Evolution revolution

Scientists and educators fear conservative political muscle could force religious ideology into public school classrooms

Community college class. Adults, returning students, meeting together at night for the needed biology course. Plants cells are studied under a microscope. A frog is dissected. Students learn about the unity and diversity of life in Unit One of the textbook, about cell reproduction and observable patterns of inheritance in Unit Three.

Students get to know the soft-spoken teacher, an adjunct faculty member with a passion for the subject. Religion comes up, as does a student’s challenge to scientific thought on the origins of the universe.

That’s probably why the young instructor skips Unit Six on evolution altogether. “Too controversial,” he says. The class never cracks open its $80 biology books to page 538 to study population genetics. Students don’t read about natural selection, speciation and the fossil record but jump ahead to the study of viruses and fungi.

After all, most of these adults aren’t heading for degrees in the sciences. They merely want to be teachers.

“It’s very unfortunate that this takes place,” says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, when she hears the above true account of a college biology course. Skipping a discussion of evolution in a biology class is like skipping the Periodic Table of Elements in a chemistry class, she says.

"[Evolution] is what makes biology make sense, what ties together the facts that we know,” Scott says. “If you don’t have that substratum of common descent, you’re just memorizing words.”

Scott, whose office is in Oakland, Calif., will be coming to Reno on Jan. 20 to talk about “The Evolution of Creationism.” You’ve probably heard a thing or two about scientific creationism—the idea that science can demonstrate God made plants and animals in thousands of separate acts of special creation in six days, as the Judeo-Christian Bible maintains.

When Scott, a physical anthropologist turned advocate for science education, comes to the University of Nevada, Reno, she’ll talk about how the strategies of creationists have changed in order to gain acceptance from the scientific community and to get anti-evolutionary materials into public schools. Gone is talk of God and the Bible. Challenges to evolution now come in smart, well-wrapped packages carefully put together by the proponents of “intelligent design.”

Intelligent design advocates say they’re open to the idea that an intelligent orderly force, itself of inexplicable origin, crafted the universe. They call their ideas “a theory for making sense of intelligent causes.”

Scott calls intelligent design “new wine in old bottles"—an evolved form of creationism.

After the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 struck down an equal-time provision for teaching creationism in public schools, anti-evolutionists scrambled to find ways to get material into classrooms, says Scott. Now, proposals for science curriculum revisions are packaged as “critical thinking” or “teaching the controversy.”

Intelligent design proponents argue for the teaching of “the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.” This sounds logical and not explicitly religious, Scott says.

“Ask the average person on the street, ‘Should we be teaching strengths and weaknesses of evolution?’ They’re going to say sure. Ask them, ‘Should we teach the strengths and weaknesses of heliocentrism?’ And they’ll say sure.”

But ask a scientist about the “strengths and weaknesses of heliocentrism"—the theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun—and you’ll get a blank stare.

“There aren’t any alternatives to the Earth going around the Sun,” Scott says. “Ask a biologist about the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, and you’ll get that same blank look.”

With intelligent design, gone are the controversies that made scientific creationism untenable.

“They avoid fact claims, like the Grand Canyon being cut by Noah’s flood or the earth being 10,000 years old,” Scott says. “Intelligent-design proponents make virtually no fact claims whatsoever, and that gives them a more bullet-proof position.”

“This is what I was made for,” says mathematician William Dembski of his role as a leading voice in the intelligent-design community. “I’m charged. … I enjoy the rough and tumble of debate.”

Don’t let his theology degree fool you. Dembski, who now carries out his research at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, says critics get hung up on his degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. They overlook the fact that he also has doctoral degrees in philosophy and mathematics and a master’s degree in statistics.

“To some,” Dembski says, chuckling, “if I had less education, I’d be more qualified.”

Actually, that’s not what his critics fault. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, “Dembski is a philosopher and a mathematician, not a biologist.” And he’s director of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for Science and Theology.

Intelligent design is not, as his critics contend, “pseudo-science” or “creationism in a cheap tuxedo,” Dembski argues.

Intelligent design functions at “a purely scientific level,” Dembski says, referencing his books, Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities and No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence. His credentials include working on a mathematical “explanatory filter” in order to predict whether events, like the development of a plant or animal, occur randomly or are the products of design.

“You’re looking for scientific detectability of intelligence in the natural world,” he says. That doesn’t necessarily mean “God” but it does imply an “unevolved intelligence.”

The question of an “unevolved intelligence” sets the scientific community on edge, he says, as do the implications of intelligent design.

“The elite in our culture are materialistic and atheistic,” Dembski says. “Intelligent design challenges their materialistic science and materialistic evolutionary theory. If you look at discipline after discipline, it’s been evolutionized—medicine, business, religion, literature. … If we are right, all these superstructures built on evolution need to be questioned.”

