RNCSE 26 (3)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Articles available online are listed below.
Click "Print Edition Contents" link for list of articles in the print edition.

Print Edition Contents: 26 (3)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education


  1. The "Grill the ID Guys" Event at Biola
    Robert Camp
    It was billed as a chance for ID advocates to confront their "toughest critics" — but in the end it was evasion and posturing.
  2. "Critical Analysis" Defeated in Ohio
    Glenn Branch
    After the Kitzmiller v Dover decision, the state board of education reconsidered the lesson plan and standard that many anti-evolutionists proclaimed as a model for undermining evolution education.
  3. Conservative Ohio Values Led to Change in Evolution Policy
    Martha Wise
    One member of the Ohio State Board of Education describes the reasoning behind the removal of the controversial "critical analysis of evolution" lesson plan.
  4. Updates
    News from Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.


  1. News from the Membership
    Glenn Branch
    A sampling of our members' activities and accomplishments.
  2. NCSE Thanks You for Your Generous Support
    Recognizing those who have helped NCSE financially.


  1. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology on Evolution
    A powerful affirmation of the importance of evolution education from FASEB, representing 22 scientific societies with 84 000 members.
  2. Books: Small Things Considered
    Books that examine evolutionary processes at the cellular and molecular levels.
  3. NCSE On the Road
    An NCSE speaker may be coming to your neighborhood. Check the calendar here.


  1. The Evolution of Biological Complexity
    Finn Pond
    "Intelligent design" proponents argue that there is no naturalistic explanation for biological complexity at the molecular level. This article shows that there is not one, but many, different explanations of ways that biological complexity could arise naturally.
  2. A Common, Conserved Mechanism for all Polynucleotide Polymerases
    Michael Buratovich
    One of the mainstays of the Discovery Institute's "Supplemental Bibliography" is the diversity of complex biochemical pathways and the possibility of multiple derivations. This article shows how the conservation of fundamental functions and structures among these important and apparently diverse pathways reinforces the conclusion of common descent.


  1. Darwinian Conservatism by Larry Arnhart
    Reviewed by Timothy Sandefur
  2. The First Humans: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors by Ann Gibbons
    Reviewed by Pat Shipman
  3. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Human Prehistory by Robert J Meier
    Reviewed by Anne Gilbert
  4. Who's Afraid of Charles Darwin? by Griet Vandermassen
    Reviewed by Linda D Wolfe
  5. Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial by Marvin Olasky and John Perry
    Reviewed by George Webb
  6. Fatal Flaws: What Evolutionists Don't Want You to Know by Hank Hanegraaff
    Reviewed by Michael Buratovich

"Critical Analysis" Defeated in Ohio

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
"Critical Analysis" Defeated in Ohio
Glenn Branch
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
The Ohio Board of Education voted 11–4 at its February 14, 2006, meeting to remove both the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" model lesson plan and the corresponding indicator — which called for students to be able to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory" — in the state standards. Board member Martha Wise, who spearheaded the drive to eliminate the anti-evolution material, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer (2006 Feb 15), "I’m ecstatic ... It’s a win for science, a win for students and a win for the state of Ohio."

The genesis of "critical analysis"

The "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan corresponds to a similarly controversial indicator in the Ohio state science standards, which called for students to be able to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." When the indicator was introduced, it was widely feared that it would provide a pretext for the introduction of creationist misrepresentations of evolution. The lesson plan proved these fears to be justified. As originally submitted, entitled "The Great Macroevolution Debate", it was riddled with scientific inaccuracies and pedagogical infelicities, and it even explicitly relied on a number of creationist publications.

Facing such criticisms, the proponents of the lesson plan revised it, but only cosmetically — removing the references to creationist publications and eliminating a number of the glaring errors, but leaving intact the basic structure, the choice of topics (which is indebted to Jonathan Wells’s notoriously misleading book Icons of Evolution), and the overall goal of instilling scientifically unwarranted doubts about evolution. Even as revised, the lesson plan was condemned by the National Academy of Sciences and the Ohio Academy of Sciences, which told Ohio governor Bob Taft (R) that it was "defective because it is not science and has no place in the science curriculum."

Nevertheless, the revision was enough to satisfy a majority of the members of the board. On March 9, 2004, a motion to reject the lesson plan failed by a vote of 10–7, and the whole model curriculum, including the flawed "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan, was then adopted by a 13–5 vote. Although teachers were not required to use the model curriculum, it was expected to be widely used because it is based on the standards that also provide the basis for statewide testing. Although there was talk shortly after the March 2004 vote of the possibility of a lawsuit over the lesson plan, the public discussion of the plan subsided for a time.

A related controversy surfaced, though, involving a primary author of the lesson plan, Bryan Leonard. In addition to teaching biology at a high school in the Columbus suburb of Hilliard, Leonard was also pursuing a doctoral degree in science education from the Ohio State University. Testifying at the "kangaroo court" hearings on evolution in Kansas in May 2005, Leonard told a subcommittee of the Kansas state board of education, "the way in which I teach evolution in my high school biology class is that I teach the scientific information, or in other words, the scientific interpretations both supporting and challenging macroevolution."

Leonard's testimony in Kansas aroused the curiosity of three OSU professors, who ascertained the topic of Leonard's dissertation: "When students are taught the scientific data both supporting and challenging macroevolution, do they maintain or change their beliefs over time? What empirical, cognitive and/or social factors influence students' beliefs?" They consequently wrote in a letter to the interim dean of the graduate school, "We note a fundamental flaw: There are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution. Mr Leonard has been misinforming his students if he teaches them otherwise" (quoted in The Lantern 2005 Jun 23).

The composition of Leonard’s dissertation committee was also disputed. Inside Higher Ed (2005 Jun 10) reported, "Under Ohio State rules, two members of Leonard's dissertation committee should have been in the science education division. But the three members of the committee were in the fields of technology education, entomology and nutrition." Two of those three are supporters of the "intelligent design" movement. After the graduate school representative on the committee that was to hear Leonard's defense of his dissertation resigned and was replaced by the Dean of the College of Biological Sciences, the defense was postponed, apparently at the request of Leonard’s advisor.

A spokesman for the university was eager to disavow Leonard's dissertation research, telling Inside Higher Ed, "It's a mischaracterization to say that the university was about to award a degree supporting 'intelligent design' or anything else. What we had was a dissertation defense scheduled," adding, "The university was not anywhere close to legitimizing anything that was not close to the caliber for which we give doctoral degrees." Nevertheless, the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan to which Leonard contributed was still in place, with the board’s imprimatur, and it was unclear whether it would be challenged.

"Critical analysis" challenged

Then, on December 20, 2005, in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, the decision in Kitzmiller v Dover was issued: teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools was found to be unconstitutional. Subsequently, the prospect of a lawsuit over the lesson plan was re-ignited in Ohio. Robin Hovis, a member of the board, told the Columbus Dispatch (2006 Jan 8), "I think the ruling is a wake-up call to our board that we are out of compliance, at least in that judge's opinion," adding, "I think it would be very unfortunate of us to subject the state of Ohio to costly litigation."

Adding to the pressure on the board was the revelation that the lesson plan was adopted by the board despite warnings from the Ohio Department of Education, whose experts described it as wrong, misleading, and even manifesting "fringe thinking". A marvelously detailed article in the weekly Cleveland Free Times (2006 Jan 31) reported, "at least one unnamed ODE staff scientist debunked all eight arguments Leonard had used to challenge evolution. The scientist's comments run the gamut of 'the challenging answer oversimplifies' to 'the challenging answer is wrong' to 'off-topic' to 'the underlined sentence about transitional fossils is a lie.'"

These warnings about the flaws in the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan were contained in documents obtained by Americans United for Separation of Church and State pursuant to a public records act request. Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United, told the Dispatch (2006 Jan 8), "We've only gotten part of what we’ve asked for, but we see much of the same pattern of introducing religion through a backdoor means." Patricia Princehouse, a philosopher and evolutionary biologist at Case Western Reserve University and a leader of Ohio Citizens for Science, added, "The documents demonstrate this board had a religious intent and that board members who said they had no idea this was bad science lied."

The state’s major newspapers editorially urged the board to take the opportunity to remove the lesson plan and even the corresponding standard. The Dispatch, for example, observed (2006 Jan 10), "It's misleading for the standards to require that Ohio students describe how 'scientists today continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.' The not-so-subtle suggestion is that evolution is on shakier scientific ground than all other theories," and concluded, "The board should do Ohio children a giant favor and, at the same time, spare taxpayers the risk of costly litigation. Drop this bogus standard and its 'disclaimer'."

At the January 10, 2006, meeting of the board, however, a proposal, introduced by Martha Wise, to remove the lesson plan from the model curriculum was narrowly defeated in a 9–8 vote. The meeting was reportedly acrimonious; the Dispatch (2006 Jan 11) reported that after Wise observed that it had been the intention of at least two members to introduce "intelligent design" into the state science standards, her fellow board members Michael Cochran and Deborah Owens-Fink — both firm supporters of the lesson plan — took umbrage. Robin Hovis reminded the board that Owens-Fink had, in fact, introduced a proposal to teach "intelligent design" previously.

The acrimony was not confined to the members of the board. After reviewing videotapes of the meeting, the Dispatch (2006 Jan 20) described a number of board members — particularly Cochran and Owens-Fink — as "badgering and berating" the witnesses who testified about the flaws in the lesson plan. At one point, Cochran began to read a newspaper while Brian McEnnis, a professor of mathematics at the Ohio State University, was speaking; when McEnnis remonstrated, Cochran interrupted both McEnnis and then the president of the board when she sought to intervene. Interviewed by a Dispatch reporter, Cochran and Owens-Fink offered no apology (although they reportedly did later, at the February board meeting).

Both the vote to retain the lesson plan and the behavior of the board members who supported it received criticism from the state’s newspapers. The Toledo Blade"s editorial (2006 Jan 14) was especially outspoken, describing the nine board members who voted in favor of the lesson plan as "right-wing ideologues" and the board as a whole as "a painful carbuncle on the posterior of state government." The Dispatch (2006 Jan 15) noted that "[r]egardless of how board members cast their votes, they owe the people who come before them their attention and respect" and recommended that voters bear it in mind at the next election.

The demise of "critical analysis"

During the January meeting, Cochran tried to defend the lesson plan by referring to the grade of B that Ohio’s science standards recently received in a report conducted by the Fordham Foundation, as if to imply that the authors of the report approved of the lesson plan as well. In response, the authors, led by the eminent biologist Paul R Gross, issued a statement reading, in part, "Any suggestion that our ‘B’ grade for Ohio’s standards endorses sham critiques of evolution, as offered by creationists, is false. ... If creationism-driven arguments become an authorized extension of Ohio’s K–12 science standards, then the standards will deserve a failing grade."

The furor over the meeting evidently sparked the interest of Governor Taft, who told the Dispatch (2006 Feb 3) that there should be a legal review of the lesson plan to ensure that the state is not vulnerable to a lawsuit. "The governor also said he should have asked his previous appointees to the State Board of Education more questions about their position on the controversial issue and that he will be asking about it before making future appointments," the Dispatch also reported. Eight of the seats on the board of education are appointed by the governor, and four of these are due to be vacant at the end of the year; Governor Taft’s term expires in 2007.

Meanwhile, in a letter addressed to Governor Taft dated February 7, 2006, a large majority (75%) of the members of the Science Content Standards Advisory Committee, which helped to develop the Ohio state science standards in 2002, protested the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan, describing it as "a pointed attempt to insert old and discredited creationist content in Ohio’s science classrooms," "wholly without merit," and "a disservice to Ohio’s children and an insult to the intelligence of its good citizens".

A further hopeful sign, in addition to the remarks of Governor Taft and the letter from the members of the advisory committee, was that one of the two members of the board who were absent from the January 10 meeting, Virgil Brown, told the Dispatch (2006 Jan 12) that he was ready to "withdraw or amend" the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan, encouraging defenders of evolution education in the Buckeye State. Although consideration of the lesson plan was not on the agenda for the next meeting, it was clear that pressure was mounting on the board to take action.

At the February meeting of the board, Colleen Grady presented a proposal, seconded by Carl Wick, for the board to ask the state attorney general to conduct a legal analysis of the standards and the lesson plan. Martha Wise then introduced a motion, seconded by Robin Hovis, to amend Grady’s proposal by substituting her own, which called for the removal of both the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" model lesson plan and the corresponding indicator in the state standards. Wise’s proposal included a provision to reinstate the Ohio Academy of Science’s definition of science in the standards; Eric Okerson introduced a motion, seconded by Sam Schloemer, which substituted a charge to the board’s Achievement Committee to consider whether to replace the removed lesson plan and indicator.

After a protracted discussion, the president of the school board called for a vote. First the Okerson amendment was approved by a vote of 14–1, with only Deborah Owens-Fink opposed, and then the Wise amendment to the Grady proposal was approved by a vote of 11–4, with Grady, Owens-Fink, Cochran, and Sue Westendorf opposed. The Grady proposal as amended (see sidebar, p 10) was then approved by a vote of 11–4, with Grady, Owens-Fink, Cochran, and Westendorf again opposed. Voting for the removal were Lou Ann Harrold, Martha W Wise, GR "Sam" Schloemer, Virgil E Brown Jr, Jim Craig, Jennifer Stewart, Jane Sonenshein, Robin C Hovis, Stephen M Millett, Eric C Okerson, and Carl Wick; absent from the meeting were John W Griffin, Richard Baker, Emerson J Ross Jr, and Jennifer L Sheets. (Minutes of the meeting are available on-line at http://www.ode.state.oh.us/board/meetings/february06/minutes.asp.)

Reactions and prospects

Anti-evolutionism was no longer enshrined in Ohio’s public education system, and groups that contributed to the victory were gratified. Foremost among them was Ohio Citizens for Science, which commented in a press release, "The Directors and members of Ohio Citizens for Science applaud the Ohio State Board of Education for removing the creationist material from the State Standards and Model Curriculum. We are pleased that Members of the Board have affirmed the importance of honest science education in Ohio public schools, and we stand ready to assist the Board however we can in advancing that effort."

Additionally, NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C Scott described the vote as "a stunning triumph for the students of Ohio’s public schools and a stunning repudiation of the all-too-successful attempts of creationists to undermine evolution education in the Buckeye State. Let’s hope that all such attempts to introduce creationism by the back door meet the same fate." The Reverend Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State similarly commented, "This is a great victory for Ohio public school students."

The state’s newspapers also hailed the vote editorially. The Cincinnati Enquirer (2006 Feb 18) described it as "a wise, pragmatic move that could save Ohio money from lawsuits, save schools from the distraction this debate has brought, and preserve students’ best interests in receiving a sound scientific education," and the Toledo Blade (2006 Feb 20) argued that "Ohio school children owe a majority of members on the Ohio Board of Education their gratitude. By a vote of 11–4, board members eliminated a disputed evolution lesson plan, that, like the barred Pennsylvania plan, was really religion masquerading as science."

