By Dr. Jay Richards*
August 2004 – In the 19th century Charles Darwin proposed a revolutionary theory. It was revolutionary because it banished the concept of intelligent design from biology and consigned it to a marginal theological ghetto. For the first time, there seemed to be a plausible materialistic explanation for all those ingenious biological mechanisms – the brain and the eye, digestion and circulation, feathers and fins that had previously looked like strong evidence for design.
But the Darwinian revolution wasn’t an isolated incident. Others extended Darwin’s ban on intelligent design to include the origin of life. And the emerging orthodox view in Darwin’s time was already that the universe was eternal and had no cause. With additional help from intellectuals such as Marx and Freud, Western culture was left with a view of humans as mere animals or machines who inhabit a universe ruled by chance and impersonal forces. Materialism, the idea that the material world is all there is, and that impersonal forces alone explain its existence, came to be seen, not as a minority philosophical opinion, but as a worldview grounded in scientific knowledge.
As the Darwinist philosopher Daniel Dennett argues, “Darwinism is a universal acid that eats away traditional morality and religious belief.” And in fact, the materialistic interpretation of reality it supports slowly permeated every area of our culture and seeped subtly into American life, slowly compromising the basis of our legal and political rights.
If we are nothing more than the sum of chance, impersonal law and environment, then we are not free and responsible individuals, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. Because we are not free, we are not responsible; so, paradoxically, we can do whatever we “want.”
The materialistic scheme dissolves our sense of responsibility for our actions as well as the ethical framework that makes our laws meaningful. Accordingly, materialists invariably define claims of right and good as mere code words for the will to power.
Deadly, but true?
This is unfortunate, but what can we do? Materialism seems to enjoy the support of the firmest scientific knowledge. Perhaps we must conclude that Darwin’s teaching, as Nietzsche said, is “true but deadly.” Clearly Darwin’s teaching is deadly, but we’re beginning to find that it, along with the other props of nineteenth century materialism, is not as tried and true as we’ve been assured it was.
During recent decades, evidence from several scientific disciplines has begun to expose the bankruptcy of strictly materialistic thinking in science and reveal the need for a newer and broader perspective of nature.
Much of this evidence comes from areas where Darwinism doesn’t apply. For instance, in cosmology, the best evidence suggests the universe – including all matter, space, time, and energy – came suddenly into existence in the past. This contradicts the earlier picture of an eternal and self-existing material cosmos. In physics, evidence has shown that the universe is “finely-tuned” for the existence of life. In astronomy, recent evidence suggests that even within a finely-tuned universe, a lot of additional fine-tuning is needed to produce a planet where life can exist.
It’s almost possible to have a reasonable debate about this evidence in the physical sciences. But this is not so in the life sciences, despite the remarkable biological evidence for design discovered in recent decades. For instance, we know about complex and functionally integrated machines that cast doubt on the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and random variations.
Predictably, Darwinists try to explain away the new evidence, and tolerate no criticism of Darwinian theory. Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, for example, urges scientists to embrace a “materialism [that] is absolute” and to stick with “material explanations, no matter how counter intuitive.”
Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture takes a different view, and that’s why the Institute supports scientists who will follow the evidence where it leads. The Center for Science and Culture is the institutional home of the intelligent design movement. It supports the research of scientists and other scholars who are challenging materialistic theories such as Darwinism, and developing a positive case for intelligent design in nature. We also support the work of scholars who are developing the implications of this scientific work for our culture as a whole.
But the case against Darwinism can stand quite apart from the positive case for intelligent design. And in fact, in the public sphere, the two are often separated. On the one hand you have problems with the existing theory, and on the other you have a proposed alternative explanation.
Science challenges Darwinism
Among the leading critics of Darwinism is biologist Jonathan Wells. In his book Icons of Evolution, Wells explains the failure of ten pillars of evidence for Darwinian evolution. One of the most notorious “icons” was invented by 19th century German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel, which compared certain stages of vertebrate embryos. In the diagram, the early stages look most similar, a fact that is supposed to show that all vertebrates share a common ancestor. But biologists now know that Haeckel’s diagrams are inaccurate, and that the early stages of vertebrate embryos do not look most similar.
