Seventy years after Darwin's theory triumphed in the landmark Scopes trial, a brash new generation of faith-friendly scientists is having unexpected success in reshaping the contentious debate over the origin of life and the universe.
In a stunning development three months ago, social conservatives successfully persuaded the Kansas State Board of Education to issue new standards that would remove Darwinian evolutionary theory from state tests. Local school districts may still decide what to teach. To avoid similar controversy, the Kentucky Education Department quietly dropped the word evolution from its teaching guidelines in October.
But the backlash may already be under way. New Mexico education officials recently banned the teaching of creationism in public schools.
Amid public policy rumblings on creation versus evolution, a fresh crop of scientists—many associated with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute—are developing their theory that the universe shows clear evidence of "intelligent design."
Researchers gathered in New York in September to discuss their work and propose a new way to study the origins of life and the universe. Phillip Johnson, a law professor at University of California at Berkeley and a strategist for the intelligent-design movement, calls the institute's scientists "the wedge" who are driving into the cracks of modernist science. As they push forward, Johnson predicts, Darwinian theory will be split apart like a dry log. He reasons that because evolution cannot be fully proven from science itself, some scientists by default invoke dogmatically held beliefs, not scientific results.
TOO MUCH DESIGN? Origins scientists are going beyond their critique of Darwinian theory to expand their own field research. Both the Discovery Institute (DI)—a conservative public-policy center specializing in the science and technology of the information age—and the Institute for Christian Research have launched multiple-scientist, long-term research programs.
But only DI scientists have proposed a more far-reaching program of detecting design in the universe. Origins science is not the only research area to search for a "blueprint." Many fields depend on the ability to detect design, including intellectual property law, forensic science, insurance investigations, cryptography, archaeology, computer science, and the search for life in outer space.
The universe is so "irreducibly complex," says DI fellow William Dembski, it is hard to discover any explanation except intelligent design. Darwinian theory concerning the evolution of life specifies that complex structures be built by one small functional improvement after another. But if a system is irreducibly complex, the interacting parts must all be together before any functional improvement can be made. Small changes before the complex structure exists cannot improve any function, so they have no survival value.
Yet some attenders of the New York meeting expressed that a weakness of current intelligent-design ideas could be that they require too much design. DI supports a project against the idea of "junk DNA." Many parts in DNA strands appear to have no purpose. Many scientists believe the strands are leftovers or random fillers between the parts that carry real messages. In contrast, DI scientists believe that if intelligent design is true, then all parts of the DNA chain must have a function.
Some scientists in earlier generations, heirs to Isaac Newton's clocklike image of the cosmos, also imagined that everything must have a benign purpose. Consequently, Darwin's rediscovery of violence and struggle in nature caught them by surprise. Morally and logically offended, they asked how a God of beauty and order could work through violence and disorder. Generally, they did not reconsider how their mechanistic world-view left out the devastating effects of the Fall as detailed in the Genesis narrative. Some wonder if intelligent design theorists are making the same mistake.
AVOIDING DEADLOCKS: Advocates of intelligent design try to avoid other deadlocks between evolutionists, theistic evolutionists, and young-earth creationists by not focusing on God as Creator. They ask whether the cosmos was intelligently designed, not who did the designing or how. "Design theory is a bigger tent and doesn't treat Genesis as a scientific text," says DI fellow Michael Behe, famous for his 1996 book Darwin's Black Box (CT, April 28, 1997, p. 14). "Many others—Stoics and Muslims, for example—also could agree that the universe is intelligently designed."
Most of the current intelligent-design advocates, however, are Christians—including Behe, a Catholic. Founded by an Episcopalian, DI's origins group includes many evangelical Protestants, closely followed in numbers by Catholics.
Intelligent-design scientists also dodge what Behe calls "political morality plays," such as evolution in school curricula. In a New York Times essay, Behe urges Kansas schools to "teach Darwin's elegant theory. But also discuss where it has real problems and where alternative—even 'heretical'—explanations are possible."
Biologist Chris Mammoliti, who works for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, has likewise asked some local Kansas school districts to include the theory of intelligent design in their curriculum. But Dick Kurt en back, Kansas director of American Civil Liberties Union, says his organization will move to stop any inclusion of intelligent design in the science curriculum.
The Kansas debate exemplifies the cross-religious alliance on origins science. According to the Topeka Capitol-Journal, Omar Hazim, Imam at the Islamic Center in Topeka, agrees with the state board of education that evolution should not be taught in the public schools. "We believe in creationism. God created all things in the universe," he says. Likewise, Thurman Young, a United Pentecostal minister in Junction City, Kansas, says, "If they're going to teach [evolution], then they should teach the other also and let a child make up its own mind."
According to a Gallup poll, about 50 percent of Americans believe in creationism, 40 percent in theistic evolution, and 10 percent in materialistic or Darwinian evolution. Sixty-eight percent think both creation and evolution should be taught in the schools.
PUSHING ALTERNATIVES: Accordingly, politicians are pushing for alternatives to creationism and evolution—including intelligent design—in the classroom. GOP presidential hopeful Gary Bauer decries evolutionists who say, "There is no divine intelligence involved." Texas Gov. George W. Bush, also a presidential candidate, says his policy is that "children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started."
The creationists on the Kansas board of education won by persuading a noncreationist that the evolutionists had dogmatically excluded origins-science alternatives.
Students also are looking to broaden the debate. "It's frustrating because they teach evolution as fact, but we know it's not true," says Jerry Won, a student at Bronx High School of Science in New York. More finalists in the prestigious Westinghouse/Intel Science competition have come from Bronx High than any other American school, but Won says the school seems afraid to let students test theories about origins. "They never teach the flaws [in Darwinian theory]," he says. Vicky Cho of the evangelical Urban Youth Alliance Seekers at Stuyvesant High School admits she has to live a double life. "On tests, I always give the answer they want, even if I don't believe it," she says. "I just pray to God that everyone will see the truth someday."
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