The Evolution Wars

When Bush joined the fray last week, the question grew hotter: Is intelligent design a real science? And should it be taught in schools?

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Since the 1987 decision, a devoted bandĀ of mostly religious Christians, including hundreds of scientists, engineers, theologians and philosophers, has written papers and books, contributed to symposiums on the perceived problems with Darwin's theory. The headquarters for such thinking is the Center for Science and Culture at a nonpartisan but generally conservative think tank called the Discovery Institute, founded in Seattle in 1990.

What exactly is their critique of Darwin? Much of it revolves around the appealing idea that living things are simply too exquisitely complex to have evolved by a combination of chance mutations and natural selection. The dean of that school of thought is Lehigh University biologist and Discovery Institute senior fellow Michael Behe, author of the 1996 book Darwin's Black Box, a seminal work on intelligent design. Behe's main argument points to the fact that living organisms contain such ingenious structures as the eye and systems like the mechanism for clotting blood, which involves at least 20 interacting proteins. He calls such phenomena "irreducibly complex" because removing or altering any part invalidates the whole. Behe claims they could not have arisen through the gradual fits and starts of evolution, which, he says, "has been oversold to the public." Although his writing is couched in the language of science, Behe, a practicing Catholic who home schools his nine children, believes the hand of the designer is self-evident. "That's why most people disbelieve Darwinian evolution," he says. "People go out and look at the trees and say, 'Nah.'"

Other arguments in this new brand of anti-Darwinism focus on missing pieces in the fossil record, particularly the Cambrian period, when there was an explosion of novel species. Still other advocates, including mathematician, philosopher and theologian William Dembski, who is heading up a new center for intelligent design at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, use the mathematics of probability to try to show that chance mutations and natural selection cannot account for nature's complexity. In contrast to earlier opponents to Darwin, many proponents of intelligent design accept some role for evolution--heresy to some creationists. They are also careful not to bring God into the discussion (another sore point for hard-line creationists), preferring to keep primarily to the language of science. This may also help them avoid the legal and political pitfalls of teaching creationism.

The Discovery Institute and its scientists have been actively involved in many of the recent skirmishes over evolution at local school-board meetings and in state legislatures. In Ohio, for instance, the institute sent representatives to the state board of education meetings last year to push for science standards that would support teaching critiques of evolution. "All we're advocating for is that if a teacher wants to bring up the scientific debate over design, they should be allowed to do that," says institute spokesman John West. In fact, Ohio modified its standards to say that evolution should be critically analyzed, which West regards as a victory.

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