Patricia Princehouse told the Chicago Tribune (2006 Feb 15) that although the anti-evolution materials would be removed immediately, Ohio Citizens for Science plans to monitor board meetings to ensure that the material is not re-introduced in a new form. "The one thing we learned about creationists," she explained to the Tribune, "is that they never give up." That was a sentiment echoed by the Columbus Dispatch (2006 Feb 23), which observed, "Ohio is not out of the woods yet," warning, "Intelligent-design supporters surely will be back to take another shot at evolution."

The board’s Achievement Committee was charged with the task of deciding whether it is necessary to provide a replacement for the controversial indicator in the state standards. The Dispatch (2006 Feb 20), noting that it was the same committee that approved the controversial indicator in the first place, quipped, "Meet the new committee, same as the old committee." Commenting that on the committee "opinions differ, with both sides accusing the other of being motivated more by politics than science," the Associated Press (2006 Feb 22) concluded, "The debate is likely to take months."

Meanwhile, Steve Rissing, a professor of biology at Ohio State University, prepared a lesson plan on speciation, to illustrate how "current areas of active inquiry and discussion in biology can be presented with grade-appropriate rigor in a pedagogically effective manner." The lesson plan (which is available on-line at Ohio Citizens for Science’s website http://www.ohioscience.org) presents the current controversy over sympatric speciation, referring in the process to the evolutionary biology of two pests (apple maggot fly and corn root worm) that damage Ohio agriculture.

The broader significance of the board’s vote was in its repudiation of the strategy of undermining evolution education by calling for the "critical analysis" of evolution. Although the language of the indicator calling for students to be able to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory" was innocuous on its face, it was twisted in the service of the creationist agenda. Not only was the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan developed under the aegis of the indicator, but it also proved to be grist for the creationist propaganda mill, which constantly claimed that Ohio was in the vanguard of a movement to challenge evolution in the public schools. (For a discussion of such claims with respect to New Mexico and elsewhere, see RNCSE 2005 May–Aug; 25 [3–4]: 4–8.)

Will the creationists who have cited Ohio’s embrace of "critical analysis" as precedent for their own efforts elsewhere now follow Ohio’s lead in repudiating it? It is unlikely: the board’s vote was characterized by representatives of the Discovery Institute as "an outrageous slap in the face" and as a triumph of "censorship" (United Press International 2006 Feb 15; Cincinnati Enquirer 2006 Feb 15), rather than as a necessary corrective. But certainly it is open to the defenders of the integrity of science education across the country to applaud the Ohio board of education’s repudiation of "critical analysis" and to recommend that policymakers elsewhere emulate it. NCSE will be there to help them to do so.

About the Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477

Review: Darwinian Conservatism

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Timothy Sandefur
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Darwinian Conservatism
Larry Arnhart
Exeter (UK): Imprint Academic, 2005. 162 pages
Larry Arnhart's message, stated in the first line of his book, is that "conservatives need Charles Darwin." But Darwinian Conservatism, like his earlier book Darwinian Natural Right (1998), shows that they need Larry Arnhart just as badly. His new book is an important reform tract: a plea to fellow conservatives not only to see the danger of hitching their wagon to the falling star of "intelligent design", but also to realize that the left has no legitimate claim to the laurels of scientific rationality.

First things first: Arnhart deserves praise for rejecting the notion that science is somehow neutral toward politics or morality. If politics is to solve human problems, then it must be based on an understanding of what humans are, and what they need to survive and to flourish. Unfortunately, many scientists are so eager to keep science strictly separated from messy partisan conflicts that they claim biology has nothing to say about ethics or politics. This is silly. Evolution is the most robust explanation of human nature ever devised, and any political philosophy that hopes to be more than dream talk must ultimately be based on that account. Evolutionary science holds out the possibility of founding politics not on arbitrary value assumptions or cultural relativism, but on humanity's objectively ascertainable qualities and needs. Take property rights, for example. Previous generations thought of property as part of the divine order of the universe. That answer is no longer attractive after Darwin, but neither is the equally contrived answer, common on the left, that property is just a conventional institution that can be altered or revised by wise bureaucrats in the service of noble goals. Like Richard Pipes (1999), Arnhart argues that property rights are a natural need of human beings, rooted in our biological nature, and that they have evolved alongside our physical nature (pages 31, 59–67). He makes the same argument about nineteen other "natural desires" which originate in "a universal human nature," and "motivate [our] moral judgment" (page 26). These desires, he continues, are conservatism's chief concerns, and they are not of supernatural origin, but are the product of evolution. In short, "Natural law is not a 'myth.' It is a rationally observable and scientifically verifiable fact" (Arnhart and others 2000).

It is unfortunate for conservatism that this argument is so unusual. All Arnhart seems to be saying is that conservative values can be grounded in nature, not just myth. Yet conservatism has labored long under the assumption that we need a special magic spark to give us moral significance. Science, according to such conservative mainstays as Russell Kirk (1985: 419), Robert Nisbet (1990), or Richard Weaver (Young 1995: 108–10), leads to a "mechanistic" universe populated by "mere atomistic individuals" who live a graceless life of cost–benefit analysis. But Arnhart argues that there is no need for magic to make us moral creatures. Morality is a function of (evolved) human nature: "Because normal human beings have the human nature that they do, which includes propensities to moral emotions, they predictably react to certain facts with strong feelings of approval or disapproval, and the generalizations of these feelings across a society constitute their moral judgments" (page 44).

But while human nature, and its moral aspects, are not handed down from On High, neither are they arbitrary matters of convention. Throughout the twentieth century, political thinkers on the left have regarded human nature as a function of culture, meaning that it can be changed to serve society's needs. John Dewey, for example, argued that an individual's personality is "something achieved … with the aid and support of conditions, cultural and physical," and that modern liberalism sought the "positive construction of favorable institutions, legal, political and economic" by which individual personality could be formulated, not just liberated (Dewey 1935). In some ways, this Progressive attitude was a consequence of "Darwin's overthrow of essentialism" (Dennett 1995: 39), since it seemed to prove that there was no unique thing to differentiate humans from the rest of the universe, and therefore, that there was no such thing as unchanging categories in politics or morality. Right and wrong, justice and injustice, private and public, could be whatever people decided. As Louis Menand puts it, Progressives rejected the idea that "there exists some order, invisible to us, whose logic we transgress at our peril" (Menand 2000: 439), and adopted anything-goes nominalism instead.

But there is an important way in which evolution does not overthrow essentialism (Matson 1984: 24–6). Humans do indeed have a nature, even if biological evolution has molded them from less sophisticated predecessors. The primary error of conservatives like Kirk or Harvey Mansfield, writes Arnhart, is their assumption "that human nature is not a solid ground of moral norms unless it is eternally unchanging" (page 54). Although he does not spend much time in this book on such complicated epistemological arguments, Arnhart has explained in Darwinian Natural Right why a much stronger explanation of human nature — and a much stronger foundation for naturalistic ethics and politics — is provided by an "evolutionary account of species [that] is neither strictly essentialist nor strictly nominalist" (Arnhart 1998: 233).

In fact, nominalism should also be seen as a rejection of Darwin (see, for example, Menand 2000: 371–2). And yet somehow the idea that natural human conditions like property, inequality, acquisitiveness, or sex roles, have no biological anchor, but can be altered by energetic social planning, has somehow come to be seen as "scientific" by a great many intellectuals (Johnson 1990). This notion really puts leftists in a bind: "On the one hand, Darwinian leftists must accept the Darwinian account of human nature. On the other hand they must assume that human beings are free from the constraints of human nature because they create human history as a cultural artifact" (page 123; see also Johnson 1990: 338–40).

