Tacoma News-Tribune

Life's Intelligent Design


Steve Maynard

Phillip Johnson began his talk on intelligent design at Pacific Lutheran University with a sort of victory cry.

Ten years ago, Johnson wrote a book called Darwin on Trial that disputed Darwinian evolution and launched a movement. Johnson, a professor emeritus of law at University of California at Berkeley, and other academics produced the concept of intelligent design. They assert the complexities of the Earth must be the work of a designer.

Johnson had good reason to be buoyant last month at PLU. Recent front-page stories in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times describe intelligent design as a credible foe of evolution.

"Our enemies may not like us, but they know that we're getting ahead, that we're winning the argument," Johnson told 400 people in a packed lecture room.

However, most scientists disagree.

"Their ideas have been looked at by the scientific community and nobody's convinced they've got anything scientifically useful," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif. "I would say it's distinctly premature to say he's winning any kind of argument." The center is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the teaching of evolution.

In Tacoma and Seattle people have flocked to hear Johnson, the father of intelligent design. A crowd of more than 700 overflowed Kane Hall at the University of Washington last month to hear him.

He offered an approach more intellectually intricate than that of biblical creationists, who assert the Earth is only 6,000 to 8,000 years old and was created in six days. Johnson said during an interview that he accepts the age of the Earth as 4.6 billion years but that's not the real issue. Nor is the issue how one feels about the Genesis account of creation, said Johnson, 60, an evangelical Christian. Speaking in his rapid-fire style, Johnson asserted that the issue is evolution and how it is based on the philosophy of naturalism.

Biologists say that "science simply assumes that there is not and can be no designer," Johnson said. "It's not a matter of evidence; it's a matter of assumption. You begin to see why a lawyer took this up.

"Intelligent design is the proposition that you need a source of intelligence in order to account for the wonders of biology. You do not see the designer directly, of course. What you see (are) the effects of design."

Johnson is anything but a lone ranger in his battle. The research of two other so-called fathers of the intelligent design movement - Michael Behe and William Dembski - is funded by a nonprofit Seattle-based group called the Discovery Institute, for which Johnson is an adviser.

Behe, a professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the author of Darwin's Black Box, argues that the "irreducible complexity" of biological structures points to a designer.

Dembski is a mathematician, philosopher and research professor at Baylor University in Texas. He developed a mathematical "explanatory filter" which he maintains can distinguish randomness from complexity originating from an intelligent designer.

Another researcher funded by the institute is biologist Jonathan Wells of Poulsbo, who wrote about mistakes in biology textbooks in his book Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?

The debate over evolution derives from the ideas of Charles Darwin as written in Origin of Species in 1859. Darwinism and evolution teach that humans were not the product of miraculous intervention but evolved from apelike creatures. In Darwinism, the main cause of change is the process of natural selection, which holds that the best reproducers and adapters are most likely to survive.

Scott said intelligent design proponents argue that different species - such as insects and mollusks - couldn't be derived from one another or common ancestors.

"They say you can't get from one to another with the process of natural selection," Scott said. "Scientifically, there's no reason why you couldn't."

Johnson says species can and do adapt within a narrow range - for example, mosquitoes become genetically resistant to the chemical DDT. Supporters call this process "microevolution" or as Johnson prefers "adaptive variation." But, Johnson said, organisms contain structures that are "irreducibly complex."

He outlined the options of evolution and intelligent design:

* "If you look at the evidence without bias, does it tend to support the view that nature can do the job on its own? There's no need for a creator or designer because nature's fully competent to do all the creating by the mechanisms of random variation and natural selection."

* "Or, is it in fact the case that the scientific evidence considered without bias shows you that natural selection has no real creative power, that organisms are chock full of structures which are irreducibly complex and hence can't be built up step by step by a mindless process because you'd have to have all the parts at once for any one of them to do anything?" This is the position the evidence supports, Johnson said.

In Darwin's day, the cell was believed to be a "blob of jelly," Johnson said. Instead, the cell "is actually a miniature city, of immense complexity with a billion or so proteins doing all kinds of complex jobs," he said. "This requires the presence of some program which is coordinating all these activities. And that would be more complex than the program that runs your word processor."

And there lies the kind of evidence for intelligent design, he said.

Johnson said he and most others in the intelligent design movement believe the designer is the God of the Bible.

However, a University of Washington psychology professor said intelligent design proponents are only rehashing the old arguments of biblical literalists.

"As far as I can tell, it's an effort to dress up the old Creationist argument in what appears to be new clothes," said David Barash, an evolutionary psychologist who has a doctorate in zoology. "But in fact, it's the same old clothes. Intelligent design implies an intelligent designer, and that's God."

Barash said genetic diversity and natural selection explain the non-random complexity of the biological world.

"They're desperate to look for some kind of supernatural, divine specialness in human beings," he said. "Having been unable to demonstrate it, they cloak it in the mantle that appears to be science. But it has nothing to do with real science."

But PLU biology junior Daniel Lloyd said Johnson's lecture confirmed his belief in God.

"I liked it," said Lloyd, 26. "He gave a logical approach to explaining the infinite complexity of life and led us to understand that could not happen by chance, which traditional biology teaches."

* Staff writer Steve Maynard covers religion, ethics and values. Reach him at 253-597-8647 or steve.maynard@mail.tribnet.com.

SIDEBAR: For more information about intelligent design and evolution, check out these Web sites:

* www.discovery.org/crsc (Discovery Institute).

* www.natcenscied.org (National Center for Science Education).

* www.arn.org (Access Research Network). The News Tribune

File Date: 5.07.01