Saturday, August 27, 2005


The New York Times
This is the first in a series of articles examining the debate over the teaching of evolution and the politically astute challenge led by the Discovery Institute.

Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive
Published: August 21, 2005

When President Bush plunged into the debate over the teaching of evolution this month, saying, "both sides ought to be properly taught," he seemed to be reading from the playbook of the Discovery Institute, the conservative think tank here that is at the helm of this newly volatile frontier in the nation's culture wars. After toiling in obscurity for nearly a decade, the institute's Center for Science and Culture has emerged in recent months as the ideological and strategic backbone behind the eruption of skirmishes over science in school districts and state capitals across the country. Pushing a "teach the controversy" approach to evolution, the institute has in many ways transformed the debate into an issue of academic freedom rather than a confrontation between biology and religion.

Mainstream scientists reject the notion that any controversy over evolution even exists. But Mr. Bush embraced the institute's talking points by suggesting that alternative theories and criticism should be included in biology curriculums "so people can understand what the debate is about." Financed by some of the same Christian conservatives who helped Mr. Bush win the White House, the organization's intellectual core is a scattered group of scholars who for nearly a decade have explored the unorthodox explanation of life's origins known as intelligent design. Together, they have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin's defenders firmly on the defensive.

Like a well-tooled electoral campaign, the Discovery Institute has a carefully crafted, poll-tested message, lively Web logs - and millions of dollars from foundations run by prominent conservatives like Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, Philip F. Anschutz and Richard Mellon Scaife. The institute opened an office in Washington last fall and in January hired the same Beltway public relations firm that promoted the Contract With America in 1994. "We are in the very initial stages of a scientific revolution," said the center's director, Stephen C. Meyer, 47, a historian and philosopher of science recruited by Discovery after he protested a professor's being punished for criticizing Darwin in class. "We want to have an effect on the dominant view of our culture."

For the institute's president, Bruce K. Chapman, a Rockefeller Republican turned Reagan conservative, intelligent design appealed to his contrarian, futuristic sensibilities - and attracted wealthy, religious philanthropists like the Ahmansons at a time when his organization was surviving on a shoestring. More student of politics than science geek, Mr. Chapman embraced the evolution controversy as the institute's signature issue precisely because of its unpopularity in the establishment.

"When someone says there's one thing you can't talk about, that's what I want to talk about," said Mr. Chapman, 64. As much philosophical worldview as scientific hypothesis, intelligent design challenges Darwin's theory of natural selection by arguing that some organisms are too complex to be explained by evolution alone, pointing to the possibility of supernatural influences. While mutual acceptance of evolution and the existence of God appeals instinctively to a faithful public, intelligent design is shunned as heresy in mainstream universities and science societies as untestable in laboratories.

Entering the Public Policy Sphere: From its nondescript office suites here, the institute has provided an institutional home for the dissident thinkers, pumping $3.6 million in fellowships of $5,000 to $60,000 per year to 50 researchers since the science center's founding in 1996. Among the fruits are 50 books on intelligent design, many published by religious presses like InterVarsity or Crossway, and two documentaries that were broadcast briefly on public television. But even as the institute spearheads the intellectual development of intelligent design, it has staked out safer turf in the public policy sphere, urging states and school boards simply to include criticism in evolution lessons rather than actually teach intelligent design.

In Explaining Life's Complexity, Darwinists and Doubters Clash
Published: August 22, 2005

At the heart of the debate over intelligent design is this question: Can a scientific explanation of the history of life include the actions of an unseen higher being? The proponents of intelligent design, a school of thought that some have argued should be taught alongside evolution in the nation's schools, say that the complexity and diversity of life go beyond what evolution can explain. Biological marvels like the optical precision of an eye, the little spinning motors that propel bacteria and the cascade of proteins that cause blood to clot, they say, point to the hand of a higher being at work in the world.

In one often-cited argument, Michael J. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and a leading design theorist, compares complex biological phenomena like blood clotting to a mousetrap: Take away any one piece - the spring, the baseboard, the metal piece that snags the mouse - and the mousetrap stops being able to catch mice. Similarly, Dr. Behe argues, if any one of the more than 20 proteins involved in blood clotting is missing or deficient, as happens in hemophilia, for instance, clots will not form properly. Such all-or-none systems, Dr. Behe and other design proponents say, could not have arisen through the incremental changes that evolution says allowed life to progress to the big brains and the sophisticated abilities of humans from primitive bacteria.

These complex systems are "always associated with design," Dr. Behe, the author of the 1996 book "Darwin's Black Box," said in an interview. "We find such systems in biology, and since we know of no other way that these things can be produced, Darwinian claims notwithstanding, then we are rational to conclude they were indeed designed."It is an argument that appeals to many Americans of faith. But mainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science. For one thing, these scientists say, invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific.

"One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed," said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. "That's a fundamental presumption of what we do."That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live. And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations. So much evidence has been provided by evolutionary studies that biologists are able to explain even the most complex natural phenomena and to fill in whatever blanks remain with solid theories.

This is possible, in large part, because evolution leaves tracks like the fossil remains of early animals or the chemical footprints in DNA that have been revealed by genetic research. For example, while Dr. Behe and other leading design proponents see the blood clotting system as a product of design, mainstream scientists see it as a result of a coherent sequence of evolutionary events. Early vertebrates like jawless fish had a simple clotting system, scientists believe, involving a few proteins that made blood stick together, said Russell F. Doolittle, a professor of molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego.

Scientists hypothesize that at some point, a mistake during the copying of DNA resulted in the duplication of a gene, increasing the amount of protein produced by cells. Most often, such a change would be useless. But in this case the extra protein helped blood clot, and animals with the extra protein were more likely to survive and reproduce. Over time, as higher-order species evolved, other proteins joined the clotting system. For instance, several proteins involved in the clotting of blood appear to have started as digestive enzymes.

Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science
Published: August 23, 2005

At a recent scientific conference at City College of New York, a student in the audience rose to ask the panelists an unexpected question: "Can you be a good scientist and believe in God?" Reaction from one of the panelists, all Nobel laureates, was quick and sharp. "No!" declared Herbert A. Hauptman, who shared the chemistry prize in 1985 for his work on the structure of crystals. Belief in the supernatural, especially belief in God, is not only incompatible with good science, Dr. Hauptman declared, "this kind of belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race."

But disdain for religion is far from universal among scientists. And today, as religious groups challenge scientists in arenas as various as evolution in the classroom, AIDS prevention and stem cell research, scientists who embrace religion are beginning to speak out about their faith. "It should not be a taboo subject, but frankly it often is in scientific circles," said Francis S. Collins, who directs the National Human Genome Research Institute and who speaks freely about his Christian faith.

Although they embrace religious faith, these scientists also embrace science as it has been defined for centuries. That is, they look to the natural world for explanations of what happens in the natural world and they recognize that scientific ideas must be provisional - capable of being overturned by evidence from experimentation and observation. This belief in science sets them apart from those who endorse creationism or its doctrinal cousin, intelligent design, both of which depend on the existence of a supernatural force. Their belief in God challenges scientists who regard religious belief as little more than magical thinking, as some do. Their faith also challenges believers who denounce science as a godless enterprise and scientists as secular elitists contemptuous of God-fearing people.

Some scientists say simply that science and religion are two separate realms, "nonoverlapping magisteria," as the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould put it in his book "Rocks of Ages" (Ballantine, 1999). In Dr. Gould's view, science speaks with authority in the realm of "what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory)" and religion holds sway over "questions of ultimate meaning and moral value." When the American Association for the Advancement of Science devoted a session to this idea of separation at its annual meeting this year, scores of scientists crowded into a room to hear it.

Some of them said they were unsatisfied with the idea, because they believe scientists' moral values must inevitably affect their work, others because so much of science has so many ethical implications in the real world. One panelist, Dr. Noah Efron of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said scientists, like other people, were guided by their own human purposes, meaning and values. The idea that fact can be separated from values and meaning "jibes poorly with what we know of the history of science," Dr. Efron said. Dr. Collins, who is working on a book about his religious faith, also believes that people should not have to keep religious beliefs and scientific theories strictly separate. "I don't find it very satisfactory and I don't find it very necessary," he said in an interview. He noted that until relatively recently, most scientists were believers. "Isaac Newton wrote a lot more about the Bible than the laws of nature," he said.

But he acknowledged that as head of the American government's efforts to decipher the human genetic code, he had a leading role in work that many say definitively demonstrates the strength of evolutionary theory to explain the complexity and abundance of life. As scientists compare human genes with those of other mammals, tiny worms, even bacteria, the similarities "are absolutely compelling," Dr. Collins said. "If Darwin had tried to imagine a way to prove his theory, he could not have come up with something better, except maybe a time machine. Asking somebody to reject all of that in order to prove that they really do love God - what a horrible choice."