The debate about how life developed received a high-profile airing last night on one of the nation's most venerable stages.
The arguments are sure to echo in Ohio, where state educators are struggling over how to teach the subject in biology classes.
Two renowned evolutionists and two backers of a competing concept called intelligent design battled it out at the American Museum of Natural History in one of the most significant national debates on the subject since the fabled Scopes "monkey trial" 77 years ago.
Unlike in the trial against John Scopes, the Tennessee biology teacher who was convicted of teaching evolution and fined $100, there was no clear winner or loser in last nights proceedings.
But the concept of intelligent design--the theory that the complexity of life arose by the design of an unnamed intelligent being--surely benefited from its inclusion in a forum inside one of the scientific community's oldest and most revered institutions.
"This is not going to be evolution on trial,' " warned moderator Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
"This fine museum is a virtual monument to the evolution sciences."
It was the second such debate to receive national attention in as many months.
In March, the Ohio Board of Education, which is revising the state's science standards, staged a similar forum in Columbus.
The board arranged the debate because it will have to decide by the end of this year whether evolution will stand alone in the curriculum or be taught alongside intelligent design.
Scott, an avowed evolutionist, said last night's videotaped debate instead provided an opportunity for proponents of intelligent design to make their case and undergo scrutiny in a serious venue.
In addition to college professors and classroom biology teachers, the standing-room-only crowd included representatives from journals such as Scientific American.
Much of the scientific establishment was unhappy that intelligent design was given credibility by being invited to such a forum, admitted Richard Milner, senior editor of Natural History Magazine, which sponsored the event.
"Several prominent scientists emphatically disagreed with us doing this," Milner said.
"We chose to turn a spotlight on this issue."
That spotlight burned brightly on William Dembski and Michael Behe, two of intelligent design's best-known advocates.
They were given 20 minutes each to make their case before being grilled by evolutionists Kenneth Miller and Robert Pennock.
Dembski, a Baylor University mathematician, argued that intelligent design can be readily detected in nature.
Not believing in some kind of design would be like believing that Scrabble pieces have an inherent ability to arrange themselves into words, he suggested.
"There are plenty of complex biological systems for which biologists haven't a clue how they emerged," Dembski said.
But Pennock, a philosophy of science professor at Michigan State University, drew chuckles with his often sarcastic examination of Dembski's work.
He quizzed Dembski on disagreements intelligent designers themselves have in key areas such as the age of the Earth, the existence of common descent and the definition of design.
Miller, a biologist at Brown University, took a similar strategy and tried to force Dembski to place his theories under a microscope, asking him to map his ideas on a timeline.
"All I got was a shrug," Miller said later.
Their point? Intelligent design is too vague to hold up as serious science.
"Science lays its cards out on the table and says here's what we accept and here's what we reject," Pennock said.
Behe, a Lehigh University professor, scored points for intelligent design with the pro-evolution crowd when he suggested natural selection explains some things, but not everything.
Behe also said advances in science, especially research outlining the complexity of the cell, has actually helped intelligent design's cause because it has demonstrated Darwinian evolution to be wanting.
"That trend is continuing," he said. "The complexity of the cell is not getting any less complex."
The Ohio Board of Education is expected to discuss the issue at its May meeting.
All major scientific groups, as well as the team of scientists and educators who authored a draft of Ohio's proposed science standards, contend science classes should teach only evolution, the theory that all species, no matter how complex they are today, developed from a simple life form billions of years ago.
But intelligent design, often dismissed as "stealth creationism" and "pseudo-science," appears to be gaining steam in the court of public opinion and as the most potent weapon in the anti-evolution movement.
"I agree we've got our work cut out for us, but we're making some slow progress," Dembski said.
File Date: 04.27.02