Cover Story

The evolution backlash: Debunking Darwin

"The evolution backlash: Debunking Darwin" Continued...

Issue: "Evolution Counter-Revolution," March 1, 1997

The design movement offers more than new and improved critiques of evolutionary theory, however. Its goal is to show that intelligent design also functions as a positive research program. That task has been taken up by Michael Behe of Lehigh University. In Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Mr. Behe introduces the concept of &quotirreducible complexity." At the bedrock of life, in the microscopic world of the cell, we find molecular machines consisting of interrelated parts, all of which are necessary for the machines to work. Such structures cannot have emerged gradually by any conceivable Darwinian process.

With his thick glasses and infectious smile, Mr. Behe has an aw-shucks air about him, reinforced by the casual tone of his trademark plaid shirt and dungarees. He is Irish Catholic, has several children, and illuminates his arguments with homey analogies. His favorite example of irreducible complexity is a mousetrap: You can't take part of a mousetrap--say, the wooden base--and catch a few mice, then add a spring and catch a few more, and so on. You need the complete contraption from the start to catch even one mouse.

The same is true of the molecular structures that carry on the business of life. They consist of co-adapted, mutually dependent parts that must co-exist from the start. Such irreducible complexity, Mr. Behe argues, is evidence of intelligence. The book's impeccably argued case has won respectful reviews in Nature, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and WORLD (Oct. 12, 1996). The Boston Review, published by MIT, recently ran several reviews of Mr. Behe's book, and an upcoming issue will feature a symposium with Mr. Behe and Mr. Johnson as participants. The design argument is proving that it can secure a beachhead in the hostile world of secular academia.

The design movement had its birth in the early 1970s, in a tiny French-speaking village perched on the snowy peaks of the Swiss Alps. At Francis Schaeffer's ministry &quotL'Abri," Charles Thaxton, fresh from a doctoral program in chemistry, wrestled with the implications of his faith. Did life begin in a chemical soup? &quotCriticisms of origin-of-life theories were showing up in the scientific literature," Mr. Thaxton recalls. &quotBut I kept thinking of the verse, 'Overcome evil with good.' I felt Christians should offer a positive alternative." That alternative was intelligent design.

Mr. Thaxton left L'Abri and formalized his ideas in The Mystery of Life's Origin, co-authored with Walter Bradley and Roger Olsen. The book's theme is that DNA is essentially intelligence encoded in a biological structure, which implies that it was created by an intelligent agent. This is a conclusion based not on religious faith but on ordinary experience: Whenever we see a message--whether written on paper, flashing on the computer screen, or scratched in the sand--we invariably assume that it was written by an intelligent agent.

&quotThe idea of intelligent causes is just as scientific as the idea of natural causes," argues Mr. Thaxton, who now teaches at Charles University in Prague. &quotIn both cases, we draw our evidence from experience." What kind of experience? &quotIn ordinary life we distinguish natural from intelligent causes all the time--when police officers determine whether a person died of natural causes or was murdered, when archaeologists decide whether a chipped rock is just a rock or a paleolithic tool. Why can't we use the same reasoning in natural science?"

With its devastating critique of origin-of-life theories, Mystery was reviewed in top professional journals such as the Yale Journal of Biology, and it is still used in graduate schools across the nation for its sheer scientific cogency. Another important impetus for the design movement was the crushing critique of neo- Darwinism offered in Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, written by then-agnostic Michael Denton. Today's resurgence of controversies in education was fueled partly by a high school biology supplement, Of Pandas and People, published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics in Richardson, Texas. About 15,000 books have been sold for use in public schools.

But a movement requires more than good ideas, and the glue holding the design movement together is largely the organizing energy of Phillip Johnson. He has worked tirelessly to institutionalize the design paradigm, crafting it as the &quotbig tent" for the evangelical world. He maintains lively e-mail conversations with a wide range of scientists, philosophers, and journalists. He worked behind the scenes to establish a fellowship program at the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in Seattle, to found a new professional journal (Origins and Design), and to organize a series of conferences, the first held last fall at Biola University (see WORLD, Nov. 30/Dec. 7, 1996).


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