Conservatism overreacted to leftist relativism by searching for eternal, magical solutions; what Daniel Dennett calls "skyhooks" (1995: 74). In fact, some conservatives do not even care whether such solutions really exist, and have argued instead for a "noble lie" whereby "it is the moral and political utility of religious belief that is decisive" (page 91; see also Bailey 1996). But how strong can a political theory be, which consciously grounds itself on a lie? The "deepest question," Arnhart writes, is "whether morality necessarily depends on religious belief…or whether a scientific naturalism can support a natural moral sense (as Darwin argued) that does not necessarily require religious belief" (pages 115–6). His defense of the latter is a significant contribution to conservative thought.

In short, Arnhart rejects both the leftist appeal to cultural or moral relativism and the traditional conservative appeal to magic, by grounding politics on "a universal human nature of natural instincts and desires," which allows us to "judge some societies … as satisfying those natural desires more fully than other societies." Understanding this means seeing that "cultural traditions are not the only source of morality, because the natural instincts of human beings provide a natural ground for the moral sense, just as Darwin argued" (page 23). This is correct, but there are two other important issues to be confronted when discussing the relationship of evolution to politics: the concept of spontaneous order, and the conflict of faith against reason.

The Nobel-prize–winning economist Friedrich Hayek coined the term "spontaneous order" while debunking the leftist assumption that social institutions are, or can be, the products of human design. This assumption, alas, remains common among modern liberals; Laurence Tribe, for example, has argued that there is really no such thing as a free market because "'freedom' of contract and property" are really just "expressions of positive governmental intervention," so that there is "no 'natural' economic order to upset or restore" through government regulation (Tribe 1988: 578–9). But as Hayek explained, the market is not the product of centralized design, but the outcome of countless unorganized interactions between people, gradually producing stable, useful institutions like property or contract law (see, for example, Hayek 1978–1981). In Arnhart's words, a spontaneous order is "a complex order that arises not as the intended outcome of the intelligent design of any mind or group of minds, but as the unintended outcome of many individual actions to satisfy short-term needs" (page 16). Evolution is the most obvious example of this ordering process, but the free market, and, to a lesser extent, common law legal systems, are also spontaneous orders (see also Nozick 1974: 18–21). Hayek made it clear that not only are government planners unnecessary for solving economic problems, they are often downright harmful, since they ignorantly interfere with better, decentralized problem-solving. For example, when bureaucrats demolish a neighborhood to make way for a new subsidized shopping center, they destroy the spontaneous process of neighborhood-building that gives a town character and a sense of place (Curtis 2006). When they implement technical regulations on a trade, they stifle innovation which might not fit official, preconceived notions of how the market "ought" to work (Postrel 1998: 83–111). Hayek argues that it is usually best to leave markets alone to devise solutions, rather than to impose a single, one-size-fits-all solution invented by politically-influenced bureaucrats in faraway capitol buildings. This argument fits very comfortably with evolution. If design does not require a designer, then there is no need for the state to "design" economic institutions. Multiple decentralized choices will tend toward efficiency.

Ironically, this argument actually conflicts with conservative values. While they tend to reject government control over the economy, conservatives are generally eager for government to control other relationships, such as sexual relations or marriage. They distrust the free market precisely because its underlying principles allow individuals to make their own choices in these areas of life also (Schumpeter 1962). Richard Weaver, for example, complained that capitalism leads to a "soulless, desiccated middle class which … destroy[s] the concept of non-material value" (Young 1995: 161), and Russell Kirk saw capitalism as expressing a "modern temper" which "ignore[s] the longings of humanity" such as "the comforting assurance that continuity is more probable than change" (1985: 492) Spontaneous order works through vast number of individual choices, but conservatives oppose individual choice in many personal matters because it disrupts tradition (Sandefur 2001). It is libertarianism, not conservatism, that embraces the dynamic character of free markets (Postrel 1998; D'Souza 2000).

Arnhart glosses over this problem by absurdly suggesting that libertarianism is a variety of conservatism, which it emphatically is not (Barnett 2004: 72). In fact, he seems to suffer throughout from a deep confusion as to the difference between conservatism and libertarianism, and he clings to an interpretation of conservatism that many would reject: namely, the notion that liberty is one of its primary values. In fact, liberty has rarely been a conservative value; it was only the chance arrival of Goldwater and Reagan on the Republican Party scene in the 1960s that drew many libertarians into describing themselves as conservative. These people propounded a theory of "fusion" between libertarians and conservatives (Meyer 1996). But recent events have eroded that fusion significantly, and the future of its union seems bleak.

Another troubling omission is Arnhart's failure strongly to confront the philosophical elephant in the room, and that is the interaction of reason and faith in the post-Darwin world. Evolution is not controversial because of its factual conclusions about the origins of species; it is controversial because it shows that our world can be understood in terms of reason alone, without faith. And since so much authoritarian political philosophy — conservatism in particular — has been based on faith, that account has tremendous social consequences. Arnhart's argument that scientific reason can also support conservative principles may reassure those whose primary concern is for practical policy matters, but in the end it will make little progress against those whose focus is more fundamental. Without taking a position on the conflict of faith and reason — by, in fact, seeming to appease religion — Arnhart cannot advance far on the battlefield where evolution and conservatism contend.

These two problems actually intertwine. Arnhart's reason-based approach is welcome indeed, and it is true that conservatives need it. But I doubt that that approach can be fairly classified as conservatism itself. In fact, for all his talk of Edmund Burke and family values, Arnhart has much more in common with the secular libertarianism of Ayn Rand or Jacob Bronowski than with such basically theocratic thinkers as Kirk (Rand 1968; Bronowski 1965). It would be nice if conservatives would adopt secular libertarianism, but while a society based on an unceasing demand for evidence and rational demonstration would, indeed, be a society of liberty — it would hardly be conservative.


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Pipes R. 1999. Property and Freedom. New York: Knopf.
Postrel V. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies. New York: The Free Press.
Rand A. 1968. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet.
Sandefur T. 2001. Why conservatives oppose progress. Review of The Virtue of Prosperity by Dinesh D'Souza. Liberty 15 (3). Available on-line at http://www.geocities.com/sande106/ConservativesProgress.htm. Last accessed August 8, 2006.
Schumpeter J. 1962. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper Perennial.
Tribe LH. 1988. American Constitutional Law. 2nd ed. New York: Foundation Press.
Young F. 1995. Richard M Weaver 1910–1963: A Life of the Mind. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

About the Author(s): 
Timothy Sandefur
Pacific Legal Foundation
3900 Lennane Drive, Suite 200
Sacramento CA 95834

Review: Fatal Flaws

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Michael Buratovich, Spring Arbor University
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Fatal Flaws: What Evolutionists Don't Want You to Know
Hank Hanegraaff
Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2003. 112 pages
Hank Hanegraaff's book Fatal Flaws is an abbreviation of his earlier book The Face that Demonstrates the Farce of Evolution (Nashville: Word, 1998). For the most part, the book reiterates standard creationist arguments. Previous work by Hanegraaff's Christian Research Institute shows that he and his staff have little tolerance for hucksters and thieves in preachers' clothing (notice their exposés on Benny Hinn), which makes the mistakes and poor research in this book somewhat surprising. There is only room to discuss a few of the many errors in this book.

In the introductory chapter of this book, Hanegraaff, who is a very clever designer of mnemonic acronyms, fashions the acronym FARCE to help the reader remember the alleged problems with the theory of evolution. The letters of FARCE represent Fossil follies, Ape-men fiction, fraud, and fantasy, Recapitulation, Chance, and Empirical science.

