!-- saved from url=(0022)http://internet.e-mail --> In the News: Darwinism Under Attack The Chronicle of Higher Education December, 21 2001

Darwinism Under Attack

by Beth McMurtrie

-View that 'intelligent force' shaped life attracts students and troubles scientists -

When John L. Omdahl teaches a course on biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of New Mexico, he sets aside a portion of his last lecture to explain why he disagrees with a central tenet of evolutionary science: that Darwin's theories of random mutation and natural selection offer a reliable framework for understanding how life developed. In fact, throughout his course, the professor tries to avoid the word "evolution," which he calls a "loaded term."

To Mr. Omdahl, who has taught at the university since 1972, a more palatable explanation for the diversity of life is that an intelligent force has guided the evolutionary proc-ess. The universe is too complex, the conditions for life too exacting, to conclude that it could have developed in such a sophisticated way without help from some "external agent."

"In my department, 90 percent of the people here, or more, would be opposed to the position I have," he says. "They're very uncomfortable with me having these discussions. But I'm very comfortable."

For the vast majority of scientists, evolution through natural means is as much a fact as the earth's revolution around the sun. Yet a small but vocal number of biologists, chemists, philosophers, and mathematicians are determined to change that view. They believe that an intelligent agent -- most rigorously avoid the word "God" -- has guided the earth's history, and that scientific research can prove its existence. While most scientists are quick to dismiss the idea as religion cloaked in academic jargon, advocates of the concept, known as intelligent design, are making inroads into academe, thanks to their unconventional approach, sophisticated arguments, and scholarly credentials.

Intelligent-design theory has been greeted most warmly at evangelical Christian colleges, where it is sometimes taught as a viable alternative to Darwinian evolution. Other institutions have been far less sympathetic. Although intelligent design has advocates in some science departments, no secular or mainstream college teaches it as a legitimate theory. Scientists who do support intelligent design have been relegated to teaching it as a nonscience course, as at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Advocates have also organized conferences at such universities as Baylor and Yale, and have assembled a group of more than 100 scientists to criticize Darwinian theory in full-page advertisements in national publications. The New York Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have sponsored debates on intelligent design, and three academic presses are publishing books on the subject.

While some of that scrutiny is quite critical of intelligent-design theory, advocates see the mere mention of their ideas in academic settings as a victory. "The point is, you wouldn't have MIT Press bringing out a 780-page volume on flat-earth theory," says Paul A. Nelson, a philosopher of science at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that supports intelligent design. One of his articles is being reprinted in a book on intelligent design forthcoming from the press.

The growing visibility of intelligent-design theory troubles some academics. They say that through sloppy science and deceptive logic, its advocates are winning converts among students, professors in nonscientific fields, and the public. "I don't think intelligent design is a science," says Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences. "It's a way of restating creationism in a different formulation."

He and other scientists lay the blame for intelligent design's public-relations successes squarely on their discipline. They say that professors must do a better job of explaining not just the facts of science, but the process that undergirds it. A recent Gallup Poll found that 45 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, and 39 percent believe that Darwin's theory of evolution is not supported by the evidence. "If so many students and science teachers are ready to buy into it," says Massimo Pigliucci, an associate professor of botany at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, "then obviously we failed somewhere dramatically in science education."

How It Began

The book credited with laying out the philosophical underpinnings of the modern intelligent-design movement was published in 1991 by Phillip E. Johnson, a law professor at Berkeley who claimed that Darwinian evolution is based on scant evidence and faulty assumptions. In 1996, a biochemist at Lehigh University, Michael J. Behe, offered scientific argument in favor of intelligent design. Mr. Behe introduced the idea that some living things are irreducibly complex, meaning that they could not have evolved and must have been designed.

Two years later, a mathematician who now works at Baylor University, William A. Dembski, claimed to have developed a mathematical "explanatory filter" that could determine whether certain events, including biological phenomena, develop randomly or are the products of design.

