The Darwinist hegemony in the natural sciences may be threatened by a cutting-edge, revolutionary movement that sees intelligent design in nature -- and a Designer.
Chemist Charles Thaxton was amazed 15 years ago when "The Mystery of Life's Origin," a book he coauthored on chemical evolution with two other scientists, provoked a very positive response from scientists around the country. Thaxton, a visiting assistant professor at Charles University in Prague, expected a negative reaction, if indeed the book (which since has come to be regarded as one of the opening salvos in what is called the Intelligent Design Movement) even was so much as noticed.
After all, "The Mystery of Life's Origin," which became a best-selling college text, tentatively proposed the case for intelligent design in nature and pointed out serious flaws in Darwinism. Such views were regarded as unthinkable and most definitely unscientific by the vast majority of scientists at the time, not only because Intelligent Design suggested that evolution wasn't the random, chaotic process most biologists believed it to be but (even more unacceptably) indicated the probable existence of a designer -- God, perhaps -- who was responsible for the design. The notion that a designer might be at work behind nature was a concept no self-respecting scientist wanted to bring into the scientific scheme of things.
"I didn't think anyone would accept the book. When we wrote it, it was like being a lone wolf out there," Thaxton tells Insight. "Hard-core materialists aren't going to tolerate intelligence in nature," he says. "Then I got lots of calls from scientists and mathematicians who did" -- men and women in a variety of scientific fields who were coming to the same conclusions that Thaxton had described in "The Mystery of Life's Origin." They (like Thaxton and his coauthors) daily were coming across data in their laboratories and scientific pursuits that no longer could be explained by the standard model of Darwinian evolution. Such data could be better -- and more scientifically -- understood by arguing that certain highly complex entities in nature -- the DNA molecule, for example -- had been designed to do what they do and hadn't evolved randomly, by accident, which is how Darwinian evolution says they came about.
William Dembski was one of those who got in touch with
Thaxton. Dembski, a young man with a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago, a second Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a master's degree in theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, had a strong conviction that Thaxton not only was right but onto something that was going to revolutionize the way man looks at nature and the way biologists approach their field. He wanted to be part of that revolution.
Dembski recently published his own addition to the ever-growing Intelligent Design Movement, a closely argued book that he calls "The Design Inference," in which Dembski (whose impressive list of degrees led one friend to describe him as "the perpetual student") brings to bear his knowledge of symbolic logic and mathematics to argue in favor of design in nature. Dembski's book is one of the latest and most impressive contributions that grace Design studies (the name its adherents like to call it), which is a new branch of science that has grown increasingly sophisticated since Thaxton's contribution 15 years ago.
Between Thaxton's coauthored book and Dembski's very recent contribution, the Intelligent Design Movement has traveled quite a distance, and more developments are on the way, its adherents promise. Intelligent Design now has its own professional journal, "Origins & Design." Many of its advocates belong to a think tank, the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, though many of those associated with the center are located elsewhere: Dembski, for example, is in Dallas, and Thaxton remains in Prague. And the movement has its own magazine for nonscientists, the glossy quarterly "Cosmic Pursuit," in which scientists such as Thaxton and Dembski present their ideas for the general reader.
What, then, are those ideas? First, they argue that their defense of Design arises directly out of the empirical data they have observed as scientists, rather than from any theological or philosophical notions they may hold. "Discoveries in mathematics and biology are making way for Design and a Designer," says Thaxton. And Michael Behe, a Lehigh University biochemist who is author of one of the Intelligent Design Movement's most important texts, "Darwin's Black Box" (1996), tells Insight, "Intelligent Design flows directly out of the data that now are available."
What makes this claim significant is that it makes Intelligent Design a phenomenon to be dealt with and studied scientifically rather than a topic left to religion or other pursuits. It's a claim that leads directly to the other principal argument made by Intelligent Design adherents: that science as it now is constituted isn't adequate to deal with the discovery of intelligent design in nature because science is too closely wed to materialistic and naturalistic interpretations of what nature is.
This is a very revolutionary claim. What's at the basis of the argument, says Dembski, is a controversy over "the nature of nature." Dembski finds naturalistic science "impoverished" when it comes to handling intelligent design. How impoverished? Because materialism and naturalism assume that natural explanations will suffice to answer every question that arises in science, and this simply won't do when it comes to dealing with the phenomenon of Design. (Indeed, any Intelligent Design Movement advocate will tell you that understanding how to deal with design in nature scientifically is one of the chief problems facing the movement.)
Intelligent Design does not argue any specific theology. "The word 'Designer' doesn't necessarily mean the God of Genesis," says Thaxton (though it doesn't exclude Him). "My view is that from the empirical data we have we cannot make affirmation of a deity. It is the possibility [of a deity] that we arrive at." Thaxton explains that it is a "generic design that we talk about in Intelligent Design. When people want to go beyond that, that's where their particular views [about God] come in."
