Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why are there so few public restrooms?

Wandering across the landscape of the "evolution controversy," it's easy to feel that we've entered a sequel to Alice in Wonderland. Everything seems topsy-turvy, and non sequiturs multiply like, well, universes. We're in a muddle. Oddly enough, it is precisely in such conditions that people are likely to dig in their heels and claim a degree of certainty they don't possess.

Consider this a brief report on some of the curious aspects of the evolution controversy.

End of Reason Narrowly Averted

Faithful readers of The New York Times will recall historian Garry Wills's op-ed, "The Day the Enlightenment Went Out," published immediately after George W. Bush's reelection in November 2004. For a time, it appeared that Wills's dire pronouncement was merely the sober truth. Attempts were being made to smuggle Intelligent Design into America's classrooms. But the forces of Enlightenment rallied. One weekly science magazine featured a cover story with this stark warning: "The End of Reason?" Wired magazine joined the fray with a cover story devoted to "The Plot to Kill Evolution." Rolling Stone chimed in with a banner headline, "Science vs. Faith: Evolution on Trial." The rest is history.

According to a recent story in the Times, Reason is resting comfortably and is expected to make a full recovery.

I'm Going to Ask You One More Time

News coverage and commentary have focused on the threat to the teaching of evolution. But except for occasional flare-ups, that's not really the problem. At this very moment, evolution is being taught all over our fair land. The real problem, as an article in Science magazine explains ("Darwin's Place on Campus Is Secure—But Not Supreme"), is that "students are learning about evolution without abandoning their belief in some form of creationism." The sheer effrontery of those students!

Of course, even Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, believes in "some form of creationism," the orthodox Christian version, in fact, as he explains in his excellent forthcoming book, The Language of God. He simply believes—along with many of his fellow Christians, and in opposition to many others—that God employed "the elegant mechanism of evolution."

Musth You?

You may not have heard about the controversy involving Intelligent Design and chirality in elephant pheromones. The original article by David R. Greenwood, et al., appeared in Nature; a summary for the ordinary reader followed in New Scientist:

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He is a hot-blooded, 30-year-old male in peak physical condition. He has mucus oozing from his cheeks and green urine streaming down his legs. His penis has a green sheen to it, and he gives off a smell that can be picked up half a mile away. He wafts his ears back and forth and makes a low rumble. He looks confident: After all, many females find him irresistible.

Male elephants enter this state, known as "musth" (and pronounced "must"), every year for a month or two. The chemical signals they emit during musth—yielding that overpowering mixture of odors—turn out to be packed with information. Their breath and urine include a chemical called frontalin, which exists in two forms that mirror one another in their molecular structure (hence they are "chiral"). In musth, male elephants emit both forms, and the ratio between the two "depends on the elephant's age and the stage of its musth cycle," so that "females can accurately assess his reproductive success and male contemporaries can judge how strong he is before attempting to pick a fight."

What was the controversy involving Intelligent Design? Actually, there was none. This finding reported in Nature was an everyday example of scientists at work, exploring the intricacies of what we Christians rightly call the wonders of creation. Sometimes, though, it seems that we are not really very interested in the details. To date, Intelligent Design has produced very little work of this kind. Maybe that will come in time, maybe not.

The Universes on a String

The contempt that many scientists have expressed for Intelligent Design knows no bounds, but it can be summarized in a single dismissive sentence: "It's not science." Now string theory—that's another matter. String theory generates articles and grants and symposia. String theory has charismatic spokesmen like Brian Greene. (What is string theory? Ah, the universe is … made up of these … strings. Best if you read Greene's book, The Elegant Universe, or watch the accompanying DVD. You still won't understand it, but your ignorance, like mine, will be better informed.)

The man who is sometimes referred to as the father of string theory is Leonard Susskind, who is Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University and who recently published a book called The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. You might wonder what a theoretical physicist is doing messing with questions of Intelligent Design. Isn't that a job for biologists?

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Well, do you remember talk a few years back about the extreme improbability of all the conditions required for life as we know it evolving just so? The reaction of the science establishment was to huff and puff and hint darkly about stealth creationism. But many cosmologists took the question seriously—so seriously, in fact, that some of them began to argue that our universe is but one of an unimaginable number of universes, say 10500, in which case the features of any one universe (ours, for instance) are unremarkable.

This theory has not met with, shall we say, universal approbation, not least because it can't be empirically tested. You could even say it's not science, and some have said that, but they don't hiss the way they do when they talk about Intelligent Design.

And here is an interesting footnote. At the end of an interview in New Scientist, Leonard Susskind, a very engaging character, is asked—if his theory is ultimately not borne out—"Are we stuck with Intelligent Design?" And Susskind gives a candid answer that no doubt provoked wrath among many of his colleagues:

I doubt that physicists will see it that way. … I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now, we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that a hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.

Susskind was really very naughty to say that, and you can sense that he knew it. You can almost hear the alarm bells ringing. Get me Damage Control, quick!

Nobody Expects the Permian Extinction

As Christians, we rest secure in the conviction that our world and the universe in which it is the tiniest speck did not simply happen by the secular miracle of "spontaneous organization." There is nothing to apologize for in holding fast to that ultimate certainty. But we should be very careful to distinguish between that conviction and our understanding of, say, the age of the Earth.

I've been reading a fascinating book by Douglas Erwin called Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago. Erwin describes an event known as the Permian extinction, when plants and animals on land "came closer to complete elimination than at any point since they first evolved," when "biodiversity plunged from hundreds or even thousands of species at a single locality, with thousands of individuals, to perhaps only a dozen species."

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Some Christians will reject such a narrative out of hand, believing that it rests on false assumptions about the geological evidence. Some will say it is irreconcilable with the Genesis account of creation; others will disagree.

I find Erwin's account worth entertaining. I don't know for certain that it is true, even in its most general outlines, let alone in the details that only another expert would be competent to judge. But it coheres plausibly with other histories of Deep Time. And it pushes me to confront yet again the strangeness of creation and of the history of life. There is a scale and complexity to it, a profligacy if you will, that can't be contained by the finite human imagination.

And yet isn't it extraordinary that in God's unfolding design, men and women today—drawing on centuries of scholarship—are able to consider events that took place 250 million years ago? The thought of it is at once staggering and exhilarating, prompting humility and even (for me, at least) fear and also wonder.

I close the book and turn off the light and settle under the covers against the warmth of my sleeping wife. Mass extinctions and the single, utterly individual death of a stillborn baby—how are they connected? Is creation groaning? A voice assures me: All will be well.

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.

Related Elsewhere:

Also posted today is:

The Other ID Opponents | Traditional creationists see Intelligent Design as an attack on the Bible.

In 2004, John Wilson wrote:

Unintelligent Debate | It's time to cool the rhetoric in the Intelligent Design dispute. (Sept. 03, 2004)

Christianity Today coverage of science, evolution, and Intelligent Design includes:

God by the Numbers | Coincidence and random mutation are not the most likely explanations for some things. (March 10, 2006)
Intelligent Design Is Too Religious For Schools, Judge Rules | "Abundantly clear" that it's updated creationism, he says. (Dec. 21, 2005)
Design Film Sparks Angst | Under fire, Smithsonian disavows presentation on Intelligent Design. (July 6, 2005)
Science that Backs Up Faith | There is overwhelming evidence for a creator, says Lee Strobel. (June 1, 2005)
Verdict that Demands Evidence | It is Darwinists, not Christians, who are stonewalling the facts. (March 28, 2005)
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Were the Darwinists Wrong? | National Geographic stacks the deck. (Nov. 23, 2004)
The Art of Debating Darwin | How to intelligently design a winning case for God's role in creation. (Sept. 08, 2004)
The Dick Staub Interview: William Dembski's Revolution | The author of Intelligent Design set out to answer the toughest questions about the movement he helped promote. (March 30, 2004)
'A Nuclear Bomb' For Evolution? | Critics of Darwinism say skull's discovery isn't all it's cracked up to be. (Aug. 14, 2002)
Your Darwin Is Too Large | Evolution's significance for theology has been greatly exaggerated. (May 25, 2000)

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