The Odds are On God

The Spectator (UK)

A new version of Creationism in America

Darwinism is being questioned in America, says Elizabeth Nickson, and some scientists are turning towards a version of Creationism

Seattle, Washington

IN America, the culture wars are so hard-fought that there is always a great deal of sartorial signalling going on.  ‘I am a slacker geek, with closet literary ambitions’; ‘I am an upper-middle-class golf-club member who lives in a gated community and can wear diamonds during the day with impunity’, ‘I am a fierce lesbian activist’; ‘I am an aesthete who wears only Yamamoto’.  And so on, one can note, all the tedious day long.

So it is with some relief that I find myself in the nave of a Methodist church at Seattle Pacific University, way over on the utopian edge of the continent, among people making no sartorial effort whatsoever except to be pleasant and not in my face.  In fact, I could have slipped back in time.  The young men beside me in the pew are fresh-faced and wearing ‘Canoe’, a simple scent popular among East and West Coast preppies in the mid-1960’s.  They are polite, they make affable jokes, and the sexual-frisson level – despite a church full of 22-year olds – is remarkably low.

It is also probably safe to say that practically the only public place in the United States where you can leave, with confidence, a laptop on the back seat of a fairly new car is on the campus of a Christian university.  Doors remain unlocked, 23-year-olds smilingly give way in traffic, and pasted to dorm windows are saying such as ‘Don’t make out in front of our window.  It makes us ill.’  

There are 2,000 or so such private universities across America:  devout, orthodox, on the small side, some with respected academic programmes, some not.  Seattle Pacific is respected most particularly for its liberal arts programme and its C.S. Lewis Institute.  This, in tandem with the Discovery Institute, is on the night I am there, kicking off a conference called ‘Cosmos and Creator:  God of Physics, God of Astronomy’.  Speaking is the Revd Dr. John Polkinghorne, past president of Queen’s College, Cambridge, physicist and Anglican priest.  If you think you’ve slipped through a colonial time-warp as well as a linear one, you would be right.

This slippage is exactly what its critics most hate about the parallel universe of devout American Christians.  This world has, in the last decade or so, developed an increasingly respected intellectual culture which thrives most particularly in what are beginning to be called the red states, the states that voted for Bush, located in the great fat middle of the country.  The science that the Revd Dr. Polkinghorne, Oxford’s Dr. Peter Hodgson, the youthful Dr. Steven Meyer and Father Robert Spitzer, cosmologist and president of the local Jesuit University, are discussing is considered by official culture (read the blue states) to be the intellectual Trojan Horse of religious conservatives.  This science, they believe, aims to rejig the culture in a major way, along (naturally enough) more spiritual, conservative lines, and, most sinisterly, plans in some indeterminate way to link religion and old-fashioned morality to government.

It is hard to say, however, who is rejigging whom.  While 90 per cent of the members of the National Academy of Science consider themselves atheists, 90 percent of Americans believe that God created life directly or by guiding a gradual process.  Nevertheless, “government” or publicly funded schools cannot teach Creationism.  That battle has been won.  But there is now a science – backed by dozens of respected mainstream academics trained at Oxbridge or Yale – that posits a reasonable theory, using logic and argument, that the weight of evidence is that there just might be an overarching intelligent hand at work in our universe.  That science is demonized, and some teachers who attempt to outline its most general parameters have been fired, demoted or fined.  They, in turn, are made martyrs by the Discovery Institute, which is funded in large measure by a family foundation that is decidedly Christian in scope, set up by a couple of Ronald Reagan’s former aides.

‘Intelligent Design’, said the border guard, when I crossed from Canada into the United States.  ‘That’s Creationism, right?”  I nodded, just to get through the line-up, but it is not, or not precisely.  And just in case anyone in the church that night was in error, Dr. Polkinghorne puts us straight.”The world is NOT,” Dr. Polkinghorne emphasizes, “6,000 years old.” Polkinghorne’s talk is about the friendship between religion and science, and how Christianity was, in 17th-century Europe, midwife to modern science, and that it is only in the last 100 years that the two have been separate. He teases us with poetry and myth: “The universe is rationally transparent and God has written two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. We are creatures made in the image of the creation, made up, literally, of bits of carbon from far away stars.”

He then puts forward one of the central theses of intelligent design, that the complex laws of physics, especially the physical constants such as the speed of light and the attractive force of gravity, are finely tuned to support intelligent beings like us — so finely tuned that the notion all these factors could have happened by accident is preposterous for us not to consider that it might have been designed.  This is known as the anthropic principle.  The odds against such a life-form as humankind developing are virtual infinity to one, or, as Dr. Guillero Gonzales later tells us, a billion raised to the power of a billion, raised to the power of a billion, raised to the power of a billion.

Put another way, these are the same kind of odds you’d take were you to lock a monkey in a room with a typewriter and expect him to be able, within five years, to type the collected works of Shakespeare.  In other words, intelligent design proponents say our very existence is far more conducive to a theistic view of the world than to the chance materialist view of Darwinists.

