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.

Research into RNA polymerase is perfectly legitimate science; indeed, Brown University professor Kenneth M. Miller calls it "cool stuff." But while Miller stresses that he cannot speak specifically on Macosko's interpretation of the E. coli research (which is unpublished), he is very familiar with claims of irreducible complexity, and he has serious problems with the theory. The most glaring one, Miller says, is that irreducible complexity has not been presented to the scientific community through established channels. Behe's theory was first published not in a peer-reviewed scientific journal like Nature or The Journal of Molecular Evolution, but instead as a general-interest book, Darwin's Black Box. Behe and other promoters of intelligent design theory, Miller says, "avoid the scientific community like the plague. Instead, what they have tried to do is make an end run around the process of scientific review."

But more essentially, Miller says, the claims of irreducible complexity have been proven wrong -- it is provable that complex molecular systems evolve according to Darwin's theories, and there is research showing that this is indeed the case. Scientific research papers have been published describing how complex molecular systems have evolved, and other papers have been written showing how the enzymes and proteins that work in complex systems can also have useful functions independent of them. The only conclusion Miller can draw is that intelligent design is little more than creation science revisited. "Intelligent design theory sounds quite different from scientific creationism, because it doesn't use a Creator or mention a Creation," he says. "It just mentions an intelligent designer, but it's the same wolf in new sheep's clothing."

Macosko doesn't agree that the papers present definitive proof for evolution on the molecular level, particularly in the organisms he is studying; he says the papers' authors are playing a game of "what if" with the evidence, and that irreducible complexity makes for a better explanation for the data. Even if it means saying that "natural phenomena can be caused by things that are not natural," as he puts it.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
Christine Shook
Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

That sort of supposition is entirely off the radar of empirical science, and Dr. Carlos Bustamante, who heads the laboratory Macosko works in, is quick to separate his lab's work from Macosko's interpretation of it. Bustamante emphasizes that the research there has nothing to do with intelligent design concepts, and that Macosko's interpretation of the research is solely his own.

Macosko knows he is isolated in his beliefs, but he says his disagreement is not a complete rejection of Darwin. "Darwin was a visionary," he says. "There were people who wanted to chalk things up just to design without putting in the work to do it. Darwin proposed an alternative that, if it were allowed to reside side by side with the design hypothesis, would've really borne a lot of fruit. What I reject is that evolution is enough to do all the creating that we see. And in rejecting that, I reject what the people who follow Darwin stand for."

Eugenie Scott can't help but laugh a little when she considers her fate; it's the 21st century, and she still has to deal with religious groups infiltrating public policy. Since 1987, Scott has run the nonprofit National Center for Science Education, which was launched in 1981 with a simple, uncontroversial mission: to encourage dialogue between university scholars and high school science teachers. As a sideline, it was also supposed to debunk the creation science camp, but that was a simple enough matter. That's why the center has its general, all-encompassing name -- not something like "The National Center for Bashing Creationism," as Scott jokingly puts it.

Scott still keeps tabs on old-fashioned creation science, but these days it's the back-and-forth on intelligent design that fills the center: Getting into Scott's windowless office means maneuvering around chairs stacked with textbooks and the latest articles both for and against intelligent design. On one wall she's taped a list of states with pending legislation that supports teaching some form of creationism in schools. In terms of legislation, she says, this year is already the busiest ever for the center. "Since the beginning of the year, creation science bills have been in six or seven state legislatures, which is phenomenal," she says. "We haven't had that kind of outburst ever." Some of that activity, she says, might be attributed to the George W. Bush administration; during the presidential campaign, Bush said children "ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started," and Scott argues that statements like that "have had a very strong indirect encouraging effect. It's led a lot of people, I suspect, to think, "We've got friends in high places.'"

Scott says intelligent design-inspired legislation, too, is on the upswing, and she anticipates seeing much more of it in the future. The process has already started; a bill in Michigan, for example, proposes that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution, and that "a public school official shall not censor or prohibit the teaching of the design hypothesis." Legislation like that is inspired by the latest argument working Scott's nerves: a claim that biology textbooks are so wrong and so deceptive in their support of evolution that they need warning labels, like packs of cigarettes.

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