In his chapter on "fossil follies", Hanegraaff quotes David Raup, the curator of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago: "We are now about 120 years after Darwin, and the knowledge of the fossil record has been greatly expanded. We now have a quarter of a million fossil species, but the situation hasn't changed much. ... We have even fewer examples of evolutionary transition than we had in Darwin's time" (p 17). Hanegraaff's reference for this quotation is Paul Taylor's Illustrated Origins Answer Book. If he had read Raup's original article ("Conflicts between Darwin and paleontology," Field Museum of Natural History Bulletin 1979; 50 [1]: 22–9), he would have discovered what Raup really said on page 25 was this, with the portions quoted by Hanegraaff italicized:
Well, we are now about 120 years after Darwin and the knowledge of the fossil record has been greatly expanded. We now have a quarter of a million fossil species but the situation hasn't changed much. The record of evolution is still surprisingly jerky and, ironically, we have even fewer examples of evolutionary transitions than we had in Darwin's time. By this I mean that some of the classic cases of Darwinian change in the fossil record, such as the evolution of the horse in North America, have had to be discarded or modified as a result of more detailed information — what appeared to be a nice simple progression when relatively few data were available now appear to be much more complex and much less gradualistic. So Darwin's problem has not been alleviated in the last 120 years and we still have a record which does show change but one that can hardly be looked upon as the most reasonable consequence of natural selection.
In contrast to the impression that Hanegraaff is trying to give, Raup is discussing how — not whether — evolutionary change has occurred. Raup clearly accepts evolution, but he is not convinced that the paleontological record supports Darwinian gradualism.

Hanegraaff proceeds to attack Archaeopteryx as a "false link between reptiles (such as dinosaurs) and birds" (p 17–8). He dismisses the reptilian features of Archaeopteryx with a reference to Duane Gish, who has neither formal training nor any record of serious field experience in paleontology. Unfortunately Hanegraaff's glib attitude toward the reptilian characteristics in the skull, vertebrae, ribs, tail and limbs of Archaeopteryx will not make them go away. Archaeopteryx also possesses some bird-like features, but these reptilian and bird-like features are found in the same fossil animal. If this does not make Archaeopteryx a transitional form linking reptiles and birds, then one is left to wonder what Hanegraaff considers a transitional creature.

Hanegraaff's chapter on human fossils has even more problems. His description of Nebraska Man is riddled with errors. The mistaken identification of the tooth by Henry Fairfield Osborn as an ape tooth was largely due to the similarity of cheek teeth in humans and pigs and the worn condition of the tooth. Furthermore, Osborn never designated Hesperopithecus as a human ancestor; there was a healthy skepticism surrounding the validity of Nebraska Man, and the literature of the day makes it clear that Nebraska Man received little backing from other paleoanthropologists.

Hanegraaff does no better with Dubois' discovery of Pithecanthropus erectus ("Java Man"; today known as Homo erectus). Hanegraaff perpetuates the often-repeated creationist conviction that Dubois suppressed evidence from the Wadjak skulls found nearby that would contradict his interpretation of Homo erectus as a potential ancestor to modern humans. However, Dubois did write formal descriptions of these skulls that were published in legitimate journals that were cited by researchers who continued to work on the Wadjak skulls. Furthermore, Trinil, the site where Dubois found Pithecanthropus, and Wadjak, where he found the more modern Wadjak skulls, are about 100 miles apart. Clearly these are not "in close proximity" as Hanegraaff would have us believe. In addition, further discoveries of Homo erectus skeletons have confirmed the validity of Dubois's Pithecanthropus erectus skull cap.

Finally, Hanegraaff's chapter on embryonic recapitulation constructs a straw man. Darwin did not endorse the extreme developmental recapitulationalism of Ernst Haeckel ("ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny") but instead endorsed a modified version of the views of the great German embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer. One of von Baer's famous "laws of development" asserted that the embryo of a higher animal is never like the adult of a lower animal, but does resemble the embryo of a lower animal. This principle influenced Darwin during his seminal work on barnacle classification. The common embryological stage shared by other recognized crustaceans and barnacles, the nauplius stage, convinced Darwin that barnacles were crustaceans and not mollusks, a taxonomic deduction that holds to this day.

Hanegraaff's book contains a great dependence on secondary sources, which leads to a perpetuation of common errors found in the works of many recent creationists. For a better book from a recent creationist perspective, see Ariel A Roth's Origins (Hagerstown [MD]: Review and Herald, 1998).

About the Author(s): 
Michael J Buratovich
Department of Biochemistry
Spring Arbor University
106 E Main St
Spring Arbor MI 49283
michaelb @ arbor . edu

The "Grill the ID Guys" Event at Biola

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
The "Grill the ID Guys" Event at Biola, or, "We may not know where we're going, but we're certainly not going away"
Robert Camp
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
On the way to the "Intelligent Design Under Fire" event (also referred to as "Grill the ID Guys") at Biola University, my wife asked me what she should expect. I considered for a few moments and replied, "Well, if the past is any indication you will probably see responses from the 'intelligent design' (ID) guys that begin with a good bit of geniality, and then make a cursory attempt to address the question before digressing into something unrelated about which they wish to talk; that and complaining that a question is unfair, or else ignoring it altogether." As we merged with the crowd meandering toward the auditorium, we noticed that some were wearing shirts with Bible excerpts on the back. "Oh, and watch the audience," I said. "Depending on how it's played, this whole thing could end up being about them."

Waiting for the coals

John Bloom, the event's organizer, took the stage and explained how it all came about. He had noticed that the best part of similar events he had attended were the Q&A sessions, so he put together two panels he thought might produce an interesting discussion. One panel consisted of "intelligent design"'s leading proponents — Stephen Meyer, Jonathan Wells, Michael Behe, Guillermo Gonzalez, and Paul Nelson — and another representing ID's "toughest critics" (see sidebar, p 7) — philosopher Antony Flew, columnist and philosopher Charlotte Laws, television correspondent Keith Morrison, retired geology professor Larry Herber, and three faculty members from California State University at Fullerton — James Hofmann (Professor and Chair of Liberal Studies), Craig M Nelson (lecturer in comparative religion), and Bruce Weber (Professor of Biochemistry). Morrison and Laws described themselves as confused but interested outsiders. During the event, Herber made one comment which ended up being more of a clarification of uniformitarianism, and Flew never spoke. It was Hofmann, Weber, and Nelson who asked most of the informed questions.

After introducing both panels, Bloom had Stephen Meyer present a short primer on ID. Once Meyer finished his introduction to ID (essentially undiluted and unrebutted boilerplate), Bloom started things off by encouraging a question from the critics. This format — critic asks question, ID proponents answer — could be effective, but one of its drawbacks is that the interaction can become unfocused. What I have tried to do in this account is to focus on the advertised purpose of this event, the salient questions asked, and the answers given.

Let the grilling begin

Question 1. Morrison began by asking, "What kind of intelligent being are you proposing, or are you proposing any specific intelligent being?" Meyer looked to his mates briefly, and, after a digression into how the media report ID poorly, he explained that there is a difference between the theory and the religious beliefs of those who hold it. He repeated that ID infers only intelligence, not a specific entity. Critics of ID are quite familiar with this non-response. Thus the first question is met with hand-waving and evasion. Not an auspicious beginning.

