Looking for God at Berkeley

A provocative theory called “intelligent design” claims evolution is hogwash. But it’s not the usual religious zealots leading the latest attack on Darwin. It’s scientists and professors at Cal.

In a crumbling UC Berkeley research lab, Jed Macosko is looking for God. Macosko is a molecular biology researcher who holds chemistry degrees from Cal and MIT. As a Christian, he believes that God is everywhere. As a scientist, he thinks that God might live in bacteria.

Macosko’s research peers deep into E. coli, a bacterium best known for the virulent strain that has caused fast-food restaurant panics, though it’s normally harmless (it’s swimming in your intestines right now). It’s a seductive subject for a biochemist: The inner life of E. coli–indeed, any microscopic organism–is a sophisticated dance of proteins and amino acids interlocking and working together. Many molecular biologists find it utterly dazzling that something so small yet so amazingly complex could have evolved in nature.

But Macosko’s interpretation makes a radical break from the overwhelming majority of his colleagues: He believes that the work going on inside those bacteria isn’t just amazingly complex–it’s so incredibly complex that it couldn’t conceivably have formed through evolution. The only reasonable explanation, he says, is that these systems and their processes were deliberately created by an “intelligent designer.”

Macosko, a young, genial, and well-spoken scientist who has co-authored a handful of published scientific papers, calls that designer God, though he says you could call it anything you’re comfortable with. If you like, he says, call it space aliens. He is inspired by what he claims is growing evidence that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution–the very bedrock of biology–has collapsed on the molecular level, and his career as a scientist and his research at UC Berkeley are geared toward supporting that theory. Looking at the E. coli bacterium, he says, “your natural assumption is that there must be another intelligence out there, whether it’s an alien life form or some deity or something from outside our universe, or from a higher dimension that we can’t observe.”

The mainstream scientific community’s response to that kind of statement ranges from howls of laughter to raw fury. Yet Macosko is not alone in his beliefs, and the proponents of “intelligent design” theory have gradually coalesced into a bona fide movement. Until recently, attacks on evolution have usually come from the pulpit. For decades, “creation science” tried to debunk Darwin by using the Bible to explain the origins of life. An oxymoron by definition, creation science was easily dismissed by the scientific world. Intelligent design theory, however, uses science itself to undercut evolution, and many of its adherents are scholars from leading universities like UC Berkeley. Cal, in fact, has produced several vocal proponents of intelligent design. Besides Macosko, they include a former criminal law professor who has become the self-acknowledged leader of the intelligent design movement, and another Berkeley scientist who is getting attention for a book that calls for a freeze on government funding of evolution research and warning labels on biology textbooks.

With those kinds of credentials, intelligent design has gathered steam in a way that creation science never did. Its arguments have begun to creep into public school board meetings. The Oakland-based National Center for Science Education, which polices attempts to insert religion into school curricula, has seen the largest flare-up of legislation in its 20-year history, much of it thanks to the efforts of intelligent design promoters.

In the minds of most scientists, however, intelligent design is simply a more insidious way of packaging creation science; intelligent design theory, they argue, is little more than the latest twist in an ongoing attempt to wedge religion into public schools, and besides, it’s not much of a theory at all. It’s just bad science, they say, which makes specious, deceptive, and unprovable claims about the nature of the universe.

Indeed, intelligent design theories are fascinating at first glance–who wouldn’t want to at least hear out a scientific proof for God?–but they would be more intriguing if they weren’t premised on so much wishful thinking. Intelligent design boosters, above all else, merely have a righteous beef with Darwinists and a supposition–a faith, you might say–that a designer of some sort created certain parts of nature. Their scientific arguments would be more respectable if they weren’t befriending creation science proponents, exploiting scientific loopholes by appealing to the general public instead of submitting their research for peer review, or pointing to areas of science where the research is incomplete or contradictory as proof of Darwin’s imminent collapse.

