Theory backs Darwin, adds the Designer


Movement: A new breed of mostly Christian scholars redefines the debate over evolution vs. creationism.

March 28, 2001|By Teresa Watanabe | Teresa Watanabe,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BURLINGTON, Wash. - In this farming community, a high-school biology teacher named Roger DeHart set out to question Darwin's theories of evolution. He never mentioned God.

He dissected such scientific topics as bacterial flagella, fossil records and embryonic development. Examine the evidence, he told the students, and ponder the Big Question: Is life the result of random, meaningless events? Or was it designed by an intelligent force?

Over nine years, DeHart would introduce ideas about this theory of "intelligent design." Then a student protested that DeHart was pushing religion. Then the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint. In 1999, school authorities ordered DeHart to drop references to design and stick to the textbook.

Last week, DeHart was told he could not even introduce materials questioning Darwin's theories. Now DeHart is being portrayed as a martyr in the movement promoting intelligent design, the newest twist in the timeless debate about the origin of life.

Old idea, modern battles

The idea that an intelligent force guided creation is as old as Plato. But it is sparking modern battles as a new breed of mostly Christian scholars redefines the evolution vs. creationism debate and fashions a movement with more intellectual firepower, mainstream appeal and academic respectability.

The scientific establishment generally rejects the theory. But design advocates aim to reshape modern intellectual culture by marshaling scientific evidence that life was created by a transcendent mind, rather than by impersonal, random natural forces.

"Our work will alert people to the possibility that God is real rather than a projection of the mind," declared Phillip Johnson, a University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus of law whose 1991 book, "Darwin on Trial," laid the foundation for the emerging movement.

This month, intelligent-design theorists made their first appearance at the National School Board Association convention in San Diego to explain to school system attorneys why their ideas should be allowed in classrooms.

Unlike biblical literalists who believe God created the world in six days, most theorists of intelligent design are reputable university scholars who accept evolution to a point. But they question whether Darwinist mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection can fully account for life's astonishing complexity.

Using arguments ranging from biochemistry to probability theory, they posit that some sort of intelligence prompted the unfolding of life - say, by producing the information code in DNA.

The scientific applications of the work are less important than their cultural ramifications, Johnson says. Huston Smith, religion scholar and supporter of intelligent design, argues in a recent book, "Why Religion Matters," that "narrow scientism" has suffocated the human spirit and debased the culture.

One 1999 national survey by Scientific American magazine showed that fewer than 10 percent of National Academy of Sciences members believe in God. By contrast, 90 percent of Americans not only believe in God but also say God played at least some role in creation, according to the Gallup Organization.

"We are taking an intuition most people have and making it a scientific and academic enterprise," Johnson said. In challenging Darwinism with a God-friendly alternative theory, the professor, who is a Presbyterian, added, "We are removing the most important cultural roadblock to accepting the role of God as creator."

Passionate arguments arise

Most design scientists are more circumspect about identifying the designer as God. But the work's clear religious implications have propelled the issue beyond science into passionate arguments about the separation of church and state, academic freedom and societal values.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., said most scientists do not accept intelligent design as valid science.

For example, Ken Miller, a Catholic biochemist at Brown University and a leading critic of intelligent design, argues that design advocates are simply wrong on the science.

In one oft-cited case, Miller took on leading design theorist Michael Behe, a Catholic biochemist at Lehigh University. Behe has won fame in the movement by fashioning a theory called irreducible complexity. He argues that some complex organisms - bacteria, with their whip-like tails needed to propel them, for instance - cannot be simplified or they will lose their ability to function. To Behe, that raises questions of how they could have evolved from simpler forms.

Miller, however, took a mousetrap Behe said could not be simplified, dismantled it, reduced its parts and got it to work. Behe responded that Miller proved his point only by using intelligence to re-engineer it.

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