Limits of Natural Selection a Reason to Teach All Theories

Stephen C. Meyer
From The News Tribune, May 12, 1996

The sky is falling.

Or so you might think if you've been reading press accounts of the controversy in Sultan over how to teach biological origins. Some say that if Sultan allows students access to information challenging contemporary Darwinism, all manner of ill will prevail. Not only would such information confuse students about the facts, it would mislead them about the very nature of science. Worse, it would let fundamentalist religion into the science classroom.

Such thinking misses the mark. Contrary to predictions, greater openness in the biology curriculum is necessary if our students are to achieve scientific literacy and escape ideological indoctrination.

Current biology instruction presents only half the scientific picture. For example, none of the standard high school biology texts even mentions the Cambrian explosion, arguably the most dramatic event in the history of life. Indeed, fossil studies reveal "a biological big bang" near the beginning of the Cambrian period 530 million years ago. At that time, at least fifty separate major groups of organisms or "phyla" (including all the basic body plans of modern animals) emerged suddenly without clear precursors. Fossil finds have repeatedly confirmed a pattern of explosive appearance and prolonged stability in living formsónot the gradual step-by-step change predicted by neo-Darwinian theory.

Yet students don't learn about these findings. Some science educators justify the omission on the grounds that it would confuse students. But scientific literacy requires that students know all significant facts whether or not they happen to support cherished theories.

Or consider another example. Many biology texts tell about the famous finches in the Galapagos Islands whose beaks have varied in shape and length over time. They also recall how moth populations in England darkened and then lightened in response to varying levels of industrial pollution. Such episodes are presented as conclusive evidence for evolution. And indeed they are, depending on how one defines evolution.

Yet few biology textbooks distinguish the different meanings associated with "evolution"ó a term that can refer to anything from trivial change to the creation of life by strictly mindless, material forces. Nor do they explain that the processes responsible for cyclical variations in beak length or wing color do not explain where birds, moths and biologists came from in the first place. As a host of distinguished biologists (e.g. Kauffman, Raff, Miklos) have explained in recent technical papers, small-scale "micro-evolutionary" change cannot be extrapolated to explain large scale "macro-evolutionary" innovation. Micro-evolutionary changes (such as variation in color or shape) merely utilize or express existing genetic information; the large-scale macro-evolutionary change necessary to assemble new organs or body plans requires the creation of entirely new genetic information. Leading evolutionary biologists know this distinction poses serious difficulties for neo-Darwinism. Students should too.

Indeed, students should not only know the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian theory, they should know about alternative theories, both materialistic and otherwise. Most importantly, they should know that many scientists do not accept the Darwinian idea that life arose as the result of strictly mindless processesóthat many scientists see powerful evidence of intelligent design.

Consider the case of Dean Kenyon. For nearly twenty years Professor Kenyon was a leading evolutionary theorist who specialized in origin-of-life biology. While at Berkeley in 1969 he wrote a book that defined evolutionary thinking on the origin-of-life for over a decade. Yet during the late 1970s Kenyon found himself doubting his own theory. As molecular biologists learned more about the complexity of living things, Kenyon began to wonder whether undirected chemistry could really produce the intricate information processing systems found in even "simple" cells. Studies of the genetic molecule DNA showed that the instructions encoded along its spine displayed all the hallmarks of intelligent communication or language. Kenyon and many other scientists have now concluded that the information in DNAólike the information in a computer program, an ancient scroll or in this newspaperóhad an intelligent source.

Another advocate of intelligent design, Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, has just written a book entitled Darwin's Black Box (The Free Press 1996). Behe explains that during Darwin's time the biochemistry of life was as mysterious to scientists as the wires and chips inside a computer are to small children. As long as scientists didn't know how the biochemical machinery worked, they could reasonably believe that life had gradually self-assembled. Now that we know the inner workings of living systems, however, we can no longer entertain such superstitions.

In one section, Behe examines the intricate workings of an acid powered rotary engine. What does this have to do with biology? Well, curiously this engine does not power a lawnmower or an automobile, but the propellor-like tails of certain bacteria. Professor Behe shows that the intricate machinery in this molecular motor requires the coordinated interaction of some two hundred complex protein parts. Yet the absence of almost any one of these proteins would result in the complete loss of motor function. To believe this engine emerged gradually in a Darwinian fashion strains credulity. Natural selection only selects functionally advantageous systems. Yet motor function only ensues after the necessary parts have independently self-assembledóan astronomically improbable event. Behe concludes that a designing intelligence must have played a role.

Many parents in Sultan had hoped that their students could learn about such scientific developments. The controversy began when two ex-teachers Brent and Cindy Rappun asked the school board to consider placing copies of Professor Kenyon's supplementary biology text, Pandas and People, in the school library. Pandas has been endorsed by Professor Behe and many other scientists including professors from Princeton and Oxford.

Nevertheless, many asserted that the book's defense of intelligent design did not qualify as science, since the intelligent designer postulated by scientists cannot be observed or tested. Yet scientists often infer unobservable entitiesóquarks, forces, fields, the big bangóto explain observable evidence. Darwinists themselves postulate unobservable "transitional" organisms and allegedly creative processes that occur too slowly to be observed.

Further, origins theories, whether Darwinian or otherwise, are not tested by making predictions and observing the results in controlled laboratory settings as some seem to assume. Rather, they are tested by comparing the explanatory power of one theory against another. Historical scientists evaluate theories rather like detectives who must determine which crime scenario best explains the available evidence. Contemporary design theorists favor their theory precisely because they believe it has greater explanatory power than strict Darwinism. And there's nothing unscientific in that.

Of course, many claimed that allowing students to consider evidence for intelligent design would constitute religious indoctrination. Many tried to equate design with fundamentalist religion and the discredited "creation science" movement. But design theory is not "creation-science." It does not reject modern geology. Nor is it derived from religious authority or biblical teaching. Instead, intelligent design is an inference derived from biological evidence.

Even so, all origins theories have some unavoidable philosophical (and even religious) implications. The present crop of biology texts make no attempt to hide the anti-theistic implications of contemporary Darwinism. Douglas Futuyma's book tells students that Darwinism makes "theological explanations" of life "superfluous." Kenneth Miller's book insists that "evolution works without either plan or purpose." By denying any evidence of intelligent design in nature, Darwinist texts promote the anti-theistic philosophy known as materialism.

The threat of indoctrination does not come from allowing students to ponder the philosophical questions raised by the origins issue. Instead, it comes from force-feeding students a single ideological perspective. The rather modest effort in Sultan to prevent this, is hardly cause for hysteria.

Stephen Meyer received his doctorate from Cambridge University in the philosophy of science. He teaches at Whitworth College in Spokane and is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute.