The Washington Times September 19, 2002

Challenging Darwin

by Jen Waters

Robert Ehrlich is trying to solve the mysteries of science.

In the Smithsonian Associates' series "Socrates and His World, the Unsolved Mysteries of Science," Mr. Ehrlich, a professor of physics at George Mason University in Fairfax, is discussing various topics, including Intelligent Design.

The Intelligent Design movement argues that life is too complex to have occurred by chance and that there must be a designer behind it. It rejects the notion that natural selection, or survival of the fittest, is responsible for having produced the array of species existing in the world.

Using the Socratic method of teaching by asking questions, Mr. Ehrlich plans to debate with class members whether Intelligent Design is a valid scientific alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution and to outline how it differs from biblical creationism.

"It's important because of a court decision in 1987 that considered a Louisiana state law that required public schools to teach biblical creationism along with evolution," Mr. Ehrlich says. "The Supreme Court overturned the law and said in that decision that the state could not mandate the teaching of biblical creationism as an alternative to evolution. However, they could mandate that other scientific theories be considered in addition to evolution."

If Intelligent Design is accepted as an alternative scientific theory to Darwinian evolution, it could be mandated that public schools present the topic in their science classes, Mr. Ehrlich says.

The concept is usually explained through the "watchmaker analogy" advanced by British theologian William Paley in 1802, which says if one finds a watch on the beach, its orderliness would cause one to assume there is a watchmaker. In the same way, the order of the universe would seem to imply a designer.

Although Mr. Ehrlich, who holds a doctorate in physics, entertains the idea that there could be a designer behind life, he says he doesn't believe Intelligent Design is a scientific theory. He says there is not enough scientific evidence to draw a conclusion, especially because the scientific method of testing hypotheses requires observation. He doesn't believe the idea could be demonstrated clearly through a laboratory test. He also says that unlike other scientific theories, it fails to make any predictions.

In contrast, Mr. Ehrlich believes Darwinian evolution can be observed through the fossil record, which is a collection of fossils that he says represents the preserved history of living things on Earth. Charles Darwin, a 19th-century scientist who wrote "On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life," theorized that simple life evolved into complex life through a series of small beneficial changes that accumulated over time.

Mr. Ehrlich says the fossil record provides a satisfactory illustration of the process of evolution through time, which he says shows the transitions among species. He admits there are gaps in the fossil record and places where the evidence does not flow smoothly, but he believes scientists will fill in the gaps with further research.

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Michael Behe, biochemistry professor at Lehigh University and author of "Darwin's Black Box," disagrees with Mr. Ehrlich's opinions about Darwinian evolution. Mr. Behe says Intelligent Design is similar to many other scientific theories that present ideas that one cannot observe, such as the existence of molecules or extinct common ancestors. Mr. Behe, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry, is an advocate of the Intelligent Design movement.

"Science routinely infers things we can't see from things we can see," Mr. Behe says. "Intelligent Design fits solidly in that tradition."

Further, Mr. Behe does not base his ideas on the fossil record but believes Darwinists stretch the evidence to fit their theory. When he began to study biology, he says, he came to the conclusion that Darwin's theory of evolution was inadequate to explain the formation of life. He invented the phrase "irreducibly complex," which refers to how life appears to be too intricate to have been formed by the successive modifications of Darwinian evolution. His idea challenges Darwin's theory that biological mechanisms must build slowly over time.

For instance, Mr. Behe argues that cells are full of "molecular machines." All the parts must be there at once for the "molecular machines" to work correctly. (In the same way, all the pieces of a mousetrap must be present for it to operate properly.) Taking away parts from the molecular machines of a cell would make them stop working, which is why Mr. Behe believes life appears to be designed.

He says Darwinian evolutionists have given little information as to how these systems supposedly evolved by natural selection. He believes Darwin was hindered by the lack of the advanced microscopes scientists use today to examine cells.

"Darwin's contemporaries didn't know anything about the molecular basis of life," Mr. Behe says. "German scientist Ernst Haeckel, a contemporary of Darwin's, called cells 'simple globs of protoplasm.' In the past 50 years, we've learned a lot. The simplicity they thought there would be at the bottom of life has turned out not to be there."

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However, even though Mr. Behe believes a designer is behind the creation of life, he distinguishes the Intelligent Design movement from biblical creationism.

"Intelligent Design is an idea that is based solely on the physical evidence we discovered in biology," he says. "It may have religious implications, but it's not a religious idea. 'Creation' is a religious term, and we stay away from that."

Unlike proponents of the Intelligent Design movement, biblical creationists specifically name who they believe created life — the God of the Bible, says John Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, Calif. Mr. Morris, who holds a doctorate in geological engineering, interprets the first 11 chapters of the Bible as real history, including the creation of all things in six 24-hour days, the existence of Adam and Eve as the first man and woman, and the occurrence of a worldwide flood that was predicted by Noah and destroyed most life on Earth.

Mr. Morris also holds strongly the notion that Earth is about 6,000 years old, while most Darwinian evolutionists argue that it is about 4.5 billion years old. The Intelligent Design movement consists of people who believe both possibilities could be true and usually refuse to debate the topic because it is not essential to their proposed ideas.

"We show that scientific evidence is compatible with and supportive of the biblical doctrine of creation," Mr. Morris says. "We support the Intelligent Design people fully, but we just feel they don't go far enough. The evidence for design is obvious, but we know who the designer is."

Whether one agrees with the principles of Intelligent Design is not the point, says Phillip E. Johnson, professor emeritus of law at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "Darwin on Trial." He says he is in favor of the principle of freedom of thought. Instead of pretending there is no controversy surrounding Darwinian evolution, he wishes the scientific community would allow the public to be educated about the concerns the Intelligent Design movement has presented. Right now, he says, Darwinists simply avoid questions by arguing that Intelligent Design is not proper science.

Mr. Johnson believes that where biological evolution is taught, teachers should help students understand why this subject generates so much controversy and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject. He also hopes educators would help students distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science.

"The rulers of science are not letting people find out about things," Mr. Johnson says. "They are preventing people from curing their ignorance."

File Date: 09.22.02