In the evolution debates that roil politics, education, and the media, language is weaponized. Defenders of orthodox Darwinian thinking denounce intelligent design (ID), a highly controversial scientific rival, as “creationism” and “science denial.” The charges are false but effective in manipulating emotion.
In fact, in the Darwin controversy, what we really have is a dispute among the great scientist’s heirs. This was brought home to me when I showed my family a new brief documentary, The Information Enigma, produced by my colleagues at Discovery Institute, the leading supporter of ID research. The video (whose script I wrote) is a 21-minute overview of the main design argument. Afterward, my 9-year-old daughter piped up to ask, “Did Charles Darwin start Discovery Institute?”
“No,” I answered, a little puzzled, “why do you ask?”
“Because,” she said, rolling her eyes, “you’re always talking about him,”
My daughter was more right than she knows. ID advocates commonly invoke Darwin’s legacy and inspiration. Here are three ways.
First, the modern case for design highlights an event in Earth’s deep past that Darwin himself noted as significant, and troubling. Some 530 million years ago, in a geologically brief span of 10 million years, the seas of our planet erupted with diverse life forms. The momentous “Cambrian explosion,” as paleontologists call it, is marked by the appearance, without fossil ancestors, of most of the animal body plans that would ever exist. That includes vertebrates, to which humans belong.
Darwin saw this as a challenge to gradual, unguided evolution. It looks more like a burst of riotous creativity. Advocates of intelligent design say that life indeed evolves, changing and diversifying over eons, but it does so at the beckoning of a mind, a source of intelligence.
Second, in the video, philosopher of biology Stephen Meyer explains how ID differs from a stereotype of the scientist at her lab bench performing experiments. ID scientists do experiments too, uncovering evidence for design, but the case they make is, like Darwin’s argument in The Origin of Species, fundamentally an argument from the evidence left behind by life’s history. As Dr. Meyer puts it, like Darwin’s monumental work, it is “forensic” in style, employing a “historical scientific method” that involves weighing competing hypotheses, or explanations, against each other.
Finally, Darwin learned from his contemporary, the great geologist Charles Lyell, to seek explanations for past events in “causes now in operation,” rather than hypothetical unobserved causes. ID too locates the cause behind evolution in a known phenomenon – intelligence.
Is this a repudiation of evolution? No, it represents the “descent with modification” (in Darwin’s phrase) of that idea under the influence of cutting-edge genetics. Explanations of past events, to qualify as rigorous science, must take into account new scientific discoveries. The greatest discovery of the second half of the last century is that DNA conveys the information to build proteins – constituents of the molecular machines that make up the cells that make up our bodies – in the form of an alphabetic code.
The coding sequence is demandingly precise. In The Information Enigma, we give an analogy: a bicycle lock, not the familiar model with four dials of ten numbers but one stretching to the horizon with seventy-seven dials.
Molecular biologist Douglas Axe quantifies the challenge. “Unlocking” a single, simple protein means finding the correct sequence out of 10 to the 77th power possible incorrect sequences. That’s 10 with 77 zeroes after it, dwarfing the number of individual animals that have ever lived on our planet (10 with 40 zeroes) or indeed the number of atoms in our galaxy (10 with 65 zeroes).
Even in the 3.5 billion years of life’s history, the power to open such a lock is not given over to a random, unguided process but, as with all coded language that we are aware of, to intelligence.
DNA and how it conveys biological information was unknown to Darwin, who died in 1882. But the co-discoverer of evolutionary theory, Alfred Russel Wallace, who outlived his colleague by three decades, seemed to have an inkling of what was to come. His own opinions matured into a view that science historian Michael Flannery calls “intelligent evolution.”
Wallace anticipated modern ID, but Darwin pointed the way, too. The creative power of his evolutionary mechanism, natural selection, is today hotly contested in professional science journals, with some scientists claiming we have entered a “post-Darwinian” era.
The truth is we are all Darwin’s inheritors, and the current debate will determine the shape that heritage takes. The best evidence now demands not a rejection of Darwin, but instead to allow him, you might say, to “evolve.”