Macosko disagrees, though he sympathizes with the scientists who are so resistant to his ideas. Darwin’s theory of evolution, after all, evicted God from the laboratory; it built a wall dividing scientific truth and spiritual truth. Tearing down that wall, Macosko says, will require enlisting both the masses and the scientists in ivory towers like Cal. “The problem with [Darwin] is that it’s so entrenched in our culture,” he says. “Newtonian physics never made policy, but Darwinism has made policy. So there’s got to be two fights: one at the grass roots, one academic. And I think both fights have to go on at the same time.”

Intelligent design theory is, in fact, a whole bundle of theories and arguments. From molecular biology comes an argument that organic processes like the ones Macosko studies are too fundamentally complex for evolution to explain them; from statistics, a claim that probability theory can show whether an organism has had enough time to evolve; from philosophy, a rhetorical study suggesting that Darwinism isn’t science so much as a closed-minded materialist viewpoint that needs rethinking. The common thread is an incendiary claim: People are being misled–or outright lied to–about the theory of evolution’s power to explain the whole of nature, and that room needs to be made for something that is, if not the hand of God, then outside of our accepted notions of scientific evidence.

It’s a hard thing to be on the fence about. To agree with intelligent design is, in a way, to renounce our idea of “evidence”; it means saying the holes in Darwin’s theories are so enormous that God or space aliens or creatures from the fifth dimension need to be there to fill in the gaps. To disagree with it is to potentially miss the boat on what might be the greatest sea change in scientific thinking since Copernicus said the Earth revolved around the sun. So what is causing highly educated people to embrace such a radical view? What evidence could inspire Jed Macosko to buck the scientific establishment and risk his reputation?

The answer to those questions starts at Stanley Hall, which sits on the far eastern reaches of the UC Berkeley campus. Macosko works on the third floor, as one of a quiet hive of 10 researchers in the department of molecular and cell biology. Even if his views are unpopular, he does get to voice them there: On a small bulletin board just outside the lab’s door, Macosko has thumbtacked some recent news articles about intelligent design theory.

Macosko and his colleagues are studying how genetic material–RNA, DNA, enzymes, and proteins–goes about its business. Throughout the spacious lab, expensive and intricate measuring equipment is mounted on cinder blocks, which are then hung from the ceiling on thick, taut bungee cords. It gives the place a bit of a clumsy, toolshed kind of feel, though it’s meant to prevent even the slightest movements during the slightest seismic activity. Macosko’s office is hardly an office at all, just a corner of a conference room he’s staked out for himself with enough space for his computer and shelves of books that seem dangerously on the verge of collapse. It’s here that Macosko pulls out a sheet of paper and patiently tries to explain exactly why he sees God when he stares at E. coli.

Macosko is investigating a process that ought to be familiar to anybody who was taking notes in high school biology class. For those who were passing notes instead, here’s the painless recap: DNA, the double-stranded molecule that carries genetic information and makes up chromosomes, reproduces when RNA makes copy of a DNA strand. In this way, cells make proteins that help the cell do any number of things, including reproduce, or they make proteins that are essential to the life of the organism.

This process begins with an enzyme called RNA polymerase, the focus of Macosko’s work. It’s this enzyme that splits the DNA strands in two: a template strand and a coding strand. RNA uses that coding strand to transcribe information in the DNA to make a variety of “gene products” supporting the organism–including more RNA polymerase. Even if that’s calling up ugly memories of biology pop quizzes, take away this much: A complex system of molecules is doing very specific things in very specific places at very specific times at very specific rates.

Understanding that process better is the goal of Macosko’s research group. However, apart from the group’s official goal–and contrary to his colleagues–Macosko believes this system to be what he calls “irreducibly complex.” Irreducible complexity, a term first coined by Lehigh University biochemist Michael J. Behe, is based on two principles. First, an irreducibly complex system must have each component working in order to function; take away one part and the whole system collapses. Second, in an irreducibly complex system, each component can’t have a useful function outside of the one for which it is being used.

Behe’s favorite metaphor for explaining this is a mousetrap. Take one part away from a mousetrap–its spring, hammer, catch, or platform–and it becomes useless. Logically, a mousetrap had to be created by a human engineer. Likewise, Behe argues that certain biological systems are made of component parts that had to have been created, all at once, by an intelligent designer; Darwin’s theory of evolution may work fine to account for the variation in species of plants and animals, but irreducible complexity argues that it begins to collapse in molecular biochemistry.

