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Science vs. science

National | The debate over the teaching of evolution isn't just in Kansas anymore, as other states take up the issue. While these battles make headlines, they are the fruit of a scholarly movement that has shaken up the scientific establishment. WORLD talked to four "Intelligent Design" revolutionaries who are fighting Darwinists on their own terms

Issue: "Georgia twisters," Feb. 26, 2000

The evolution debate reignited this month as Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson ruled that Oklahoma's State Textbook Committee doesn't have the authority to require that biology textbooks carry a disclaimer that calls Darwinism a "controversial theory." (Committee members plan to challenge the ruling.) Meanwhile, in Louisiana, the Tangipahoa School Board voted 5-4 against taking a defense of a similar disclaimer to the U.S. Supreme Court after an appeals court declared that the disclaimer is unconstitutional. While none of this is good news for those who question Darwinism, one thing is clear: Darwinists are being forced to play defense. A major reason why is the emergence over the last few years of the Intelligent Design movement-a group of scholars and writers who argue that the world and its creatures show evidence of design. Who are some of the authors behind this movement? WORLD spoke with four of them. Ignore That Man Behind the Curtain
In 1987, when UC Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson asked God what he should do with the rest of his life, he didn't know he'd wind up playing Toto to the ersatz wizards of Darwinism. But a fateful trip by a London bookstore hooked Mr. Johnson on a comparative study of evolutionary theory. And by 1993, Mr. Johnson's book Darwin on Trial had begun peeling back the thin curtain of science that shielded evolution to reveal what lay behind: Darwinian philosophers churning out a powerful scientific mirage. Darwin on Trial was the result of Mr. Johnson's years-long, lawyerly dissection of arguments for evolution. The forensic strategies of prominent evolutionists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould reminded Mr. Johnson of courtroom sleight-of-hand: Their materialist definition of terms decided the debate before opening arguments could begin. "I could see," he said, "that evolution was not so much science as a philosophy that Darwinists had adopted in the teeth of the facts." Once evolutionists read his book, they were eager to sink their teeth into Mr. Johnson, whom they saw as a middle-aged, Harvard-educated dilettante sticking his unscientific nose where it didn't belong. Critics lined up to debate him. But once engaged, his adversaries found him to be both ruthlessly intelligent and maddeningly congenial. With his agreeable, favorite-uncle face, wire-rimmed specs, and a perpetual smile in his voice, it was hard not to like Mr. Johnson as he shredded their arguments. And, of all things, he even wanted to be friends when the debates were through. "I've been overplayed as a controversialist," said Mr. Johnson, who sees such bridge-building as his greatest strength. (God built a bridge to him during the failure of his first marriage, when he became a Christian believer. He met his second wife Kathie at a Presbyterian church conference.) "I see myself as a person who tries to build alliances and friendships. To win the debate, you have to carry both the moral high ground and the intellectual high ground rather than try to win by any sort of power tactics. That's really what we're trying to teach people." The "we" is the cadre of intelligent design (ID) proponents for whom Mr. Johnson acted as an early fulcrum. In the early 1990s, as formidable scientists and theoreticians like Michael Behe, William Dembski, and others emerged in support of design theory, Mr. Johnson made contact, exchanged flurries of email, and arranged personal meetings. He frames these alliances as a "wedge strategy," with himself as lead blocker and ID scientists carrying the ball in behind him. "We're unifying the divided people and dividing the unified people," he said, adding that the "unified people" refers to Darwinists who at present occupy increasingly dissonant camps. The debate, he argues, is being successfully reformulated in a way that changes the balance of influence and "puts the right questions on the table." Evidence of an influence shift comes in varied forms: For example, Paul Nelson, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, was able to get approval for a Ph.D. dissertation arguing against the theory of common ancestry-a mighty feat at a liberal, secular university. (Mr. Nelson's book on the same topic will be published this year.) And Baylor mathematician William Dembski is spearheading a conference in April at which heavy-hitting secular academics will present papers on both sides of the evolutionary argument. Such double-edged debates delight Mr. Johnson. "The whole 'wedge' philosophy isn't that you present answers and people listen. It's that you get people debating the right questions, like 'How can you tell reason from rationalization?' and 'Can natural processes create genetic information?'" This summer, Mr. Johnson will publish a new book, The Wedge of Truth, a volume that frames fundamental questions he feels people ought to be debating in the controversy over origins. "Once you get the right questions on the table," Mr. Johnson said, "you can relax a bit, because if people are discussing the right questions instead of the wrong ones, then the discussion will be moving in the direction of truth instead of away from it." The Third Atom Bomb
