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Life's Grand Design


Cover Story 7/29/02
A new breed of anti-evolutionists credits it to an unnamed intelligence

Two people come to your door with a petition to give evolution some competition in the science classroom. One is a biblical literalist who wants genetics out and Genesis in. The other is a science professor with exquisite academic credentials, championing a compelling theory called intelligent design. He speaks in painful detail about the bacterial flagellum, whatever that is. Though many may prefer old-style creationism, nowadays the scientist in the suit is getting the most signatures.

These new anti-evolutionists say life's mechanisms–like the flagellum, a propellerlike appendage powered by a complex rotary engine that's found in some of Earth's simplest life forms–are too improbably perfect to have formed by chancy Darwinian evolution alone. The flagellum, as surely as a pop-top on a Coke can, was designed by some unnamed intelligence that might–or might not–be God.

Classroom time. That's good enough for those itching to get God into science class. Efforts to force the teaching of Bible-based "creation science" petered out in the 1980s, after several court rulings that deemed it unconstitutional. But educators from state boards to individual classrooms are more open to intelligent design, increasingly seeing it as a viable scientific theory to be taught side by side with evolution. In Ohio, for example, the board of education's curricular standards committee objected to a draft of new statewide science standards this year because it didn't mention intelligent design. Mainstream scientists, while fuming about giving ID equal time, end up giving it just that by rebutting it in public debates, books, and the press. They have to–ID's arguments are not only engaging but also well beyond the average American's knowledge of science.

Not all of its proponents are motivated by religion–many say they are frustrated by what they see as intractable problems with Darwinism. But conservative Christianity has embraced the idea, seeing it as a viable way to introduce religion into the classroom–and sunder materialism in the process. (Not the kind of materialism that results in impractical shoes but the philosophical backbone of science: that everything can be explained through natural laws and physical phenomena). "There's a renewed vigor in the movement," says philosopher Robert Pennock, editor of the recent tome Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics. "They feel optimistic somehow that this time they're going to get it right."

Part of ID's attraction is its intuitive quality. Countless people already have a sense that life is too complex to have just happened. And though ID meshes comfortably with religion, its seemingly undogmatic approach appeals to a vast middle ground. "Some people try to give the impression that if you do not believe in Darwinism, you are a young-Earth creationist who believes the world was made in a puff of smoke 6,000 years ago," says Michael Behe, a pro-ID biochemistry professor at Lehigh University.

Nor is it difficult to play off the unease many feel in the face of evolution. The ID movement loves to quote the few scientists who have publicly equated evolution and atheism, like bestselling author Richard Dawkins (who announced that Darwin "made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist"). And Darwinism can evoke a pointless, amoral world in which humans are just so many animals scrabbling for survival. ID seems more comforting: "It plays to our own egos," says Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, who argues that the self-renewing, self-correcting process of evolution is more in line with Christian teachings. "Many people would prefer to think they are the direct products of a benign, beneficent creator."

At bottom, ID is a pretty simple concept. Somewhere, somehow, something intervened in evolution. Most proponents won't specify the designing force (at least, not publicly)–it could be God, aliens, or time travelers. There's no consensus on the rest. Some believe that evolution works up to a point. Behe doesn't doubt that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor, but he thinks Darwin's mechanism can't account for the complex molecules that make life tick. Others advocate the notion of an invisible hand guiding all of life's history, from primordial soup to human beings.

The idea is argued at just as many levels. Highly specialized critters like the bombardier beetle, which squirts a scalding mixture of hydrochloric acid and quinone at its enemies, have been used as evidence of a designer since Darwin's day. How, one ID argument goes, could such an apparatus evolve bit by bit in a series of mutations, when half a sac of acid means a dead bug? Behe sees the same kind of "irreducible complexity" in the microscopic workings of the flagellum and the eye. Try using the fossil record, he says, to explain the 11-cis-retinal molecule, which reacts with light to set off the biochemical process that produces vision, or the intricate cellular architecture of the retina. Remove any component and the whole structure fails.

Don't ask. Opponents retort that such theories aren't science and stifle further inquiry by attributing what may not yet be understood to an unknowable cause. "Their arguments don't lead to anything that's empirically investigable," says Jack Krebs, a Kansas science teacher who opposed the introduction of ID into the state's science curriculum early last year. Scientists, meanwhile, say they are learning more and more about how evolution could have fashioned even the most bafflingly complex structures.

ID proponents say both sides belong in the classroom as competing scientific theories (although they often call Darwinism a religion in its own right). Support for ID in schools has boiled up at the state level in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nebraska, and Kansas. In March, Ohio's board of education invited four scientists, two pro-ID, two against, to a debate. "Teach the controversy," said the proponents, suggesting that, while the standards need not explicitly mandate intelligent design, they should require that alternate theories be presented.

The pro-ID speakers also pointed out mistakes in biology texts, such as an inaccurate illustration showing similarities among many species' embryos (since removed from the book in question), and expounded on theories like Behe's. Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute, a conservative Seattle think tank, posited that ID was being censored because it doesn't fit the dominant scientific paradigm. "There are many scientific methods," he said. "Theirs is restricted to naturalistic arguments." He also appealed to common sense: "Organisms look designed because they were."

Not so, said the pro-evolution scientists, who described how a complex molecule could evolve and why naturalism allows us to explore the universe without preconceptions. Brown's Miller also addressed what many saw as the core issue. "Evolution is not anti-God," he said.

So far, ID has not won what would be its first significant victory: a place in the Ohio curriculum. A new draft of the science standards still does not mention ID. (Local schools can choose to include ID if they wish, but they must teach evolution.) But the controversy isn't over. The state board of education will vote on the standards in the fall. And a June Cleveland Plain Dealer poll found that 59 percent of Ohioans support teaching both intelligent design and evolution. Two thirds believe that the "designer" is God.