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Scientist gives Darwin's theory a nudge

Thursday, February 08, 2001

By Pamela R. Winnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Although scientists have been debating the science of evolution since Charles Darwin's seminal work on the subject, "On the Origin of the Species," was published in 1859, one of the more recent developments in this debate has been the emergence of a new concept called "intelligent design."

According to Darwin, humans developed from lower forms of animals over a period of millions of years. Changes within a species occur through a process known as natural selection, in which, through genetic mutations, those with superior attributes survive and reproduce, eventually altering the species. Evolution remains the majority view of scientists, endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education and the National Association of Biology Teachers.

Evolution presupposes a random process of change that some say conflicts with the existence of a divine intelligence, the biblical account of the origin of life and the notion that God especially created man. In many states, strict creationists have tried -- to date, unsuccessfully -- to persuade public school officials to change the science curriculum to enable creationism to be taught alongside evolution.

What distinguishes intelligent design from creationism is that it has won the backing of a minority of scientists. Among them is Michael J. Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University who in 1996 published "Darwin's Black Box," a controversial book in which he argues that Darwin's theory of natural selection cannot account for the complexity of cellular life and that only a divine intelligence could have produced life in all its many forms.

Behe is no crackpot. He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1978 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he did his dissertation work on sickle cell disease. He subsequently worked for four years at the National Institutes of Health on problems of DNA structure and joined the faculty at Lehigh in 1985.

He discussed his ideas in advance of a visit to Grove City College tonight, where he'll be speaking as part of ceremonies there celebrating the 125th anniversary of the school's founding.

Q. You were originally a believer in evolution. What changed your mind?

A. I was taught Darwin's theory from grade school through college and, though I had vague suspicions about its validity, I had no reason to doubt my instructors. I became skeptical of the theory in the late 1980s after reading a book "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis" by an Australian geneticist named Michael Denton. Denton pointed out a number of scientific problems of the theory that I had never considered before.

Denton talked about what I went on to explore: the great complexity of cellular life, which could not have come about randomly as Darwin believed.

Q. You're a practicing Catholic and a believer in God. Have your religious beliefs influenced your scientific work?

A. My religious beliefs haven't influenced my scientific work. I first learned Darwin's theory in parochial school. We were taught that it was God's way of making life through natural laws. That seemed fine with me. It was only when I learned of scientific problems with the theory of evolution that I became skeptical of it.

Q. Explain how your own work disproves or brings into question the theory of evolution.

A. Darwin's theory assumes gradual change, with natural selection slowly improving life in small steps. Some things, however, can't be improved gradually. For example, think of a typical mechanical mousetrap you get at a store. It has a number of parts that are needed to catch a mouse. Take one part away and the trap doesn't work. It's very hard to see how something like a mousetrap can be built gradually, in the way Darwin's theory requires.

At the biological level, some cells are like mousetraps in that they only work with all parts interacting. One good example is the bacterial flagellum, which is quite literally an outboard motor that bacteria use to swim. It's got a propeller, a motor, nuts and bolts to hold things. Natural selection could not have created these individual functions, because they have developed more or less simultaneously, rather than having been built step by step as Darwin envisioned.

When we see a mousetrap we realize it is the product of intelligent design, because of the way the parts of the trap work together to accomplish its function. I think we can come to a similar conclusion for cellular machinery.

Q. In your view, does embracing intelligent design require one to believe in God?

A. Although intelligent design fits comfortably with a belief in God, it doesn't require it, because the scientific theory doesn't tell you who the designer is. While most people -- including me -- will think the designer is God, some people might think that the designer was a space alien or something odd like that.

The conclusion that parts of life were intentionally designed can be supported with scientific evidence. The further deduction that the designer is God requires philosophical and theological arguments.

Q. Why do you think established scientists have been so opposed to questioning evolution?

A. Some scientists have disagreed with me for a variety of reasons. It's been my experience, however, that the ones who oppose the theory of design most vociferously do so for religious reasons. Either they don't believe in God, and think intelligent design is a stalking horse for a viewpoint they oppose. Or they do believe in God, but find it distasteful to think God would be quite so active.

Q. Dr. Lawrence Lerner, professor emeritus at California State University at Long Beach, recently called you a "screwball." How do you respond to such labels by members of the scientific establishment?

A. In a way it actually makes me feel good when Darwinists call me names. First, it shows that they are having a tough time coming up with actual arguments against design. It also shows that they aren't the coolly logical persons they would have everyone think they are.

Q. Has your questioning of evolution affected your academic career?

A. My questioning of Darwinian evolution has brought me notoriety in some circles, but hasn't brought any negative repercussions. I still teach and publish as before, although my research interests have shifted toward more explicitly evolutionary questions. I'm frequently asked to lecture on college campuses. I'm having a lot of fun!

Q. One criticism of scientists who advocate intelligent design is that their writings are not published in peer-reviewed journals. Is this true?

A. I've tried to publish on this topic in journals, but the editors were not receptive. So I and my colleagues have written books to explain design. Before publication the books were sent out to scientists and philosophers for comments and criticisms. They have been more thoroughly reviewed before publication than the typical journal paper.

Q. In Pennsylvania, standards have been approved by the Department of Education that would allow teachers to expose students to theories that "support and do not support" the theory of evolution. How, in your view, how should evolution be presented to high school students?

A. I certainly think Darwinian evolution should be taught in high school. It's an important theory. But I think it should be taught "warts and all." Teach the evidence that fits into the theory, but also present the evidence that doesn't. Talk about examples that seem to demonstrate how evolution works, but also talk about examples that have been shown to be fraudulent or seriously incomplete. In the past students have been misled by their biology textbooks. In the future, students should be taught the difference between data and interpretation.

Behe will speak at 7 p.m. in Crawford Auditorium on the Grove City College campus. For more information, call 724-458-3302 or contact

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