Date: Tue, 15 Mar 1994 20:05:34 -0500 (EST) Subject: Insight Article This is a copy of the
Date: Tue, 15 Mar 1994 20:05:34 -0500 (EST)
From: Erik Wheaton <72073.3411@CompuServe.COM>
Subject: Insight Article
This is a copy of the article Eugenie C. Scott wrote for Insight
magazine. We have permission to copy and distribute it from the
Who is Dean Kenyon and why are we mindful of him? Twenty-five years
ago he co-authored a pretty good book on the biochemistry of the
origin of life. He started publishing creationist articles a few
years later, and hasn't published much in mainline science journals,
since. He teaches at a good state university with a graduate program,
but has no graduate students of his own, and hasn't had a research
grant since the mid 1970's. He recently co-authored a high school
biology supplemental text (Of Pandas and People) that was criticized
by scientists for inaccuracy and by teachers for bad pedagogy.
Such is the resume of the man whom Stephen Meyer, co-author of
a section of that text, calls "a world-class scientist." This may be
a bit hyperbolic. More accurately, Kenyon is a scientist of modest
accomplishments who apparently has let his religious views cloud his
Kenyon is embroiled in a debate at his university, which,
depending on your view, either centers on the right to advocate
scientifically defendable if unorthodox views, or the right of a
department to protect less-knowledgeable students from faulty
scholarship. Kenyon was not fired, nor given a pay cut, nor forbidden
to teach his ideas to advanced students. He was removed from teaching
as science ideas outside of science in a freshman non-majors
introductory biology class.
Can a college professor teach anything he wants? Obviously,
if I offer a class in physics, I should not teach students French
literature; no one argues whether class content should match the
course description. Now, suppose the physics course description
directs me to teach mechanics. I might want for historical purposes
to discuss both Aristotelian and Newtonian mechanics, and that would
be appropriate. But what if I taught that the two views are equally
viable explanations? Or asserted that even though most physicists
support Newtonian mechanics, they do so out of religious bias and that
Aristotelian mechanics is scientifically more valid? Do I have the
academic freedom to teach students erroneous science? Maybe, but my
colleagues would certainly not want me indoctrinating freshman
non-majors in such irregular physics.
This directly parallels Dean Kenyon's situation. Kenyon is
teaching (to inexperienced students) that evolution did not occur.
And while the general public understands that advocating Aristotelian
mechanics is "wrong" physics, it doesn't realize teaching that
evolution didn't occur is equally "wrong" biology. Kenyon is teaching
that the organizing principle of biology, evolution, just did not
occur. This is like a chemist claiming academic freedom to teach
students that the periodic table of elements is irrelevant to
Through out-of-context quotes, creationists claim there is a
dispute over whether evolution occurred, when the real dispute is over
how evolution occurred. Quotations aside, what is really happening in
science? Well, every year there are scores of conferences where
scientists present and debate their research, all of which assumes
evolution occurred. New scholarly journals are joining scores of
extant ones, all devoted to evolution and its ramifications for not
just biology, but geology, physics, astronomy, chemistry -- all
scientific fields. Evolution is taught as accepted science in every
major university in the country, including Brigham Young, Baylor,
Southern Methodist, and Notre Dame. Tens of thousands of scholars in
both religious and secular institutions can't all be deluded.
Let's define some terms. The creation/evolution conflict
reflects two views of the history of the universe. Creationists claim
that the galaxies, the solar system, the planet Earth, and the plants
and animals on it were produced all at once, in their present form.
Evolutionists say that the universe did not appear all at one time,
but gradually over billions of years. Elements were formed in suns,
space dust coalesced into planets, and the earth gradually took form.
Simple life appeared, and later gave rise to a great diversity of
living things. Rather than being created separately as "kinds",
living forms are descended, with modification, from common ancestors.
"Simple life appeared" is a major issue for creationists. Was
it through natural or supernatural causation? The study of how life
originated is an active area in science today. The "primal soup"
theory, the formation of replicating molecules on crystalline clay
substrates, and the seeding of amino acids and other components of
life from comets and meteors (in which these molecules form
spontaneously in space), and other ideas are under consideration.
