First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
 Intelligent Design or Evolution
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore  November 13, 2005


Meditation  (with inspiration from Wendell Berry’s poetry)

Gently sucked into dark red lungs
Red blood cells snatching oxygen
And discarding carbon dioxide
Gently released out nose and mouth.
Staving off extinction for another minute.

How many have relinquished
Breath, in grief or rage,
The victor and the vanquished
Named and unnamed,
            All come to the same end

Famous or indifferently forgotten
A life work praised or undone.
The dust they stirred has hid.

Their faces and their works,
Has settled, and lies still.
Covered with layers of dirt
Becomes the rock of history
             Awaiting discovery.

Did an unseen hand guide that life?
Cause the die to roll one more time to make a seven?
Move the gamma ray just a little to the left
            To miss the cocked cancer gene?
Shift the wind so scented hair becomes irresistible?

And what of the ignoble ends?
The last wooly mammoth felled by stone tipped spears
Baby birds ejected from their nests by English sparrows
Cattails crowded out by Purple Loosestrife
Iraqi children shredded reaching for American candy
The T4 defender penetrated by HIV

Design or Accident?
Who can bear to make that decision?

Lub, dub,  lub, dub
In one chamber, out the next
Over and over and over again
Relentless pulse, surging and resting
The rhythm of life, breath of life
Keep moving, keep moving.




I had my mind made up on what to say about Intelligent Design until I spoke with my father on Wednesday night. 

You’ve seen this controversy all over the news.  On one side this week the Kansas State Board of Education voted 6-4 to settle a bitter dispute establishing new standards redefining science so intelligent design could be taught.

The new standards say high school students must understand major evolutionary concepts. But they also declare that the basic Darwinian theory that all life had a common origin and that natural chemical processes created the building blocks of life have been challenged in recent years by fossil evidence and molecular biology.

… the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.   (associated press)

On the other side, eight incumbent Dover, Pennsylvania school board members were swept from office for supporting “teaching the controversy” between intelligent design and evolution.  The election threw up in the air the landmark federal trial between the school board and eight families disputing the teaching of intelligent design as unconstitutional.  The school board had adopted a policy a year ago that requires ninth-graders to hear a prepared statement about intelligent design before learning about evolution in biology class.

Dr Michael Behe, Professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University is right in the middle of this controversy.  Earlier this month, he spent two days on the witness stand defending his contrarian views supporting intelligent design.  The Dover trial rivals the Scopes trial in possibly setting the next benchmark on how evolutionary science will be taught.

Behe is part of a think tank based in Seattle called the Discovery Institute, that is pushing the theory of intelligent design.  Dr. Behe found his way to the center of this controversy by publishing a book in 1996 called Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.  In the book he argues that the most convincing evidence for design is not to be found in the stars or the fossils, but in biochemical systems.  Behe uses examples such as vision, blood-clotting, and cellular transport to demonstrate that life comprises an astonishing array of chemical machines, made up of finely calibrated, interdependent parts that defy current naturalistic explanations.  The book fit perfectly into the long standing resistance of fundamentalists to the teaching of evolution and inspired them to take up another assault.

This time, they’ve found some traction in the scientific community.

After browsing through the pro and con arguments found in a number of rather technical sources, I found myself pulled first to the pro arguments and then to the con arguments.  Remembering my mistake of not adequately understanding both sides in my Global Warming sermon last January, I thought I’d better call my dad, a retired physical chemistry professor, to get his take on the controversy.  I was sure, his work in biochemistry would help me sort out Behe’s arguments.  Being a scientific humanist, I knew he could help me get my anti intelligent design arguments sharpened so I could eviscerate the theory effectively.

Imagine my surprise when he rose to Dr. Behe’s defense.  My father knows Behe personally, has visited with him and quizzed him on his theories.  Behe, he told me, is no religious fanatic manipulating his science to fit his religious beliefs.  My father has great respect for the caliber of his research and the power of his mind.  So I decided I better have another look at the theory of intelligent design.

Even though conservative Christians have rallied to his side, Behe and the intelligent design folks are not trying to defend Creationism at all.  Behe was raised Catholic, learned about evolution in school from Catholic nuns who explained it this way:  If God wants to work through evolution, we don’t have a problem with it.  It wasn’t until he was exposed to scientific critiques of evolution as a tenured professor that his interest was stimulated in intelligent design.

Discovery Institute fellows Stephen Meyer and Michael Newton Keas point out that evolution and the theories of evolution are fundamentally different things.  They identify five of six working definitions of evolution with which they find general agreement.  The mechanism of mutation and natural selection has overwhelming evidence and support.  Philomena, Andy and I visited the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC this past summer.  We saw display after display of animal, bird and fish skeletons.  Seeing the similarities in bone structure and coming to the conclusion they had a common ancestor seems intuitively obvious.  Analyzing similarities between DNA sequences pretty much rests the case.

The dispute in intelligent design isn’t with the reality of evolution.  It is about the mechanism of evolution.  Meyer and Keas dispute the sixth definition of evolution called the “blind watchmaker theory.”

The “Blind watchmaker” thesis: states that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through an unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms…

As George Gaylord Simpson [asserted] in his classic 1967 book, The Meaning of Evolution: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.”

I guess that would make us God’s unplanned children.  Good that God wasn’t using birth control.

Now we are at the central concern being contested.  Behe questions whether the incredibly complicated processes that allow our eyes to accept a photon and turn it into information for our brain, that make our blood clot and permit the cilia in our lungs to move could have happened only through random variations and mutations.  Behe argues these biochemical processes demonstrate irreducible complexity.  He proposes that they did not evolve randomly but through a process guided by some intelligence.