Q2. Morrison continued, observing that ID is being embraced by people who take the Bible literally, while scientists and progressive Christians largely dismiss it. He wondered if those on the ID panel were comfortable with that. Michael Behe answered that he was not, but then protested, "Most people don't understand 'intelligent design', and try to fit it into pre-existing categories. Certainly that's true of the scientific community; most people have a skewed view of 'intelligent design' there." Behe went on to expound on initial reactions to the Big Bang (the first of several Big Bang excursions) and how the cell is "incredibly sophisticated technology" (one among many "machine" references). Behe can be credited with a half-answer to this question.

After a bit more discussion, John Bloom got the Fullerton contingent involved. Hofmann suggested that ID can attain legitimacy only by way of evaluation at the relevant conferences and in the appropriate journals, not at Biola (formerly called the Bible Institute of Los Angeles). This brought murmurs of disapproval. Hofmann then introduced Bruce Weber.

Q3. Weber presented several slides that documented studies examining exaptation as a reasonable naturalistic explanation for the evolution of "irreducible complexity" (IC). He noted that research on exaptation is a work in progress, but with very real research results. In contrast, where, he asked, is the ID research? And "why would a scientist abandon the productive research program of the Darwinian modern evolutionary synthesis for one informed by 'intelligent design'?" Behe responded with the opaque observation that what Weber had shown is not really new or supportive research, but "just regular biochemistry which is being spun in a Darwinian fashion." He went on to ignore the question and renew his battle with Ken Miller by showing slides and repeating previous arguments. After Weber tried to get back to his question, Behe attempted to refute recent research on the evolution of complexity (Bridgham and others 2006). Soon thereafter Meyer jumped in and digressed into possible Type III secretory system arguments, asserted that Behe has not been proved wrong and suggesting that proposed naturalistic pathways do not cut it. "Intelligent design" proponents typically attempt to cover the deficiencies of the IC argument in this way — shifting the burden of proof. But the criticism from biologists is of the in-principle argument that there cannot be an evolutionary explanation, and as such does not call for tested and replicated research; it simply requires empirically defensible hypotheses.

At this point, Paul Nelson joined the discussion. He continued Meyer's impassioned defense of Behe, directly addressing the crowd as he complained bitterly about "two sets of rules" preventing guys like Behe from publishing in the scientific literature. The audience applauded vigorously. Meyer carried on playing to the house by recounting the supposedly unfair treatment of Richard von Sternberg in the aftermath of his resignation as editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington after accusations that he manipulated the peer-review process to publish Meyer's paper on the Cambrian explosion. Finally, he asserted that "we cannot take peer-review … [as] the gold standard of scientific literacy." This elicited more applause.

And Weber's long-forgotten question remained unanswered.

Q4. Trying to get back on track, Hofmann talked about research on human chromosome #2 and the data that strongly support a fusion event in the evolution of humans. The point was about specificity of empirical questions (where, when, and how?) in preparation for his next question. For ID to be taken seriously as a science, Hofmann said, it must address two questions: When did a design event take place and how did it take place?

Meyer quickly responded to this with a protest directed primarily to the audience. He complained that design critics set forth rules on the methodology of science, assume their acceptance, and then proceed to dismiss ID on the basis of not following these methodological rules. Returning to the question, he argued that his own work shows that the Cambrian is a good candidate for when an act of design might have taken place (Meyer 2004). He added that the origin of life and the origin of intelligence are other possibilities. "So in fact we do say when, and moreover we say how," he argued, "we say it was done by an act of intelligence." Of course Hofmann meant that ID needs to address these questions empirically. Meyer ignored the need to test his hypothesis (a designer) as well as the requirement to establish testable mechanisms by which the intelligent intervention occurred. Meyer repeated his disdain for the "rules," suggesting that they be changed to accommodate different kinds of explanation.

Jonathan Wells took advantage of the ensuing lull to return to the question of "consensus". He argued that because of previous changes in the scientific consensus (for example, failed ideas such as geocentrism and the fact that at one time even Darwinism was considered incorrect), we should not be so willing to trust the consensus. Hofmann responded that those failed ideas were overturned as a result of the scientific process. Despite Meyer's sparest of partial answers, another question lingered in limbo.

Q5. After some discussion of information, Weber proceeded to ask Behe whether the blood-clotting cascade qualifies as a case of intelligent intervention. Behe replied that "these are difficult questions to address" and that we should not jump to "premature and unjustified conclusions." Meyer interceded to mention again how intelligence is necessary to build digital code, at which point Weber circled back to the earlier issue and suggested that there are natural mechanisms that can produce an increase in information. Meyer decided to answer Weber with a question: "Do you all have an explanation for the information that is necessary for the origin of life?" Weber noted that it is an active area of research. Meyer repeated the question, then scuttled off into an argument about ribozyme engineering.

Behe judged this a good time for him to turn the tables with a question as well, so he asked Weber and the others if they did not already agree that science has reached its limits on these biological questions, "When would you think so?" The audience chuckled knowingly. Meyer complained again about the "rules" of scientific materialism. Weber's question received only more questions.

Q6. Hofmann then asked how far they would be willing to go in abandoning methodological naturalism. Paul Nelson agreed readily that science cannot appeal to magic, and then appealed to the vanity of the audience, musing that "no natural law, no physical process, no algorithm can possibly explain what we're doing here. … It's not spooky, but it's not strictly material either," he said. Upon reflection, his point reduces to: "There's science, there's magic, and then there's the non-material causal agency that we like to infer." Unfortunately, he neglected to explain how this last category is empirically distinguishable from magic. Hofmann responded that science must operate by way of methodological naturalism, otherwise causal inference might be left open to miracles. Behe rejoined with another question: "How would you categorize the Big Bang?"

Q7. Hofmann now got Craig M Nelson involved. Nelson returned to the notion of consensus and asked when ID panelists would consider such a thing important. Meyer answered that they are not saying consensus is not important (of course, in fact they had just said exactly that!); rather, Meyer complained that the position of ID proponents is not even being considered, because their detractors simply appeal to consensus and never listen to what they have to say. It did not seem to occur to Meyer that what they have to say has been considered and rejected. An excellent reason for which rejection might be non-responsive performances such as the one occurring this very evening.

Q8. Bloom brought Charlotte Laws into the discussion. Laws observed that ID is being pushed into schools and asked the panel for their views as to why. Meyer noted that the debate involves the intersection of cultural and scientific ideas regarding origins and implied that people generally get carried away with the religious implications of ID theory. Laws tried to get back to the question, saying that she thinks the movement might have something to do with a general distrust of science, an observation that science currently appears to be vulnerable, and the influence of postmodernism. She also admitted that she thinks it is fine for ID to be in classrooms because it is philosophy and wondered how the panel felt it should be taught.

Wells remarked that they do not advocate required teaching of ID. In fact, he went on to say, ID is already in the textbooks, making reference to a stack of textbooks that he says include a section on ID. (Wells is not always reliable about the content of textbooks; see Camp 2005.) Paul Nelson picked up on this theme, noting that prominent evolutionary biologist George Williams wrote a book in which he discusses whether the vertebrate eye is "wise" design (Williams 1992: 72–3). During further discussion, Meyer came back to the subject of methodological naturalism. He opined that this rule prevents us from concluding design. Of course it does not; archaeologists and forensic scientists conclude design all the time. This is another case of ID proponents' using ambiguous language to confuse listeners to their advantage. Meyer went on to offer another reverse question, asking: "Let's just say, for the sake of argument: The universe really is designed. Would you ever be able to tell, as a scientist, if you held that rule … ?" The gathering rumbled its approval. Laws's query was largely ignored.