Meyer's contention that life is too complex to form naturally
ignores research exploring the possibility that life is actually
self-organizing. Combining the tools of mathematics, physical
properties of matter, and information theory, this field has its roots
in the work of Nobel Laureate Manfred Eigen, and has been expanded by
Peter Schuster, Bernd-Olaf Kuppers, and in the US by several
investigators including Stuart A. Kauffman, whose newest book, The
Origins of Order; Self-organization and Selection in Evolution was
just published in 1993.
These investigators observe that the building blocks of life
(amino acids and other compounds known to form spontaneously) can link
together, and some of the compounds formed are "autocatalytic": they
cause other amino acids to link up. Something like a primitive
metabolism emerges in these models -- and scientists are testing these
models in laboratories. Exciting developments in the production of
something very close to RNA, a major chemical of life, have recently
been announced. If life is capable of self-organization, the
criticisms raised by Meyer against "primal soup" biochemistry are
Scientists do not agree on how life began. Yet. And "yet" is
a very important word in science. One should not assume that just
because something is not currently understood that it never will be
understood. Meyer suggests that because some models of the natural
origin of life have been disproved, we must give up our search and
seek a supernatural explanation.
Resorting to the supernatural violates a major canon of modern
science: explain only through natural causes. The reason is not
antireligious, but purely practical: better answers are found when
only natural causes are specified.
Consider: if I grow two plots of corn, fertilize only one, and
find that both yield the same number of ears, how do I explain my
results? I can examine the chemical content of the fertilizer, and
find that it contained no nitrogen, or I can say, "God wanted both
plots to produce the same number of ears." Well, maybe so.
So I plant two more plots, fertilize only one, and this time
the fertilized plot produces more ears. How do I explain this?
Looking for natural causes, I might find that this batch of fertilizer
has nitrogen, and maybe I can make a generalization to test further.
But if I allow supernatural explanation, I have to consider that maybe
God did it. Where would this get me? How can I establish general
explanatory principles, like corn needs nitrogen to grow well, if I
can explain away my results by invoking a capricious Creator? If I am
to understand the natural world, I have to conduct my science as if
only natural forces affected my subject.
And indeed, the world appears to operate according to
regularities -- it looks like God doesn't reach down and arbitrarily
mess up experiments. So we don't need to look for miracles: just keep
trying to find the natural explanation. In Pandas, Meyer claims that
scientists don't allow supernatural explanation because the
supernatural is not observable. Nonsense. Particle physicists study
phenomena they can't directly observe, and so do many other
scientists. But you can't (scientifically) study variables you can't
test, directly or indirectly. You can't use supernatural explanation
because you can't put an omnipotent deity in a test tube (or keep it
out of one.) As soon as creationists invent a theometer, maybe then
we can test for miraculous intervention.
Now, Kenyon and Meyer know that science has to work without
supernatural intervention, but for theological reasons they make an
exception for evolutionary sciences. In Pandas, they redefine science
into two kinds: "inductive sciences" and "historical sciences." My
corn plot example falls into "inductive science": explanations do not
invoke supernatural intervention, but only refer to natural law. The
goal of inductive science, they say, is to discover how the "natural
world would normally operate on it's (sic) own." (We assume that
"normally operate" allows even here for a miracle or two when needed.)
The supposed goal of "historical science" is "to reconstruct past
events and conditions." We're supposed to believe that geology does
not refer to natural laws and regularities.
In reality, "historical sciences" boils down to those
disciplines that have theological implications, whereas "inductive
sciences" are those that don't. Similarly, creationists accept
"microevolution", genetically-based change within a species, but deny
"macroevolution", the evolution of new species. The mechanisms of
microevolution can produce speciation, which is the first step in
What makes the authors nervous is the possibility of descent
with modification. Stars and galaxies may be evolving, but not
starfish and galagos. The nervousness is theological: if descent with
modification occurred, humankind becomes part of nature, less special,
and to some, less likely to have been created with a purpose in mind.
But purpose or meaning of life is a philosophical matter, not a
scientific one. Many accept evolution as the history of life and
still believe that life has a purpose. But purpose must be found in
metaphysics, not in physics.
Within "historical science," Kenyon and Meyer are especially
wary of Darwinism, evolution by natural selection. In modified form
it provides the basis of our understanding of how descent with
modification has taken place. Darwinism causes them difficulty
because it provides a natural mechanism to explain both the variety
and similarity of living things. They seem to feel that if life could
have come about naturally, and if the variety of life can be explained
by Darwinism, then God is diminished: a less active Creator not
personally involved in his Creation. Their solution is to reject
Darwinism, origin of life research, and the methodology of modern
science. Theology overshadows science.
