Last year, the intelligent design movement burst onto the national scene, causing all manner of outrage from the guardians of science and right thinking. All the major media covered this upstart idea challenging Darwinian evolution’s theory of the origin of life. Everybody has been piling on, even conservative pundits like George Will and Charles Krauthammer. The cultural elites were appalled when the yahoos on the Kansas Board of Education voted to “teach the controversy” to high-school students. In Dover, Pa., a judge outlawed the mere mention of I.D. theory in school science classes. Like a fierce game of whack-a-mole, wherever I.D.’s politically incorrect head pops up, its opponents rush to smack it back down.
I am enjoying all this tremendously. What makes it so much fun to watch is that so far not one of the critics understands it. Without exception, they simply dismiss I.D. theory as nothing more than stealth religion – creationism by another name. They say that all I.D. does is insert God to explain what science has not yet figured out.
While they all lose their collective minds about it, warning darkly that the fundamentalists are coming, support for I.D. theory will continue to grow because it is good science. I want to explain why, so that when you hear the intelligentsia loudly denouncing it, you, too, can have a good laugh. Even better, you will understand why intelligent design theory is going to become a major force for good in the battle to rescue our collapsing culture – because the way we think about origins affects the way we think about nearly everything. (More on that later.)
Meanwhile, the debate rages on, all the while opponents keep insisting there is no debate.
Despite its pretensions to objectivity, science has always been political. That’s why scientific revolutions have often met initially with resistance and ridicule, because the old order stands to lose if the new becomes accepted. But the great thing about science is that eventually the weight of evidence breaks through. Think Galileo (opposed not only by the church but by fellow academics), or Lister (ridiculed for disinfecting surgical rooms to prevent infection), or the Wright Brothers (man will never fly). So all this hand wringing about intelligent design is a good sign that the revolution is under way. The old order is being challenged, and they are freaking out.
I.D. not religion
First, what I.D. theory is not: It is not creationism. Full disclosure here: I am a creationist. As a Christian, I believe God is the author of life. But I.D. theory is a science-driven enterprise. It is not a deduction from Scripture but an inference from observation. It says that the intricate design found in living things and in the universe itself is best explained by an intelligent cause. Darwinism, on the other hand, says that undirected natural processes led life to arise spontaneously; then evolution by natural selection (survival of the fittest) resulted in living things that appear to be designed, but really aren’t. The question boils down to this: When considered objectively, where does the evidence actually lead?
Drawing heavily on Nancy Pearcey’s great apologetic book “Total Truth,” I’m going to focus on two of the most powerful arguments for intelligent design. Her book contains many more. I wish every Christian (and every thinking person) would read her masterful defense of Christianity as total truth about all of reality. But just reading this column will make you far more knowledgeable about I.D. than nearly all of its opponents.
It’s true that by far the dominant theory of origins is the evolutionary one. It goes something like this: It all began billions of years ago in some sort of chemical soup (a “warm little pond,” as Darwin put it) which, when zapped with an energy source, led to the chance formation of amino acids. These acids somehow self-organized into proteins and then morphed into the first living cell. All living things descended from that first cell, evolving from simple into increasingly complex organisms, all the way up to man.
Just one problem
In Darwin’s time this was easier to imagine, because it was thought that cells were mere blobs of protoplasm. It fit in nicely with his idea that life could have first appeared as a simple cell. There’s just one problem. We now know that there is no such thing as a “simple” cell. Recent advances in microbiology have demonstrated that the cell is literally a miniature factory town, with its own chemical library containing blueprints that are copied and transported to molecular assembly lines that manufacture everything the cell needs. Nancy Pearcey compares it to “… a large and complex model train layout, with tracks crisscrossing everywhere, its switches and signals perfectly timed so that no trains collide and the cargo reaches its destination precisely when needed.”
Just one cell is vastly more complex than anything ever created by human engineering. And your body contains 300 trillion of them, each one “knowing” exactly what it is supposed to do within itself and in relation to all the other cells.
Microbiologist Michael Behe has coined the term “irreducible complexity” to describe this. That is, the cell consists of coordinated, interlocking parts that must all be in place simultaneously, or it won’t function at all. You can’t improve the cell through one random mutation at a time because if you change any one aspect, the whole thing will crash. For evolutionary change to occur, every single piece of its Rube Goldberg-like factory would have to mutate at exactly the same time, and each single mutation would have to be beneficial, or the cell would just die.
Darwin himself understood what today’s evolutionists refuse to admit:
“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”
That is exactly what Behe has done. As Pearcey puts it:
“An aggregate structure, like a pile of sand, can be built up gradually by simply adding a piece at a time. … By contrast, an organized structure, like the inside of a computer, is built up according to a pre-existing blueprint.”
Since living systems are organized wholes, they had to have been put together in the first place by a pre-existing design.
