October 22nd 2005

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: JI's blood-stained prints on the Bali bombings

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Howard's biggest gamble since the GST

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Public outcry against human cloning

NEW ZEALAND ELECTION: How Helen Clark snatched victory

CLIMATE: Don't get steamed up over Arctic melting

ISLAM: Why Indian Muslims reject extremism

SCIENCE AND RELIGION: The rise and rise of Intelligent Design

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Too many crooks spoil the broth / Turkey's EU membership and some masterful wedge politics by Austria / Cultural revolution / Look back in anger / Marriage of science with home economics / The decoy ducks

SCHOOL FUNDING: Giving parents greater choice

DRUGS: New cannabis strategy urgently needed

MEDIA: Media authority blasts Ten's 'Big Brother Uncut'

OVERSEAS TRADE: Australia trading at a loss - myth and reality

ENERGY: US Pushes for energy self-reliance

Media cover-up of Saddam's WMDs (letter)

Rural Australians betrayed (letter)

Embryo vs. adult stem-cell research (letter)


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The rise and rise of Intelligent Design

by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, October 22, 2005
A new challenge to Darwinian evolutionary theory is generating some lively debate, reports Bill Muehlenberg.

When an American President champions its cause, an Australian education minister says it should be looked into, and the cover of Time magazine treats it as a major story, all within the space of a week, then something must be up.

A new challenge to Darwinian theory - that life evolved spontaneously to its present forms and diversity - is generating a lot of attention and a lot of debate - and generating as much heat as light.

Whenever the sacred tenets of Darwinism are challenged, the sparks begin to fly. And they are flying fast and furiously of late.

The influence of one idea - Darwinism - has held sway for many decades now, after first being introduced in the 19th century. But in the past several decades, Darwinism has been subjected to some piercing criticism, and the whole edifice is now beginning to look a bit wobbly.

Mind you, there have always been major holes in the Darwinian structure: the sudden explosion of complex life forms at the beginning of the Cambrian period; the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record; the lack of nascent organs (new organs phasing in or being developed to meet changing, evolutionary conditions); the limits to change shown by breeding experiments, etc.

Intelligent Design

But a new movement is leading the charge in challenging Darwinian theory.

The new assault on Darwinism is really an old one. One of the classical arguments for the existence of God was the design argument, also known as the teleological argument.

This position stated that the presence of order and design in the universe points to an adequate source of the order - design points to a designer, a mind, or God. William Paley (1743-1805) made this argument famous with his analogy of the watch and the watchmaker.

The argument had fallen on hard times however during the past century. But it has undergone a remarkable resurgence in the past 15 to 20 years, especially because of advances in molecular biology and genetics.

The new revolution, known as the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, is made up of scholars, scientists and writers who argue that the more we learn about the world, especially at the genetic and molecular levels, the more evidence for intelligent design is found.

Leading figures in this movement include Phillip Johnson, a Harvard-educated law professor at the University of California, Berkeley; Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University; William Dembski, a mathematician with two PhDs, who directs an information theory research group at Baylor University; and Steve Meyer, a philosopher of science at Whitworth College in Washington state.

These men, and others, have led the charge in undermining Darwinism by showing that much of the physical universe seems to exhibit unmistakable characteristics of design.

Unlike the earlier evolution/creation science debate, however, the ID movement makes few claims on the nature of creation. Some in fact eschew the six-day creation position, and most argue their case purely on scientific grounds.

Even though many members of the ID movement are Christians, few parade their faith, preferring instead to base their arguments on science alone. And the scientific evidence for ID is certainly compelling. Even the famous atheist Anthony Flew has recently renounced his atheism because of ID argumentation.

Just what is the evidence that the ID movement is presenting? Here is a brief look at some of the more interesting examples.

The remarkable nature of DNA

Take the recent discoveries being made about DNA. It was as recently as 1953 that Watson and Crick made their discovery of the structure of DNA, and our knowledge has grown rapidly since then. One thing we now know is that DNA acts as a kind of molecular language, much as software runs a computer.

Put simply, tell any computer expert that Windows XP just evolved by chance, and he would send you packing. And this is what we are learning about DNA.

It is an incredibly complex source of information, the kind of information needed for hands to move, eyes to see, hearts to beat, and so on.