In the case of Macosko’s research, the theory of irreducible complexity says that even the slightest change in the composition of RNA polymerase and its course of action in the cell would make the whole system nonfunctional; furthermore, the arrangement of amino acids in the system is so complex that they could not have evolved. “This RNA polymerase has to make RNA copies that are close enough to the DNA so that information is passed along, and that it can do a useful function,” Macosko says. “It has to be fast enough; there are all sorts of design constraints.” The very structure of RNA polymerase exemplifies this, he says. It’s a complex arrangement of six chains of different amino acids–over a thousand per chain. If you change the structure or remove even a few of the amino acids, he says, the enzyme’s function collapses–and that, he argues, leaves room for the possibility of God’s hand structuring the process.

Research into RNA polymerase is perfectly legitimate science; indeed, Brown University professor Kenneth M. Miller calls it “cool stuff.” But while Miller stresses that he cannot speak specifically on Macosko’s interpretation of the E. coli research (which is unpublished), he is very familiar with claims of irreducible complexity, and he has serious problems with the theory. The most glaring one, Miller says, is that irreducible complexity has not been presented to the scientific community through established channels. Behe’s theory was first published not in a peer-reviewed scientific journal like Nature or The Journal of Molecular Evolution, but instead as a general-interest book, Darwin’s Black Box. Behe and other promoters of intelligent design theory, Miller says, “avoid the scientific community like the plague. Instead, what they have tried to do is make an end run around the process of scientific review.”

But more essentially, Miller says, the claims of irreducible complexity have been proven wrong–it is provable that complex molecular systems evolve according to Darwin’s theories, and there is research showing that this is indeed the case. Scientific research papers have been published describing how complex molecular systems have evolved, and other papers have been written showing how the enzymes and proteins that work in complex systems can also have useful functions independent of them. The only conclusion Miller can draw is that intelligent design is little more than creation science revisited. “Intelligent design theory sounds quite different from scientific creationism, because it doesn’t use a Creator or mention a Creation,” he says. “It just mentions an intelligent designer, but it’s the same wolf in new sheep’s clothing.”

Macosko doesn’t agree that the papers present definitive proof for evolution on the molecular level, particularly in the organisms he is studying; he says the papers’ authors are playing a game of “what if” with the evidence, and that irreducible complexity makes for a better explanation for the data. Even if it means saying that “natural phenomena can be caused by things that are not natural,” as he puts it.

That sort of supposition is entirely off the radar of empirical science, and Dr. Carlos Bustamante, who heads the laboratory Macosko works in, is quick to separate his lab’s work from Macosko’s interpretation of it. Bustamante emphasizes that the research there has nothing to do with intelligent design concepts, and that Macosko’s interpretation of the research is solely his own.

Macosko knows he is isolated in his beliefs, but he says his disagreement is not a complete rejection of Darwin. “Darwin was a visionary,” he says. “There were people who wanted to chalk things up just to design without putting in the work to do it. Darwin proposed an alternative that, if it were allowed to reside side by side with the design hypothesis, would’ve really borne a lot of fruit. What I reject is that evolution is enough to do all the creating that we see. And in rejecting that, I reject what the people who follow Darwin stand for.”

Eugenie Scott can’t help but laugh a little when she considers her fate; it’s the 21st century, and she still has to deal with religious groups infiltrating public policy. Since 1987, Scott has run the nonprofit National Center for Science Education, which was launched in 1981 with a simple, uncontroversial mission: to encourage dialogue between university scholars and high school science teachers. As a sideline, it was also supposed to debunk the creation science camp, but that was a simple enough matter. That’s why the center has its general, all-encompassing name–not something like “The National Center for Bashing Creationism,” as Scott jokingly puts it.

