Scientists Hesitant to Debate Intelligent Design

A poster advertises a debate

A poster advertises a debate between Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller and a proponent of creationism. hide caption

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Over the years the scientific community has largely decided not to take part in public debates over creationism v. evolution. Now they're being careful about how they take on Darwin's latest critics — advocates of "Intelligent Design," the argument that life is too complex to have evolved without help.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Eighty years ago this month, science and religion went to court in Dayton, Tennessee. Despite the sweltering heat, the Scopes Trial, also known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, attracted crowds of journalists and spectators. They were eager to watch two great orators debate evolution. Over the years, scientists have largely decided not to take part in such public spectacles, and now they're being careful about how they respond to Charles Darwin's latest critics. Those are the advocates of what is called intelligent design, the argument that life is too complex to have evolved without help. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

In 1981, Ken Miller was a young professor of biology at Brown University, and some of his students asked if he would be willing to debate a creationist. Miller eventually agreed, figuring he had every fact imaginable on his side. He picked up the phone and called his friend, Stephen Jay Gould, the famous author and evolutionary biologist at Harvard.

Mr. KEN MILLER (Former Biology Professor at Brown University): I called Steve up and then I explained to him that I was preparing for a debate with a scientific creationist. And I asked him if he could help me out with a couple of arguments. And to my amazement, he stopped me short. And he said, `Ken, I'd like to remain your friend. I'd like to be on good terms with you, but I don't think it's wise to debate these guys. I don't think it's appropriate to give them a platform for their misguided and misleading views. And if you're going to debate this fellow, I won't help you, I won't provide any assistance, and I won't even talk with you.'

KESTENBAUM: It turned out there was another reason scientists didn't like these debates. They didn't always go so well. Miller's students tracked down audiotapes of previous confrontations. One featured a Princeton scientist named Ashley Montague trying to make the case for evolution.

Mr. MILLER: Montague was one of the most famous anthropologists in this country in the 1950s and 1960s. He literally wrote hundreds of books, brilliant guy. And I figured, oh, this is going to be fun, because surely this guy is going to wipe the floor with the scientific creationists. Well, I played the tape, and to my amazement and horror, quite the opposite was true, and that is that the creationist had his way with Montague.

KESTENBAUM: The creationist, he says, raised all kinds of strange arguments Montague and Miller had never heard of, like that the second law of thermodynamics meant evolution wasn't possible.

Mr. MILLER: All that, you might say, put the fear of God into me in terms of thinking I'd better take some time and prepare. And I literally dropped everything for about four weeks.

KESTENBAUM: Miller's own debate took place in the largest room on campus, the hockey rink. Over a thousand people came, and by his assessment, it went well. Miller eventually became a go-to guy to combat creationist arguments.

Mr. MILLER: And it took the anti-evolution movement about, I would say, 10 years to sort of figure out, `OK, what do we do next?' And what we do next turned out to be intelligent design.

KESTENBAUM: Intelligent design is the idea that life is too complex to have come about just by evolution, as envisioned by Darwin. One of its main proponents is Michael Behe. He is a biochemist at Lehigh University.

Mr. MICHAEL BEHE (Biochemist, Lehigh University): Like many people, I'm a pretty conventional religious believer. I'm a Roman Catholic. So I find it congenial to think that the designer is likely to be God.

KESTENBAUM: Behe says if you look at the world, it's pretty easy to pick out things that are natural from things that have been designed.

Mr. BEHE: Anybody driving by Mount Rushmore would realize that it was not just plate tectonics and erosion and rainstorms and so on that are responsible for the shape of that mountain. It took an intelligent agent to shape the faces there. And intelligent design is the idea that we can recognize things like Mount Rushmore in life.

KESTENBAUM: What's it like being an intelligent design guy at an academic institution these days?

Mr. BEHE: Oh, it's lonely. It's lonely here. No, actually there's the occasional person who agrees with me, but it's certainly not a popular position in academia. It's not treated like just some other idea that somebody suggested.

KESTENBAUM: Behe lays out his arguments for intelligent design in a book called "Darwin's Black Box." In the first pages you'll find a picture of a bacterial flagellum.

Mr. BEHE: The flagellum is, quite literally, an outboard motor that bacteria use to swim. It's got a part that acts as a propeller. The propeller is attached to something called the drive shaft. And so just, like we recognize that a real outboard motor in our everyday world requires design, we can also conclude the same for this bacterial machine.

KESTENBAUM: Intelligent design advocates raise other examples of things they argue are too complex to have arisen by the slow tinkering process of evolution. Behe says no biology journal has published his ideas on the flagellum or any other paper on intelligent design, and Ken Miller says there's a good reason for that.

Mr. MILLER: It is fair to say that how the flagellum evolved is still an unsolved problem in biology. We know a fair amount about it, but we don't have a complete solution. What intelligent design does, however, is to rush in and say, `Stop doing any research, stop thinking. Attribute all of this to a supernatural designer operating outside the laws of nature.' That's bad science and it's even bad theology.

KESTENBAUM: There are many clues to how evolution might have pieced the flagellum together, he says. Its base is virtually identical to a kind of molecular syringe in some bacteria. The rotating part, he says, resembles an engine elsewhere in the cell. Still, when intelligent design came up in a Kansas School Board hearing earlier this year, many scientists boycotted it. Eugenie Scott runs the National Center for Science In Education. The organization was founded to keep religious ideas out of science classes.

Ms. EUGENIE SCOTT (National Center for Science Education): Debates are a sport. Debates are not the way you decide scientific issues. And that's another reason for not debating, because it misleads the public about how decisions are actually made in science.

KESTENBAUM: I just think, you know, some people out there are going to say, `Look, you guys are clearly right. Why not go out there and demolish them?'

Ms. SCOTT: It's not that we lack the data or the theory or the evidence. Can you communicate this effectively to a naive audience--which, unfortunately, most Americans are--in a one-hour oral presentation? Not very well. There are very, very few people who have the skills to be able to do that.

KESTENBAUM: It can also be challenging for scientists to present an organized front. Some scientists are atheist and feel evolution can explain everything in nature. Others are quite religious. Ken Miller, the scientist who has been fighting Michael Behe on intelligent design, shares one thing with his opponent: He's a Roman Catholic. Miller says that for him, human morality only makes sense if there is a God. So I asked him if he thought God might have nudged evolution along a certain path.

Mr. MILLER: That's a good question, because you're essentially asking me whether or not the sort of conception I have of God is one who sort of rigs the game or bribes the referees to make evolution come out in a particular way. I have to tell you that I think evolution is both an entirely independent process and a working out of the will of the creator.

KESTENBAUM: Miller says there's a long tradition of theologians and researchers who believe in a creator and a mechanical universe that can be explained by science. Those things seem extremely contradictory, he says, but for him they're not.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: For a state-by-state summary of the current debate over teaching evolution, go to npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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