The New Creationists

Seattle's Discovery Institute leads a national movement challenging Darwinism.

Nina Shapiro

Last Monday, Mark Edwards, PR man for the conservative think tank the Discovery Institute, was excited. "We landed on the front page of yesterday's New York Times," he enthused. Two weeks prior, the Discovery Institute was featured in a story on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. And CNN recently turned its cameras on the Seattle institute.

The national media has come calling because the 11-year-old institute, co-founded by onetime Reagan assistant Bruce Chapman and politico-turned-futurist George Gilder, is at the center of a new movement challenging the validity of Darwinian evolution. The movement has created a stir based on the identity of some of its proponents: They are not Bible-thumping creationists, but academics at mainstream institutions, including the University of Washington.

These folks have come up with sophisticated arguments for something they call "intelligent design," which, like creationism, points to some kind of creator or "designer" of the universe but, unlike creationism, evades the subject of who that creator is. Most followers are Christians, however, and when pressed admit that God is the most likely candidate for the designer they suggest. "Of course that's the implication," Chapman says.

Old-fashioned creationists have often been happy to follow along. With their help, the decade-old movement is gaining momentum. State officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania are considering whether to allow schools to teach alternative theories to evolution. And a series of books, conferences, and speeches are bringing the case for intelligent design to the public. This week, the Discovery Institute is co-sponsoring a speech at the University of Washington by the father of intelligent design theory, Phillip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and an advisor to the Discovery Institute. Later this month, the institute will hold a conference at Seattle Pacific University featuring a number of design proponents.

The movement has a martyr: a high school biology teacher in the small upstate town of Burlington, Washington, Roger DeHart, who was told he must stop bringing design theory into the classroom, even if he did so on only one day of a two-week unit on evolution. Last month, DeHart was forbidden from using outside materials that critique Darwin in any way. Support groups of parents have formed on both sides.

Cannily, the Discovery Institute is presenting the issue as one of academic rather than religious freedom. "This guy up in Burlington isn't even allowed to tell people there's a controversy," says Chapman, the Discovery Institute's president. Chapman stresses that he and his colleagues aren't arguing against teaching evolution in schools. Nor do they subscribe to the idea, popular in some circles, of "equal time" for alternative theories to Darwinism. Rather, they propose that teachers who want to teach design theory should be allowed to do so.

"We're just saying we want people who are science teachers to be able to teach that there are scientific arguments--not religious arguments--scientific arguments for other [viewpoints]," Chapman says. Chapman believes that design theorists have such a strong scientific case that presenting it in schools "will be enough to split [Darwinism] open."

Yet Eugenie Scott, executive director of the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education, calls intelligent design theory simply "bad science." Still, critics of design theorists offer a kind of backhanded compliment. "They've got some stuff that I would consider dead wrong," says Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University in Missouri, "but in a long and interesting sort of way."

Michael Behe makes one of the most interesting and scientifically rigorous arguments in favor of intelligent design. Like several other leading design theorists, Michael Behe is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, though his full-time job is as professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Behe says he was taught as a child in Catholic schools that God directed evolution. He began to doubt evolution later, particularly as he pondered a phenomenon he calls "irreducible complexity."

To explain the concept, he uses the example of a hairlike filament on some bacteria called a flagellum. "Bacterial flagellum is literally an outboard motor that some bacteria use to swim," Behe says. The flagellum requires "dozens or even hundreds of precisely tailored parts," Behe writes in his widely reviewed 1996 book Darwin's Black Box. Here's the crucial part: All of those parts must be present together for the so-called motor to function properly.

"Nobody has ever proposed how something like that could be put together step by step," Behe says. Darwinism is a step-by-step process, defined by successive waves of random mutations, each of which are naturally selected because of increased functionality that help an organism to survive. Why would a piece of the motor known as a flagellum be selected, Behe asks, if it didn't add any increased functionality on its own?

Edis, the Truman State physicist, counters that irreducible complexity is "a new name for an argument that's been around since Darwin's time." He says people used to question evolution's theory of a step-by-step process by asking what's the use of half a wing or what's the use of half an eye? What Behe is overlooking, Edis says, is that "each piece doesn't have to be selected for the use you see today." Recent theories, for instance, link the development of wings to other functions besides flying, one being heat regulation. So half of a wing could have served a purpose. It's only when all the pieces come together that an entirely new function arises.

Other design theorists attack Darwin from different angles. Jonathan Wells, a Seattle-based fellow of the Discovery Institute who has a Ph.D. in biology, makes much of common mistakes in science textbooks, though critics contend such mistakes are minor and have, in many cases, already been acknowledged by scientists without any perceived threat to Darwinism.

University of Washington astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, yet another Discovery Institute fellow, takes a still different approach. Gonzalez doesn't pick apart Darwinism but looks at what astronomers call "fine-tuning." It is essentially the degree of precision in all sorts of areas necessary for complex life to exist. For example, life depends on a highly specified amount of oxygen and carbon produced by stars. Do stars produce exactly the right amount just by chance?

Gonzalez says that a lot of astronomers, himself included, cannot help but deduce that the "the universe was intended for advanced conscious beings to exist."

At the same time, Gonzalez acknowledges that his astronomical deduction coincides with an intuitive impression he has had ever since he was 5 or 6 years old and looked up at the night sky. "I've always been under the impression that there was something more than the universe." That feeling has spurred on his work. "My motivation is one of inspiration--the beauty of the universe," he says. "I am driven, literally driven, to study this."

Yet some say introducing God, or some euphemism of such, into the equation poses a limitation to study. According to Scott of the National Center of Science Education, design theorists say, "'Well, gee, I can't understand it. Therefore I'm saying God did it.' . . . and once you say God did it, you stop looking for a natural cause. It's what we call a science stopper."

Yet the Discovery Institute as an organization didn't get involved in the issue in order to solve the mysteries of the universe. Chapman is up front about having a social and political agenda. He sees design intelligence as a way to combat the growing reliance on genetic explanations for human behavior and what he sees as an undermining of personal responsibility. As an example of this phenomena, Chapman cites the infamous "Twinkie defense" used by a murder defendant claiming his sugar high made him do it.

Others associated with the institute take a bigger leap of logic to argue that welfare, as currently dispensed, is a misguided consequence of the Darwinian outlook. "If you see human beings as nothing but matter and motion, than all you do is treat them like mouths to feed," says Jay Richards, program director for the institute's Center for Science and Culture. "If they're more than that, you treat the whole person," he argues, which would mean looking at such things as family structure and the role of moral and religious values in their lives.

Do you really have to attack a whole branch of science in order to counter liberal views on welfare? The Discovery Institute folk think they do. "Unless you get the science right," Chapman says, "it's very hard to contend with the other arguments." Copyright © 2001 Nina Shapiro. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Filel Date: 4.22.01

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