Scott still keeps tabs on old-fashioned creation science, but these days it’s the back-and-forth on intelligent design that fills the center: Getting into Scott’s windowless office means maneuvering around chairs stacked with textbooks and the latest articles both for and against intelligent design. On one wall she’s taped a list of states with pending legislation that supports teaching some form of creationism in schools. In terms of legislation, she says, this year is already the busiest ever for the center. ‘Since the beginning of the year, creation science bills have been in six or seven state legislatures, which is phenomenal,” she says. “We haven’t had that kind of outburst ever.” Some of that activity, she says, might be attributed to the George W. Bush administration; during the presidential campaign, Bush said children “ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started,” and Scott argues that statements like that “have had a very strong indirect encouraging effect. It’s led a lot of people, I suspect, to think, ‘We’ve got friends in high places.'”

Scott says intelligent design-inspired legislation, too, is on the upswing, and she anticipates seeing much more of it in the future. The process has already started; a bill in Michigan, for example, proposes that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution, and that “a public school official shall not censor or prohibit the teaching of the design hypothesis.” Legislation like that is inspired by the latest argument working Scott’s nerves: a claim that biology textbooks are so wrong and so deceptive in their support of evolution that they need warning labels, like packs of cigarettes.

The claim comes from one of the most popular intelligent design books around, Icons of Evolution. It was written by Jonathan Wells, a biologist who went to UC Berkeley specifically to smash Darwin’s theories–because the Rev. Sun Myung Moon told him to.

Wells’ background in the Unification Church had been common knowledge in academic circles for about a year, but this spring the scientific establishment officially made something of it. In the April 12 edition of the science journal Nature, University of Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne opened his review of Wells’ book by quoting from an essay Wells wrote titled “Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D.” There, Wells wrote that “Father [Moon’s] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism,” and that he went to UC Berkeley in 1989 to earn the credentials to better legitimize his beliefs. Wells doesn’t mention this inspiration anywhere in Icons, producing a book Coyne waggishly dismisses as “a polemic intelligently designed to please Father Moon.”

“I think it’s irrelevant,” Wells says of his church background, speaking from his home outside Seattle, where he is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, an intelligent design think tank. Wells dismisses the Nature review as an ad hominem attack, and argues that he is on solid academic footing. His claim is that much of the proof for Darwin’s theories isn’t proof at all–merely folklore passed down from generation to generation to support the primacy of evolutionary scientists.

To make his case, Wells critiques 10 examples of evolution that are commonly found in biology textbooks. For example, he attacks the supposed evolution of Galápagos finches that Darwin studied, arguing that their changes are grossly overstated. Peppered moths, which gradually changed color as the Industrial Revolution increased air pollution in England, are often cited as a case of natural selection; Wells argues there were flaws in the methods and conclusions of experiments that attributed the change to natural selection, and he reveals that the pictures often seen in biology textbooks, showing how the moths’ new coloring helped them blend into the background on tree trunks, were staged. He scrutinized drawings of limbs and the development of embryos among different species of vertebrates, which supposedly argued for shared ancestry; instead, Wells found them to be deceptive, exaggerated, or simply wrong.

But most damning, to Wells’ mind, is that evolutionary biologists have known about these problems for years, and yet errors persist in making their way into textbooks. Why? None dare call it conspiracy, but Wells argues that scientists are desperate to maintain their authority, even if it comes at the expense of truth. As he writes in Icons, “dogmatic Darwinists have exploited their evocative power to a degree that would make demagogues and advertising executives blush.”

Ironically, the evolutionary research Wells did at Berkeley–where his focus was on frog embryos–gave him the tools to make his claims. “[Wells] got a lot of the ammo [for Icons] from his courses at Cal,” says Eugenie Scott, who points out that the rigors of scientific study at Berkeley–or any respectable university–mean dissecting arguments and looking for holes. Wells’ flaw, Scott argues, is that he found a few cases where evolutionary research is incomplete and then overreacted, interpolating a thoroughgoing conspiracy to remove God (or an “intelligent designer”) from the discussion. “You’re supposed to learn how to take apart a theory, to understand how it functions,” Scott says, “but you’re not supposed to throw out the baby with the bath water.”

