GOD IN THE MACHINE
Is Intelligent Design the answer to the holes in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution? Or is it a rear-guard action by fundamentalists to mix religion with science? And why are its supporters so scared of speaking up? JAMES MORROW looks at the latest front in Australia’s culture wars
The voice on the other end of the phone is sounding panicked. A researcher and scientist at one of Australia’s sandstone universities, he had just been told that Investigate magazine had dug something up about his past – and wanted to have a chat about it.“Please”, trembled the academic. “You can’t use my name in this.”
What was the terrible secret in this man’s past? Sex, drugs, and rock & roll – or some combination of the three? An illicit relationship with a student? A lurking plagiarism time-bomb somewhere in his doctoral thesis?
No, nothing like that.
The sordid episode which threatened to run a promising young talent off the academic rails involved his public support a few years ago for Intelligent Design, the controversial new rival to Darwin’s teachings on evolution that has made great gains in the United States and has recently become a hot-button topic in Australia’s universities and education ministries. While this lecturer was happy to talk off the record – on what journalists like to call “deep background” – about the topic, the message was clear: Do not identify me, my field of study, or my support for Intelligent Design, or you will wreck my career.
In interviews with both pro- and anti-Intelligent Design (or “ID”, for short) professors, researchers, and lecturers across the country, one theme emerges: There is a new academic orthodoxy afoot in Australia’s universities which says that ID must be uniformly and roundly condemned, and that anyone who even suggests that the theory get a hearing be publicly exposed and denounced like a capitalist roader in Mao’s China. Yet that is not to say that there are not a few big-name scientists who support Intelligent Design in Australia: Dr. Graeme Clarke, inventor of the bionic ear, has publicly pledged his belief that ID demands further research, saying “I want to put a scientific hat on, I want to be fair to the discussion”, adding that there is “a sort of rogue element in me that likes to see if there are other ways of thinking things through”.
Despite Clarke’s endorsement, the subject is still taboo. In the words of one biologist whose research has convinced him of the rightness of Intelligent Design as a way to fill the many still-unfilled holes in Darwin’s theories, “it would be professional suicide for an academic to come out in support of ID, or even advocate that it receive a fair hearing, in a modern science dominated by scientists whose personal philosophy is scientific naturalism”. It’s not hard to believe him, given that on the very public anti-ID side of the debate are an army of academics who march in lock-step on the subject.
“It’s not a theory in any scientific sense – it’s not a scientific idea. It’s not science”, says Prof. Jack DaSilva, professor of molecular evolution at the University of Adelaide says when asked about Intelligent Design, echoing the sentiments of the vast majority of academics who are willing to go on the record publicly on the topic of ID.
“It’s just creationist religion trying to pass itself off as science. Suggesting that there is some magical supernatural behind it all is simply talking about magic”.
While normally one would be tempted to chalk this sort of intellectual in-fighting up to the nature of university life (as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once famously quipped, “academic politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”), the Intelligent Design debate – and the meta-debate over whether it should even be debated – is actually a vital one. Because beyond of the merits of Intelligent Design versus Darwinism are much bigger questions about the ultimate purpose of education, and whether science should exist in a materialist vacuum or admit larger questions of spirituality and that ultimate barbeque stopper, Why are we here?
You’ll Never Make a Mousetrap Out of Me…
So what exactly is Intelligent Design? The phrase, and its initials, have become freighted with meaning over the past few months, ever since the Orlando, Florida-based Campus Crusade for Christ blitzed the country’s schools with a mass-mailing of 3,000 DVDs entitled, Unlocking the Mystery of Life: Intelligent Design. The issue was given a further shot in the arm when Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson suggested that ID could have a place in the country’s science classrooms. These two events sent the scientific community into an uproar.
And, of course, the fact that ID comes out of the United States and is supported by the likes of George W. Bush plays into the hands of normally open-minded academics who worry that their classrooms and laboratories are about to be busted up by gangs of knuckle-dragging Bible-thumping rednecks – DaSilva’s “creationists” – who believe that the Earth is 4,000 years old and that the carbon dating of dinosaur bones is the greatest hoax since the government’s cover-up of flying saucers and the UN’s plan to take over the world with black helicopters.
In fact, according to its supporters, Intelligent Design is a very calm, sober, and scientific way of looking at the world that simply admits the possibility of a sentient creator into the continually-vexing problem of how life began on this planet and why it developed as it did.