Darwinists cannot explain irreducible complexity. They keep saying that it poses no problem for evolution, as if repetition would make it so. They insist that just because we don’t yet understand how evolution can work in light of this doesn’t mean that we won’t figure it out eventually. But they will never figure it out, because irreducible complexity makes evolutionary change at the cellular level logically impossible.
(Note: Natural selection clearly occurs within species as an adaptive mechanism. I.D. theory does not deny or even address this, nor does it address the question of whether natural selection could lead to the development of entirely new species. I.D. theory is concerned with the origin of life only.)
Not by chance
Even more powerful evidence comes from the genetic code. DNA is a kind of language consisting of four chemical “letters” that combine into an astonishing variety of sequences to spell out a message. It contains a mind-boggling amount of information. Where did it come from?
Darwinists say that DNA resulted from chance mutations operated on by natural selection. Really? As theologian Norm Geisler quipped:
“If you came into the kitchen and saw the alphabet cereal spilled out on the table, and it spelled out your name and address, would you think the cat knocked the cereal box over?”
In fact, chance events tend to scramble information, like typos in a page of text. Even if some kind of more complex molecule somehow did appear in the supposed chemical soup, the same random processes that produced it would continue to insert “typos,” soon scrambling any coherent message that might have occurred. Again, it’s not that we don’t yet understand how chance could create complex information; it’s that in principle this cannot happen.
Nor by physical law
If chance cannot do it, perhaps some yet-undiscovered physical law can. That’s what scientists excited about complexity theory are hoping. They are studying self-organizing structures like snowflakes and crystals, searching for clues to how similar natural processes might also give rise to the complex information found in DNA. But they won’t find any.
That prediction stems not from ignorance or hubris, but from the nature of physical laws, which by definition are regular and repeatable. Those properties enable the brilliant engineering students at MIT to enjoy shoving a piano off seven story high Baker House roof every year. They know that gravity makes things fall, every time.
But the information found in DNA is quite different. When you decode one section it tells you nothing about what comes next. The letters are free to combine into an unimaginably vast quantity of information. By contrast, the physical laws being explored in complexity theory are simple instructions, able to create complex patterns but not much information – certainly not enough to account for the fact that each cell in your body contains more information than the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.
This is not at all like saying man will never fly because God didn’t give him wings. It’s not that I.D. theorists can’t imagine how a physical law could create information. It’s because in principle, law-like processes cannot generate complex information. Some things really are impossible.
Information, information, information
It turns out that life is not primarily about matter, but information. Commenting on the failed attempts to create life in the lab, astrophysicist Paul Davies writes:
“Trying to make life by mixing chemicals in a test tube is like soldering switches and wires in an attempt to produce Windows 98. It won’t work because it addresses the problem at the wrong conceptual level.”
Common sense tells us that information does not occur without an intelligence to organize it, any more than the hardware of a computer can create its own software. Even scientists know this. Otherwise, how could SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers ever hope to distinguish between radio signals generated by some natural process and those sent from the hoped-for aliens? Again, we see that the most plausible explanation for the information in DNA is an Intelligent Designer put it there.
But for Christians, we knew that, didn’t we? “In the beginning was the Word (Logos).” Behind everything is the Logic, the Wisdom, the Intelligence of God.
Darwin’s irony: cultural devolution
Currently, only a minority of scientists holds to intelligent design theory, but the number is growing. To date, over 400 scientists have signed a document entitled “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.” Many of these scientists are not Christian, and some are outright hostile to it, which is further evidence that I.D. is not religion. A scientific revolution is just beginning, but almost nobody recognizes it, least of all its opponents.
And not a moment too soon, since evolutionary theory did not stay in the scientific realm but oozed into all the sciences, the liberal arts and out into culture, with horribly destructive results. The biblical view of man as a spiritual being created in God’s image has been replaced by the view that man is nothing more than a highly evolved animal struggling to survive in a meaningless universe. Scratch any social ill and you will find Darwinism underneath.
One of the worst consequences has been the devaluation of human life. It is no exaggeration to say that Darwinism has led to the killing of untold millions of human beings. To highlight just a few examples: eugenics (philosophical Darwinism) inspired Margaret Sanger to found Planned Parenthood and the pro-abortion movement. Eugenics helped Hitler convince an entire country to follow him in his attempt to wipe out the “inferior” Jews, not to mention the toll in blood it took to stop him. These days Peter Singer, a Princeton professor of bioethics, advocates that parents be allowed to dispatch their imperfect infants up to 30 days after birth. The misguided “right to die” movement is rapidly becoming the “right to kill” movement, as last year we watched severely disabled (but not dying) Terri Schiavo starve to death by court order, while a large portion of the country approved of it. Meanwhile, more than a million babies continue to be aborted every year. None of these horrors could have occurred in a culture that understood each human life to be a unique creation of God, stamped with his image.
