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.

The claim comes from one of the most popular intelligent design books around, Icons of Evolution. It was written by Jonathan Wells, a biologist who went to UC Berkeley specifically to smash Darwin's theories -- because the Rev. Sun Myung Moon told him to.

Wells' background in the Unification Church had been common knowledge in academic circles for about a year, but this spring the scientific establishment officially made something of it. In the April 12 edition of the science journal Nature, University of Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne opened his review of Wells' book by quoting from an essay Wells wrote titled "Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D." There, Wells wrote that "Father [Moon's] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism," and that he went to UC Berkeley in 1989 to earn the credentials to better legitimize his beliefs. Wells doesn't mention this inspiration anywhere in Icons, producing a book Coyne waggishly dismisses as "a polemic intelligently designed to please Father Moon."

"I think it's irrelevant," Wells says of his church background, speaking from his home outside Seattle, where he is a fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, an intelligent design think tank. Wells dismisses the Nature review as an ad hominem attack, and argues that he is on solid academic footing. His claim is that much of the proof for Darwin's theories isn't proof at all -- merely folklore passed down from generation to generation to support the primacy of evolutionary scientists.

To make his case, Wells critiques 10 examples of evolution that are commonly found in biology textbooks. For example, he attacks the supposed evolution of Galápagos finches that Darwin studied, arguing that their changes are grossly overstated. Peppered moths, which gradually changed color as the Industrial Revolution increased air pollution in England, are often cited as a case of natural selection; Wells argues there were flaws in the methods and conclusions of experiments that attributed the change to natural selection, and he reveals that the pictures often seen in biology textbooks, showing how the moths' new coloring helped them blend into the background on tree trunks, were staged. He scrutinized drawings of limbs and the development of embryos among different species of vertebrates, which supposedly argued for shared ancestry; instead, Wells found them to be deceptive, exaggerated, or simply wrong.

But most damning, to Wells' mind, is that evolutionary biologists have known about these problems for years, and yet errors persist in making their way into textbooks. Why? None dare call it conspiracy, but Wells argues that scientists are desperate to maintain their authority, even if it comes at the expense of truth. As he writes in Icons, "dogmatic Darwinists have exploited their evocative power to a degree that would make demagogues and advertising executives blush."

Ironically, the evolutionary research Wells did at Berkeley -- where his focus was on frog embryos -- gave him the tools to make his claims. "[Wells] got a lot of the ammo [for Icons] from his courses at Cal," says Eugenie Scott, who points out that the rigors of scientific study at Berkeley -- or any respectable university -- mean dissecting arguments and looking for holes. Wells' flaw, Scott argues, is that he found a few cases where evolutionary research is incomplete and then overreacted, interpolating a thoroughgoing conspiracy to remove God (or an "intelligent designer") from the discussion. "You're supposed to learn how to take apart a theory, to understand how it functions," Scott says, "but you're not supposed to throw out the baby with the bath water."

Icons of Evolution also illustrates how the standard God vs. evolution debate is becoming more nuanced. Time was, criticism of evolution by religious groups was easily dismissed as Christian proselytizing. Any attempts to remove Darwin from the classroom, therefore, could be countered on constitutional grounds. But because writings on intelligent design tend to avoid any specific mention of God, and because its proponents use science and not the Bible to make their claims, it becomes harder to use the constitutional argument. It has also become easier for the intelligent design camp to dismiss any accusation of religious bias as beside the point, or an ad hominem attack.

"I'm not surprised at how much of the attack has been directed at me personally, though I would of course prefer that the debate center on the evidence," says Wells. "But I'm a veteran of controversy. I love it."

Phillip Johnson doesn't look or act like much of a revolutionary. His home, like a lot of houses in the North Berkeley flats, is all but swamped with greenery -- trees and tall flowers that make it difficult to figure who rightfully owns what part of what yard. There's a paternalistic tone to his words -- he comes off as patient in his explanations and charming in his delivery; between the comfy sweater, the distinguished gray hair, and the Berkeley degree, he's sober, genial, and far apart from any Bible-thumping hysterics. It all works to his advantage when he goes so far as to say that the debate over Wells' religious background is yet another example of the "intellectual bankruptcy" of the mainstream scientific community.

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