The reeducation of Michael Behe began in a green recliner. On a chill fall night in the same year Mr. Johnson was seeking direction from God, Mr. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University, sat at home in that recliner, transfixed by a book that shook the very foundations of his own understanding of science. It was three in the morning before he finished Michael Denton's book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, and turned out the lights. Nine years later, Mr. Behe himself published a book that began turning out the lights on the theory of evolution. "Although I had pretty much believed evolution, because that's what I was taught, I always had an uneasy feeling and questions in my mind," said Mr. Behe, a Roman Catholic who grew up in a family of eight children in Harrisburg, Penn. "After reading Denton's book, and seeing his rational, scientific approach to the problem, I decided I had signed on to something that just was not well-supported. And, since evolution is such a strong component of many people's view of how the world works, I started to wonder: What else have I been told that is unsupported, or not true? It was a very intense, intellectual time." That intensity ultimately gelled into Darwin's Black Box (Free Press 1996), a book that hit secular scientists like an atom bomb. Charles Darwin himself had already provided a pass-fail test for his theory: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." Mr. Behe's book (now in its 16th printing) was the first to administer Mr. Darwin's own test at the molecular level. Using simple yet scientifically bulletproof analyses, Mr. Behe showed that even at the cellular level many structures are "irreducibly complex," meaning that all parts of a structure have to be present in order for the structure to function at all. Thus, the slow, gradual changes proposed by Darwin were as likely to have led to the spontaneous formation of complex structures as are flour, sugar, eggs, and milk likely to gradually coalesce into a wedding cake. Mr. Behe wrote: "Applying Darwin's test to the ultra-complex world of molecular machinery and systems that have been discovered over the past 40 years, we can say that Darwin's theory has 'absolutely broken down.'" Most of Mr. Behe's secular critics did not, of course, agree. His work has been the target of both scholarly rebuttal and brainless invective. But on the whole, Darwin's Black Box received surprisingly respectful treatment. Not only did many Christian groups name it one of the most important books of the 20th century, but reporters from the mainstream press also flocked to Bethlehem, Penn., to see what made Mr. Behe tick. Secular universities slated him for speaking engagements. The venerable New York Times even shocked Mr. Behe by inviting him to submit an article explaining the main thesis of his book. Still, Mr. Behe, who seems somewhat embarrassed that his name appears on "important author" lists with the likes of Tolkien and Solzhenitsyn, doesn't see himself as a scientific crusader. He doesn't look like one either. At a recent conference on intelligent design, the bearded Mr. Behe emerged as the Anti-Suit. Opting to take the podium in his usual uniform of a plaid shirt, blue jeans, and workboots, he looked, while lecturing, like what he is: a dad. "I do not see myself as called to overturn thinking on evolution in the world," Mr. Behe said. "My primary focus is my marriage and my family. I see myself as called to raise my eight children, and anything else is gravy." But what about having written a book that decimated the fallacious underpinnings of modern science? That, he allows with a smile, is pretty good gravy indeed. God's Mathematician
It's easy to imagine what William Dembski's wife finds in the dryer lint trap after washing her husband's pants: equations. Long, elegant equations replete with tangents, vectors, and permutations tangled unceremoniously with tissue shreds in the lint trap. When Mr. Dembski speaks, equations come out. When he writes, equations come out. Surely he must keep a few spare equations in his pockets. A mathematician with two Ph.D.s and director of Baylor University's Polyani Center, an information theory research group, Mr. Dembski is a long string-bean of a man who would rather listen than speak. But swirling behind his glasses and thin, angular face is an intellect that helped vault intelligent design theory from the realm of the possible to the province of the probable. His book, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press 1998), set secular scientists' skirts afire by crafting for the first time a scientifically rigorous "explanatory filter" for detecting design. "In the scientific community, there is always the worry that when we make an attribution of design, that natural causes will end up explaining it," said Mr. Dembski, who is also a Discovery Institute senior fellow and the man whom author George Gilder once called "God's mathematician." "There's the sense that we 'can't do science' with design because we can't get a handle on it, or do it reliably. My work is aimed at refuting that view and showing that we can have a reliable criterion for detecting design and distinguishing it from other modes of explanations" of origins. Mr. Dembski describes his own formative concept of origins as a "vague, theistic belief." The son of a biologist (he now lives in Irving, Texas, with