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Some Scientists Seek to Unseat Darwin’’s Theory

Published in The Athens Banner-Herald

If William Dembski sometimes sounds more like a revolutionary than a mild-mannered mathematician from Baylor University, that’s fine with him. It suits his vision for the future of science.

Dembski, a Christian and a leading proponent of intelligent design theory, will tell anyone who’ll listen that Darwinism is finished as science’s unifying framework, that its chief value to many scientists is as a ‘‘whip for getting religious believers in line’’ and that its monopoly in modern theory must be dissolved.

His message — and the message of the design movement — is that nature is rife with examples of structures too complex and specific to be explained by principles of randomness and natural selection.

‘‘What intelligent design is doing is saying there’s a program for scientific reasoning beyond Darwinism,’’ he said. If the design movement had a mascot it would probably be the bacterium’s flagellum, a tail-like outboard motor that’s so specified and so complex in bacteria that he and Lehigh biochemist Michael Behe contend it could not have arisen by chance.

What’s more, Dembski says the 50 proteins that make up the structure are unlikely to have been selected by nature, piecemeal, over the eons, as Darwin’s theory would have it.

He describes his work as the application of probability theory to biological structures to assess chances that they’re Darwinist environmental adaptations.

A colleague of his at Cambridge is following up on his probability testing with experimental work which Dembski believes will, along with the work of other scientists, produce broad, fruitful areas of inquiry in other fields, and ultimately diminish the sway of Darwin’s doctrine of survival of the fittest.

‘‘We’re now in a position to criticize it in a way that we couldn’t in times past,’’ said Dembski, who holds a master’s in statistics and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Illinois, along with a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago and a master of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.

With its suggestion of a creator, it’s perhaps not surprising that the resurgence of design theory, which dates back to ancient times, has evolutionary biologists up in arms about the mixing of the scientific and the theological.

The combination has been taboo on many campuses since Darwin’s ‘‘Origin of Species’’ was published in 1859. It produced an avalanche of data positing that life is the product of randomness, time and chance, and further displaced the role of religion as the focus and patron of education.

Indeed, ID theory, though it has no explicit religious ties, has proved so controversial among biologists at Baptist-affiliated Baylor that Dembski was removed last October from the helm of the Michael Polanyi Center he was hired to create and direct in 1999 to explore arguments for intelligent design.

Web sites have been set up by evolutionary biologists solely to track his comments and publications. His appearances on college campuses often spark verbal skirmishes with biologists who conjure disturbing scenarios of a return to a time when lightning meant ‘‘the gods are angry’’ and alchemists hankered to turn lead into gold.

‘‘I have never encountered a creationist argument that was worth a penny of consideration,’’ Barry Palevitz, professor of botany at the University of Georgia, wrote in a Feb. 26 e-mail to Dembski. ‘‘Yet, you persist. Show me the data, man, and I don’t just mean picking holes in evolutionary biology. … I suspect you (the corporate you) have another agenda, i.e. religion.’’

America’s latest conflict between science and religion stems in part from the fact that many biologists believe the question of life’s origins is settled, and ID theorists say it’s not, said Phillip Johnson, Berkeley law professor and author of the 1991 book, ‘‘Darwin on Trial.’’ It brought the debate to the fore by cataloging long-standing doubts about the accepted Darwinist principle of common ancestors for living things.

(Some design adherents believe mutation and selection can occur within species but suspect the same process lacks the creative force to produce multiple species — dogs, fruit flies, humans — from common microbial ancestry.)

‘‘It’s a formidable intellectual conflict. The naturalist paradigm, the scientific materialist philosophy, has hard times ahead,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘It’s on the ropes.’’

Academicians are watching the design movement with interest and debating the issues at well-attended conferences, including a ‘‘Nature of Nature’’ conference held at Baylor before Dembski’s demotion. The sessions attracted everyone from intelligent design proponents to ‘‘baptized Darwinists’’ to committed atheists.

Among nature’s prime candidates for scrutiny by design theorists are the language-like contents of DNA, certain enzymes and many subcellular structures which ‘‘are highly specific and highly improbable from an evolutionary standpoint,’’ Dembski said. ‘‘You can’t evolve into those things; you can’t evolve out of those things.’’

The movement, many say, opens the door for those who have been saying for decades that God has a place in science as it explores ethical questions created by the rise of cloning technology, advancements in cosmology and discoveries of anomalies in the fossil records.

‘‘Intelligent design ideas and the prospect of human beings being cloned have certainly raised the level of interest in the relation between science and religion,’’ said Henry F. Schaefer, an acclaimed theoretical chemist at UGA who lectures widely on both computational quantum chemistry and on the compatibility of science and religion. ‘‘This is now one of the liveliest areas of discussion on American university campuses.’’

Design proponents believe the public is ready for their research program, since the vast majority of Americans profess some belief in a divine power, and a survey published in 1997 by Ed Larson, the Pulitzer-Prize winning UGA historian of the Scopes trial, found that nearly 40 percent of scientists profess belief in some kind of God.

Mathematicians, the study found, belong to a discipline most likely to believe in God. Those same mathematicians, with Dembski as the wedge figure, will topple Darwin by 2059, the 200th anniversary of ‘‘Origin of Species,’’ by producing ample proof of intelligent causes to life, Johnson predicts.

‘‘Whether there’s a God up there, you have to have information from another source,’’ he said.