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Looking for God at Berkeley 

A provocative theory called "intelligent design" claims evolution is hogwash. But it's not the usual religious zealots leading the latest attack on Darwin. It's scientists and professors at Cal.

Wednesday, Jun 20 2001
In a crumbling UC Berkeley research lab, Jed Macosko is looking for God. Macosko is a molecular biology researcher who holds chemistry degrees from Cal and MIT. As a Christian, he believes that God is everywhere. As a scientist, he thinks that God might live in bacteria.

Macosko's research peers deep into E. coli, a bacterium best known for the virulent strain that has caused fast-food restaurant panics, though it's normally harmless (it's swimming in your intestines right now). It's a seductive subject for a biochemist: The inner life of E. coli -- indeed, any microscopic organism -- is a sophisticated dance of proteins and amino acids interlocking and working together. Many molecular biologists find it utterly dazzling that something so small yet so amazingly complex could have evolved in nature.

But Macosko's interpretation makes a radical break from the overwhelming majority of his colleagues: He believes that the work going on inside those bacteria isn't just amazingly complex -- it's so incredibly complex that it couldn't conceivably have formed through evolution. The only reasonable explanation, he says, is that these systems and their processes were deliberately created by an "intelligent designer."

Macosko, a young, genial, and well-spoken scientist who has co-authored a handful of published scientific papers, calls that designer God, though he says you could call it anything you're comfortable with. If you like, he says, call it space aliens. He is inspired by what he claims is growing evidence that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution -- the very bedrock of biology -- has collapsed on the molecular level, and his career as a scientist and his research at UC Berkeley are geared toward supporting that theory. Looking at the E. coli bacterium, he says, "your natural assumption is that there must be another intelligence out there, whether it's an alien life form or some deity or something from outside our universe, or from a higher dimension that we can't observe."

The mainstream scientific community's response to that kind of statement ranges from howls of laughter to raw fury. Yet Macosko is not alone in his beliefs, and the proponents of "intelligent design" theory have gradually coalesced into a bona fide movement. Until recently, attacks on evolution have usually come from the pulpit. For decades, "creation science" tried to debunk Darwin by using the Bible to explain the origins of life. An oxymoron by definition, creation science was easily dismissed by the scientific world. Intelligent design theory, however, uses science itself to undercut evolution, and many of its adherents are scholars from leading universities like UC Berkeley. Cal, in fact, has produced several vocal proponents of intelligent design. Besides Macosko, they include a former criminal law professor who has become the self-acknowledged leader of the intelligent design movement, and another Berkeley scientist who is getting attention for a book that calls for a freeze on government funding of evolution research and warning labels on biology textbooks.

With those kinds of credentials, intelligent design has gathered steam in a way that creation science never did. Its arguments have begun to creep into public school board meetings. The Oakland-based National Center for Science Education, which polices attempts to insert religion into school curricula, has seen the largest flare-up of legislation in its 20-year history, much of it thanks to the efforts of intelligent design promoters.

In the minds of most scientists, however, intelligent design is simply a more insidious way of packaging creation science; intelligent design theory, they argue, is little more than the latest twist in an ongoing attempt to wedge religion into public schools, and besides, it's not much of a theory at all. It's just bad science, they say, which makes specious, deceptive, and unprovable claims about the nature of the universe.

Indeed, intelligent design theories are fascinating at first glance -- who wouldn't want to at least hear out a scientific proof for God? -- but they would be more intriguing if they weren't premised on so much wishful thinking. Intelligent design boosters, above all else, merely have a righteous beef with Darwinists and a supposition -- a faith, you might say -- that a designer of some sort created certain parts of nature. Their scientific arguments would be more respectable if they weren't befriending creation science proponents, exploiting scientific loopholes by appealing to the general public instead of submitting their research for peer review, or pointing to areas of science where the research is incomplete or contradictory as proof of Darwin's imminent collapse.

Macosko disagrees, though he sympathizes with the scientists who are so resistant to his ideas. Darwin's theory of evolution, after all, evicted God from the laboratory; it built a wall dividing scientific truth and spiritual truth. Tearing down that wall, Macosko says, will require enlisting both the masses and the scientists in ivory towers like Cal. "The problem with [Darwin] is that it's so entrenched in our culture," he says. "Newtonian physics never made policy, but Darwinism has made policy. So there's got to be two fights: one at the grass roots, one academic. And I think both fights have to go on at the same time."

Intelligent design theory is, in fact, a whole bundle of theories and arguments. From molecular biology comes an argument that organic processes like the ones Macosko studies are too fundamentally complex for evolution to explain them; from statistics, a claim that probability theory can show whether an organism has had enough time to evolve; from philosophy, a rhetorical study suggesting that Darwinism isn't science so much as a closed-minded materialist viewpoint that needs rethinking. The common thread is an incendiary claim: People are being misled -- or outright lied to -- about the theory of evolution's power to explain the whole of nature, and that room needs to be made for something that is, if not the hand of God, then outside of our accepted notions of scientific evidence.

It's a hard thing to be on the fence about. To agree with intelligent design is, in a way, to renounce our idea of "evidence"; it means saying the holes in Darwin's theories are so enormous that God or space aliens or creatures from the fifth dimension need to be there to fill in the gaps. To disagree with it is to potentially miss the boat on what might be the greatest sea change in scientific thinking since Copernicus said the Earth revolved around the sun. So what is causing highly educated people to embrace such a radical view? What evidence could inspire Jed Macosko to buck the scientific establishment and risk his reputation?

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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