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Intelligent Design

August 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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TEACHER: The jaw, if it were here, would be almost directly under.

JEFFREY BROWN: What should American students be taught about the origins and development of life on Earth?

This week, President Bush said that schools should teach both traditional evolution science and an alternative concept called “intelligent design.” The president, responding to a reporter’s question on the growing debate, said the decision on what to teach should be left to local school boards, but: “I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught. I think that part of the education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution holds that life evolved naturally over billions of years through random mutation and natural selection, often called “survival of the fittest.” It’s been the basis for teaching evolution for more than a century. For the overwhelming majority of scientists, the theory is solid and essential to an understanding of life.

CHRIS BARTON: Without evolution, it’s very, very difficult to make any sense out of what we see in the biological realm.

JEFFREY BROWN: But at least since the famous 1925 Scopes Trial in Tennessee, there have been doubters, particularly on religious grounds. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that creationism involving a biblical interpretation of life could not be taught in the classroom.

In recent years, a small group of scientists and others has pushed intelligent design has a new challenge to Darwin. As shown here in a video made by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, intelligent design posits that life is too complex to have developed as Darwin proposed and shows signs of having been “designed” by an unnamed “designer.” One state grappling with the issue is Kansas.

SPOKESMAN: Let me finish!

JEFFREY BROWN: This summer, the Kansas State Board of Education drafted a report that proposes adding intelligent design to its new teaching standards. Just this week, the issue was debated at a meeting of a committee advising the board.

STEVEN CASE: The response that we wrote today indicates that those are inappropriate changes, some for educational reasons, some for scientific reasons.

JOHN CALVERT: They also are favoring a set of standards that do not allow or comprehend criticisms of evolution.

STUDENT: Why can’t there — we combine both ways?

JEFFREY BROWN: In one form or another, the issue of teaching evolution is under debate in some 20 states across the country. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences warned of a “growing threat to the teaching of science through the inclusion of non-scientifically based ‘alternatives’ in sciences courses throughout the nation.”

But this week’s remarks by the president, coupled with the ongoing fight in Kansas and elsewhere, suggest the controversy will continue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, two prominent players in this debate, who’ve appeared before school boards around the country: Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University and author of “Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth and Beyond”; and Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and author of “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Darwin.”

Welcome to both of you. I’d like to start with you, Professor Krauss. The president said both sides ought to be taught. What do you think?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, it’s a completely inappropriate remark, unfortunately. Whatever he may think individually, what he’s done is give credence to a concept that’s really been proposed by a very small group of people that doesn’t appear in the scientific literature.

It’s really quite marginal to — it’s part of a very successful marketing and public relations campaign by a well-financed group, the Discovery Institute, of which Dr. Behe is a member. And it shows how you can take something that, from a scientific perspective is really irrelevant and make it appear to be an incredibly controversial issue, which it isn’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Behe, why don’t you give us your reaction to what the president said?

MICHAEL BEHE: Well, I was very pleased. This whole debate about whether one can detect design in nature goes back thousands of years to the ancient Greek philosophers. You know, Aristotle and Dimocrates argued over whether there was design in nature and it’s important to realize that all biologists readily acknowledged that the appearance of design, at least, is very strong in life.

A man named Richard Dawkins, who’s a very strong Darwinian biologist, nonetheless says that biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. So we’re talking about a very ancient and ongoing argument.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the critique, Professor Behe, you just heard from Professor Krauss, is that you don’t have the evidence, that it’s more a kind of marketing campaign. It hasn’t gone through the scientific literature.

MICHAEL BEHE: Well, I disagree. The scientific literature contains many, many examples of very complex systems that everybody says appear to be designed. When Darwin wrote his book on “The Origin of Species,” he was ignorant and all of science was ignorant about the molecular basis of life.

In the past 50 years, the progress of science itself has discovered that the very foundation, the molecular foundation of life is enormously sophisticated and elegant. There are molecular machines, there are little trucks and buses and outboard motors that shuttle supplies around the cell. And the term “molecular machine” is used routinely in biology. Biology is just filled with terms that imply design.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Krauss, help the layperson understand this. Do you and other scientists just not see these machines?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: No. In fact, actually understanding molecular machines is a kind of interesting area of physics nowadays and there’s been a great deal of progress in understanding how the laws of physics and chemistry can naturally produce these devices. To say there’s an appearance of design is a reason — first of all, it’s a subjective thing. Some people see design and some people don’t. But to suggest that’s a reason that there must be design is crazy.

If you look at a snowflake under a microscope, you’ll see an incredibly elegant structure. But I don’t think Dr. Behe would argue that it was designed. If you look at a geodesic dome on earth, you might say well that was designed by Buckminster Fuller, but if you look at the molecule C-60, which is made up of carbon atoms, it’s a geodesic dome. But, again, we understand how natural laws of physics produce this, and to say that this has appeared in the scientific literature is just ridiculous.

A colleague of mine did a study recently of 20 million scientific articles over the last 20 years. In that, if you do the key word “evolution” you’ll find about 115,000 hits. If you do intelligent design, you’ll find 88 hits. Of those 88, all but 11 were in engineering journals where you hope there’s intelligent design. Of the remaining eleven, eight were critical of intelligent design and the other three weren’t in research journals.

