INTELLIGENT DESIGN: A PRIMER
The Last Days of Darwin?
A Brief History of the Revolution
In 1959, Sir Julian Huxley, grandson of "Darwin's Bulldog" T.H. Huxley, was in Chicago to celebrate the centennial of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Taking the pulpit of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago on Thanksgiving Day, he declared that man no longer needed to "take refuge in the arms of a divinized father-figure." Evolution was the key to reality. The university's "cavernous, Baroque Mandel Hall was packed for performances of an original showboat-style Darwinian musical, Time Will Tell."
Here begins Larry Witham's By Design, a history of "science and the search for God" in the twentieth century. Little did Huxley and the other celebrants know what time really would tell, least of all that 1959 would likely prove to be the high-water mark of Darwinism. But after the festivities ended, continuing developments in science itself, from many quarters, would begin to threaten Darwin's monopoly and, eventually, his theory.
Witham, an award-winning journalist on religion and society, points out the cracks in scientific orthodoxy that developed well before the intelligent design (ID) movement began in the 1990s.
As early as 1951, biophysicist Harold Morowitz was trying to find the cell's "information content." He eventually concluded that it was impossible for life to have arisen without some large infusion of information. Not a theist, he nonetheless created space for an Intelligent Designer.
At the Darwin centennial, naturalist Ernst Mayr and geneticist Sewall Wright could not agree on the mechanism of Darwinism (genetic change or natural selection), yet everyone swore fealty to "gradualism," even though no one really knew what the gradual steps were. Gradualism was the crucial feature of Darwin's theory, as it claimed that minute random steps, accumulated over time, eventually produced a wide variety of species.Unbridgeable Gaps
Mathematicians using the newly invented computer soon threw a monkey wrench into gradualism. Witham recounts the 1966 debate at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia. Both Murray Eden of MIT and Marcel P. Schatzenberger (later a member of the French Academy of Sciences) argued that it was "mathematically impossible for Darwin's tiny variations to add up to a new organism." Their opponents "could not explain the major gap in their theory: How does the random shuffling of a one-dimensional string of genetic codes create a highly coordinated multidimensional organism?" Eden and Schutzenberger declared "this gap to be of such a nature that it cannot be bridged within the current conception of biology."
Wider gaps appeared: The fossil record was not what Darwin predicted. Paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould created a theory of "punctuated equilibrium" to explain the sudden appearance of species in the fossil record and their relative stability over time. It was another direct assault on Darwinian gradualism. Paleontologists, but not the public, knew what the fossil record really showed.
Paleoanthropologists could not (and still cannot) agree on the supposed lines of human descent based on fossil finds. Louis Leakey's son Richard "acknowledged his father's tendency to alter criteria to make his fossils Homo, and said the Homo habilis category was 'a grab bag mix of fossils; almost anything around two million years that doesn't fit the robust [ape] definition has been tossed into it.'"
Witham also reviews the discoveries and emerging debates in physics and cosmology, especially as they inched closer to the "God questions" of purpose and design in the universe.
The understanding of science itself was also evolving. In 1958, chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi published Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, an effective assault on the myth of a purely materialistic and objective science. In 1962, Harvard physics instructor and historian Thomas Kuhn started a great debate among scientists by arguing in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions that, "far from being magisterial in its objectivity, science was conditioned by history, society, and the prejudices of scientists."Breaking New Ground
In the 1980s, two books broke new ground. Charles Thaxton, who took a doctorate in chemistry with him when he went to study with Reformed theologian Francis Schaeffer at L'Abri, Switzerland, was quite taken with Polanyi's claim "that the information in DNA could no more be reduced to the chemical than could the ideas in a book be reduced to the ink and paper: something beyond physics and chemistry encoded DNA," an observation that suggests an underlying intelligence at work. Together with Walter Bradley of Texas A&M and researcher Roger Olsen, Thaxton published The Mystery of Life's Origin (1984), which was unique in that it laid out all the current origin-of-life theories and their shortcomings. Also, the epilogue became the opening shot for ID: As a "concrete alternative," it proposed "intelligent causation." Mystery appears repeatedly in the footnotes and bibliographies of the ID books published in the last decade.
Then, in 1987, the second book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, by Australian biochemist Michael Denton became a scientific bestseller, and the debate that had been kept mostly between scientists now became public. Though Denton was an evolutionist of sorts, he wrote that claims about Darwin's tree of life did not match the evidence—and the crisis was that scientists could find no acceptable alternative.
Meanwhile, key relationships for the ID movement were being formed. Dean Kenyon, author of Biochemical Predestination (1969), eventually lost faith in Darwinism and by the 1980s was supporting dissenting views. He wrote the foreword to Thaxton's Mystery. In 1993, Kenyon, a tenured professor at San Francisco State University, "was stripped of his right to teach biology courses because he criticized some aspects of neo-Darwinian theory." About a year later, he was reinstated by a full faculty-senate vote after a piece on the affair appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Stephen Meyer, a young geophysicist.
Meyer had been influenced by Thaxton and was studying in Cambridge in 1987 when a mutual friend put him in touch with a Berkeley law professor on sabbatical, Phillip E. Johnson. Meyer put Johnson onto Thaxton; Johnson had already read both Denton's book and Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker. Using his lawyer's training in evidence and rhetoric, Johnson began a public campaign to unmask Darwinism as a fraud.
If T. H. Huxley was Darwin's bulldog, Johnson became ID's pit bull. In 1991, he published Darwin on Trial, which artfully exposed many of the cracks in evolutionary theory and became "a lightning rod for the origins debate." In 1993, Johnson initiated a "smalltime Manhattan Project for the ID movement" at Pajaro Dunes on Monterey Bay in California, in which a group of young scientists met to strategize on how to break the neo-Darwinian hold on science. These men became the core of the ID movement. Among them was Meyer, whom Bruce Chapman of Seattle's new Discovery Institute soon hired to head its Center for Science and Culture, which has been instrumental in the success of the ID movement.
A new generation of scientists, many mentored by Johnson, began to participate in public conferences presenting ID arguments, in some cases alongside the responses of orthodox Darwinist speakers. In 1999, Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Meyer gave papers at a conference sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute, collected in Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, in which they presented what have become signature arguments for design.
Dembski applied developments in the information sciences to argue that "specified complexity" can be used objectively to detect evidence of intelligence in events and artifacts. Meyer dealt with information-rich biological features, including DNA and RNA, which exhibit a level of complexity and specificity that could not have evolved through natural causes. Behe presented some of the material from his acclaimed 1996 book Darwin's Black Box, arguing that the "irreducible complexity" of some biological mechanisms suggests that they could not have evolved in small steps, since the imagined intermediate phases would not have been functional (survivable) mechanisms.
Behe noted that mainstream scientists often describe biological components as "designed machines," and then asked: If they "strike scientists as looking like 'machines' that were 'designed by a human' or 'invented by humans,' then why do we not actively entertain the idea that perhaps they were indeed designed by an intelligent being?" Scientists don't do so because that would "violate the rule," stated baldly by Christian de Duve in his 1995 book Vital Dust: "All throughout this book I have tried to conform to the overriding rule that life be treated as a natural process, its origin, evolution, and manifestations, up to and including the human species, as governed by the same laws as nonliving processes."
By Design's closing chapters on the Human Genome Project and the "mind and brain" debate also make it clear that the ID movement itself is part of a larger revolt against a science rooted in nineteenth-century naturalism.
The growing rejection of Darwinism was the natural result of honestly facing the findings of scientific research. While orthodox Darwinists and materialist science still dominate the scientific establishment, it is clear that a revolution has been in the making.
In the following pages, we have attempted to provide as thorough an explanation as possible of the precise nature of this insurgency, exploring each of the various facets of the intelligent-design movement with the assistance of the very scientists, philosophers, and attorneys who are at the forefront of the battle for scientific integrity.
Are these really the last days of Darwin? In keeping with the precedent established by true ID proponents, we're content to let the facts speak for themselves. •
Phillip Johnson on the importance of ID. Michael Behe on ID and biochemistry. Guillermo Gonzalez on habitable planets. Don't miss a single one of the 33 new articles on intelligent design and evolution.
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More articles from Intelligent Design: A Primer
What Does Information Tell us About ID? by William A. Dembski
Can ID Explain the Origin of Evil? by Jay Richards
Has ID Been Banned in Public Schools? by Casey Luskin
Do ID Proponents Get Persecuted in the Academy? by Caroline Crocker
What Happens When You Challenge a School's Science Curriculum? by Larry Caldwell
What Happens When You Write Positive Blog Posts About ID? by Mike Egnor
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