Darwinism is also behind the sexual revolution (just doing what comes naturally), radical feminism, family breakdown and normalization of homosexuality (gender roles are social constructs we can discard as we “evolve” as a society). Darwinism removed the foundation for a transcendent moral Truth that stands outside of our personal preference. Now we make it up as we go, “re-imagining” everything. Even many Christians consider their faith to be purely personal. It’s “true for me, but maybe not for you.” No wonder assertions that Jesus is the only way to God meet with such outrage. And why so-called progressives are deeply offended when Christians try to bring into the public square what they view as nothing more than our particular rabbit’s foot. Rejection of God is the root cause of our cultural degradation, but Darwinism has been its indispensable support, giving intellectual cover for all the evil we want to do.
Reversing the damage
But intelligent design is on the move, and this is a great gift to everyone, especially Christians. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes accepted as a legitimate competing theory of origins, and as it does it will unleash enormous changes for good, not only in science but all of culture – because if people understand that there is (or at least could be) a Designer, then we can once more ask, what is the purpose of that design? What are things for?
For example, conservatives and Christians are having a difficult time making the case against homosexual marriage. Thousands of years of exclusively heterosexual marriage mean nothing to those with a Darwinist worldview. Why, they are far more evolved than those benighted cultures in the misty past. To them, tradition is oppressive; destroying it is progress. Why shouldn’t people be able to “love” whomever they want? How will it hurt your marriage?
The truth is that homosexual marriage is wrong because it violates God’s design and purpose for us, with inevitably negative consequences. But for an exercise in frustration, just try to discuss design with someone steeped in the evolutionary mindset. Point out the functional biological differences between male and female, and they will dodge, deny or change the subject. Press the issue, and they will become angry at your attempt to “impose” your personal values. What they will never do is engage the substance of your argument. They can’t. Their worldview will not allow them to admit the obvious.
Multiple research studies documenting the need that children have for a mom and a dad are probably the best defense we’ve got, but in a nation full of divorced or never married single parents, and with a media quick to promote “gay” families, it’s a tough slog. So far, a majority of the public opposes homosexual marriage, but it’s mostly instinctive and traditional. People say things like, “I wasn’t raised that way.” But younger generations, raised on books like “Heather Has Two Mommies” and subjected to Darwinist dogma throughout their schooling, have no tradition left to hold them. And any common-sense instinct they might have to resist faces an incessant cultural onslaught that brands such thoughts as hateful prejudice.
For the older generations, watching defenders of marriage viciously attacked in the press is very confusing. Having never reasoned out something so basic as marriage, they, too, will begin to doubt themselves. Unless something dramatic changes, public opposition will eventually crumble, and we will see the destruction of marriage as one more nail in the cultural coffin we are building for ourselves.
Do you see why intelligent design is so important? In a world gone increasingly mad, it will provide an intellectual foundation for drawing people back to reality. In the case of homosexuality, if there is an Intelligent Designer, then we can acknowledge the biological differences between male and female that everybody can see but so many ignore or deny. Being able to argue from design will help persuade those who have been deceived and encourage those who may be faltering to stand on what they know in their hearts is true: Marriage is for a man and a woman.
Hope for the future
This same kind of analysis can be applied to every social problem we face, enabling us to begin reversing the damage Darwinism has caused. By speaking the universally accepted language of science (to the postmodern mind the only repository of what truth there is in the world), I.D. theory will become a powerful tool in the effort to rescue all of culture from its destructive spiral.
Christians sometimes oppose I.D. theory as a poor second to God’s Word. They point out that it invites charges of cruelty or incompetence against a God who would structure a world as messed up as ours. I still think it’s worth the risk. The Bible, of course, contains the answer to such charges. But post-moderns reflexively dismiss Scripture as nothing more than ancient and irrelevant myths. Tell someone that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that person will likely respond as Pontius Pilate did: “What is truth?” But if science points to a Designer, might not people begin to wonder who that Designer is, thus preparing hearts to consider the Gospel? In this way, I.D. will become a door opener to the greater revelation of biblical truth.
Perhaps closest to Christian hearts, I.D. theory will help our children develop a thoroughly Christian worldview. When they leave home and enter a world intensely hostile to all they have been taught, they will need more than “the Bible says” to hold them. They need to understand how and why the biblical worldview lines up with all of reality, including science and the origin of life.
Back in 1989, a friend introduced me to Michael Denton’s book, “Evolution: A Theory In Crisis.” Until that time I had never questioned evolution. A new Christian, I read with delight his devastating critique. But he concluded on a disheartening note, predicting that despite its weaknesses, until a scientifically credible alternate theory appeared that could challenge Darwinism, evolutionary theory would remain dominant. At the time, I wondered how that could ever happen. It seemed impossible. But it is happening now, and we are on the scene to watch it unfold. It’s going to be an exciting ride. Hang on.
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Lynn Barton is a graduate of Wellesley College and a former stockbroker. She is married and the mother of two children, whom she homeschools on a small farm in southern Oregon.