This argument also includes what is known as the Galactic Habitable Zone.  Once we discovered, through the Hubble telescope, what was really out there, says geophysicist Dr Stephen Myer, we began to overthrow Darwinism.  In the first place, there seemed to be a need for an Unmoved Mover. It was in the 1920s, when astronomer Edwin Hubble showed us that the Milky Way was not the only galaxy and that the universe was expanding (thus proving some of Einstein’s theories), that Einstein himself, then a fierce materialist, looking through Hubble’s telescope on Mount Wilson said, “I now see there is a need for a beginning.”

A similar Earth-focused fine-tuning discussion is being developed by scientists like Dr. Guillermo Gonzales at the University of Washington. Dr. Gonzales explains that any habitable planet must not only be fine-tuned to support life, but also stable enough to allow scientists to make measurements. The relative transparency of our atmosphere, for instance, in our universe or any other, is a rare thing indeed.  Without it we could not make observations about our place.  Therefore, if I understand the argument correctly, there is a meaning in the fact that this planet is not swimming in uninhabitable opaque sulphuric acid.  It means God is free and rational, and wants us to know Him.

Once we discovered what was really out there, says Dr. Meyer, it “challenged the idea that the universe was self-existent and self-creating, which are key propositions of a materialistic world view.”  Well, erm, fine, but what about Darwin, I hear you asking. Well, Darwinian logic is Intelligent Design’s favourite target. According to natural selection, species are gradually transformed by random genetic changes that are preserved through natural selection. As changes accumulate over many generations, they may produce new limbs, tissues and organs. Given enough time, organisms may change so radically that they bear almost no resemblance to their original ancestor.

If the theory were true, the fossil evidence should show lots of gradual change, with one species slowly grading into the next. In fact, it should be hard to tell where one species ends and another begins. But that’s not what we find.  This is what’s known, in ID circles, as the Cambrian fallacy. As Darwin himself noted, “The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed on the earth, [must] be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graded organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory.”

That problem remains with us today. Most fossil species appear all at once, fully formed, and change very little throughout their stay in the fossil evidence. Several years ago, this situation led noted paleontologist Niles Eldredge to remark, “Either you stick to conventional theory despite the rather poor fit of the fossils, or you focus on the [data] and say that [evolution through large leaps] looks like a reasonable model of the evolutionary process — in which case you must embrace a set of rather dubious biological propositions.”

Dubious science and massaging the evidence is precisely the  charge levelled by Intelligent Design scientists against textbook writers and generations of scholars, including Einstein himself. This problem reaches dramatic proportions with the Cambrian explosion, which began about 530 million years ago. Over a period of only five to 10 million years, a flash of geological time, virtually every major animal group (or phylum) appears in the fossil evidence. This is precisely the opposite of what conventional theory would lead us to expect and something which makes ID proponents rub their hands with glee.

Furthermore, one of the most striking discoveries of recent genome research is the extent to which organisms differ from each other. While the human genome has about 30,000 genes, it has up to 300,000 proteins.  As the genomes of more species are deciphered, researchers are finding that about 30 to 40 percent of the proteins in each gene are unique to that species. For humans that figure is a little above that.

These differences are so profound that microbiologists may have to adopt new methods for their research. Until recently, microbiologists have assumed that by studying one or two “model” organisms, such as E. coli (the most studied bacterium) and S. cerevisiae (yeast), they could learn about many other organisms. But that assumption may be about to topple.

According to biologist and philosopher of science Paul Nelson, “This is a remarkable, remarkable result.” If it turns out that these unique proteins have important functions and can’t be altered without harming the organism, this would be a major blow to Darwinism.  “If that’s the case,” Nelson said, “then these genes have no evolutionary predecessors, and naturalistic evolution is in deep, deep trouble — and not because somebody wants the Bible to be true.”

Darwinian evolution works by accumulating small genetic changes. Large jumps are anathema because they are too improbable and look too much like miracles. Each gene, then, had to be crafted one small step at a time. But if a gene can tolerate little or no change, there can be no line of evolutionary predecessors. Hence, Intelligent Design.

That this theory could be immensely appealing to many people, there can be no doubt. Which is why, given the Bush presidency, and the fact that members of the Bush team were, last spring, extensively briefed on intelligent design, the battle has been joined in the popular press. Make no mistake, despite that East coast sheep’s clothing, Bush is a big middle, red-state robust Methodist with evangelical leanings, who knows that any group with authority to tell a culture’s creation story functions as a kind of priesthood. Intelligent design, because it travels light, is a big tent theory, which has begun to collect around itself such disparate groups as young earth creationists, Hare Krishna, Muslims and Jewish intellectual editors who write for Commentary.

Just how big the tent, is not hidden by Dr. Meyer and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute. Intelligent Design is nestled in that branch of the Discovery Institute called the Center for Renewal of Science and Culture, which claims that the materialism of the last 100 years has denied objective moral standards, claiming that right and wrong evolved to suit societal needs and personal preferences, that materialism undermined belief in personal responsibility, devised utopian political schemes, and advocated coercive government programs that promised heaven on earth, but produced oppression and genocide.

The battle is joined.