The Plain Dealer February 24, 2002

Understanding the Concepts

by John Mangels

Until recently, attempts to define how life came to be have relied on either a scientific or religious explanation. With mainstream science strongly backing evolution as the most rational account, and with courts opposed to allowing the teaching of creationism in public schools, a third concept called "intelligent design" has emerged to challenge evolution's dominance.

Evolution: In biological terms, it is the concept that living things share a common ancestor and change over time because of their surroundings and genes. These changes - between ancestor and offspring and between offspring themselves - show up as differences in physical form and capabilities and, in the extreme, may result in a new species or the disappearance of an existing one. Evolution is driven by random changes to an organism's genes. Those changes create an advantage or disadvantage for a population's long-term survival - called natural selection. Evolution advocates say there is overwhelming evidence supporting the theory in the fossil record, the genetic code of all living things, the geographic distribution of life on Earth, and the results of comparative anatomy and biology.

Creationism: This is the belief that God created the universe and all living things, including humans, whom God made in his image. Creationism is a broad, general term that allows for a variety of interpretations of God's actions. Young-Earth Creationists believe in the literal truth of Genesis, the Biblical creation story: God created the universe in six 24-hour days; the Earth is less than 10,000 years old; humans have always held their current form and did not share a common ancestor with apes; and humans and dinosaurs coexisted before a great flood wiped out some forms of life. Old-Earth Creationists accept Genesis but believe the six creation "days" were actually much longer, allowing for an Earth that is millions of years old. Other creationists believe God started the evolutionary process and occasionally intervened to create new species, including humans, whom he gave souls. Some Creationists believe in a passive God who set up evolution's rules and initiated the simplest form of life, then let the process proceed on its own.

Intelligent design: This is the belief that life is too complex to have begun and evolved by chance, and that the best explanation is the involvement of a pre-existing, though unspecified, designer. This architect of life is by definition capable of acts beyond the current abilities and understanding of humans. But advocates of intelligent design, who are sometimes devout Christians, say they do not necessarily presume the designer is God or a supernatural being. Nor do they claim to support any particular religious explanation of the process, nor advocate worshipping the designer. Intelligent-design proponents, some of whom have advanced degrees in such fields as physics and biochemistry, believe there is observable evidence for intelligent design. One example, they say, is DNA, whose coded components must have been prepared by an intelligence, since they carry meaningful information and couldn't have resulted from the random forces of nature.

© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

File Date: 03.03.02