Icons of Evolution also illustrates how the standard God vs. evolution debate is becoming more nuanced. Time was, criticism of evolution by religious groups was easily dismissed as Christian proselytizing. Any attempts to remove Darwin from the classroom, therefore, could be countered on constitutional grounds. But because writings on intelligent design tend to avoid any specific mention of God, and because its proponents use science and not the Bible to make their claims, it becomes harder to use the constitutional argument. It has also become easier for the intelligent design camp to dismiss any accusation of religious bias as beside the point, or an ad hominem attack.

“I’m not surprised at how much of the attack has been directed at me personally, though I would of course prefer that the debate center on the evidence,” says Wells. “But I’m a veteran of controversy. I love it.”

Phillip Johnson doesn’t look or act like much of a revolutionary. His home, like a lot of houses in the North Berkeley flats, is all but swamped with greenery–trees and tall flowers that make it difficult to figure who rightfully owns what part of what yard. There’s a paternalistic tone to his words–he comes off as patient in his explanations and charming in his delivery; between the comfy sweater, the distinguished gray hair, and the Berkeley degree, he’s sober, genial, and far apart from any Bible-thumping hysterics. It all works to his advantage when he goes so far as to say that the debate over Wells’ religious background is yet another example of the “intellectual bankruptcy” of the mainstream scientific community.

“This exposes the bias and lack of professionalism of the Darwinian side,” he huffs. “This is what they have to rely on: claims of power, ad hominems, and personal attacks. That’s not a really confident intellectual position. It’s like a criminal saying, ‘This prosecutor is a member of the Unification Church! I should be acquitted!'”

Johnson is the rhetorical godhead of the intelligent design movement; he’s been pushing its concepts since before they even had a name. Recently, after more than a decade of writing and speaking on the subject, it has become his full-time job. Earlier this year, Johnson retired from Berkeley after 33 years of teaching criminal law, a concession to the fact that he is now spending a third of his time on the road speaking against evolution. On the road, a lot of people in the audience find it odd that such a vocally right-wing speaker is a Berkeley product, though Johnson himself doesn’t see it as so unusual. Just look at Jonathan Wells. “It’s a tribute that somebody like Jonathan Wells would want to get his second Ph.D. here, even though his views were not those of the department,” he says. “He felt like this was a place to learn the things he had to know to even challenge the things that they believe in. That’s a very high compliment. I think I’m something of a goodwill ambassador for the university. Berkeley’s a very vibrant place with a lot of different things. I’m just one of the different things.”

Johnson made his name by taking a chisel to what he calls “the Inherit the Wind stereotype”–the image of evolution critics as blinkered and ignorant fundamentalists. In 1991, Johnson published Darwin on Trial, which attacked evolution not with the hammer of God but with the calm rationality of a legal scholar studying the philosophies upon which scientists construct their theories. His own view, quickly embraced by intelligent design boosters, was that Darwinism was only one philosophy–materialism–among many that could be used to look at the universe.

Johnson wasn’t dissuaded by the small detail that he was a legal scholar, not a scientist; after all, lawyers and scientists are both supposed to study evidence and make claims. So Darwin on Trial confidently charged into the evolution debate. “Darwin could not point to impressive examples of natural selection,” Johnson wrote, and neither have thousands of scientists hence; oft-cited examples of natural selection like fruit flies and Galápagos finches, Johnson said, are just “convincing circumstantial evidence.” Johnson was looking for direct evidence that natural selection had produced a new species or a new organ, and he found citations of slight changes in color, beak size, or species population unsatisfactory.

Genetic mutation? Don’t make him laugh. Pure speculation, he said–he wanted proof of an eye or a wing evolving, and couldn’t find it. Why? Because scientists don’t have it. Fossil records? A messy business–scientists fight over the meaning and place of each fossil they find, and the gaps in this so-called record are so wide that it’s hard to make a “story” out of it without entering into pure speculation. The origin of life in the primordial soup? Unprovable, and even the experiments that claimed to do so were debunked long ago. As a lawyer, Johnson knew it was hard to build a case around circumstantial evidence, and yet he saw the scientific community as working with nothing but.

Johnson’s arguments were presented so soberly that he almost single-handedly reopened the evolution debate in academic circles. Scientific American and Nature felt compelled to review the book seriously, after ignoring decades’ worth of standard creation science literature. To date his book has sold about 180,000 copies. “It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Darwin on Trial,” says Eugenie Scott. “Here was an anti-evolution book by a professor of law at UC Berkeley. This was man-bites-dog. When [young-earth creationist] Henry Morris writes, nobody cares … but a lot of people flocked to [Johnson’s] banner.”

Johnson has formed his ideas into what he calls the “Wedge strategy.” The Wedge strives to place intelligent design on the public policy table in two ways. First, it forces out the radical fundamentalist young-earthers who threaten to discredit the movement. Second and more important, it strives to promote the design thesis to the communities, scholars, and legislators who might be receptive to hearing it.

It’s working. The Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture has over $1 million available to finance writing, research, and lectures by the likes of Johnson and Wells. As a result, intelligent design has played a strong supporting role in challenges to school boards in West Virginia, Louisiana, Michigan, Kansas, and elsewhere; last month a student in Pennsylvania challenged his local school board’s curriculum by citing Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution. In May, a group including Johnson, Michael Behe, and others affiliated with the Discovery Institute held a lecture on Capitol Hill attended by a handful of congresspeople. And last week, the Senate passed its education bill, which included a resolution stating that “Where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and prepare them to be informed participants in public discussions.” It’s not binding law, but for Johnson, who preaches “teach the controversy,” it’s a victory.

But Johnson argues that forcing intelligent design theory into public schools is not his goal. “We definitely aren’t looking for some legislation to support our views, or anything like that,” he says. “I want to be very cautious about anything I say about the public interest, because obviously what our adversaries would like to say is, ‘These people want to impose their views through the law.’ No. That’s what they do. We’re against that in principle, and we don’t need that.”

For the most part, however, Johnson says he has focused on academia; if the ivory tower can be convinced, he argues, what he believes to be the truth can trickle down from there. “I’m ambivalent toward even the best legislative efforts right now,” he says. “Most of them are just bills that don’t pass.”

Johnson is under no delusion that winning over the minds of evolutionary scientists will be quick or easy–after all, they’re what he calls “prisoners of a mental strongbox”–but he is seeing steady progress toward a time when God will exist side by side with Darwin. “My semifacetious prediction is that in 2059 there will be the bicentennial [of Darwin’s Origin of Species], and the theme will be ‘How did we ever let this happen?'” With that he lets out a hearty, confident laugh.

Criticizing Johnson’s ideas has been easy for the scientific establishment. Sure there’s debate over how evolution occurs, which Johnson points out. But his conclusion–that these debates open the question as to whether it occurs–is both presumptuous and ill-researched in the minds of scientists. But it allows Johnson to argue that evolutionary scientists are in a panic to prop up Darwin to support their authority over nature. That’s foolishness, says Brown University’s Kenneth Miller. Scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge found flaws with Darwin but were in no way ostracized for it–they simply backed up their claims with research. The intelligent design community, he says, could do the same thing, except for a simple problem: No intelligent design researcher has come up with a scientific way to test for the existence of God.

“A lot of people were upset by [Gould’s and Eldridge’s claims], but nonetheless [the two researchers] made their reputations on criticizing Darwin,” says Miller. “Can you criticize Darwin and live? Of course. The question is, why should one expect that the scientific community would not be critical of ideas that have no scientific support?” Miller and the overwhelming majority of scientists maintain that evolution provides the only legitimate explanation for biological change; theories like intelligent design look for supernatural explanations, and there’s no test for such a thing. Only suppositions. Faith.

Intelligent design believers certainly have faith, not only in their theory but in their eventual vindication. “It happens to be a belief of mine that [intelligent design] is a sure winner once it’s on the table,” says Phillip Johnson. “The metaphor I use is that the train has left the station and it’s on the logical tracks. It’s going to the terminus, even if it may take a long time to get there.”

Which means Eugenie Scott won’t be changing jobs anytime soon. “I joke that every nonprofit director has a goal of eliminating the problem the nonprofit was created to address–your goal is to put yourself out of business,” Scott says. “But damn … I have a feeling that I’m going to be stuck in this business for a while.”

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