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Tension percolates at U of M over Intelligent Design

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University of Minnesota chemical engineering professor Christopher Macasko challenges evolutionary theory. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
The supporters of Intelligent Design suffered a significant defeat this month, when a judge banned the concept in Dover, Pennsylvania, science classrooms. But proponents continue their efforts to bolster the idea of an intelligent creator in discussions about science.

A dispute simmers at the University of Minnesota, where a respected scientist insists on teaching a class questioning the validity of evolution. Intelligent Design is one of the topics he explores. He is under fire from a colleague who sees it as an intrusion of religion into established scientific thinking.

St. Paul, Minn. — Supporters of Intelligent Design find evidence in the lack of evidence. Where science is at a persistent loss to explain certain phenomena, Intelligent Design devotees find nothing less than the hand of God.

"People are recognizing that classical Darwinism is in trouble.. has got a problem," said Christopher Macosko, a professor of chemical engineering and material design at the University of Minnesota.

Macosko is also a devout, born-again Christian. Seven years ago Macosko started teaching a course called "Origins: By Chance or Design," in which he introduces challenges to the established theories every Minnesota public school student learns as the basis of life on Earth.

"In my class we never say, 'It must be this if we don't know that,' because we're trying to look at the science," Macosko said. "I think what we can say is given the probabilistic resources, given the time we think when life began and chemical reactions we know and the complexity of the simplest molecules, there is no theory."

Macosko said he doesn't teach Intelligent Design, or ID, but it's one of several topics discussed. His approach is closely aligned with that of Seattle's Discovery Institute, a Christian-founded think tank which promotes Intelligent Design.

In 2003, Macosko worked to change Minnesota's science standards to address what he contends are scientific weaknesses of modern evolutionary theory. For Macosko, it's a matter of critical thinking.

"The nature of science is to use naturalistic explanations," Macosko said. "The only thing I suggest is, at the right point it is appropriate for an instructor to indicate where science is limited. To admit what we don't know."

This explanation sounds simple enough. But a closer look reveals a radical departure from the keystone of science. If you're not using a naturalistic explanation, then your alternative, as Macosko suggests, is a supernatural one. This is the kind of talk that gets U of M - Morris biology professor P.Z. Myers worked up.

"There is no controversy about Intelligent Design," Myers told a packed lecture hall at the university's physics department. "There is no evidence of Intelligent Design. Period. Intelligent Design is based on assertions."

Myers is generally good-humored and soft-spoken, but he writes a fiery blog called Pharyngula.com. He said what Intelligent Design and other anti-evolutionary attacks have in common is they're not science.

"What Intelligent Designers are doing is short-circuiting the process," Myers said. "OK, the conclusion is: a designer did it. And they justify it by nit-picking at evolutionary biology."

Intelligent Design, while almost always promoted by evangelical Christians, explicitly avoids the mention of God and religion. Either way, Myers said, it's a leap of faith.

"(This is) science with a daddy who's going to help you out," Myers said. "There's just no evidence for dad. Sorry."

We start with the existence of God, and that's irrefutable.
- Bethel University biology professor Tim Shaw

Myers said Macosko lends credibility to such questionable ideas. The university has not acted on his call to censure Macosko for his origins-of-life course.

The public sorely needs educating on the basics of evolution, Myers said. Despite more than a century of study into Darwinian theory, the vast majority of Americans maintain a belief in a more spiritual origin of humans.

A Harris Poll from this year shows 64 percent of adults in the U.S. agree that "human beings were created directly from God". Fifty-four percent think humans did not develop from earlier species. That number is up 8 percent from a decade ago.

Myers said perhaps established theory is too hard for people to face.

"Evolutionary biology is saying there is no directing intelligence, there is no big plan for the human race, we're a lucky accident, that species go extinct and maybe we could go extinct someday," Myers said. "So it's a kind of amplified mortality -- that it's not just, you are going to die, but your entire species may die sometime. I think a lot of people think that's sort of terrifying."

Another U of M professor, Jim Kakalios, attributed the chasm between established scientific thought and people's spiritual beliefs to an inability of scientists to adequately explain themselves.

"Science has gotten so hard and so complicated in the past 100 years," Kakalios said. "We've gotten so beyond the notion of mechanical devices that many people, one or two generations ago, could take apart and tinker with."

Like Myers, Kakalios believes there's no place in science for even the hint of religion. But Kakalios is able to find a bridge between the two.

"The Bible, the Koran, the Torah, contain all the answers we could look for to questions of the heart. But to the question of how the world actually works, it has been shown to be inadequate," Kakalios said. "I would no more look to design a cellphone by consulting scripture than I would ask the question of how I would treat my fellow man by looking in a calculus textbook." Christian instruction is also building bridges from the other direction.

Bethel University, a Baptist General Convention school in Arden Hills, offers a major in biology. Bethel professor Tim Shaw said he wants his students to be competitive with those from other colleges. If not, their credits won't transfer to other schools and graduates will have trouble finding jobs in the sciences.

At the same time, Shaw said, they don't leave their faith at the classroom door. Students and faculty pledge their belief that the Bible is the ultimate authority.

"My bias is you're most likely to believe that (God is the creator), because at Bethel we hold that as central to who we are," Shaw said. "We start with the existence of God and that's irrefutable."

As opposed to Macosko's situation, Shaw would face criticism for leaving religion out of the equation. Shaw said ideas like Intelligent Design are interesting, but its drive to find scientific evidence for a creator is a shaky ladder for a faithful person.

"You have this thing you hang your faith on, this little bit of proof. And then someone comes up with a naturalistic explanation that sounds perfectly reasonable, and all of a sudden that creates a faith crisis," Shaw said. "I think that can be a dangerous thing. A healthy understanding of God's involvement doesn't hinge on a particular scientific proof."

The infusion of religion with science -- like at Bethel -- may not always have the results you would expect.

Recently, college students Becky Eggimann took time to explain a sophisticated mosaic of dots and circles on her computer monitor. They represent molecules she guides through an imaginary obstacle course. The results inform researchers about molecule movement in real life.

Eggimann is a devout Christian and a graduate of the Christian Wheaton College in Illinois. She ended up at the decidedly-more-secular University of Minnesota for graduate work in computational chemistry. As her science education progressed, she wrestled with her own Christian beliefs, instilled while growing up in southwestern Minnesota.

"At the time I was very much like, 'No, evolution has to be wrong, I can't believe I have to learn this,'" she remembered. "But then going to college, and being at a prestigious Christian college and having Christian professors say, 'Yeah, evolution can be OK,' and thinking, 'Oh, wow.'"

Eggimann said she is sympathetic toward people who maintain a biblical view of human creation because she used to be one of them. But, she said, it's just not scientific.

"Christians and other religious people who are not uncomfortable with evolution are not speaking out, are not really showing that as a viable option. They're the quiet ones. The loud ones are the ones who think evolution proves there is no God, and others who say the earth (was made) in six days. Those are the voices you hear a lot of."

Eggimann said she feels a responsibility to share the benefits of her education. In the meantime, she has no problem maintaining her faith alongside her expanding scientific knowledge.

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