Indeed, the vast quantities of information contained in DNA are mind-boggling. The amount of information in a single cell of the human body is equivalent to three or four sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica - all 30 volumes.

Where did all this information come from? Did it just arise by natural forces alone, or must we posit an intelligent agent, much as someone stumbling across Paley's watch on a beach must posit a master craftsman, not some combination of wind and waves?

Each new discovery in the field seems to lend support for ID. Indeed, we are now learning that the genetic code functions quite like a language code, a means of communicating the information found in each living cell.

This information communicated is not random information but information loaded with what scientists are calling specified complexity. If I type the letters "olvIouey", we have an example of the former. If I type the letters "I love you", we have an example of the latter.

What we are learning about DNA is that it contains information in a very complex and specified fashion. All of which leads to the conclusion that a "who" and not a "what" created this genetic language.

Natural forces alone cannot seem to account for the high information content of DNA. Chance cannot account for it. Some intelligent mind must have made this information.

Irreducible complexity

Another fascinating discovery, only recently made possible by advances in molecular biology, is what we now know about the very basic building blocks of life. We are discovering that even at a cellular level, life is amazingly complex and incapable of being explained by traditional Darwinian thinking.

Darwin taught that life arose bit by bit, piece by piece, over vast periods of time. Indeed, he even admitted that if "it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down".

Well, it is breaking down. We are now learning that even the simplest structures of life demand a number of inter-locking components which needed to be present from day one in order to function. Indeed, the more we learn in biochemistry, the more we discover that even the simplest organisms capable of independent life are masterpieces of miniaturised complexity.

In Darwin's Black Box, Michael Behe speaks of the irreducible complexity of even the most basic and simple of life forms: molecules. Given the "astonishing complexity of subcellular organic structures ... how could this have all evolved?" By "irreducibly complex" he means "a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning".

Take a mousetrap. All the parts are needed for it to function. No mouse is caught if one bit is missing. But our most simple organisms are like that. How could they have evolved to that state? They wouldn't have worked without all the components, just as mice would have escaped the incomplete mousetrap.

Says Behe: "You can't start with a platform, catch a few mice, add a spring, catch a few more mice, add a hammer, catch a few more mice, and so on. The whole system has to be put together at once or the mice get away." All of which points to evidence of design.

The "landing of an airplane is just one example of a system that has to work within very tight restrictions to avoid disaster". The runway can't be too short or too long; the plane can't go too fast or too slow, etc. So it is with basic life functions.

Biology, then, at its most basic levels, displays an information-rich complexity which natural causes just do not seem to be able to explain. A better option is that an intelligent mind must be the cause.

Religion masquerading as science

At bottom, the Darwinian revolution was as much the success of a philosophical worldview overturning another as it was about science.

Indeed, the scientific basis of Darwinism has always been shaky; but early on many people, unhappy with the concept of God, realised just how useful Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859) could be to their cause.

Darwinism has become a competing worldview, one that posits philosophical naturalism in the place of supernatural creation. As British biologist Richard Dawkins put it, Darwin "made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist".

It is not hard evidence that is keeping Darwinists away from God - it is their pre-commitment to naturalism, materialism and anti-supernaturalism. As Charles Colson has argued, Darwinism "won not so much because it fit the evidence but because it provided a scientific rationale for naturalism".

Phillip Johnson aptly shows in his numerous books how it is this animus towards theism and Christianity, not the empirical evidence, that keeps people committed to Darwinism.

The Intelligent Design movement is on a roll. It is shaking up the Darwinian community and producing angry rebuttals.

For example, one biologist wrote off one of William Dembski's works as "trivial", "nonsensical", and "part of a large, well-planned movement whose object is nothing less than the destruction of modern science".

The ID movement must be doing something right to be generating those sorts of responses.

The Intelligent Design movement has undermined many of the faulty towers of Darwinism. Of course, given the fierce dogmatism and rugged faith placed in Darwinism, it may take more than a few well-aimed hits before the whole edifice collapses. But despite the obstinacy of Darwin's true believers, we must continue to lead the charge against scientism masquerading as science.

  • Bill Muehlenberg has a BA in philosophy (Chicago), an MA in theology (Boston), and is currently working on a PhD in philosophy at Deakin University. Bill lectures in apologetics, worldviews, bioethics, ethics and theology at several Melbourne theological colleges.

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