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Open Debate on Life’s Origins

Published in Insight

Can scientists change their minds about controversial ideas? Can they reject theories if evidence requires? That may depend upon what theories are at stake.

Consider a disturbing case in California involving a distinguished biology professor, Dean Kenyon. A year ago, Kenyon was removed from his biology classroom at San Francisco State University after a few students complained to administrators about ideas they heard in lecture.

The problem? Kenyon’s approach to teaching evolutionary theory. Professor Kenyon it seems has grown increasingly skeptical about the textbook theory of how life first originated on earth — a theory, as it turns out, he had earlier done much to advance. SFSU’s administrators have insisted that Kenyon not discuss the reasons for his new views with introductory biology students. Ironically, they justified their actions in the name of “science.”

Controversy in San Francisco

Dean Kenyon

The controversy emerged in the fall of 1992 after Kenyon was ordered not to teach “creationism” by John Hafernik, the chairman of the biology department. Kenyon, who included three lectures on biological origins (out of 27 total) in his introductory course, presented both standard evolutionary interpretations of biological evidence and difficulties with those interpretations. He also discussed philosophical controversies raised by the issue and his own view that living systems display evidence of “intelligent design” — a view not incompatible with some evolutionary thinking.

Hafernik accused Kenyon of teaching biblical creationism and ordered him to stop. Kenyon asked for clarification. He wrote the Dean, James Kelley, asking what exactly he could not discuss. Was he “forbidden to mention to students that there are important disputes among scientists about whether or not chemical evolution could have taken place on the ancient earth?” Was he not permitted to mention “the important philosophical issues at stake in discussions of origins?”

Kelley insisted that Kenyon “teach the dominant scientific view” not the religious view of “special creation on a young earth.” Kenyon replied again. (I paraphrase): I do teach the dominant view. But I also discuss problems with the dominant view and that some biologists see evidence of intelligent design.

He received no reply. Instead, he was yanked from teaching introductory biology and reassigned to labs.

Recently, following pressure on the administration from SFSU’s Academic Freedom Committee, its Academic Senate and the American Association of University Professors, Kenyon was reinstated. His administrators, however, have continued to threaten to “monitor” his course and content.

Academic Freedom: Disturbing Implications

For several reasons, Kenyon’s case raises troubling questions about whether ordinary standards of academic freedom apply to science and whether scientists must now pass ideological muster to maintain standing in the church scientific.

First, Kenyon is an authority on chemical evolutionary theory and the scientific study of the origin of life. After receiving a Ph.D. in biophysics at Stanford, he later completed post-doctoral work at Oxford, NASA and the University of California, Berkeley. In 1969, he co-authored a seminal theoretical work titled Biochemical Predestination. The book articulated what was arguably the most plausible evolutionary account of how a living cell might have organized itself from chemicals in the “primordial soup.”

Kenyon’s subsequent work resulted in numerous scientific publications. As evidence rolled in during the late 1970s, however, he began to question his own earlier ideas. When run under realistic conditions, so-called “simulation” experiments repeatedly produced irrelevant sludge or low yields of desired amino acids. Further, molecular biology had revealed the presence of encoded messages along the spine of large biomolecules such as DNA. Both experiments and developments in a field known as information theory suggested that simple chemicals do not arrange themselves into such complex information-bearing molecules — without, that is, “guidance” from human experimenters.

To Kenyon and others, these results raised important questions about how “naturalistic” the origin of life really was. If undirected chemical processes cannot produce the coded strands of information found in even the simplest cells, could perhaps a directing intelligence have played a role? By the 1980s, Kenyon was sympathetic to the idea.

That a man of Kenyon’s stature should have to lobby for the right to teach introductory biology, whatever his current view of origins, is absurdly comic. Dr. Kenyon knows perhaps as much as anyone in the world about a problem that has stymied an entire generation of research scientists. Yet he has been prevented from reporting the negative results of research and from giving students his candid assessment of it.

Second, as Kenyon has repeatedly explained, his view hardly qualifies as biblicism, let alone religious advocacy. When Kenyon discussed “intelligent design,” he did so as an inference from biological data, not a deduction from religious authority.

Yet even if Kenyon had been motivated by a prior belief that “God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), it is not clear that academic freedom means college students must be shielded from such notions. Secular intellectuals now openly discuss the ideologies and philosophies that motivate their scholarship and teaching, from Feminism and Freudianism to Deconstruction and Marxism. Why must theistic professors remain silent?