What makes the Intelligent Design Movement so revolutionary is that it goes full force against the perceived wisdom of science, and particularly biology. Darwinism pervades every aspect of Western civilization, Dembski notes. And Darwinists argue that there is no design in nature, none at all that would suggest a designer. Everything in nature, say the Darwinists, is the result of random evolution, with no design that would suggest direction or planning.
Here is how one of the world's foremost Darwinists, Oxford University's Richard Dawkins, described this worldview in his 1995 book, "River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life," a direct attack on the possibility of design in nature: "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."
The Darwinian position was put in even starker words by Peter Atkins in his book "The Second Law," which appeared in 1984, the same year that Thaxton and his coauthors published "The Mystery of Life's Origin:" "We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the universe."
Against this dominant Darwinian view, Thaxton's argument for Intelligent Design, reduced to simplest terms, runs like this: The DNA molecule, the basis of life, is a message, he says. It is information coded in a double helix. It's not like a message; it is the message. The molecule itself is an elaborate, complex design that is a message.
We humans know from experience that, when there's a message, an intelligence created that message, Thaxton says. No other explanation will suffice to account for the existence of the message. We don't receive letters from a random, undirected source, for example. Thus the implication is clear that DNA, a message, was produced by intelligent design. "We know from experience that when there is a design, there is a designer." . . . . Behe takes on Darwinism from a different angle. A Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, Behe argues that life at its most fundamental is "irreducibly complex," a phrase he has added to the Intelligent Design debate. To explain what he means by irreducibly complex, Behe talks about a mousetrap, a human construction made up of a base, hammer, spring and holding bar, each of which is needed for the mousetrap to work. Without any one of the aspects, the mousetrap would not be a mousetrap.
Nature, too, has examples of irreducible complexity -- the system in a cell that targets proteins for delivery to subcellular compartments, for example. Almost every one of the components that make up this system is necessary for the system to work.
Without one of the components, the proteins are not delivered to their proper destination.
Behe argues that the development of such an elaborate and complex system in Darwinian evolutionary terms by one small step after another simply won't do, because during any step prior to all the complex parts working together, the system would be nonfunctional. What is the probability of all those parts that have to work together starting to work together at a given moment? Just as the irreducible complexity of a mousetrap indicates a design that renders the possibility of its parts working together, so the irreducible complexity of the cellular protein-delivery system indicates design.
Behe likes to quote from Darwin himself to show the importance of irreducible complexity when it comes to Darwinian theory. In the "Origin of Species" Darwin wrote: "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." Behe believes that the existence of such a complex organ already has been demonstrated.
It's very important to scientists such as Thaxton, Behe and others in the Intelligent Design Movement that their design arguments be recognized as scientific. Indeed Thaxton, a Christian, spent a great deal of time asking himself, "Am I outside the bounds of science?" and finally decided that he wasn't but adds that it's incumbent upon Intelligent Design adherents that "we come to a realistic understanding of what the movement is without destroying the integrity of science."
Thaxton takes a certain solace in the fact that the contemporary Design Movement isn't introducing something new to science. The great physicist Sir Isaac Newton (who died in 1727), for example, wrote, "This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being."
Dembski likes to mention the English divine William Paley who published his "Natural Theology" in 1802 in which he made his famous argument that if we came upon a watch in a field, we would assume that it was made by intelligence because its various parts are directed toward one aim: the telling of time. (Paley also had much to say about the complexity of the mammalian eye, which seemed to him to indicate design. Darwin, who was equally in awe of the complexity of the human eye, concluded that, despite this complexity, the eye could have evolved small step by small step over time.)
Behe is optimistic about the future of the Intelligent Design Movement: "I don't know whether it's going to be two years or 20, but that's where the data of science is heading," he says. "Scientists sense that something's not quite right. There are new ideas we need new definitions for."
Dembski, whose recent book, "The Design Inference," presents in great detail how the Intelligent Design argument satisfies logic and probability, likes to compare the movement's influence on science to the freedom and democracy movements and their effect on Eastern Europe. Criticism of Darwinism now threatens the hegemony of Darwinism, he says, just as the move toward freedom upset the Soviet empire.
Dembski emphasizes that the Intelligent Design Movement must prove its scientific mettle, but he nonetheless waxes expansive about where Intelligent Design thinking may lead: "Questions of morality can seemingly be added." Also possible: "revival of the whole notion of natural law."
Thaxton, who will chair a seminar on "Detecting Design in Nature" at the annual gathering of the American Scientific Affiliation in July, compares the situation Intelligent Design now is in with where quantum physics was a century ago. Max Planck, the quantum theorist, despaired somewhat about getting his theory accepted by his fellow physicists, Thaxton points out. He concluded that for his theory to gain respectability, a whole generation of scientists would have to die off and be replaced by younger men and women with more-flexible minds, ready to move in the direction data took them, which would be toward the quantum hypothesis. What has to be done to make Intelligent Design accepted, he concludes, "is to overcome the inertia of the age."
By Stephen Goode. http://www.insightmag.com/articles/story4.html. Washington, D.C. Vol. 15, No. 14 -- April 19, 1999.
[ Previous | Contents | Next ]