Article 25227 of talk.origins:
From: email@example.com (James J. Lippard)
Subject: Scott on Dean Kenyon
Date: 18 Mar 1994 16:15 MST
Organization: University of Arizona
Date: Tue, 15 Mar 1994 20:19:30 -0500 (EST) From: Erik Wheaton
<72073.3411@CompuServe.COM> Subject: Round 2 INSIGHT article
Sorry folks I ommitted the pertinent data on Insight. The
article by Eugenie C. Scott, Ph.D. was published in Volume 10
Number 8 of Insight On The News, dated 2/21/1994 and has been
copied with their permission. Erik
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 publisher.
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 scientific judgement.
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 chemistry.
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
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 irrelevant.
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
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 macroevolution.
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
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
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
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
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 designed.
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.
Jim Lippard Lippard@CCIT.ARIZONA.EDU
Dept. of Philosophy Lippard@ARIZVMS.BITNET
University of Arizona Preparing to punt academia for a return to the
Tucson, AZ 85721 computer world. (Got a job to offer in the SF area?)
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