wife Jana and 8-month old daughter Chloe), he said: "There was a time when I accepted some form of evolutionary theory." But his understanding of God as the designer solidified early in his 20-year Christian walk. Still, he points out that his theories-and intelligent design theory in general-spells designer with a small d. "Although I would personally identify God as the designer on theological grounds, the Bible is not entering into these discussions. Intelligent design theorists are trying to make it a fully rigorous, scientific enterprise." As a result, Mr. Dembski sees not only a growing acceptance of ID theory among scientific faculty at Christian colleges, but also an emerging community of theistic academics at secular universities. But Massimo Pigliucci isn't one of them. A biologist, Mr. Pigliucci's sputtering, angry review of The Design Inference published in the journal BioScience called Mr. Dembski's work "trivial," "nonsensical," and "part of a large, well-planned movement whose object ... is nothing less than the destruction of modern science." Mr. Dembski loved it. "If the worst humiliation is not to be taken seriously, at least we're being taken seriously," adding that even fellow Darwinists panned Mr. Pigliucci's intemperate reaction to Mr. Dembski's book. "If we're generating such strong, visceral responses, we must be doing something right." Making It Clear
When it comes to baby toys, Steve Meyer doesn't play favorites. Whether he's lecturing 19-year-old college freshmen or arguing for intelligent design before science elites, Mr. Meyer has no qualms about pressing together chains of brightly colored snap-lock beads or launching a superball across the room. All, of course, in the name of science. "I've found that most people, even scientists, don't mind having ideas made clear," said Mr. Meyer, a philosopher of science and a professor at Whitworth College in Spokane. "In intelligent design, making ideas clear is all to our advantage because the case for Darwinism really depends a lot on obfuscation. So, if [Darwinists] can conceal that with lots of difficult jargon and technical terminology, they can keep everybody but the experts out." It's Mr. Meyer's aim to let the non-experts in. Tall, intense, and personable, he calls himself a "shameless popularizer" and is the acknowledged PR-guy for the design movement. Speaking to a mixed group of scientists, philosophers, and journalists at a recent intelligent design conference in L.A., he blew up balloons and slapped magnetic letters on a child-sized whiteboard to simplify explanations of evidence for design in DNA. When he was through, the philosophers and journalists actually understood what he was talking about. Mr. Meyer arrived at his own understanding of life's origins between shifts at Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) oilfields in Dallas. After graduating from Whitworth in 1980, Mr. Meyer went to work for ARCO as a geophysicist. In 1985, a conference convened in Dallas that brought together top philosophers, cosmologists, and biologists to discuss the interrelationship of recent scientific findings and religion. Mr. Meyer, who basically wandered in off the street to listen in, found his own vaguely held notions of theistic evolution dismantled by former big-gun Darwinists who had themselves concluded that scientific evidence pointed to an intelligent designer of the universe. "For me, it was a seminal event, a turning point," Mr. Meyers said. "I saw that there was an exciting, intellectual program here worth pursuing." It was a turning point that would lead him to Cambridge University where, in 1991, he earned his doctorate in the history and philosophy of science for a dissertation on origin-of-life biology. Now, Mr. Meyer divides his time between Whitworth and his position as director of the Seattle-based Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. The center, says its mission statement, "seeks to challenge materialism on specifically scientific grounds." Mr. Meyer said the center was founded as an academic end-run around secular university research departments held hostage by Darwinists. With its corps of 40 research fellows in disciplines ranging from genetics to biology to artificial intelligence, he contends the center has the academic firepower to engineer a profound shift in the naturalistic paradigm that now dominates the culture. For his part, Mr. Meyer stays busy with fundraising, budget management, and his own research on the evidence for design in DNA. (His book, DNA by Design, will be published this year). He also keeps design theory alive in public forums. For example, when last year's controversy regarding the teaching of evolution in Kansas erupted, Mr. Meyer debated evolutionary biologists on National Public Radio. And his science and op-ed pieces appear in major papers, including The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. Of course, his critics publish op-eds of their own. He, like his ID colleagues, is regularly slammed as "anti-scientific" and "anti-intellectual." "The gatekeepers of evolutionary theory are very worried about the design movement," Mr. Meyer said. "It's got a huge appeal with students, it's framed in a way that makes their position very unattractive, and the evidence supports it. When it was religion versus science, evolutionists won that debate every time." Now, it's science versus science, he said. And the debate evolutionists had thought was settled has only just begun.

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