The intelligent-design movement attacks evolutionary theory in two basic ways. Philosophically, it argues that because science refuses to consider anything but natural explanations for things, it is biased against evidence of supernatural intervention. Scientifically, it criticizes the evidence for evolution through natural processes.

The movement has expanded by pitching a big tent. It includes people like Mr. Behe, who believes that all living things evolved from a common ancestor, as well as Mr. Nelson, a creationist who believes the earth is several thousand years old. What all agree on, though, is that an intelligent force, which many of them personally believe is God, has directed the development of life.

The movement coalesced in 1996, when the Discovery Institute established the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. The center, which is largely financed by Christian foundations, spends about $1-million a year to support research, advocacy, and publications on intelligent design, and many of its most prominent advocates in academe are fellows there. Stephen C. Meyer, an associate professor of philosophy at Whitworth College who heads the center, says its primary goal is to establish academic credibility for intelligent design by publishing research on it. "I think there are going to be more and more younger scientists and philosophers of science who are going to be attracted by the idea," he says. "And they are going to want to talk about it."

So far, intelligent design has taken its greatest strides at religious institutions. Several evangelical Christian colleges have introduced intelligent-design theory into their science courses.

At Illinois's Wheaton College, a course for nonscience majors called "Origins" includes a discussion of intelligent design. Derrick A. Chignell, a chemistry professor, says that he and other science professors there tend to be more skeptical of the theory than are its advocates, but believe it raises important scientific and religious questions. "I've read the books, and I've been to the conferences, and I think it's intriguing," he says. "What I want to see is some science being done based on that paradigm that produces results that could not be produced by the Darwinian paradigm."

At Oklahoma Baptist University, Michael N. Keas, an associate professor of natural science, teaches intelligent-design theory in his science courses. In a freshman colloquium for biology majors, he uses Icons of Evolution: Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution Is Wrong to critique the conventional science textbooks students will use later, he says. "It allows them to critically evaluate the evidence pro and con for those books." Icons was written by Jonathan Wells, a molecular biologist and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and has been discredited by a number of scientists. Mr. Keas says that the science faculty at Oklahoma Baptist holds a "diversity of opinion" on intelligent design, but that the consensus is that "it's a viable part of the conversation."

'Why Are We Here?'

According to both friends and foes of the theory, it has made no headway into the science curriculums at secular universities. The closest it has come is at Berkeley and Minnesota. Jed Macosko, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley, created a course through a program that allows students to organize and run classes. Called "Evidence for Design in Nature?," the course, which has been taught several times, most recently last year, offered readings by a number of intelligent-design proponents and their critics. "We asked the real question -- why are we here, how did we get here?," he says. "We were answering it by looking at science."

With an undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate from Berkeley, both in chemistry, Mr. Macosko has sterling credentials, and his course is frequently mentioned by people in the intelligent-design movement. The class was given an identifier, ChemE 198, that suggested it was a chemistry course.

But the person who authorized it, Jeffrey A. Reimer, a professor of chemical engineering, says that students were not allowed to take it for science credit. The syllabus covered such topics as the big bang, Mr. Dembski's "explanatory filter," and the origins of life. Mr. Macosko made clear to students that he believes firmly in intelligent design, but Mr. Reimer says he made sure that Mr. Macosko did not push his views on them. "I did not allow Jed to run it as a lecture format," Mr. Reimer says.

"I thought it was appropriate for a scientist to host a discussion about these worldviews and to get students to reflect on their own worldviews," he adds, saying that while he is "curious" about intelligent design, he thinks it has "little technical content" and does not belong in a science course.

Mr. Macosko's father, Christopher, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, taught the Berkeley course last year with his son and is offering a similar one at Minnesota this fall. "Origins: Chance or Design," a freshman seminar, covers scientific theories on the origins of life, as well as readings in philosophy and theology. Like many intelligent-design advocates, Mr. Macosko argues that the belief that life's complexity can be explained through chance and natural selection is in itself a form of faith. "It's really the religion of naturalism," he says.

