This past summer, I moved to a college campus on the North Shore of Chicago. Thankfully, my dorm days are over, but via marriage to a professor, I have taken semi-root in the soil of a faculty-housing complex –a collection of ten somewhat-dilapidated, PhD-inhabited brick homes around a common-area playground that, with its crumbling dump-trucks, cracked hula-hoops and rusted swings, could double as a toy cemetery. Yet despite (or perhaps partly due to) the aesthetic lapses of this curiously anti-suburban cul-de-sac, the arrangement has lent itself to being a hothouse for philosophical discussion.
One late Friday afternoon at the cemetery’s so-called happy hour, with our toddlers obliviously buzzing about the sand box, a few of us adults began to explore more challenging terrain –and like so many significant conversations before it, this one began with beer.
Building a Better Beer?
Part way into our steins of local lager, the resident environmental biologist explained the science of the micro-brewing process and convincingly demonstrated how any mass-produced beer could not surpass, or even equal, the taste of the lovingly fabricated regional hop. Who was I to argue? Whatever I knew about brewing, I learned from Laverne and Shirley.
However, what did snare me in this seemingly benign conversation was when the term evolution was applied to the brewing process. He had indicated that beer production was in a perpetual state of betterment, mostly due to the vastly improved refining procedures of the essential ingredients. Therefore, since beer is evolving, a bottle imbibed fifty years ago could not measure up to one consumed today, and one quaffed in the next generation will resoundingly trump the one my tongue is currently tasting.
This good-natured bantering about beer, though, became a touch more serious when I took the lead from the mention of evolution to discuss research I had been doing on the science debate currently scorching the educational landscape.
The Problem with Biology 101
In October 2004, the Dover Area School District outside Harrisburg, PA voted to require ninth–grade biology students to hear a brief summary of the theory of intelligent design (ID) before learning about evolution. Eight families are now challenging the legality of that decision, arguing that it forces students in a public-school setting to hear a religious perspective on science.
Essentially, intelligent design proposes that life is irreducibly complex, and so life’s study must reach a point where measurable explanations of its mechanisms can no longer be found. In other words, the natural world is too elaborate to merely be the product of biological happenstance –there must be a deliberate cause, or a design, behind all of it.
Both Sides Now
ID’s recent champion is Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael Behe, who writes that an irreducibly complex mechanism is one that is “composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” ID also teaches us that through a vigorous scientific examination of the world, we must conclude that there is an architect behind the complexities of life. The universe is simply too precise and orderly to not have a design to it, as a watch cannot simply assemble itself from the multitude of pieces that comprise it.
On the other side of the debate there are the Darwinists, who contend that the study of evolution is not mere supposition, but a hard science that has been, and will continue to be, tested and measured through the examination of copious evidence. A leading and outspoken voice of this side is Brown University professor Kenneth Miller, who interestingly enough also happens to be a devout Catholic. Miller and his supporters believe that since ID is not a tested, evaluated and proven theory, it has no place in a science curriculum.
The Darwinists further argue that whether a designer or not is behind the process is irrelevant; it is not the job of scientists to look for ultimate truths, but rather to continuously examine and explain the dynamic world around them. Miller states that “intelligent design is not a testable theory in any sense and as such it is not accepted by the scientific community.” Darwinists counter the idea of irreducible complexity by saying that, yes, life is extraordinarily complex and precise, yet by participating in evolution, it is responding to an ever-changing environment by perpetually adapting to those changes –life is marvelously complicated and resourceful, but hardly perfect and unchanging.
And how does the debate between Intelligent Design and Evolution line up with the resident scholars and PhDs of my neighborhood? Well, we are not necessarily a microcosm of the general population, since there is no one to adequately, and fairly, represent the ID perspective –even though I unsuccessfully played the role of ID proponent in our discussion by extending the beer analogy: Wouldn’t someone have to design the micro-brewing equipment to help in the beer’s evolution? Could the beverage simply evolve by itself, without any external guidance?
Greeted by audible groans, I shut up and finished my beer.
In short, the biologists in the group argued vehemently that evolution is as solid a scientific theory as there is, and that any modifications to the theory must be done so through a vigorous research methodology. Like any theory, there are gaps in the study of evolution, but the preponderance of evidence is overwhelming, and the gaps are not significant enough to discredit the theory as a whole.
Philosopher to the Rescue!
Mention was made by the nonscientists in the group of the role an outside force could play in the formation of the natural world. Questions were posed regarding DNA and its remarkably sophisticated intricacies and challenges were made to the scientific explanations of the origin of the universe itself. But everyone kept coming together on the point that if ID were to be taught, its place should be in the social sciences, not in biology. The philosophy professor was particularly articulate on this matter, in part because he found ID to be an intellectually fertile concept, and therefore one which he would like to be housed in his own pedagogical domain, not in another’s.
Overall, the discussion was heated yet cordial, and ended when two of our little ones knocked heads and started to yelp.
Church and Science
Afterwards, I became curious to discover religious views on the issue. Clearly, there is a complicated and tortured history of the relationship between science and religion, in particular Catholicism. An astonishing number of scientists and philosophers have been condemned and punished by the church for ideas it deemed heretical, a list that includes luminaries such as Roger Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin.
Currently, however, there is noteworthy support for scientific inquiry to be found within the Church; the Vatican’s position now is that there is nothing about evolution incompatible with Christian doctrine. The late Pope John Paul II himself referred to evolution as “more than a hypothesis” and in 1979 expressed deep remorse on behalf of the Church for its treatment of Galileo almost four centuries prior.
Yet within the Catholic hierarchy today there are dissenting voices, such as that of Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna. In a recent New York Times editorial, he patently criticized evolution as being at odds with how Catholics should view God.
Fact and Faith
So where does this bring us, the lay thinker? How can we, the non-clerical non-scientists, reconcile fact and faith?
When I first came across the term intelligent design a while back, I was eminded of Robert Frost’s pithy poem, Design, in which the speaker explores the role the spider web plays in nature:
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?
–If design govern in a thing so small
The poem explores the arresting possibility of a design to all members of the natural world, even to the small-scale killing machine weaved by the spider. By extension, the atrocities that Man commits on earth, the “darkness to appall,” may be a product of a course set long ago. All the horrors that people wage on each other could be merely an amplification of the spider and moth’s pre-programmed relationship.
Purpose Driven Lives?
If truly the case, then free will is removed from the discussion, and philosophical and religious teachings on the choices of humans become moot. We become simply the product of someone else’s handicraft.
Yet if there is no design to nature, and all that exists is the result of sophisticated randomness, then where does that leave us? Where then is the will to live? Is any semblance of purpose that we have simply the result of natural selection or random molecular collision? Is one’s preference of butter pecan over fudge ripple simply due to an elaborate survival mechanism? Has Mozart transcended the ages because of biological imperative? Can the institution of marriage be reduced to the level of a termite’s mating ritual?
I suppose I have found myself swimming in the middle of this raging current –hardly doing the butterfly, but at least treading water. Clearly, there is an astounding amount of evidence to support the theory that life is evolving and that inheritance of traits drives that evolution.
And just as clear to me is the evidence that the world, as flawed as it may be, is so unfathomably detailed, so marvelously orchestrated, that there must have been a composer at work.
Of course, the residents of my neighborhood generally have more pressing concerns than resolving the issues of life’s origins and development. Although they are an erudite lot, there still are tires to be rotated and diapers to be changed.
Nonetheless, sitting in the center of a cul-de-sac with a beer in hand has so far been an unexpectedly enlightening experience.
For more on this topic: