Pin It

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


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular