Does "Intelligent Design" Threaten the Definition of Science?

April 27, 2005

Where did we come from? It's one of the oldest and most profound questions. Now "intelligent design" theory may change the very definition of science by allowing the supernatural into the lab.

"Ever since the birth of science as we know it, a cardinal rule for theists [believers in the existence of a god or gods] and nontheists alike has been to limit scientific explanations to natural causes," said Ronald Numbers, a science historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Numbers studies the 140-year struggle between evolutionary biologists and anti-evolution movements.

Evolutionary theory—that acts of random mutation and natural selection over millions of years gave rise to us humans and all other life—is the best answer scientists can give to the question of life's origins.

But the answer is hardly satisfying to many Americans. A recent CBS News poll found that 55 percent of respondents did not believe in the theory of evolution at all—and even most scientists agree that the theory leaves some questions about biological origins unanswered.

Most career evolutionary biologists delight in the unexplained (for one thing, it means they'll have jobs for at least a while longer as they search for answers). More and more people, though, are gravitating towards an alternative explanation: intelligent design.

Intelligent-design theory states that certain features of the natural world are of such complexity that the most plausible explanation is that they are products of an intelligent cause rather than random mutation and natural selection. Supporters of the theory say the nature of the intelligent cause is outside the scope of the theory.

"It matches what a lot of people see. It matches peoples' intuitions about biology," said Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Behe is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, a Seattle, Washington-based organization that rallies much of the intellectual muscle behind the intelligent-design movement.

The movement's success comes from the way it "appeals to peoples' sense of unease about science and technology," said Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Miller is a defender of evolution who has taken a seat against advocates of intelligent design in the struggle over how evolution should be taught in U.S. public schools.

The struggle's next round will play out over a six-day hearing next month in Topeka, Kansas, hosted by the state board of education. Miller, like most scientists and science organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), will not participate.

Continued on Next Page >>


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