The Origin Debate

Evolution and intelligent design theories create opposing scientific universes, and beg the question: common origin or common creator?
Friday, April 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:08 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one:

Two scientists are digesting a complicated mathematical sequence on a blackboard when they come across a peculiar link in the proof. The words, “And then a miracle occurred,” bind a hodge-podge of fractions, angles and deltas. The older scientist advises his colleague to be more specific here. After all, science can’t play host to outrageous speculations.

Whether you are versed in the debate over evolution and origins of life or are green to the controversy, you can already guess which side claims this message for its cause — they both do.

The cartoon flashed before an audience Wednesday night at MU’s Life Sciences Center during a debate between Intelligent Design advocate William Harris, professor of medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and evolution defender Jan Weaver, director of environmental studies at MU.

This time Harris got the chuckles, claiming that adherence to evolutionary theory is as tired and frustrating as toiling to turn lead into gold. But the graphic has been used many times by evolutionists to discredit design’s reliance on non-naturalistic guidance in nature. As in political debates, the same terms, concepts and data were held as evidence for polar claims.

Agreeing on definitions is half the battle for debaters.

Evolution asserts that all life on Earth descended from a common ancestor and that it happened through gene mutation and natural selection. Importantly, evolution doesn’t purport to identify how life originated on Earth; it aims to explain its change through time.

Intelligent Design maintains that life’s complexity indicates the hand of a purposeful creator and that evolutionary mechanisms alone don’t account for the diversity of life on Earth.

“Terms are incredibly slippery,” Harris told the audience, his warning poised defensively against Weaver’s charge that design theory necessitates the supernatural.

Even the definition of science is amorphous, according to the parameters of the debate. As has been his mission for years, Harris challenged the accepted limits of science to naturalistic explanations of the world and called for a more general search for truth, based on what he sees as clear scientific evidence of non-naturalistic interference.

“Science is a communal activity,” Weaver countered. “It has to be governed by methodological naturalism because scientists can’t agree how to evaluate supernatural causes.”

Weaver distinguished philosophical naturalism, the belief that nothing but the natural world exists, from scientific naturalism, which doesn’t preclude belief in the supernatural but excludes it from the scientific method.

Harris is an old pro at the argument. In 1999, he criticized naturalism in front of the Kansas Board of Education during its tumultuous revision of science standards, which resulted in drastic de-emphasis of evolution and origins science. A more liberal board reversed the decision in 2002.

This year, as a member of the writing committee that’s once again re-evaluating Kansas science standards, Harris penned a dissent to the majority of his colleagues, advocating an “objective presentation of the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory,” naturalism belonging to the latter. Board hearings will be held in May.

Harris and retired securities lawyer John Calvert manage the Intelligent Design Network in Shawnee Mission, Kan., a Midwest depository for evolution criticism and intelligent design promotion.

Organizations like Harris’ pepper the nation. Some are high-profile activist centers such as the Seattle-based Discovery Institute; others are Internet literature banks such as the Access Research Network in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center, in San Diego, Calif., has chapters across the United States and abroad. Westminster College hosts its only Missouri base.

Shunned by mainstream peer-reviewed publications, intelligent design proponents are constructing a parallel scientific universe with its own International Society for Complexity, Information and Design, annual conferences and a journal of its proceedings. All of these organizations share a prolific set of fellows and advisors.

The intelligent design movement is split between intellectual pursuits and a claim to science. The strategy, as outlined by Phillip Johnson, known as the “godfather” of intelligent design, is a three-pronged approach dubbed “the wedge”: “teach the controversy” method in high school classrooms; pick holes in evolution; and establish intelligent design as an accepted scientific theory.

Johnson, professor of law emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley, and his intellectual supporters have marked the year 2020 as a time when the vast majority of scientists will accept design as given and scoff at evolution as a 150-year distraction in scientific scholarship.

“Science changes one funeral at a time,” Harris said, echoing Johnson’s predictions. “We have this idea that science is objective and without politics. And that’s not true.”

Wednesday’s event grew out of lesser-profiled debate among members of the MU Christian Faculty/Staff Fellowship, a 2-year-old organization that meets at weekly brown-bag lectures to “reach faculty and staff for Christ and equip them to serve Christ’s kingdom, individually and corporately,” according to the group’s Web site.

“Nobody else has brought this debate to the fore in a public setting at Mizzou,” said Michael Sykuta, assistant professor of agribusiness and fellowship member.

The group buzzed around the issue last year, when MU’s Faculty Council voted to oppose a House bill calling for equal treatment of intelligent design and evolution in high school biology classes. Soured by the public’s exclusion from the council’s decision, the fellowship began to organize a forum on what Sykuta calls “as much a philosophical issue as a scientific one.”

Last year’s legislation, sponsored by Rep. Robert Wayne Cooper, R-Camdentonenflamed opposition from 450 Missouri science professionals, Weaver among them, and eventually died in committee.

Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O’Fallon, who was in the audience Wednesday night, co-sponsored the failed intelligent design bill. This year, she introduced legislation calling for a critical analysis of origins in science textbooks and an explanation of the controversy surrounding evolution.

Davis said she has been reassured by Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, chairwoman of the Committee for Elementary and Secondary Education, that the committee will hold a hearing on her bill before the end of the legislative session.

The legislation underscores the awkward transition of science into politics. The democratization of science lends more weight to traditional political tools, like public opinion polls, religious implications and debates.

Eugenie Scott, director of the Oakland, Calif.-based evolution-defense group, the National Center for Science Education, is against the debate format in discussions about evolution.

“In debates, you are judged not on accuracy but on performance,” Scott said. “Science is slower and clumsier than that.”

That’s assuming everyone agrees on what science is.

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