Ideological Neutrality?

The problem is Kenyon’s opponents assume science has a unique rational standing and ideological neutrality. Subjective considerations from philosophy and religion do not influence scientific theories; and scientific theories, in turn, can have no philosophical or religious implications. Intelligent design, and its potential implications, violates this alleged neutrality. Thus, despite Kenyon’s credentials and concern with data, Hafernik and Kelley decreed that he had moved beyond science into “religion.” Therefore, he needed to be muzzled — academic freedom notwithstanding.

This line of reasoning seems initially quite plausible, since many areas of science have little ideological or philosophical import. Upon closer inspection, however, it reveals a disturbing double standard within an area of science notorious for its philosophical overtones.

On any reasonable assessment of the origins controversy, Kenyon’s design theory and the dominant materialistic view are not two different types of thinking, one religious and the other scientific. They are two competing answers to the same question: ‘What caused life to arise on earth?’

This competition is tacitly conceded in biology texts that routinely recapitulate Darwinian-style arguments against intelligent design. Yet if arguments against intelligent design are philosophically neutral and strictly scientific, why are Kenyon’s arguments for design inherently unscientific and religiously charged?

In fact, neither approach to origins can claim philosophical neutrality. Orthodox evolutionary theories, whether biological or chemical, make the decidedly metaphysical claim that brute matter organized itself into more and more complex living structures without assistance from purposeful intelligence. Neo-Darwinism teaches, as the late Harvard biologist G.G. Simpson put it, even “man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.”

Evolution conceived as a completely purposeless process — a “blind watchmaker” as biologist Richard Dawkins calls it — eliminates any role for creative intelligence in the origin of living things. It, therefore, directly contradicts not only “special creationism”, but all theories inconsistent with an aggressive philosophical materialism. This includes “God-guided evolution” and even more generic notions such as “intelligent design.” Whatever the merits of “blind watchmaker” evolution, one can hardly assert its ideological neutrality.

Methodological Naturalism

Yet Kenyon’s opponents insist that his approach to origins, unlike their own, does not qualify as science. They argue that scientific theories must limit themselves to strictly materialistic explanations. Science is by definition limited to observable realities. Its explanations must, therefore, invoke only natural processes or events. Scientists must obey what philosophers call the principle of “methodological naturalism.” Explanations involving a designer are necessarily excluded.

This judgment may, again, seem reasonable for it comports with popular conceptions of what most scientists, especially experimental scientists, do. But “methodological naturalism” cannot be justified as a normative principle for all types of science — without doing violence to science as a truth-seeking enterprise.

Prohibitions against inferring intelligent design are particularly problematic in historical sciences such as archeology, forensics, paleobiology, and origin-of-life studies. In historical sciences, researchers want to answer different kinds of questions than in other sciences. For example, scientists investigating the origin of life are motivated by the question ‘what happened to cause life to arise on earth?’ This question specifically asks about the cause of life’s origin. Since, conceivably, a designer could have played a role it is difficult to see why postulations of intelligent agency must necessarily be excluded — especially if biological evidence supports the idea.

It is true that scientists in many other scientific fields do not generally make design inferences. They refrain, however, not out of deference to rules dictating what they may theorize, but instead because they are asking different types of questions: ones unconcerned with causal origins.

Consider the question ‘how does atmospheric pressure affect crystal growth?’ The answer ‘crystals were designed by a creative intelligence’ (or, for that matter, ‘crystals evolved via natural processes’) entirely misses the point. The question demands an answer expressed as a relationship between two physical entities: gases and crystals. A scientific law expressing such a relationship can be described as wholly naturalistic. Yet naturalism of this sort derives entirely from the particular focus of scientific interest and the need to answer the question asked.

Answers to historical questions are, of course, also subject to contextual constraints, but none that justify prohibitions against considering design. Those who insist otherwise simply make an unwarranted extrapolation. They mistakenly treat an accurate description of scientific theorizing in one area as if it were a normative principle for all of science.

True Science?

Defenders of methodological naturalism insist, however, that prohibitions against design inferences are necessary to preserve the rigor of scientific reasoning. For example, some of Kenyon’s critics at SFSU argue that his theory of intelligent design fails to qualify as scientific because it refers to an unseen entity. The existence of an unobservable designer, they say, cannot be tested. Therefore, it can’t be part of a scientific theory.