In September, Dembski and others met at a conference in New Mexico, “Darwin, Design and Democracy V,” to discuss, among other things, strategies for working intelligent-design ideas into public school curriculums.

The DDD-V Web site frames the debate like this: “Should those institutions seek to inform students about this intellectually stimulating scientific controversy, or should they be provided only with a bland diet of information which supports a naturalistic world view that happens to support non-theistic religions and belief systems?”

Intelligent design does have many scientists and educators worried. But they aren’t afraid of a scientific challenge.

“There is no debate within science over whether evolution happened, only how it happened,” says Scott. “To dissemble to students that there is an actual controversy going on is miseducating them and also lying to them.”

David Zeh, biology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, not only agrees but in an interview said at least three times that evolution is not scientifically controversial.

“Modern evolutionary biology has so many fundamentally important practical applications in fields ranging from drug design to conservation biology,” Zeh says. “Any attempt to subvert its scientific integrity is, in my opinion, a threat to national security.”

Challenges to the teaching of evolution in public schools are on the table in Kansas, Missouri and South Carolina.

In suburban Atlanta, a lawsuit was recently filed against the school district for its 2002 adoption of a warning sticker for science textbooks that says evolution is “theory, not a fact.” In Roseville, Calif., science teachers rejected the efforts of a group that wanted to add anti-evolutionist materials to the district science curriculum.

In October, Wired magazine ran a cover story, “The Crusade Against Evolution,” equating intelligent design to the “next generation of scientific creationism.”

In November, National Geographic ran a cover story by David Quammen, author of The Song of the Dodo, a lengthy book about island biogeography and extinction. The National Geographic story’s title: “Was Darwin Wrong?”

Quammen’s answer: “No.”

“If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that [evolution] is ‘just’ a theory,” Quammen writes. He lists other “theories"—the notion that Earth orbits the sun, continental drift, the existence of atoms and electricity. “Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact.”

So far, local groups haven’t argued for anti-evolution curriculum revisions in the Washoe County School District, as far as district spokesman Steve Mulvenon knows.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, will speak at the University of Nevada Jan. 20 on the topic “The Evolution of Creationism.”

Photo By David Robert

“I have heard nothing here about this issue at all,” Mulvenon says, “which, given the conservative nature of the community, is surprising.” But some educators remain wary.

Tom Nickles, chairman of UNR’s philosophy department, is concerned about the growing power of the religious right and the corresponding push for anti-evolutionary curriculum in public schools.

“It’s going to be a huge issue,” Nickles says. “The current administration with its faith-based politics is deliberately catering to certain segments. With [religious conservatives] claiming credit for Bush’s reelection, saying, ‘We didn’t just help, we did it, so now it’s pay-off time,’ there’s an especially hot political connection.”

In November, a CBS News post-election poll found that 55 percent of Americans believe that “God created humans in present form.” Only 13 percent believe humans evolved without the God’s help. Of those who voted to reelect George Bush, 67 percent believe in special creation by God—and half of the Bush backers surveyed said they’d support replacing evolution with creationism in public school curriculums.

In the courses he teaches on the philosophy of religion, Nickles finds university students are confused about Darwinian evolution.

“They say, ‘Oh, gosh, evolution is such a controversial area,’ “ Nickles says. “But scientifically, it’s not controversial. Politically it’s not, except in the United States of America. The brouhaha is here. In any other country in the world, people wonder what the fuss is about. People in America get all tied up in religious knots.”

He notes that, of Christian sects, only biblical literalists are actually opposed to evolutionary theory.

“Fundamentalists and evangelicals have dominated the press, but the majority of Christian churches, even the Catholic Church, accept evolution,” he says. “Within Christianity, the fundamentalists and evangelicals are loud, but they are by no means speaking for all Christians, not by a long shot.”

In confirmation, Brother Matthew Cunningham, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Reno, notes that a papal decree in the 1950s, reiterated since, allows that evolution is compatible with Christianity, that science and religion need not be at odds.

“How we came into being is not necessarily an issue,” Cunningham says. “However God created us, in six days or six million years, that doesn’t diminish God’s power.”

In The Origin of the Species, Darwin wrote: “When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei ["The voice of the people is the voice of God"], as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science.”

Appealing to the sensibilities of the spiritually seeking masses is what advocates of intelligent design do best. Dembski, somewhat defensively, says he’s an evangelical Protestant. But he’s often sought out by people with diverse belief systems, from Hinduism to Buddhism.

“Increasingly, people with any sense of religious sensibilities believe there’s an underlying purpose to the world,” Dembski says. “And intelligent design is the only view opposed to the reductionist materialism that prevails in the academy and in the scientific view of the elites of the culture. Most of the unwashed masses, and I count myself among them, believe there’s a sense of purpose. We’re giving a voice to those people, saying ‘The science backs you up.’ “

Like those ancient critics of heliocentrism, Dembski references common sense to prove a design inference. For example: You’re driving through South Dakota, Dembski says, and you come upon a rock formation with the faces of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.