A number of other scientists who teach at secular or mainstream universities are also sympathetic to design theory. While agreeing that not much research has been done to prove the existence of an intelligent designer, they believe that Darwinian evolution is flawed and say science departments should "teach the controversy." Last month, the Discovery Institute published some of their names in full-page advertisements in The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and other high-profile publications. In the ad, which was created in reaction to a PBS series, Evolution, more than 100 science professors or people with doctorates in science declare that they are "skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life."

New Mexico's Mr. Omdahl was among them. He declines to label himself a proponent of intelligent design but says it has "some very credible arguments." He has always been wary of Darwinian explanations for how biological systems can advance from the simple to the complex. His notion of intelligent design also suits his religious faith, which he discusses as well in that last lecture to students.

"When you look to the idea that you and I are basically random events and random happenings, that left me feeling void and empty as a human being," he says. "That says there's no reason for laws, or for moral behavior."

Scott Minnich, a professor of microbiology and biochemistry at the University of Idaho, is another supporter of intelligent-design theory. Like others, he says he has no problem with microevolution, the small changes within species that develop over time. His dispute is with macroevolution -- larger transformations from, for example, reptiles to birds -- which he says is "full of speculation and assumptions."

Mr. Minnich brings up such ideas in his classes. He recommends, for example, that students in his introductory-microbiology course read Mr. Behe's book on "irreducible complexity." But he says he frames the discussion carefully. "If I make any statement that is on intelligent design counter to evolutionary theory, I make sure to tell students that this is my opinion, that this is controversial, that this is outside the consensus thinking, and they should know that."

This is good science, he says. "Is it wrong to ask students to stop and think, given time and what we know of biochemistry and molecular genetics, whether blind chance and necessity can build machines that dwarf our creative ability? Is that a legitimate question? I think it is."

Intelligent-design theory has also been taken up in philosophy, religion, and other liberal-arts courses. Some professors present it with skepticism; others find it intriguing.

Jeffrey Koperski, an assistant professor of philosophy at Saginaw Valley State University, in Michigan, teaches intelligent-design theory as part of a philosophy-of-science course that examines revolutions in scientific thought. In a section titled "the evolution debate," Mr. Koperski pre-sents the ideas of Mr. Dembski and Mr. Behe. He says they "raise serious challenges that should be addressed and looked at by all sides." That mainstream scientists reject design theory, he says, doesn't mean that it should be dismissed. Revolutionary theories, he notes, always begin as fringe movements.

A 'Non-Starter'

Scientists worry that because intelligent-design advocates like to make their case in the popular press, on the campus lecture circuit, or through nonscientific disciplines, their ideas may gain credibility among academics who do not have a strong understanding of evolutionary theory.

"It's a non-starter in the scientific community," says Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which tracks the creationist movement. "But people in history, or social studies, or philosophy of science, who don't know that the science is bad, could very well be propagating this in the academic community. So there may be a lot of university graduates coming out of school thinking evolution is, quote, a theory in crisis."

A growing number of scientists have begun to respond to those challenges. "Kansas was definitely a wake-up call for many professors," says Brian J. Alters of McGill University, referring to a 1999 decision, since overturned, by that state's Board of Education to drop the teaching of evolution from public schools' science curriculums. As director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill, Mr. Alters recently co-wrote a book on defending evolution in the classroom, to respond to an increase in requests for help from science teachers and professors.

Some scientists who have tackled anti-evolution arguments in the classroom say their discipline must do more on that front. "The other professors typically ignore it, and I think that's irresponsible, given the strategy of the creationists to infiltrate the school boards of the communities around the country, and pervert the undergraduate system that American kids are entitled to," says David S. Woodruff, chairman of the department of ecology, behavior, and evolution at the University of California at San Diego.

Last year, members of a student-run intelligent-design club handed out to Mr. Woodruff's students a list of 10 questions that disputed the evidence for evolution. One of the club's founders is now organizing intelligent-design clubs on other campuses.

Robert T. Pennock, an associate professor of philosophy at Michigan State University who has written about the movement, believes that an effective rebuttal to intelligent-design theory must include a discussion on the philosophy of science. While many scientists are loath to broach topics such as religion, materialism, and naturalism, he notes that design advocates often appeal to the public by arguing that Darwinism precludes the existence of God.

