Custom Search

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A science writer explains her interest in the intelligent design controversy to other science writers

Recently, one of my professional associations, Canadian Science Writers' Association, invited me to write an article for our newsletter, ScienceLink (Vol 28, No. 4, 2008), explaining the intelligent design controversy as I understand it. Here it is, as it appeared:

Muslim, Christian, atheist science views: A writer on the front lines weighs in

by Denyse O’Leary

I stumbled on the intelligent design controversy in 1998, when my editor at ChristianWeek was on vacation. He had laid down instructions that I was not to create controversy, so of course I tried. I headed my column Hush ...

A reader had recommended that I read Lehigh University (Pennsylvania) biochemist Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box (1996). I came away, thinking that Behe is either very wrong or very important. I decided to try to find out which.

Behe's basic argument was this: A system performing a given basic function is irreducibly complex if it includes a set of well-matched, mutually interacting, nonarbitrarily individuated parts such that each part in the set is indispensable to maintaining the system's basic, and therefore original, function. The set of these indispensable parts is known as the irreducible core of the system. (Dembski, No Free Lunch, p. 285)

There are two other intelligent design hypotheses: Mathematician William Dembski argues for a slightly different concept, specified complexity: Life shows evidence of complex, aperiodic, and specified information, and the only other examples we know of are artifacts designed by intelligent agents. A chance origin of life would exceed the universal probability bound (UPB) pegged at the life of the universe; hence design is a factor in the origin and development of life.

Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, an expert in exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than our sun), advances a related privileged planet hypothesis: Taking aim at the late Carl Sagan, he argues that Earth is a very unusual planet, situated in a very fortunate position for astronomy, as well as for life - and that that is design, not chance.

I discovered from talking to Behe that he is not a creationist. He has no problem with assuming that everything in the universe was encoded at the Big Bang. But he does not see how it could all be accounted for by natural selection acting on random mutation, as Darwin postulated in On the Origin of Species. There must be some prior design to account for the swift development of the intricate machinery of living cells.

Behe is a Roman Catholic Christian. But as I started to study the question, I heard similar ideas from scientists who were Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and agnostics or atheists. The latter, of course, do not assume that design means God; it just means that there is an organizing factor in the universe that has not been accounted for in current theory. Some of them argue for self-organization as the factor.

When I first started monitoring the controversy in 1999, I heard that it was dead every six months. Then every three months, then every few weeks ... . I was fascinated by the difference between what pundits said and what I knew was happening. So in 2003, I ducked lucrative education writing contracts and wrote a book (By Design or by Chance?, 2004) exploring the controversy. In 2005, I started a blog, Post-Darwinist, to log its continued development.

Now I hear that the controversy is dead every other day ... That's some dead.

My private view was - and is - that Darwin himself would not agree with the ultra-Darwinists today. Individual cells are not like bricks in a building (as scientists of his day supposed) but are as intricately organized as supercomputers. Had he known that, he would likely have sought a different theory to account for the origin and development of life than the one that is so zealously defended in his name today. New Zealand journalist Susan Mazur has done a formidable job of starting to explain the problems to a wide audience, in her coverage of the Altenberg meeting of evolutionary biologists last July.

While many dismiss the intelligent design theorists' and their sympathizers' views as politically or religiously motivated, keep in mind that current frontiers in science are proving stubborn. There are, for example, serious problems with the origin of life as a random event. For one thing, unicellular life got started soon after the planet cooled. Multicellular life developed very swiftly about half a billion years ago (the Cambrian period). Human consciousness also seems a swift, unique development - and it is not called by neuroscientists the hard problem of consciousness for nothing I have found the intelligent design controversy to be the most interesting beat I have ever covered, and as Mario Beauregard and I said in The Spiritual Brain (2007), this is a time for exploration, not dogma.

Denyse O'Leary is a Toronto-based journalist, author, and blogger.

Note: In rresponse to my comment that "Darwin himself would not agree with the ultra-Darwinists today," a kind friend writes to remind me:
Darwin to Harvard botanist Asa Gray some time 1860-61

"I cannot think that the world ... is the result of chance; and yet I cannot look to each seperate thing as the result of Design ... I am, and shall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle." ( the life and letters of Charles Darwin - F. Dawin 1888. Vol II pp 353-4.)

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:


Who links to me?