Yet many scientific theories postulate unobservable events and entities. Physicists postulate forces, fields and quarks; biochemists infer sub-microscopic structures; psychologists discuss their patients’ mental states. If unobservability precluded testability and scientific status, many scientific theories would not qualify as science.

Evolutionary biologists themselves traffic in “unobservables.” They invoke processes whose creative effects are often too slow to see and infer the existence of extinct organisms for which no fossils remain. Like Kenyon’s designer, unobservable ancient forms are inferred because their existence would explain evidence in the present. Darwinian theory and design theory alike rely upon indirect inference and testing, not just direct observation.

By inferring an unobservable entity, Kenyon violated no canon of scientific method. In seeking the best explanation for evidence, Kenyon employed the same method of reasoning as before he changed his views. His conclusions, not his methods, changed.

Truth or Science?

The Kenyon case illustrates another reason for challenging “methodological naturalism” in the historical sciences: naturalism limits the ability of scientists to seek the truth. Philosophers of science now recognize that theory evaluation is often inherently comparative. Especially in historical sciences where theories cannot be tested by predicting outcomes or repeating experiments, scientists must test theories indirectly. They do this by comparing the explanatory power of competing theories to seek the best explanation.

If this process of testing is subverted by excluding theoretical options arbitrarily the rationality of science is compromised. Theories that succeed in gerrymandered competitions can claim to be neither ‘the best explanation’ nor ‘most probably true’. Instead, they can only be considered ‘most probable’ or ‘best’ among artificially limited options.

As Kenyon’s case illustrates, such a situation now exists in historical biology. Currently, evolutionary theories are protected from challenge by arbitrary rules excluding non-materialistic theories. Yet the question that must be asked about origins is not: ‘which materialistic theory can best explain the origin of life?’ but ‘what actually happened to cause life to arise on earth?’ Insisting upon strictly materialistic explanations — whatever the evidence — may force scientists to reject a true theory for the sake of an arbitrary convention. Science so encumbered is unworthy of the name.

Evidence for Design

Considerable evidence now contradicts the dominant evolutionary approach. The universally-recognized failure of chemical evolution to explain life’s initial origin, is now matched by neo-Darwinism’s failure to account for subsequent biological form. Fossil studies now reveal a “biological big bang” in which one hundred disconnected phyla (major groups of organisms) emerged suddenly without clear precursors 530 million years ago. Fossil finds repeatedly confirm a pattern of sudden appearance and prolonged stability (not gradual change) in living forms. Biochemical evidence reinforces the impression of organisms as systems whose parts — as with machines — cannot be altered gradually or dramatically without destroying the functioning whole.

For naturalistic theories a growing awareness of biological complexity has posed enormous, and perhaps insuperable, challenges. Organisms display any number of distinctive features of intelligently engineered high-tech systems: information storage and transfer capability, regulatory and feed-back mechanisms, hierarchical logic and organization, and precisely sequenced strings of code.

Confronted with evidence suggesting a new approach, the full-time Darwinist lobby falls back on subjective complaints about the “imperfect” design of human eyes and Panda’s thumbs. They also invoke their own self-serving rule — theories must be materialistic — to disqualify challengers as “crackpots.”

Yet personal attacks and arbitrary rules cannot suppress alternative theories forever. With recent developments in probability and complexity theory, the detection of intelligent design has already entered science proper. NASA’s $100 million search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been based upon the ability to detect the statistical and mathematical signature of intelligently encoded messages.

Less exotic (and more successful) design detection occurs routinely in both science and industry. Archeology and insurance fraud investigation, forensic science and cryptography would all be impossible if prohibitions against design inferences were applied universally. Imagine an archaeologist forced to treat the Rosetta Stone as a natural erosional effect or a homicide detective required to conclude that all victims died of natural causes.

Professor Kenyon believes similar absurdities now rule origins biology. To Kenyon and others, the presence of biochemical messages and a corresponding molecular grammar in the cell strongly suggests a prior intelligent design. He may be wrong or right. His argument is based, however, neither on ignorance nor religious authority, but on a biological expertise informed by the modern informational sciences.

It has no doubt served the purposes of philosophical materialists to portray Kenyon as a religious fundamentalist unwilling revise dogma in the face of new evidence. In fact, it is their fundamentalism, not his, that is on trial.

Stephen C. Meyer is professor of philosophy of science at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. He received his Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge University for a thesis on the methods of origin-of-life biology and the historical sciences. His opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on December 6th, 1993 broke the Kenyon story in the national media.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and Return of the God Hypothesis (2021). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.