thats_wild (2007-13)

Creationists drop religion for intelligence

Kingdom of Love

by Rikki Hall

Creationists welcomed their new leaders to Knoxville last weekend for a convention held by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle non-profit that acts as a publishing house and endowment for proponents of intelligent design (ID). The institute supports a dozen senior fellows and more than two dozen other scientists. Staff scientists are working to develop an intelligent design curriculum, and advance copies of Explore Evolution , a biology textbook soon to be released by the organization, were available at the convention. Program Director Stephen Meyer told the crowd it is "premature" to teach intelligent design in public schools. Meyer said, "We encourage people not to push this in schools right now."

Such honesty is a refreshing trait in the new generation of Creationists. By abandoning traditional Creationist arguments, intelligent design advocates gained breathing room. In his best-selling 1996 book Darwin's Black Box , featured afternoon speaker Michael Behe admits evolution by descent with variation is a powerful and valid explanation for observable biological change, and convention moderator Lee Strobel said of the panel of speakers, "We all admit evolution exists." Strobel even said public schools should "teach more evolution."

Instead of attacking evolutionary theory, ID proponents claim to have discovered new evidence. In his book, Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University, declared modern molecular techniques had lifted the lid on conventional biology, revealing complex chemical cascades and molecular machines too elaborate to be explained by evolutionary theory. ID proponents claim there is too much information in genes to have accumulated naturally, too much biodiversity appearing too rapidly in the fossil record and molecular devices too complex to assemble by chance. The heart of their approach is "the design inference," an age-old philosophical notion positing that we can perceive whether something formed by chance or by design. A watch implies a watchmaker.

Philosopher Jay Richards told the audience there are too many universal constants set too precisely to have aligned perfectly by chance, so there must be a purpose to our existence. He has discovered that purpose. Earth is positioned not only within the solar system's narrow life-friendly zone, but also within the galaxy's astronomer-friendly zone. We are perfectly positioned to see what is around us, so our purpose is to discover.

Such proclamations get at the core of ID proponents' motivation, which is to preserve room in the universe for purpose and meaning. Their real opponent is not evolution, but materialism, which is a cornerstone of not just biology, but all science. They feel science has grabbed too much of the world and left no place for God.

Behe's book was carefully stripped of religious content, God reduced to "an intelligent agent," and Christianity similarly reduced to lurking at the Knoxville convention. Dozens of volunteers from Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, Campus Navigators and other local groups wore yellow shirts emblazoned simply "Darwin vs. Design," and overt religious symbols and slogans were largely absent from displays and literature. There was no opening prayer. The four speakers discussed their personal faith only in passing.

Lee Strobel, a law student turned journalist, explained how his wife's conversion to Christianity caused him to revisit his atheism and discover evidence of a designer in the universe. Strobel's Yale law degree was not the only elite credential. Meyer earned a degree in philosophy of science from Cambridge, Richards a degree from Princeton, and Professor Behe a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.

For $55 ($5 for students), attendees saw all four speakers, a few video clips promoting intelligent design, and a question-and-answer session moderated by Strobel, the only speaker not a Discovery-Institute fellow. In addition to advance copies of the new textbook, DVDs were available for purchase, and donors earned their choice of eight books published by Discovery Institute, one title for donations of $100 or more, three titles for donations over $300.

Both Behe and Meyer expect to publish books this year, Meyer promising predictions derived from intelligent design and a discussion of how ID can be falsified, one of the formal requirements for elevating a philosophical argument to the status of scientific theory. Though he readily admits ID is not ready for public science classes, Meyer brims with confidence that he has scientists "on the defensive." After the scheduled talks, his advice for fans was, "Don't let them intimidate you."

Meyer published a philosophical criticism of evolution in a small peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington , in August 2004. The journal is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, and the managing editor has come under fire from Smithsonian biologist Jonathan Coddington and others. Meyer's paper argued that the sudden appearance of diverse animal phyla in Cambrian fossils represents too much new information for evolution to explain and therefore suggests the work of a "rational agent."

The Cambrian Explosion is not the mystery Meyer wishes it to be. Immediately preceded geologically by early evidence of tissues, organs and multicellular life, the Cambrian era also marks the first appearance of calcium-hardened tissues like bones and shells. Hard-bodied creatures are far more likely to leave fossil traces than their soft-bodied ancestors, and this combination of increased fossilization and emerging multicellular life accounts for the abundance of Cambrian fossils.

Because Meyer does not discuss how his "rational agent" might have acted nor attempt to quantify how much information is too much, his argument remains philosophical, not scientific. The relatively young branch of mathematics called information theory could help ID proponents strengthen their case, but their forays into math appear limited to irrelevant exaggerations of biological probabilities and absurd claims like Strobel's "Nature can't produce information."

Behe's notion of "irreducible complexity" could be expressed mathematically, but he seems uninterested in doing so. When asked about this, he said, "One problem with developing mathematical formulas is that your audience is necessarily limited." Like Creationism, ID is an idea tailored for a friendly crowd, not for skeptics. Though convention promoters promised evidence for Darwinian evolution would be presented along with evidence for ID, all the speakers favored intelligent design, and UT graduate students handing out literature on evolution were forced to stand on the Clinch Avenue viaduct, too far from convention-center doors to interact with most attendees.

Leaders of the ID movement are scientifically literate. Meyer in particular is a serious student of the philosophy of science, clever and articulate enough to debate critics when necessary. Whether he is in a controlled environment before a friendly crowd or being interviewed for TV or radio, Meyer's art is in what he does not say.

ID proponents say evolution leaves everything to chance. They don't mention that chance is only the raw material upon which natural selection operates. They say evolution is purposeless, but the theory implicitly endows all life with the purpose of reproduction. That purpose might be too sexual to sit comfortably with Christians, but evolution can be viewed as an unbroken chain of motherly love stretching back through human history into our mammalian, reptilian and more primitive forebears. We are family back to the first cells, and before that, it was momma muck that obeyed God's command to bring forth life.

Perhaps the biggest secret ID proponents do not want to discuss is that there is no conflict between Biblical creation and science. Evolution is a love story just like the Bible .

Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.