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The language of life

July 30, 2006|Robert Lee Hotz | Robert Lee Hotz is a Times staff writer who covers science.

IN the border war between science and faith, the doctrine of "intelligent design" is a sly subterfuge -- a marzipan confection of an idea presented in the shape of something more substantial.

As many now understand -- and as a federal court ruled in December -- intelligent design is the bait on the barbed hook of creationist belief, intended to sidestep legal restrictions on the teaching of religion in public-school science classes. The problem is not its underlying theology -- a matter properly left to individual religious belief -- but its disingenuous masquerade as a form of legitimate scientific inquiry.

Proponents of intelligent design argue that the diversity of life can be explained best by a guiding intelligence -- be it a supreme deity or a space alien -- not the undirected action of evolution and natural selection. By the tenets of intelligent design, life in the universe is simply too complex to have happened by accident. Supporters argue that theirs is a scientific theory that can be tested through experiments, like other scientific ideas. The systematic campaign to make intelligent design part of school curriculums as a scientific alternative to the teaching of evolution has triggered dozens of legal and legislative disputes in 31 states, including California.

Until recently, however, those scientists most qualified to defend evolutionary biology were strangely reluctant to confront these dissenters publicly. Now, in three quite different books -- a collection of essays, a biography of Charles Darwin's intellectual life and a debunker's guide to the debate -- some of the nation's most distinguished thinkers step forward as expert witnesses to challenge the ruse of intelligent design directly.

Taken together, these works are essential reading for anyone who sincerely wants to "teach the controversy" as intelligent design advocates so often urge -- or to understand its dishonesty. As distillations of the best thinking on this ploy, they ought to be required reading for every high school science teacher and school board member in America.

In exploring the shortcomings of intelligent design, these writers also highlight a broader struggle over the evidence of existence that is as old as science and revealed religion.

Simply put, Darwin documented the transformational power of sex and death. The struggle to survive and reproduce is the natural engine of variation, he determined. In any species, more are often born than can survive. Even a slight hereditary advantage may favor one over the other. Those who survive will pass their competitive edge on to their offspring. In this way, limbs could become wings and, in 3 billion or 4 billion years, microbes could evolve into men.

Modern evolutionary biology emphasizes the underlying unity of life, as amply documented in the genetic code shared by all organisms, which genome mapper and evangelical Christian Francis Collins has called "the language in which God created life."

For those seeking faith-based alternatives to Darwin, however, evolutionary theory commits an unforgivable affront, these authors write. It unseats humanity as master of a divine creation. With its emphasis on the mechanism of natural selection, it puts people on equal biological footing with barnacles and baboons.

"[L]et's be clear: This is not evolution versus God," writes David Quammen in "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution." "The existence of God -- any sort of god, personal or abstract, immanent or distant -- is not what Darwin's evolutionary theory challenges. What it challenges is the supposed godliness of Man -- the conviction that we above all other life forms are spiritually elevated, divinely favored, possessed of an immaterial and immortal essence, such that we have special prospects for eternity, special status in the expectations of God, special rights and responsibilities on Earth."

Quammen does not flinch from "the horrible challenge" implied by Darwin's idea: "In plain language, a soul or no soul? An afterlife or not? Are humans spiritually immortal in a way that chickens or cows are not, or just another form of temporarily animated meat?"

Many religious groups have accommodated the insights of evolution as an explanation of the natural world no different than findings from astronomy, medicine or meteorology, without losing faith in a divine will -- reinterpreting religious texts in line with modern scientific findings. Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Catholics and mainstream Protestants all have their own nuanced theological responses to evolutionary theory.

By some measures, half of all Americans still reject the theory of evolution. Some simply don't know the difference between an opinion, a belief, a hypothesis and a formal scientific theory. But for others, the theory of evolution prompts a genuine crisis of faith.

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