“Are you going to think to yourself, ‘Did wind and erosion do that?’ “ Dembski asks. “No. But that’s what the Darwinists are saying, that natural forces brought about this complexity. Obviously Mount Rushmore is the result of intelligence.”

What do we know about the creation of Stonehenge, Dembski asks, and how do we know that a radio signal coming from space isn’t a sign of intelligence?

“In virtually every instance, scientists say, ‘That’s a good question.’ But don’t bring up the question in biology. Suddenly the G-word comes to the fore.”

The G-word: God.

Because scientists are, in Dembski’s view, biased against religious explanations for natural phenomena, they refuse to accept the fact that Darwinian evolution is a theory in crisis, that traditional scientists are dinosaurs facing extinction as they desperately cling to theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest.

“The question is, how long do you keep beating your head against the wall?” Dembski says. “We’re not telling Darwinian evolutionists to stop. Let them beat their heads against the wall. We just want to try some new approaches.”

Tom Nickles, chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Nevada, Reno, says evolution is not controversial on a scientific basis.

Photo By David Robert

When he hears about evolution being a theory in crisis, Zeh sighs. In the past five years, the amount of evidence—from fossil records to genomic research—has increased exponentially, says Zeh, who teaches UNR’s undergraduate course in evolution.

“It’s a fact, an observable process,” Zeh says, “if defined as the change in genetic composition of a population across generations, which is typically how evolution is defined. It’s an observable process—quantifiable and well documented.”

He points to the antibiotic resistance in the bacterium that causes tuberculosis and insecticide resistance in houseflies as just a couple of documented cases of observable evolution. The fossil record for Homo sapiens, already good, has gotten “tremendously better” in the past four years, he says.

The idea that, say, a human cell is so complex that it must be the work of an “intelligent designer” harkens back to 18th-century Christian philosopher William Paley, who came up with the watch metaphor for intelligent design. A watch, Paley argued, was so intricate, “so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day,” that it could not result from chance. “The watch must have had a maker,” Paley wrote in Natural Theology.

The fallacy in Paley’s argument was as evident to Darwin in the 19th century as it is to many scientists today.

“You have to look at it as a historical process and at what you see in the fossil record,” Zeh says. “There’s good evidence of transitions from simple organisms to much more complex organisms.”

About 3.8 billion years ago, the first fossil evidence of single-celled bacteria appears. It took at least another billion years for evidence of eukaryotes (organisms that have cells with a nucleus) to appear. Time is the key.

“Natural selection is not a chance process,” Zeh says. “This idea of intelligent design is really just the same argument as Paley’s watch—it’s ‘common sense that complexity doesn’t just happen.’ The answer is, it’s not just produced by chance. It’s chance and the organizing force of natural selection, and it takes a lot of time.”

Zeh calls intelligent design “an absurd idea,” given that many organisms seem less than intelligently designed.

“There are many aspects of organismal biology that are not optimal,” Zeh says. For example, only 2 to 4 percent of the human genome is useful in coding for proteins. At least 50 percent of the genome either serves no useful purpose for humans at all or it “creates problems,” Zeh says.

If that flew right over your head, here’s a simpler example: Aging. Until recently, most humans didn’t live beyond the age of 40. Genes that manifest themselves at older ages, like Huntington’s chorea, were largely invisible to natural selection.

“As people do live longer … we have all these genes that express themselves beyond age 40 or 50 because they haven’t been purged by natural selection,” Zeh says. “I don’t think you’d call that intelligent design.”

The political climate for evolutionary research is more threatening than ever for scientists, Zeh says. Darwinian evolution has become a term that researchers avoid.

Evolution-based research is the cutting edge in fields like directed molecular evolution—which shows some promise for developing cancer treatment—and in developing genetic algorithms for use with problem-solving computer programs.

“In a lot of cases, this kind of work is going on and people have to be cautious about invoking evolution,” Zeh says. “So it’s not realized that the theoretical underpinning of these fields is evolutionary biology.”

Zeh thinks Darwinian evolution should be taught in grade school science classes.

“It’s the organizing principle of biology and should be taught like American history,” Zeh says. “It’s fundamental to understanding all sorts of things—not just biology but human nature.”

And if creationists or intelligent-design proponents have their way?

“As I said, I think it’s a threat to national security,” Zeh says. “We will fall behind the rest of the world in many areas.”

Forcing science to conform to a dogmatic set of ideas about existence, whether religious or otherwise, has been a problem since the days of Galileo.

“Ideology interferes with science," Zeh says. "The results are disastrous. People should learn these things."