This article appeared as the cover story in the June issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.
IMAGINE A NANOTECHNOLOGY MACHINE far beyond the state of the art: a microminiaturized rotary motor and propeller system that drives a tiny vessel through liquid. The engine and drive mechanism are composed of 40 parts, including a rotor, stator, driveshaft, bushings, universal joint, and flexible propeller. The engine is powered by a flow of ions, can rotate at up to 100,000 rpm (ten times faster than a NASCAR racing engine), and can reverse direction in a quarter of a rotation. The system comes with an automatic feedback control mechanism. The engine itself is about 1/100,000th of an inch wide — far smaller than can be seen by the human eye.
Most of us would be pleasantly surprised to learn that some genius had designed such an engineering triumph. What might come as a greater surprise is that there is a dominant faction in the scientific community that is prepared to defend, at all costs, the assertion that this marvelous device could not possibly have been designed, must have been produced blindly by unintelligent material forces, and only gives the appearance — we said appearance! — of being designed.
As you may have guessed, these astonishingly complex, tiny, and efficient engines exist. Millions of them exist inside you, in fact. They are true rotary motors that drive the “bacterial flagellum,” a whip-like propulsion device for certain bacteria, including the famous E. coli that lives in your digestive system.
Oddly enough, this intricate high-speed motor is at the center of a controversy that has been kindling in scientific circles for a decade, and is now igniting hot debate outside those circles. That’s because, even more oddly, the implications of whether this little engine was designed are incalculably profound. They involve questions such as: What constitutes science? Did living things “just happen” by natural causes or were they designed by an intelligence? And what follows from those two competing alternatives — in morality, education, culture, and science itself?
THE CONTROVERSY STEMS from the work of a growing cadre of scientists, mathematicians, and scholars in the field of “intelligent design,” or ID for short. In the life sciences, the proponents of intelligent design are challenging the reigning orthodoxy that life developed entirely by the blind operation of natural forces. Their arguments are essentially of two kinds.
First, building on recent discoveries in cell biology, molecular genetics, and other disciplines, they contend that life, and the complex processes by which cells do their work, cannot have been produced by that combination of chance and necessity known as Darwinian evolution. Second, using the analytical techniques of information theory, they contend that the kind of information embodied in things that are designed can only be produced by an intelligent agent, not by undirected material causes. Design, they say, is empirically detectable — and it is detectable, in fact, in living things. (Some of the ID proponents have demonstrated that the physical laws of the universe also show overwhelming evidence of being designed. For reasons of space rather than interest, I can only discuss here the work that ID is doing in the biological sciences.)
Of course, if the hypothesis that the universe and life are designed is true, the ready inference is that this designer has to be an incomprehensibly potent and awesome Intelligent Agent. A lot of influential people in science, the media, the schools, and other institutions don’t much like the notion of the Big Intelligent Agent. Hence the controversy over ID, and the slanted treatment of it that is often seen.
Among certain sectors of the media, for example, it’s an article of faith that those who believe in God, or advocate principles supporting that belief, are just a mob of Bible-thumping, knuckle-dragging, Scripture-spouting, hellfire and brimstone-preaching, rightwing, gun-toting, bigoted, homophobic, moralistic, paternalistic, polyester-wearing, mascara-smeared, false-eyelashed, SUV-driving, Wal-Mart shopping, big hair, big gut, fat butt, holy-rolling, snake-handling, Limbaugh-listening, Bambi-shooting, trailer-park-dwelling, uneducated, ignorant, backwater, hayseed, hick, inbred, pinhead rubes — mostly from the South, or places no better than the South — who voted for Bush.
So, many of the news stories refer to intelligent design theory as “creationism” and ignore the science behind it. They imply that ID is just religion in disguise: “Creationism in a cheap tuxedo,” as one headline put it. Let’s look at the science, then, because the truth about the intelligent design school could not be more different from those stereotypes. The proponents of ID base their arguments on biological and physical data generally accepted in science. They use the same kinds of analytical methods and mathematical tools as other scientists. The ID theorists do not reason from religious premises. Neither do they attempt to prove the truth of Scripture, or of any particular religious views. As a rule, they do not contest that life on Earth is billions of years old, or that evolution has occurred in the sense of “change over time” in biological forms.
What they do contest is that undirected material causes alone can explain life’s origin and development. Instead, they argue that design is the best scientific explanation for the stunning complexity of the cellular processes that underlie life, and for the evidence of how life actually developed. That conclusion, if true, certainly has religious implications. But, as will become evident, the reasoning and methods used by the ID proponents are fact-based and scientific.
BEFORE GETTING TO THE SCIENCE, though, let’s take a moment to see who the ID proponents are. Many of the prominent ID theorists are affiliated with the Center for Science and Culture (CSC) at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (most of them hold day jobs, too). Some background on the individuals whose work is mentioned in this article may be helpful in deciding if the ID movement is really just a confederacy of dunces allied against the enlightened.
The most prolific of the ID proponents is William Dembski. A bespectacled, youthful-looking man, Dembski has a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago, a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois, and a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. He has done postdoctoral work in mathematics at MIT, in physics at the University of Chicago, and in computer science at Princeton, as well as being a National Science Foundation doctoral and postdoctoral fellow. He is the leading thinker in applying information theory in the field of intelligent design, and has written or edited ten books.
Michael Behe, who popularized the flagellar motor as an example of intelligent design, is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, with more than 35 articles in refereed scientific journals (and many popular works) to his credit. Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s CSC, has undergraduate degrees in physics and geology, and a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge University in England for his dissertation on the history of origin of life biology.
Jonathan Wells holds a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and another Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale University. He got double 800s on his SATs. Phillip Johnson, whose advocacy will be mentioned in a moment, is professor of law at the University of California-Berkeley. He graduated first in his law school class at the University of Chicago Law School, clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren on the United States Supreme Court, and published scores of articles and several books during his career.
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