The language of life

Robert Lee Hotz is a Times staff writer who covers science.

IN the border war between science and faith, the doctrine of "intelligent design" is a sly subterfuge -- a marzipan confection of an idea presented in the shape of something more substantial.

As many now understand -- and as a federal court ruled in December -- intelligent design is the bait on the barbed hook of creationist belief, intended to sidestep legal restrictions on the teaching of religion in public-school science classes. The problem is not its underlying theology -- a matter properly left to individual religious belief -- but its disingenuous masquerade as a form of legitimate scientific inquiry.

Proponents of intelligent design argue that the diversity of life can be explained best by a guiding intelligence -- be it a supreme deity or a space alien -- not the undirected action of evolution and natural selection. By the tenets of intelligent design, life in the universe is simply too complex to have happened by accident. Supporters argue that theirs is a scientific theory that can be tested through experiments, like other scientific ideas. The systematic campaign to make intelligent design part of school curriculums as a scientific alternative to the teaching of evolution has triggered dozens of legal and legislative disputes in 31 states, including California.

Until recently, however, those scientists most qualified to defend evolutionary biology were strangely reluctant to confront these dissenters publicly. Now, in three quite different books -- a collection of essays, a biography of Charles Darwin's intellectual life and a debunker's guide to the debate -- some of the nation's most distinguished thinkers step forward as expert witnesses to challenge the ruse of intelligent design directly.

Taken together, these works are essential reading for anyone who sincerely wants to "teach the controversy" as intelligent design advocates so often urge -- or to understand its dishonesty. As distillations of the best thinking on this ploy, they ought to be required reading for every high school science teacher and school board member in America.

In exploring the shortcomings of intelligent design, these writers also highlight a broader struggle over the evidence of existence that is as old as science and revealed religion.

Simply put, Darwin documented the transformational power of sex and death. The struggle to survive and reproduce is the natural engine of variation, he determined. In any species, more are often born than can survive. Even a slight hereditary advantage may favor one over the other. Those who survive will pass their competitive edge on to their offspring. In this way, limbs could become wings and, in 3 billion or 4 billion years, microbes could evolve into men.

Modern evolutionary biology emphasizes the underlying unity of life, as amply documented in the genetic code shared by all organisms, which genome mapper and evangelical Christian Francis Collins has called "the language in which God created life."

For those seeking faith-based alternatives to Darwin, however, evolutionary theory commits an unforgivable affront, these authors write. It unseats humanity as master of a divine creation. With its emphasis on the mechanism of natural selection, it puts people on equal biological footing with barnacles and baboons.

"[L]et's be clear: This is not evolution versus God," writes David Quammen in "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution." "The existence of God -- any sort of god, personal or abstract, immanent or distant -- is not what Darwin's evolutionary theory challenges. What it challenges is the supposed godliness of Man -- the conviction that we above all other life forms are spiritually elevated, divinely favored, possessed of an immaterial and immortal essence, such that we have special prospects for eternity, special status in the expectations of God, special rights and responsibilities on Earth."

Quammen does not flinch from "the horrible challenge" implied by Darwin's idea: "In plain language, a soul or no soul? An afterlife or not? Are humans spiritually immortal in a way that chickens or cows are not, or just another form of temporarily animated meat?"

Many religious groups have accommodated the insights of evolution as an explanation of the natural world no different than findings from astronomy, medicine or meteorology, without losing faith in a divine will -- reinterpreting religious texts in line with modern scientific findings. Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Catholics and mainstream Protestants all have their own nuanced theological responses to evolutionary theory.

By some measures, half of all Americans still reject the theory of evolution. Some simply don't know the difference between an opinion, a belief, a hypothesis and a formal scientific theory. But for others, the theory of evolution prompts a genuine crisis of faith.

Seventy percent of evangelical Christians believe that living things have always existed in their current form, compared with 32% of mainline Protestants and 31% of Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Intelligent design is a uniquely American phenomenon, but only one of at least eight variations of the creationist idea, explains Michael Shermer in "Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design."

Fundamentalist proponents of intelligent design, however, make no broad claim for classroom equality on behalf of all religions because, they insist to the general public, theirs is not a faith-based initiative but "a scientific dissent from Darwinism." But as evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne at the University of Chicago notes, one of intelligent design's leading proponents, William A. Dembski, undermines that objective stance: "[A]ny view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient." He quotes from Dembski's book "Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology."

