The Indianapolis Star, September 4th 2002

Keeping up with the science that goes beyond Darwin


by Andrea Neal

I've never been able to fathom evolution OR the Genesis story of creation, so I am amused by the controversies that still erupt over how schools teach the origin of life on planet Earth.

At the moment, attention -- most of it mocking -- is on Cobb County, Georgia, where the School Board wants to expose students to alternative theories of creation as well as the scientifically accepted view that we humans evolved from lesser life forms.

While the public debate rages between all and nothing, a middle ground is being explored by some legislative bodies.

Known as "intelligent design," the theory holds that life is so complex that a higher power must have been behind it. This is not repackaged creationism, as the skeptics argue, but a new way of viewing evolution. It allows us to acknowledge two important concepts at once: first, that science indicates a gradual development of living things, and second, that it's highly unlikely that it can all be explained through natural selection.

Now this is a theory I can wrestle with.

I'll admit up front: Big Bang has never worked for me without God. How on earth can we evolve from black nothingness to building weapons of mass destruction that could annihilate the globe, unless there is some master creator with a plan for our redemption?

To me, intelligent design makes some sense. And it will be a lot harder for the anti-religion folks to battle in the courts because it's not a religious belief, it's a scientific possibility. Creationism, the story of Adam and Eve, came straight from the Bible and was destined to fail all those church-state separation tests. Intelligent design has no such flaws.

In fact, one need not believe in God to entertain intelligent design. One need simply conclude that patterns of development are too complex to be natural phenomena.

That is what Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe concluded in studying the microscopic world of the cell. In his best-selling book, "Darwin's Black Box," Behe examined the rotary engines that drive the propeller-like tails of certain bacteria and found their complexity exceeded the creative power of natural selection.

To put it another way, Charles Darwin's theory of a gradual refinement of life forms is incompatible with the scientific evidence of biochemical formations that were irreducibly complex -- or perfect, some might say -- from the outset.

In an April 23 speech at the American Museum of Natural History, Behe answered his critics, who insist intelligent design theory is a religious conclusion, noting that it is "wholly empirical . . . based on the physical evidence."

The problem in discussing it, Behe says, is this: "Design appears to point strongly beyond nature. It has philosophical and theological implications, and that makes many people uncomfortable."

Ohio became the first state to rationally discuss intelligent design last March when its Board of Education conducted a hearing, during the drafting of new science standards, on whether intelligent design should be presented alongside evolution. Legislation was filed in Ohio and Michigan that would require students be exposed to the intelligent design possibility. Last winter in Bartholomew County, 1,300 people petitioned the School Board to offer an elective course teaching both creationism and intelligent design. Chances are good that the Indiana legislature will debate it next session.

Count on this, too: The anti-religious faction will do all it can to keep the debate on creationism. They've won that battle before, in the courts and the scientific community, and can win it again.

For them, intelligent design is a formidable foe because it has the backing of dozens of scientists at top institutions.

"It's been the very progress of science itself that has made intelligent design plausible," Behe notes. "Fifty years ago, much less was known about the cell, and it was much easier to think that Darwinian evolution was true. But with the discovery of more and more complexity at the foundation of life, the idea of intelligent design has gained strength."

Teaching intelligent design to our children is gaining strength too, as it should. Students need to know the latest research about how it all began, even if it points to an all-knowing creator.

It would be a sad irony to let Darwin write the final chapter because we fear where science might lead us.

File Date: 09.08.02