It is very important as we introduce this idea of intelligence that we understand what the intelligent design folks mean when they use that term.  The DO NOT claim the source of this intelligent design must be a “divine being” or a “higher power” or an “all powerful force.”  All they are proposing is that they believe they can demonstrate intelligence rather than unguided and random variations and mutations drove certain evolutionary processes.

The vast majority of the scientific community rejects this argument.  They reject that it is even science at all.  In a lecture recently heard on WAMC,  well-known science professor and writer Dr. Edward O. Wilson, described intelligent design as a default argument followed by a non sequitur.  He went on to say that a default argument has a reserve conclusion, when a problem isn’t solved or our understanding is incomplete.  The non sequitur is inserting a deus ex machina conclusion.  Default arguments are not science but, at best, a stimulus to do more science.  He argued the default argument is a dangerous entrée for religious conservatives.  Science is accelerating in its ability to answer these questions at an amazing rate.  He compared science’s ability to destroy arguments for intelligent design to resembling blowing up balloons in a carnival.

Some on the intelligent design side have complained that their ideas are not getting a fair hearing.  They aren’t getting funding for their research; that there is a conspiracy to suppress their ideas.  Wilson rejects this argument as without merit.  Young scientists like nothing better than to overthrow the ideas of their elders.  These triumphs are the gold and silver of a scientific career.  Science is honed to be open to new ideas driven by discovery. When the evidence is persuasive, science moves forward.  Default arguments followed by non sequiturs devoid of positive evidence just do not persuade them.

But, still, the broad scientific community could be wrong when they reject a theory.  I personally am still rooting for a breakthrough in cold fusion, another discredited theory.

Because we do have legitimate scientists with published research arguing for intelligent design, there is controversy.  The argument brought to school boards is, “teach the controversy.”

I want to get to the religious question here.  Is there an underlying faith statement hidden in the presentation of evolution?  With a scientifically based, alternative theory of evolution open to intelligent design, can science claim to be completely free of faith in its arguments?

Many biology texts make assertions like, “evolution works without plan or purpose. (Miller and Levine)” Or “the living world is constantly evolving without any goals . . . evolutionary change is not directed. (Purvis, Orians and Heller)” And, most devastatingly put: “By coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous.(Futuyma).”

These explanations of evolution have much larger metaphysical implications.  The blind watchmaker thesis replaces God with an unintelligent substitute.  This really gets to the core of the dispute.  Meyer and Keas argue, if this neo-Darwinism is true then:

  1. God’s creative activity would be unnecessary and would be directly contradicted in explaining the origins of new living forms.
  2. The natural world does not display evidence of actual design divine or otherwise.

For both these reasons, the blind watchmaker theory of evolution taught in public schools is not religiously or metaphysically neutral.  It takes the side of materialistic origin theories that violate deeply held beliefs of some theistic students.

I hope you are getting a better sense of the arguments here that allows you to take this controversy more seriously.  The evidence for irreducible complexity solvable only by intelligent design that Behe presents is way beyond the scope of my high school biology training.  The arguments and counter arguments are fascinating.  Behe reasons looking at these biochemical processes is like looking at a mousetrap.  None of us would have any doubt that a mousetrap showed evidence of intelligent design.  It wouldn’t work without individual parts arranged in a unique way to catch a mouse.  But what about a Venus Fly Trap?  Isn’t it arranged in a similarly complex way to catch a fly?  The Venus Fly Trap shows clear evidence of evolving to accomplish its purpose.

What frustrates me about these arguments is they don’t deal with what I think is the best argument against the blind watchmaker theory.  The latest research I found is beginning to show that information as well as DNA can be passed from a parent cell to a daughter cell.  More than just DNA is transferred in the process of replication.  Proteins that have been switched on or off are also transferred to the daughter cell.  With this information exchange, a daughter cell can learn something from its parent.

Survival of the fittest of any species favors intelligence.  Randomly driven or not, increase in brain size suggests the mechanisms of evolution select for the development of intelligence.  I wonder if the reason evolution seems to favor the development of intelligence is because intelligence operates from the microscopic level all the way up to the macroscopic level.  No one can doubt that intelligence equips us better for survival than ignorance.  That may also be true at the level of molecular biology.

Focusing on intelligence still leaves open the question of design.  Evidence of intelligence does not necessarily mean some entity wanted to design it that way.  It could be that intelligence is a fundamental property of existence along with matter and energy.  There are other directions to go with intelligent design besides Divine Plan.

As we talked about this, my father pointed out that I couldn’t prove my ideas any better than Dr. Behe could prove his.  All of us have some foundation of faith on which our beliefs rest.  Scientific truth is just one area of human knowledge bounded by what we can know by repeatable experimentation.  The blind watchmaker theory of evolution may sit outside the area of repeatable experimentation … for now.  I personally don’t mind exposing our students to this controversy as long as they also understand the preponderance of evidence on each side.

We all love controversy.  I’m sure Darwin didn’t have very answer to understanding the evolutionary process.  If exposing students to this controversy helps stimulate interest and learning, all the better.  The question of intelligence in the process of evolution is worthy of a science class.  But any exploration into the non sequitur design proposition belongs in philosophy and literature classes.  The division preserves the separation of church and state without stifling the pursuit of knowledge and learning.

Whether design or accident, I’m deeply grateful to wake up every day in the middle of what has evolved on this planet and be a part of it all.  I hope you are too.



I found this computer generated poem on the Internet:

            So is it not with me as with that Muse  
            Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse 
            Who heaven itself for ornament doth use  
            And every fair with his fair doth rehearse

Could there be some unseen hand in its construction?
Or could there be intelligent design in its selection by the reader who remarked:

Oh my god, the thousand monkeys made a remarkable breakthrough!

Mystery, mystery, life is a riddle and a mystery.

I’m glad we were able to share the mystery of life’s complexity together
                         this morning.

Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore.  All rights reserved.