So it’s really a marginal notion and it’s — I have no problem with people exploring it. But if they want to explore it, they should explore it the way the rest of scientists explore it. They should publish articles, perform experiments, do tests, fight with referees and, after maybe twenty or thirty years if they convince their colleagues, then maybe it will get in high school textbooks. But what these people want to do is the opposite of fairness. They want to skip all those intermediate steps and say, let’s forget doing the actual studies; let’s go directly to the high school classroom. And that’s the opposite of fair play, really.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Behe, how far do you want to push this? The question on the table and the question the president raised is: Should it be taught in the high school classroom? Should it be taught in a science class at this point?

MICHAEL BEHE: Well, let me make it clear, I’m not trying to push anything. All I’m doing is advancing an idea. You know, it was the president who talked about education; high school education is not my particular area of interest, although it’s very important.

My own feeling is that I think talking about it would be very exciting; it would be an excellent pedagogical tool to introduce high school students to a variety of topics that get short shrift in science, but are nonetheless very, very important. That is how do assumptions — how do assumptions affect what theories are produced? How far can one extrapolate data? Can you extrapolate small changes in current organisms to enormous changes over billions of years?

There are many, many — many, many other questions about how scientists developed theories, test them, come to a social consensus about what is permitted and what is not. And I think just pedagogically, I can’t understand why a Darwinian biologist would be reluctant to have these issues discussed in the classroom. Darwinian biologists and Professor Krauss, of course, is not a biologist, but he’s a sympathizer; nonetheless Darwinian biologists seem to think that their theory is extremely strong and yet are afraid to discuss other theories. That’s a curious position as far as I can see.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Krauss, go ahead, respond.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, that’s a standard argument that Dr. Behe uses, but it’s ludicrous. In fact, of course we want to discuss interesting new controversial ideas in science. Unfortunately, intelligent design isn’t one. If Dr. Behe wants to push the idea, what he should do is instead of going out and lobbying states to include in high schools, what that group should do is try and do the science, try and convince their colleagues. You know, in physics, there are hundreds if not thousands of articles on challenges to Newtonian gravity, ideas that Newtonian gravity changes on the scale of a galaxy. But I don’t see people saying we should in high school physics classes not teach gravity.

There’s an idea where people have actually tried to propose tests and make alternative theories that really make sense and people are actually exploring them. I think they’re likely wrong, but people are actually exploring them. But intelligent design hasn’t even reached that. There are basically no scientific articles, no proposals, it hasn’t affected the essential thinking of the way biology is performed and until it does, there’s no reason to talk about it. Of course, we should discuss how scientists arrive at theories and it’s a great idea. Maybe we should use Newtonian gravity as an example because as far as I can see the challenge to that is much greater than the challenge to evolution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Krauss, many, many critics of this idea of intelligent design have pointed to it as a kind of backdoor way to bring God back into the high school classroom. Do you see that as what’s going on?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Absolutely. I have to say that if you actually look at the literature of groups like the Discovery Institute, it’s very clear. And that’s the reason I as a physicist are involved in this. It’s very clear that the attack is not on evolution, it’s really an attack on science. The notion that because science doesn’t explicitly mention God, it’s somehow immoral, in fact, that’s in the literature if you read what these people are saying.

And so for me the point about science is it’s neutral when it comes to God. There are incredibly devout and spiritual biologists and physicists; there are atheists. And the fact that those same sets of people can work on the same science, evolutionary biology in particular, indicates that the science is neutral and that’s the way science should be. Science is not all of human knowledge. It’s a very specific discipline that says let’s try and look at natural causes that might explain natural effects.

And you know, that may not – that doesn’t explain everything in nature, and it’s unfortunate with science, scientists suggest that science is all there is, that there aren’t other kinds of truth. But it works pretty well and it’s the basis of our modern technological society. And I as someone who likes to talk about science and wishes people knew science better get worried when instead of trying to promote thinking about science, we’re trying to attack it and suggest that the scientific method itself is somehow suspect. And that’s the real danger.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Professor Behe, is this a way to bring God into the classroom and, I guess the direct question is: Is the designer, the intelligent designer, is that god?

MICHAEL BEHE: Well, first of all, to answer your first question, no, this is not an attempt to bring God into the classroom. This is an attempt to account for the data that science has accumulated in the past five decades. Nobody expected the cell to be this complex. Nobody expected molecular machinery to under-gird life. No Darwinian theory predicted this. No Darwinian theory presently accounts for it. We are just trying to explain how such astonishing machinery and complexity has come to be.

The theory of intelligent design is no more an attempt to bring God into the classroom than the Big Bang Theory was. Now, in the early parts of the 20th Century, physicists thought that the universe was eternal and unchanging. And then red shifts of galaxies were noted and this was interpreted as the universe expanding and this was the start of the Big Bang Theory.

Now, many physicists thought that the Big Bang Theory had philosophical and theological implications and they didn’t like it. And as a matter of fact, well into the 20th Century, a number of scientists did not like the Big Bang Theory. As a matter of fact, the prominent science journal Nature ran a curious editorial in the late 1980s with the title “Down with the Big Bang.” It was written by the editor of Nature, a guy named John Maddox, who called the Big Bang Theory philosophically unacceptable and said that it gave aid and comfort to creationists because it seemed to point beyond the universe.

But the Big Bang Theory was just trying to account for the data. In the same way intelligent design is just trying to account for the data that we’ve accumulated in the past 50 years. Whether that has philosophical or even theological implications is secondary. We’re trying to account for data itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Professors Michael Behe and Lawrence Krauss, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL BEHE: Thank you.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Thank you.