Q9. Craig M Nelson extrapolated from Meyer's question to ask one of his own, wondering why theistic evolution is not an acceptable explanation. Is there some reason God could not have worked in that fashion? Behe answered that God can do whatever he wants. Aside from Behe's dismissive non-answer, there was no response to Nelson's query.

Q10. In wrapping up the evening, Bloom reserved to himself the right to ask one last question of the ID panel. "What do you think it would take for 'intelligent design' to be accepted in scientific circles?" Wells answered first. He agreed with an earlier observation that ID needs to be fruitful. He then said that there is real ID research going on around the world. Meyer prodded Wells to talk about his "cancer research". Wells allowed that he would be doing some ID-inspired work that may have cancer implications. Meyer, not content with waiting for the results of the study, proceeded to drive home his point, saying Wells's work is a "direct application of irreducible complexity and design".

Paul Nelson answered next. He agreed with Wells, accepting that scientists want to see results and "new knowledge". Meyer followed by taking issue with Nelson and Wells. He stated that ID does not need to lead to new knowledge and it is already fruitful. Then he mentioned recent studies that suggest "Darwinism has been unfruitful". He moved on to assert that ID is attracting a following and implied that it is only the entrenched majority that is denying "intelligent design" its due. This will come, he suggested, as a result of retirement and turnover in academia.

Behe lined up with Meyer. "It's nice to make a prediction," he said, but the "question is: 'Does this idea explain what we see?'" Judging from the alternative he offers, Behe apparently does not feel the idea must "explain what we see" in an empirically testable fashion. After this, Bloom invited the audience to give the critics (who were offered no chance to comment on the last question) a standing ovation. "They took a lot of heat," Bloom acknowledged, and the proceedings closed with applause.

I went to a cookout…

Let me emphasize that there was much more discussion than could be captured in this short note, but I have tried to concentrate on those moments when questions got asked and answers were attempted. As I tally it, critics asked ten significant questions, including Bloom's softball at the end. The responses to those ten questions included three half-answers (Q2, Q4, and Q10), three evasions (Q1, Q6, Q7), three ignored questions (Q3, Q8, Q9), and one (Q5) answered with a question (though reverse questions also played a part in other responses). Much of the time was spent in digression into matters of dubious relevance.

…and all I got was this bun

The tiny, hopeful part of me that thought, "maybe this time it'll be different" took a severe thrashing once again. My sardonic side, however, was pretty puffed up after this was over. Most of my pessimistic predictions were fulfilled, though familiarity with the history of these events would have led anyone else to the same sad expectations. There was nothing new to be heard this night. In fact, looking back on how few of the questions actually got answered and the form the responses took, it is hard to conclude that there is any acceptance on the part of the ID spokesmen that the "tough questions" even exist. They were either dodged, dismissed, or met with other questions.

One problem with the evening was that the encounter took place in front of an ID-sympathetic crowd. It is hard not to be cynical about the motives for this event when so much of the time ostensibly intended for answering "tough questions" was instead spent reading from the playbook and pumping up the home fans. But the biggest drawback was the clear lack of fortitude on the part of "ID's Top Proponents" to engage the inquiry they invited. The critics, especially Hofmann, Weber, and Craig M Nelson, tried to press them in some cases, but there was no mechanism for detailed examination such as was available in the trial in Dover. Thus, the advertised purpose of the event was swamped by a tide of tired complaints about persecution, repetition of stock talking points, and pronounced public-relations efforts to rally the faithful. It was a sharp portrait of "intelligent design" as a movement with few guiding principles other than the desire to continue to hang onto political market share. Though slowed by the events in Dover, it is clear that the ID machine is still rolling, if with no more scientific direction than before.


Bridgham JT, Carroll SB, Thornton JW. 2006. Evolution of hormone-receptor complexity by molecular exploitation. Science 312: 97–101.
Camp R. 2005. Do biology textbooks pit evolution against theism? —A response to Jonathan Wells. Available on-line at here. Last accessed July 25, 2006.
Meyer SC. 2004. Intelligent design: The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117 (2): 213–39.
Williams G. 1992. Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About the Author(s): 
Robert Camp
c/o NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477

The Evolution of Biological Complexity

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
The Evolution of Biological Complexity

Finn Pond
Whitworth College

22, 27–31
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.


The origin of biological complexity is not yet fully explained, but several plausible naturalistic scenarios have been advanced to account for this complexity. “Intelligent design” (ID) advocates, however, contend that only the actions of an “intelligent agent” can generate the information content and complexity observed in biological systems.

ID proponents believe evolution theory is a failed enterprise that offers no credible explanations for the origins of complexity. They fault evolutionary scenarios for lacking sufficient detail. Furthermore, ID advocates claim to have presented empirical evidence that an “intelligent agent” designed at least some complex biological systems.

In contrast, this paper reviews several scientific models for the origin of biological complexity. I argue that these models offer plausible mechanisms for generating biological complexity and are promising avenues of inquiry. I take issue with ID proponents who dismiss such models for lack of “sufficient causal specificity,” arguing that this criticism is unwarranted. Finally, I look briefly at ID’s proposed explanation for the origin of biological complexity, and consider William Dembski’s “empirical evidence” for the design of bacterial flagella, arguing that his supposed evidence is biologically irrelevant.

The problem of complexity

Biological systems are staggeringly complex. Professional biologists devote their careers to describing those complexities, dissecting those systems by chemical and physical methods, and characterizing their structural components and functional interactions. How can such complex systems evolve? We understand the ways in which the individual components of a complex system can be altered in structure and function by mutation, and the way in which natural selection favors one form over another. Furthermore, in many cases we have traced the family relationships among different nucleic acid and protein variants.

Envisioning ways by which natural selection can construct biochemical and molecular systems that involve dozens of proteins integrated in complex and highly specific ways is much more difficult. How could all the necessary proteins be selected simultaneously with a common endpoint as the goal? Unless each intermediate construct possessed at least partial function, how could natural selection act?

This is the argument put forth by Michael Behe in his book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996), and championed by ID advocates ever since. Behe contends that the structural and functional complexities found throughout biological systems could not have been established through evolutionary processes. He argues that the bacterial flagellum, for example, is an irreducibly complex system, in which the individual components have no function apart from the whole, and therefore could not have been selected for in nature.

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution. (Behe 1996: 39)

Biologists recognize that integrated system complexity is a feature of living systems. That is, some biological systems consist of component parts that interact in a coordinated way so that the system as a whole exhibits a specific function. It is questionable, however, whether any such systems are irreducibly complex as Behe claims (see Coyne 1996; Doolittle 1997; Miller 1999; Shanks and Joplin 1999). But even if examples of irreducible complexity are found in living systems, the origins of such systems are not necessarily outside the realm of natural processes (Orr 1996; Miller 1999; Thornhill and Ussery 2000; Catalano 2001). That the function of a highly integrated system may collapse with the removal of a component part does not mean that the system in question cannot be deconstructed to reveal an origin by undirected evolutionary processes.

Behe was not the first to recognize that biological complexity poses a challenge (see for example Cairns-Smith 1986). During the past decade, the discipline of complexity science has blossomed, attracting an interdisciplinary contingent of scientists, including biologists interested in the very question Behe addresses: Can natural mechanisms account for the observed complexity of biological systems? (See Adami and others 2000; Strogatz 2001; Adami 2002; Carlson and Doyle 2002; Csete and Doyle 2002.)

Naturalistic models for the evolution of biological complexity

Several models have been advanced to account for a naturalistic origin of the complexity seen in biological systems. Following are brief descriptions of four models advanced to account for the origin of biological complexity.