Another famous icon is the tree of life, which illustrates the idea that all living forms evolved gradually from a single common ancestor. But the illustration contradicts the fossil evidence, which shows the geologically sudden appearance of many new animal forms in the Cambrian period.
Many biologists know about these problems, and some educators are beginning to let students know, as well. Ohio, Minnesota and New Mexico have all adopted education standards that encourage teachers and students to critically analyze Darwinian evolution, that is, to look at the scientific evidence both for and against the theory. Just this year, Ohio’s state board of education adopted a model lesson plan, “Critical Analysis of Evolution,” that shows teachers how to help students do just that.
Emerging theory of intelligent design
Over and above the scientific critique of Darwinism is the emerging theory of intelligent design. Intelligent design theory looks at all the evidence mentioned briefly above from various scientific disciplines, as well as exploring information-rich molecules like DNA, and tiny molecular machines like the bacterial flagellum, which biochemists Michael Behe immortalized in his 1996 bestselling book, Darwin’s Black Box.
In that book Behe explains that during Darwin’s time the biochemistry of life was as mysterious to scientists as the wires and chips inside a computer are to small children today. As long as scientists didn’t know how the biochemical machinery worked, they could reasonably believe that life had gradually self-assembled along Darwinian lines.
Now that we know the inner workings of living systems, however, we can no longer entertain such superstitions. Behe argued that the flagellum and many other molecular machines are “irreducibly complex.” They are like a mousetrap. They don’t work without all of their fundamental parts. Natural selection builds systems one small step at a time, by traversing a path in which each step helps the organism survive a present danger to its survival. It cannot select changes that will only be useful in the future, when combined with others in a complex system. Such foresight is the exclusive domain of intelligent agents.
Another intelligent design theorist, Stephen Meyer, has developed complementary arguments in a number of important articles in books such as Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe. Meyer presents both empirical and logical arguments against purely materialistic origin-of-life scenarios. And in a lengthy article in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, Meyer, Marcus Ross, Paul Nelson, and Paul Chien argue that design is apparent in the history of life, on the basis of the profusion of animal life that appears in the fossil record as the so-called “Cambrian Explosion.” These are just a few examples of the growing case for intelligent design.
These new arguments for design in natural science aren’t merely speculative, but rest on a firm philosophical foundation. This is due in large part to the work of philosopher and mathematician William Dembski. In books such as The Design Inference, Dembski describes how we can identify the effects of intelligent causes and distinguish them from impersonal causes. Few rational people would, for example, attribute cave paintings or hieroglyphic inscriptions to forces such as wind or erosion. Dembski’s work shows why and thereby helps establish an objective method for detecting intelligent causes. This means that the conclusion of design in natural science can constitute an inference from scientific evidence, and not merely a deduction from religious authority.
Not surprisingly, these matters are provoking fierce debate. Many guardians of current scientific orthodoxy are using tactics of intimidation and insult to prevent these new insights from gaining a hearing, and even threatening the freedom of scientists to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Their furor is understandable, for they realize that intelligent design in the natural sciences, like scientific materialism, would have profound social consequences. No longer would science seem to underwrite a materialistic world view, in which human beings are neither accountable nor responsible.
What Darwinism and scientific materialism have dismantled, intelligent design theory could help restore.
* Jay Richards, Ph.D., is vice president and senior fellow at Discovery Institute (www.discovery.org) and co-author of the new book, The Privileged Planet (Regnery 2004).
www.discovery.org – Web site of The Discovery Institute
www.arn.org – The Access Research Network attempts to put science topics in perspective by looking at related political, ethical and philosophical issues – so the reader gets a well-rounded understanding of the hot issues. Site includes profiles and papers by all the authors mentioned in this article and more.