Time Magazine March 11, 2002

Darwinian Struggle

by Robert Wright

Poor Charles Darwin. He was a kind, gentle soul--decent to a fault, some have said--yet he keeps getting cast as the Antichrist. The latest equation of Darwinism with godlessness comes in Ohio, where some members of the state school board want to downgrade the theory of natural selection in the biology curriculum guidelines. If their effort succeeds, Darwin's theory would have to share the blackboard with a school of thought called "intelligent design theory." Boosters of intelligent design--ID, for short--hope this triumph would be the first step toward restoring a spiritual dimension to our understanding of our creation.

Critics of ID, which has been billed in the press as new and sophisticated, say it's just creationism in disguise. If so, it's a good disguise. Creationists believe that God made current life-forms from scratch. The ID movement takes no position on how life got here, and many adherents believe in evolution. Some even grant a role to the evolutionary engine posited by Darwin: natural selection. They just deny that natural selection alone could have driven life all the way from pond scum to us.

Why doubt natural selection? Here is where the ID movement says basically what creationists have been saying all along: Some living forms are too intricately functional to have been produced by the accretion of randomly generated novelty. Sure, you can imagine giraffes' necks having once been half their current length and slowly growing by natural selection. But what about giraffes' eyes? What good--as creationists have long asked--is half an eye?

Darwin anticipated such doubts, and admitted in The Origin of Species that the eye at first seems to imply an intelligent designer. But then he traced a scenario for the step-by-step evolution of a mere "nerve sensitive to light" into a "living optical instrument."

If the ID movement is just resurrecting old doubts, how has it managed to get hailed as new and improved?

Mainly by putting old doubts in new bottles. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, invented the label "irreducibly complex" for structures that could not have arisen incrementally. And rather than dwell on the eyeball, he applies the term to such microscopic entities as the human blood-clotting mechanism. In his book Darwin's Black Box, Behe says this mechanism, involving more than a dozen proteins, could hardly have emerged full-blown in a single mutation. Yet it couldn't have been built one protein at a time, he says, because without any one protein it would be useless.

Behe's claim set Kenneth Miller, a Brown University biologist who is both a Darwinian and a Christian, to thinking. In his book Finding Darwin's God, he argues that if you look at blood clotting in various species you can see how the human version could have evolved one step at a time.

If Miller is right, that doesn't mean the ID movement is worthless. It means ID adherents have raised productive doubts--and in science, being productively wrong is nearly as valuable as being right.

But unfortunately for Ohio's curriculum reformers, their argument for putting ID in schoolbooks isn't that it generates productive doubts. Rather, they're billing it as a theory in its own right. And here the ID movement's political past may sabotage its political future.

One key to the movement's success has been the decision to take no position on how species originated. This made ID a tent big enough to hold everything from old-fashioned creationists to New Agers who believe a "vital force" drives evolution. But one result is that ID simply isn't what its Ohio supporters and various journalists have called it--an "alternative" to Darwinism. Darwinism offers an explanation of how we got here. Any "theory" that offers no such explanation can't compete--much less win.

It isn't even clear that ID can outdo Darwinism in the realm of spiritual consolation. Some of ID's leading figures push God way back in evolutionary time. The philosopher and Baylor University professor William Dembski argues in mathematical language that natural selection, to create life as we know it, must have received some kind of external input. But he allows that this input could be something quite abstract, embedded in the early context of evolution--perhaps in "boundary conditions" that "constrain" genetic mutation.

But if early, abstract and arguably divine input is what you're after, plain old Darwinism leaves room for that. No one knows how DNA began to replicate or how the universe got built in such a way that replication was possible. It's not crazy to think that such initial conditions were set by some intelligence for an overarching purpose that is still unfolding. After all, look at the spiritually rich products of evolution so far: consciousness, love, the human conscience, morally consequential choice.

ID adherents may be right to say that some sort of divinity got the evolutionary ball rolling, and that principles designed by that divinity keep it rolling. But they're wrong to think they have to attack poor Charles Darwin in order to make this claim.

File Date: 03.07.02