"Their central criticism is that science is dogmatically naturalistic, that it denies God's intervention by fiat, and that scientists are the gatekeepers and they won't let this in because they're all atheists," Mr. Pennock says. "One of the important things to explain is that science is not metaphysically naturalistic or atheistic. There's a difference between that position and the methodological rules it uses to conduct its work."

Many intelligent-design proponents believe there is a conspiracy to keep their ideas out of scientific circles. "I've been in public life a long time," says Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute. "This is one of the most blatant forms of viewpoint discrimination that I have seen."

Critics counter that the theory's advocates are the ones who are conspiring to curtail the debate. Rather than submit papers to respected scientific journals, critics say, they publish books. Rather than present papers at mainstream scientific conferences, they hold their own.

Lehigh's Mr. Behe is one researcher who says he has, in fact, submitted articles to scientific journals, and he adds that their rejection is a sign of the mainstream's close-mindedness.

Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and a leading critic of the intelligent-design movement, says such a view turns the scientific process on its head. If a researcher's theories are rejected, he says, that means that they have failed as good science, not that they're being suppressed.

Mr. Miller also wonders why Mr. Behe, a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, has never presented his ideas at its annual conference, which is his right. "If I thought I had an idea that would completely revolutionize cell biology in the same way that Professor Behe thinks he has an idea that would revolutionize biochemistry," he says, "I would be talking about that idea at every single meeting of my peers I could possibly get to."

Mr. Behe responds that he prefers other venues. "I just don't think that large scientific meetings are effective forums for presenting these ideas," he says.

Baylor's Mr. Dembski also has little interest in publicizing his research through traditional means. "I've just gotten kind of blasé about submitting things to journals where you often wait two years to get things into print," he says. "And I find I can actually get the turnaround faster by writing a book and getting the ideas expressed there. My books sell well. I get a royalty. And the material gets read more."

Last year, Mr. Dembski was at the center of what many intelligent-design advocates say was a clear case of discrimination. Baylor hired him to create a research center dedicated, in large part, to intelligent-design research. A faculty uproar ensued, leading the university to appoint an external committee to review the center's mission and structure. Eventually, the center was dismantled, although Mr. Dembski continues to work on intelligent design at Baylor.

Faculty members there said they were upset because the center had been created through administrative fiat rather than academic review. By doing so, they said, the administration had given intelligent-design theory a level of credibility it had not yet earned. Mr. Dembski says today that he has the university's support, including a five-year contract, a position as associate research professor in the conceptual foundations of science, and no teaching responsibilities. But he maintains that the center was destroyed by intense political pressure from outside the university.

Undeterred, Mr. Dembski has simply carved out another route. This month, the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design was born. In a news release, the group is described as a "cross-disciplinary professional society that investigates complex systems apart from external programmatic constraints like materialism, naturalism, or reductionism." As with established academic organizations, this one offers conferences, postdoctoral fellowships, research grants, and a journal, Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design.

Mr. Dembski, Mr. Behe, Jed Macosko, Mr. Nelson, and Mr. Minnich are fellows of the new society.

Richard Monastersky contributed to this article.


Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, edited by John Angus Campbell (Michigan State University Press, expected in 2003)

Darwin on Trial, by Phillip E. Johnson (Regnery Gateway Publishing, 1991)

Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, by Michael J. Behe (Free Press, 1996)

Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA, edited by William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse (Cambridge University Press, expected in 2004)

Defending Evolution in the Classroom: A Guide to the Creation/Evolution Controversy, by Brian J. Alters and Sandra M. Alters (Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2001)

The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities, by William A. Dembski (Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, by Kenneth R. Miller (HarperCollins, 1999)

Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, edited by Robert T. Pennock (MIT Press, 2001)

No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence, by William A. Dembski (Rowman & Littlefield, expected in 2002)

Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, by Robert T. Pennock (MIT Press, 1998)

File Date: 01.25.02