolved from simpler forms in the first place.

Miller, however, took a mousetrap Behe said could not be simplified, dismantled it, reduced its parts and got it to work. Behe responded that Miller proved his point only by using intelligence to re-engineer it. Miller and others charge that advocates of intelligent design duck their peers–failing, for instance, to publish their arguments in major scientific journals–because their enterprise is religious, not scientific. “They are using political and social tools to gain acceptance in the classroom that they are unable or unwilling to win in the scientific community,” Miller said.

But design advocates claim they have been deliberately snubbed by the scientific establishment. In one celebrated case, professor Dean Kenyon of San Francisco State University was removed from teaching biology by his department chairman in 1992 after criticizing Darwin’s theories, but was reinstated by a vote of the Academic Senate.

Other scientists report receiving correspondence from colleagues who confess doubts about Darwin’s theories but are afraid to go public for fear of career setbacks.

“There’s a sense in the scientific and academic community that this stuff needs to be shut down–that ‘ID’ is evil and if it succeeds it will overturn science,” said William Dembski, a mathematician at Baylor University in Texas. Dembski was stripped of his directorship of a new campus institute on intelligent design after holding a controversial conference on the issue. The university says Dembski was removed because of uncollegial behavior, not the content of his work; Dembski continues his design research at Baylor as an associate research professor.

To push intelligent design into the public square, Johnson, the movement’s strategic mastermind, has fashioned a two-pronged “wedge strategy.”

The first step is to open academic debate by pressing scientists to explain whether evolutionary claims are based on “impartially evaluated evidence or philosophical dogma.”

The second tactic is to unify the religious world–Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who believe in a creator–to produce a constituency that would insist that intelligent design be considered an option for debate.

To support those efforts, advocates of intelligent design have acquired significant research funding. In 1996, the Discovery Institute in Seattle launched a science and culture program that is emerging as the intelligent-design movement’s national think tank.

Primarily funded by evangelical Christians–particularly the wealthy Ahmanson family of Irvine–the institute’s $1-million annual program has produced 25 books, a stream of conferences and more than 100 fellowships for doctoral and postdoctoral research. Fieldstead & Co., which is owned by Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, has pledged $2.8 million through 2003 to support the intelligent-design program.

One Discovery funder, Tom McCallie of the Maclellan Foundation in Chattanooga, Tenn., said the foundation awarded $350,000 to the institute in the hopes that researchers would prove that “evolution was not the process by which we were created.” He said Darwinism has promoted a materialistic world view that he blames for destroying morals and producing tragedies such as the recent school shootings near San Diego.

In public schools, combatants have clashed over classroom curricula and school library selections, often over the issue of whether advocates of intelligent design earnestly separate science from theology. In Burlington, a small community nestled among salmon-rich rivers and snow-dusted peaks, public opinion has been vehemently divided over DeHart.

Authorities initially allowed DeHart to teach intelligent design during one day of his two-week unit on evolution, but have now changed their minds. Even though DeHart never overtly discussed religion in the class, Beth Vander Veen, Burlington-Edison High School principal, said she has grown wary of DeHart’s real motivations.

“I don’t think it’s about showing holes in evolutionary theory anymore,” she said. “I think it’s about getting religion into the schools.”

Ken Atkins, a parent, reached a similar conclusion. “He taught my kid religion for two weeks, receiving public money in the schools, and didn’t ask. I was outraged.”

But Jerry Benson, a community leader who supports DeHart, said the science teacher was only doing what educators should be doing: stimulating students to think critically. “The [intelligent-design] debate is exciting,” Benson said. “I so want that excitement to be presented to our students and cause them to stop and say: ‘Well, what do I think?’ “

For his part, DeHart insisted he has always stayed within the law by never discussing the designer’s identity or other theological questions. Despite the school’s recent ruling against him, he said he intends to keep looking for ways to bring the ideas forward until the evidence ultimately proves him right or wrong. “Some things are worth fighting for,” DeHart said, “and this is one of them.”

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times