Kenyon and Meyer are now reviving special design and
creationism under the title "intelligent design theory." They hearken
back to William Paley, who in 1802 proposed the existence of complex
structures in living organisms proved the existence of God. Just as a
complex artifact like a watch had to have a watchmaker, he reasoned,
so a complex structure like the vertebrate eye has to have had a
designer. The modern incarnation, "intelligent design theory," claims
that complexity is the result of a "plan" or blueprint. Blueprints
are too complex to spontaneously occur, thus they must have creators.
Both Paley and "intelligent design" are refuted by the same
First, people seem to find "design" even when it is not there.
An entomologist, after searching through hundreds of thousands of
butterflies, has discovered the "butterfly alphabet":
naturally-occurring patterns that look like English letters. Does
this mean that butterflies read English? Would a Russian entomologist
find a different set of letters? It is more sensible to explain the
butterfly alphabet as random markings that the human mind has
organized into a pattern.
But even if we tend to see design more often than it actually
occurs, there are organisms that work well and structures that are
quite ingenious. Can "perfection" be explained by natural rather than
supernatural causes? Yes. A complex structure like the vertebrate
eye is produced by a "plan" held in the DNA of the cell. This plan
can evolve through natural selection. Complex, well-working
structures could have been produced by supernatural intervention, or
they could have evolved by natural selection. Observing "perfection"
in nature doesn't allow us to choose.
One has to look at the clunkers, the Rube Goldberg structures,
the bricolage of life and ask if these are more likely the result of
omniscient design or of evolution. And there are plenty of examples
of questionable "design."
How about human bipedalism? If an engineer were to design a
biped from scratch, he or she would not take the body plan of an
arboreal quadruped and tip it on its back legs. Would an omnipotent
designer deliberately create our injury-prone lumbar vertebral region,
our hernia-prone abdominal region, our fracture-prone kneejoint? Why
don't birds get hernias and slipped disks? Did God design better
bipedalism for birds than for humans?
If a panda needed a grasping hand, why make a thumb out of a
wrist bone, instead of using the extant thumb? Natural selection
operating on available genetic variation could explain such a Rube
Goldberg structure. Would an omniscient creator produce a waterbird
like the anhinga of Florida that lacked waterproof feathers?
Natural selection does not have to produce perfectly adapted
forms; all that's needed is "survival of the fit enough." But the
presence of so many structures that barely work, or which are
obviously cobbled together from earlier stages of evolution, is more
than enough reason to doubt that creatures were separately, specially
Such disproofs of intelligent design do not mean that
evolution is incompatible with the idea of a creator. Recently I went
on a retreat with a group of ministers all of whom were creationists,
believing God created, and all of whom were evolutionists, believing
that evolution was God's mode of creation. But we should not be
teaching their theistic evolution in science class any more than we
should be teaching Kenyon's "intelligent design." The evolutionary
sciences have given us a very good picture of the history of life, and
have earned their place in science. The ultimate cause is a matter of
theology, which should be kept out of science classes.
I have stressed that all science, not just some contrived
"inductive science," has to operate without reference to the
supernatural. To study the history of life without reference to the
supernatural is no more atheistic than taking a square root without
reference to the supernatural. But Meyer and Kenyon accuse scientists
who disallow supernatural explanations for natural phenomena of being
philosophical naturalists who deny the existence of god. They are
confusing a necessary methodological naturalism with a philosophical
naturalism that indeed, some scientists (and some bookkeepers and some
ballet dancers) hold. But like bookkeeping and ballet dancing, there
is nothing inherent in science that forces someone to accept
naturalism as a philosophy.
There is no "new science" of intelligent design. In Meyer's
position there is a revival of some 19th century ideas, and on
analysis, the subordination of science to theology. Meyer's arguments
are ignored in universities today not because they are too new, but
because they have been tried and found wanting, some of them decades
ago. The scientific community looks at these criticisms as an
elephant does a fly: if noticed at all, they are viewed as minor
annoyances that take time from more important work. As Huxley said,
"life is too short to occupy oneself with the slaying of the slain
more than once."
And that is why Dean Kenyon should not be teaching creationism
as science to freshmen.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank