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Enlisting Science to Find the Fingerprints of a Creator

Education: Believers in 'intelligent design' try to redirect evolution disputes along intellectual lines.

March 25, 2001|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

BURLINGTON, Wash. — In this rural farming community, a high school biology teacher named Roger DeHart set out to question Darwin's theories of evolution. He never mentioned God.

He dissected such scientific topics as bacterial flagella, fossil records and embryonic development. Examine the evidence, he told the students, and ponder the Big Question: Is life the result of random, meaningless events? Or was it designed by an intelligent force?

Over nine years, DeHart would introduce ideas about this theory of "intelligent design." Then a student protested that DeHart was pushing religion. Then the ACLU filed a complaint. In 1999, school authorities ordered DeHart to drop references to design and stick to the textbook.

Last week, DeHart was told he could not even introduce materials questioning Darwin's theories. Now DeHart is being portrayed as a martyr in the movement promoting intelligent design, the newest twist in the timeless debate over the origin of life.

The idea that an intelligent force guided creation is as old as Plato. But it is sparking modern battles as a new breed of mostly Christian scholars redefines the old evolution-versus-creationism debate and fashions a movement with more intellectual firepower, mainstream appeal and academic respectability.

The scientific establishment generally rejects the theory. But design advocates aim to reshape modern intellectual culture by marshaling scientific evidence that life was created by a transcendent mind, rather than by impersonal, random natural forces.

"Our work will alert people to the possibility that God is real rather than a projection of the mind," declared Phillip Johnson, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of law whose 1991 book, "Darwin on Trial," laid the foundation for the emerging movement.

Arguments about the theory's use have arisen in public schools from Washington to Minnesota. On Saturday intelligent-design theorists made their first appearance at the National School Board Assn. convention in San Diego to explain to school system attorneys why their ideas should be allowed in classrooms.

Unlike biblical literalists who believe God created the world in six days, most theorists of intelligent design are reputable university scholars who accept evolution to a point. But they question whether Darwinist mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection can fully account for life's astonishing complexity.

Instead, using arguments ranging from biochemistry to probability theory, they posit that some sort of intelligence prompted the unfolding of life--say, by producing the information code in the DNA.

Some proponents are doing theoretical work: seeking systematic ways to detect intelligence in life, for instance, or evidence to argue that intelligent design is a better explanation than Darwinism for such events as the abrupt appearance of advanced organisms during the "Cambrian explosion" 500 million years ago. Others are more experimental, analyzing DNA thought to be useless junk for actual functions as a way to show that an intelligent agent designed it that way for a purpose.

The scientific applications of the work are less important than their cultural ramifications, Johnson says. Huston Smith, renowned religion scholar and intelligent-design supporter, argues in a recent book, "Why Religion Matters," that "narrow scientism" has suffocated the human spirit and debased the culture.

One 1999 national survey by Scientific American magazine showed that fewer than 10% of National Academy of Sciences members believe in God. By contrast, 90% of Americans not only believe in God but say God played at least some role in creation, according to the Gallup Organization.

"We are taking an intuition most people have and making it a scientific and academic enterprise," Johnson said. In challenging Darwinism with a God-friendly alternative theory, the professor, who is a Presbyterian, added, "We are removing the most important cultural roadblock to accepting the role of God as creator."

Most design scientists are more circumspect about identifying the designer as God. But the work's clear religious implications have propelled the issue beyond science into passionate arguments about the separation between church and state, academic freedom and societal values.

Is intelligent design research "stealth creationism" funded by evangelical Christians? Is it legitimate science that students should be able to debate? Will it renew the culture by reawakening the human spirit from decades of materialism?

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, said most scientists do not accept intelligent design as valid science.

For example, Ken Miller, a Catholic biochemist at Brown University and a leading critic of intelligent design, argues that design advocates are simply wrong on the science.

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