Indeed, the effort to inject intelligent design into science classrooms is an attempt to narrow the common ground of a secular society, writes science publishing impresario John Brockman, who commissioned a collection of essays called "Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement." "[R]eligious fundamentalism is on the rise around the world, and our own virulent domestic version of it, under the rubric of 'intelligent design,' by elbowing its way into the classroom abrogates the divide between church and state that has served this country so well for so long."

In "Intelligent Thought," Brockman persuaded 16 distinguished scientists to address the controversy from the pulpit of their technical expertise. The assembled are knowledgeable, humane and deeply passionate about science as a way of knowing the world around us. The result is a teaching moment that encompasses all the ages of the Earth.

Evolutionary biologist Neil H. Shubin of the University of Chicago writes of the way living things emerged from the seas and describes the recently discovered fossil specimen of that first terrestrial explorer. Paleontologist Tim D. White of UC Berkeley lays out the forensic evidence of pre-human descent. Nicholas Humphrey, a professor at the Center for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics, muses on how natural selection might have produced human consciousness. Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker holds forth on the evolution of ethics. Harvard evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser discusses the proper role of evolution in the science curriculum.

Several essayists worry that the passions stirred by the intelligent design debate go well beyond the natural tension between science and religion. They suspect that baser political motives are at work in a strategy crafted to discredit science itself as an independent auditor of political claims about global warming, stem-cell research, pollution and high-tech military systems.

"Whether or not evolution is compatible with faith, science and religion represent two extremely different worldviews, which, if they coexist at all, do so most uncomfortably," writes Stanford University physicist Leonard Susskind in "Intelligent Thought." "Today, in the United States, science and religion are in an angrier struggle than at any time within living memory. In itself, an intellectual battle of ideas is not at all a bad thing. But what I and many other people find deeply disturbing are the mechanisms that drive the conflict. It seems that both sides are pawns in a bigger game, a game of politics and power."

Tufts University philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, however, has no patience with conspiracy theory. The intelligent design movement is simply a "hoax," he writes. Although its proponents claim that theirs is a scientific endeavor, they so far have produced "no experiments with results that challenge any mainstream biological understanding; no observations from the fossil record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that undermine standard evolutionary thinking."

What they offer instead is a glib debater's ploy: "First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work, provoking an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence there is a 'controversy' to teach," Dennett writes. "You can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point amid all the difficult details."

None writes so fiercely in defense of evolution as Shermer, a Scientific American columnist and founder and director of the Skeptics Society. With the sustained indignation of a former creationist, Shermer is savage about the shortcomings of intelligent design and eloquent about the spirituality of science. In "Why Darwin Matters," he has assembled an invaluable primer for anyone caught up in an argument with a well-intentioned intelligent design advocate.

"Christians should embrace modern science for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity in a depth and detail unmatched by ancient texts," Shermer writes. "In contrast, Intelligent Design creationism reduces God to an artificer, a mere watchmaker piecing together life out of available parts in a cosmic warehouse."

Surely, the most persuasive case for evolution arises from the example of Darwin's own struggle with the implications of the undirected but efficient process of life he had uncovered -- for Darwin himself began as a proponent of intelligent design.

Award-winning science writer Quammen brilliantly and powerfully re-creates the 19th century naturalist's intellectual and spiritual journey in "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin," which was conceived as a popular companion to more scholarly volumes on Darwin's life.

As Quammen so ably documents, Darwin clearly understood the challenge that natural selection posed to the conventional Victorian Christian faith that sustained his friends and family. No one was more reluctant to espouse it publicly or more distressed by its implications. Indeed, it steadily undermined his own belief in God, drove a wedge in his marriage and nearly broke his health. He brooded privately over his findings for 21 years before making them public.

Yet he finally embraced his brainchild, impelled by an unflinching intellectual honesty, the weight of the evidence and the imperative of an undeniable idea. "There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection," Darwin wrote, "than in the course which the wind blows."


The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution

David Quammen

Atlas Books/W.W. Norton: 304 pp., $22.95


Intelligent Thought

Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement

Edited by John Brockman

Vintage: 258 pp., $14 paper


Why Darwin Matters

The Case Against Intelligent Design

Michael Shermer

Times Books/Henry Holt: 202 pp., $22

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