The Columbus Dispatch


By Robert M. Taylor

Charles Darwin's great contribution to modern science was his theory of evolution, which asserts that all living beings that have ever existed arose through the combined effects of random variation and natural selection.

Random variation means that all diversity among organisms arises by chance, while natural selection means that the frequency of those variations will change in the population as a result of their effect on the organism's "reproductive success."

Evolution by natural selection is an elegant theory that serves as the central and organizing principle of modern biology. E.O. Wilson, a Harvard biology professor, expressed the opinion of many scientists when he called it a fact, not a theory. Yet such an assertion reflects a dogmatic unwillingness to argue the merits of the theory and is inconsistent with scientific inquiry.

There are two distinct criticisms of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The more widely known is "scientific creationism," which assumes the literal truth of the Genesis account of creation and attempts to find scientific evidence to support it.

Although most Christians certainly believe in the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture and that God indeed created the universe, they do not accept the literal interpretation that he did so in seven 24-hour days. As its critics rightly argue, scientific creationism is not really a scientific theory. Rather, it is a religious belief in search of scientific support.

Nevertheless, its arguments might have some scientific validity, just as when scientists look for explanations of the great flood or the parting of the Red Sea, both of which have been the subjects of legitimate scientific investigation. However, because the proponents of scientific creationism are totally committed to their conclusion, there is a danger that they will ignore, disregard or intentionally misrepresent evidence that contradicts it.

The second criticism of evolution by natural selection is "design theory." Unlike scientific creationists, design theorists do not start with assumptions about the origins of life. Rather, they explore, through scientific and mathematical models, whether there are features of life that defy explanation by natural selection and can be explained only as the product of "intelligent design."

In the book Darwin's Black Box, Michael J. Behe, a professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University, describes a variety of biochemical systems in modern organisms that he believes cannot be explained by natural selection. Instead, he argues, the "irreducible complexity" of such systems can spring only from intelligent design. Furthermore, he demonstrates that no one has ever explained how such systems could have evolved by natural selection.

William Dembski holds doctorates in mathematics and philosophy as well as a master's degree in divinity. In his book Intelligent Design: the Bridge Between Science and Theology, he makes the argument, based on information theory and statistical analysis, that the high degree of "specified complexity" exhibited by life could not have arisen by chance, but could have come to exist only from the intervention of an intelligent agent -- i.e., God.

Behe and Dembski, along with other design theorists, typically agree that, while their work compels us to accept the existence of an intelligent creator, it offers few clues as to the nature of that creator. However, if scientific evidence forces us to conclude that God exists, most of us would agree that it behooves us to do what we can to discern the nature of that God.

Although there are many reasons why most scientists fail to understand or acknowledge the fundamental distinction between "design theory" and "scientific creationism" and therefore reject both as dogmatic and unscientific, the most important reason has nothing to do with science.

Let us suppose that the theory of evolution by natural selection could be proved absolutely and unequivocally true. What would be the consequences for religion? None. Most believers would conclude that God had created a universe in which life evolved according to the laws of nature laid down at creation (as many already believe), and go on about their business.

But suppose the design theorists succeed in proving the existence of an intelligent designer. Atheism and agnosticism would become untenable. Those who have denied the existence of God would be forced to concede it, and their lives would be irrevocably changed.

Thus, like "scientific creationists," many proponents of the theory of evolution by natural selection might be so committed to their conclusion that they will ignore, disregard or intentionally misrepresent evidence that contradicts it. This explains the vehemence with which many scientists reject the arguments of design theory. The stakes could not be higher.

Dr. Robert M. Taylor is a clinical associate professor of neurology at Ohio State University and is medical director of the Mount Carmel Hospice/Palliative Care Program.

File Date: 011.09.01