Michael Behe, Ph.D., teaches in the Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, birthplace of the American Revolution. He is also the author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, one of the seminal works on ID theory. And because he has tenure, his career and position is secure, allowing him to speak freely and even testify in court on behalf of Intelligent Design.
“When Darwin first proposed his ideas, he said that evolution had to work through numerous successive slight modifications – in other words, tiny steps over periods of time”, Behe told Investigate when asked to explain the basics of ID. “If things happened too quickly, it would look like something other than random mutations were involved. Darwin insisted that evolution came about by gradual improvement, but if you look at a molecular level you see a number of components that have to work together in order to produce the function – I call these things ‘irreducibly complex’, in that if you take away a part the system won’t work.”
“I make an analogy with a mousetrap. It’s made up of several parts, and all of those are necessary. If one of the parts were missing, it doesn’t work, and it’s hard to see how that would come together otherwise.”
“So there’s this big problem staring Darwinian evolution in the face and no one has explained how these could have come about. If you look at the sort of things that intelligent agents design, they put together things like that all the time. It’s clearly a signature of some sort of intelligence.”
This “mousetrap analogy” is like a red cape to a bull for Darwinists, who say that all the structures the professor describes are simply the result of random chance – a criticism that Behe is familiar with, and which can be easily dealt with by simply crunching the numbers.
“People try to claim these things could happen randomly all the time – it’s a variation on the idea that if you put a million monkeys on a million typewriters, eventually one of them will hammer out the Complete Works of Shakespeare”, says Behe.
“But if you do the math you see it’s mathematically impossible – the time it would take for the ‘random occurrences’ we’re talking about with molecular structures to occur would require time well beyond the lifetime of the universe”.
Behe’s “irreducible complexity” – and its intellectual cousin, “specified complexity” and the idea that we live in a “fine-tuned” universe – is just one side of the Intelligent Design argument. The other side of the coin is the fact that there are indeed large holes in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution – holes which, depending on which side of the Intelligent Design camp one sits, are either windows into the transcendent or gaps in the knowledge which simply require more research to fill.
As the anonymous professor cited at the beginning of this article explains, “the word ‘evolution’ is pretty misused. Evolution is really a hierarchy of three theories: at the top of the pyramid is microevolution, which involves variations within species. No one disputes this, and agriculturalists have been using this for centuries. Then at the next level is macroevolution, which is the view that life as we know it on this planet arose from simple life forms over the course of some slow, gradual process – it’s a working hypothesis, though there is a lot of evidence that throws doubt on it.
Finally, at the bottom of the pyramid is chemical evolution” – the level at which Behe studies things – “which suggests that life arose by a natural mechanism and that a soup of inorganic chemicals became life somehow. In the1950s everyone thought this stage of evolution had been conclusively proven by the works of Stanley Miller, but now his work has gone into a sad state of decline.”
God in the Machine, or God of the Gaps?
So much of the debate around Intelligent Design is not about the merits of the theory, or the holes in the Darwinist model that it is meant to fill. Instead, with very limited understanding of either side of the scientific argument, the ID controversy has – with the help of journalists sympathetic to the academic community – become a stalking horse for so many other issues, and opened up another front of the culture wars that have been raging for years now. The idea of mentioning God – or some sort of supernatural creator – is anathema for scientists who, even if privately religious, exist in a professionally post-Enlightenment environment that believes the lab is not the proper place to examine larger questions of humanity’s origin or place in the universe. Still smarting from what happened to Galileo, the Western scientific establishment is one of the most anti-clerical pockets of thought this side of the French Revolution. And again, the fact that ID comes from the United States and has the support of George W. Bush (a man as hated in academia as Marx and Che are exalted; a recent poll showed the US president polling with six percent approval figures among scientists and engineers in his home country) does not help it any on Australia’s campuses or among notoriously left-wing educators. As Laurie Fraser of East Kurrajong, NSW, wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald recently, “Like many other teachers I know, I have begun to teach a response to the Campus Crusade for Christ’s DVD on intelligent design. I am simply instilling in my students the notion that it is impossible to believe in God, that such a belief is irrational and hence intelligent design doesn’t even get a leg-up. Sounds harsh, I know, but if the loonies want to fight dirty, I’m willing to respond in kind.”
This is not to say, of course, that all teachers and academics are anti-ID, or that all Christians are in favour of it being taught. Tim Hawkes, headmaster of the prestigious King’s School in Sydney, told the Melbourne Age recently that after viewing the Campus Crusade for Christ’s DVD, he thought it was “quite legitimate to challenge students to think through the implications of there being a ‘grand architect’ of the universe…there are undeniable weaknesses within Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and these must be acknowledged openly.” Meanwhile, more than one Christian academic Investigate spoke with said they did not believe Intelligent Design should be taught – not necessarily because it was bad science, but because it could ultimately be damaging to the cause of faith.
“The problem with ID is that it is in danger of turning into a ‘God of the Gaps’-type idea”, explains Dr. Robert J. Stenning, a physicist at the University of New South Wales, who is also a believing Christian.
“What we’re saying is that we can’t understand how something works, so let’s put God in there and say He must have designed this specifically, and that it can’t have come about by natural processes, that He must have stuck his fingers in somewhere”, Stenning continues. “My worry is that ultimately this will be detrimental to faith. If Christian kids learn these ideas in school, and then some scientific explanation comes about to change the thinking, it could be very challenging.”
One educator who is convinced of the merits of Intelligent Design is Stephen O’Doherty, CEO of Christian Schools Australia – an association of about 150 schools across the country. O’Doherty believes that ID should be available as an option to be taught in Christian schools (he makes no claim about what government schools should or should not do) not just because of the flaws in Darwin’s theories, but because it allows students to grapple with larger questions in the science classroom – an intellectual activity with a long and noble history in the Western tradition, dating all the way back to ancient Athens. And he believes that the knee-jerk prejudice against Intelligent Design, or even against questioning Darwin, is just as bad science as teaching that the Earth was literally created in six days.
“I was reading an editorial in New Scientist, which is a magazine I really enjoy, incidentally, and they published this editorial recently that conflated Intelligent Design with neoconservatism, and essentially said that these twin forces were going to bring about a new Dark Ages”, chuckles O’Doherty, musing on the current state of the debate. “But it’s really a different story. In our schools, for example, we have the state curriculum which we teach, but we also have the freedom to explore other dimensions to life within the classroom.”
O’Doherty says that “the science teachers association has already compartmentalized life in a way that keeps kids from thinking bigger than themselves, and says that such questions belong in a separate classroom”, a fact that he claims explains the reason why public school enrollments are flat-lining as parents flock to put their children in low-cost religious schools, be they Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. “In a religious school, these questions can bleed through and be discussed, which is really the original point of education”.
One of O’Doherty’s biggest quibbles with the anti-ID crowd is the way the Enlightenment tradition that modern science is an heir to has become so actively hostile to spiritual questions – and answers. It’s a useful perspective, because it shows that the roots of the still-unsettled fights over Darwin and his theories pre-date the man who explored the world on the Beagle.
“At some point, the scientific community took on a view of evolutionary humanism that has become almost dogma, and if you follow evolution backwards this way, eventually you just say, ‘there is no God, it had to have been chance’. But a Christian sees that same process and says that the evolutionary process shows us the law of God. His character shows through.”
“But this is also the same problem that people who talk about a ‘God of the Gaps’ get into. You’re still talking about a dichotomous arrangement which arrays science and reason against darkness and hocus-pocus. One’s view of the universe has to be big enough to understand one’s place in it”, says O’Doherty, which is why he thinks Intelligent Design is a good option to have in the classroom.
“You can’t divorce this discussion from kids, whether it happens in a science classroom or not. If you take a dogmatic view that you cut children off from the search for meaning is a violation of the meaning of education, which ultimately has to do with the question of what it is to be a human being”, he adds.
“The empirically-centered educationalist who says it is about downloading a certain set of idealized facts has a very narrow view of education. In the view of Christian schools, education is about the growth of all facets of the individual, including the spiritual dimension. This is an idea that goes back to ancient Greece.”
While Intelligent Design has a long way to go before it is taught in government-run classrooms – Brendan Nelson’s hat-tip aside – it will surely be a touchstone for the culture wars for some time to come, regardless of its scientific merits. But supporters of ID believe that it is only a matter of time before establishment academia opens its doors to the possibility of a creator who has revealed Himself through the laws of the universe and the development of life on Earth.
“When the Big Bang theory was first proposed in the 1930s, an awful lot of scientists thought it smacked of a religious idea, and really hated it as a result”, says Michael Behe. “It might have had religious overtones because it dealt with the origins of the universe, but it was based on observable data. I see Intelligent Design as being in the same ballpark: it may have religious overtones, but it is still based on data.”