Incremental additions model
The incremental additions model hypothesizes that an initial association of components favorable to some function may become an essential association through time (Lindsay 2000; Orr 1996, 2002). The complexity of the system may increase with the addition of new components. Suppose, for example, that a molecule carries out a particular catalytic function. If an association with another molecule enhances that function — for example, through structural stabilization — then natural selection can favor the association. The second molecule is initially beneficial although not essential. The second molecule may become essential, however, if an inactivating mutation in the first molecule is compensated for by the presence of the second.

There are numerous examples of molecules whose function is enhanced in the presence of another molecule. Consider the activity of RNase P (an RNA-protein complex responsible for processing transfer RNA molecules). The RNA component of the molecule possesses the catalytic activity and has been shown to function without its protein partner, albeit at a very much lower activity (Reich and others 1988; Altman 1989).

Work done with hammerhead ribozymes (RNA molecules capable of cleaving other RNA molecules) has demonstrated that the activity of one of these ribozymes increases 10- to 20-fold in vitro in the presence of a non-specific RNA-binding protein (Tsuchihashi and others 1993; Herschlag and others 1994). Furthermore, ribozymes are routinely generated whose activity can be regulated by other molecules (Soukup 1999), and in vitro evolution experiments have generated protein-dependent ribozyme ligases (Robertson and Ellington 2001).

Group II self-splicing introns, although capable of independent cleavage of RNA under some conditions, require stabilization by maturase proteins for effective in vivo functioning. It is generally accepted that the catalytically active RNA components of spliceosomes are able to function because spliceosome proteins stabilize a functional conformation (Lodish and others 2003). Therefore, one might speculate that a ribozyme could lose independent activity through a mutational event and yet continue to function in association with a protein molecule that promotes or stabilizes a catalytically active ribozyme structure.

Scaffolding model
Scaffolding is another mechanism whereby irreducible complexity might be established (Lindsay 2000; Shanks and Joplin 2000; Orr 2002). In the incremental additions model, a beneficial association of components becomes an essential association because mutational events compromise the independent activity of one or more component parts. In the scaffolding model, superfluous components are lost, leaving a system in which the remaining components appear tightly matched as if they were specifically designed to fit and function together. The arch is an example of an irreducibly complex structure that requires scaffolding for its construction (Cairns-Smith 1986; Lindsay 2000; Shanks and Joplin 2000; Schneider 2000; Orr 2002). Scaffolding may also be functional in nature.

Many biochemical systems are characterized by “redundant complexity” (Shanks and Joplin 1999, 2000). Biochemical pathways rarely function in isolation; rather, one pathway interconnects with another (see Nelson and Cox 2000). For example, carbon atoms entering the Calvin-Benson cycle within a chloroplast may find their way into any one of many different molecules and be shunted into other pathways. There are also many cases of a redundancy of enzymatic components, or variant isoforms. Gene duplications increase the number of genes in a species, which can then evolve in different ways. This branching pattern in protein evolution is significant. For example, several different yet related hemoglobin molecules are utilized in human development. These variant forms are understood to have arisen from gene duplication, mutation and selection processes (Lodish and others 2003).

An initial loss of redundant components in a biochemical pathway will not destroy function. However, at the point where a system cannot endure further loss of components without losing function, an irreducible system exists. The redundancy of biochemical components in such a scenario serves as scaffolding. Shanks and Joplin (2000) evaluate this model in reference to several of Behe’s examples of irreducibly complex biochemical systems. Robinson (1996) has also taken a similar approach by explaining in plausible evolutionary terms the origin of vertebrate blood-clotting cascades.

Co-option model
Natural selection acts upon an existing set of structures within a particular environmental context. An altered environment demands altered responses from an organism. Consequently, it should not be surprising to find in the fossil record and in comparative anatomical and physiological studies evidence that some structures have been modified through time to serve different functions. In fact, a common theme of biological evolution is that existing structures are often put to new uses, and new structures are created from the old. “Co-option” is the term used to describe the recruitment of existing structures for new tasks. This recruitment can explain evolutionary increases in biological complexity.

Genes co-opted for new functions can give rise to developmental and physiological novelties (Eizinger and others 1999; Ganfornina and Sanchez 1999; Long 2001; True and Carroll 2002). Genes can acquire new functions when protein-coding sequences are altered, when coding sequences are spliced differently during RNA processing, or when spatiotemporal patterns of gene expression are changed (True and Carroll 2002). Gene duplication followed by differential mutation will give rise to new protein configurations, and the alteration of regulatory controls for gene expression can result in significant developmental and morphological changes.

Many complex biological systems are characterized by a tight integration of component parts. Behe (1996) has argued that it is highly unlikely that such systems could arise through a simultaneous co-evolution of numerous parts or a direct serial evolution of the necessary components. But complex systems, even irreducibly complex ones, need not be assembled this way.

New associations of existing substructures or proteins may give rise to new functions, thus it is not necessary for the system to evolve in toto. Many critics of ID have pointed this out (Miller 1999; Thornhill and Ussery 2000; Miller 2003). A particularly instructive example of probable co-option is seen in the evolution of the Krebs (citric acid) cycle. Melendez-Helvia and others (1996) recognized that the Krebs cycle posed a real difficulty to evolutionary biologists because intermediate stages in its evolution would have no functionality. An analysis of the component enzymes and cofactors, however, revealed that the component parts and intermediate stages had functions apart from their role in the Krebs cycle.

Another example is the V(D)J gene splicing mechanism in vertebrate immune systems (Thornhill and Ussery 2000). True and Carroll (2002) also present examples of how multiple genes linked by a gene regulatory system can be co-opted as a unit for a new function; their examples include the evolution of butterfly eyespots, vertebrate limbs, complex leaves in plants, and feathers.

Emerging complexity model
Some complexity theorists believe that laws of self-organization exist that play a role in the evolution of biological complexity (Kauffman 1993, 1995; Solé and Goodwin 2000). Theoretical work in this area has expanded rapidly in the past decade (see, for example, Camazine and others 2001). The interaction of various component parts, it is argued, leads inevitably to complex patterns of organization.

One measure of complexity is the information content of a system, and Schneider’s “ev” program has demonstrated that new information can indeed emerge spontaneously. The “ev” program was constructed to simulate evolution by mutational and selection events. In the program, certain DNA sequences acted as “recognizer genes”, while other sequences were potential binding sites for the recognizer molecules. During simulations, both the recognizer genes and potential binding sequences were allowed to mutate. Selection was based upon successful binding of recognizer molecules and appropriate binding sites. The change in the complexity of the system was evaluated as a change in the information content of the DNA sequences. Specificity between recognition genes and corresponding binding sites increases the information content of the system, which is measured in bits of information according to Shannon information theory. Beginning with a random genome, the “ev” program leads to the evolution of DNA binding sites and a consequent increase in information. Furthermore, in the simulation, binding sites and recognizer genes co-evolved, becoming an irreducibly complex system. The results showed that processes of Darwinian evolution do generate information as well as irreducibly complex systems (Schneider 2000).

Conceivability vs plausibility: ID’s response
The above models are based upon natural processes that are subject to experimental investigation. Evidence supporting these models is accumulating. These models have been evaluated by ID advocate William Dembski in his book No Free Lunch (2002a). Dembski declared each model inadequate, with his most specific criticism directed toward Schneider’s “ev” program. He rejected Schneider’s claim that information had been generated de novo and accused Schneider of smuggling information into the program by specifying the program’s conditions for survival of “organisms” (Dembski 2002a). From a population biologist’s perspective, the criteria used by Schneider were perfectly reasonable. Nevertheless, Schneider eliminated the special rule that Dembski objected to, retested the program, and found the same results (Schneider 2001a, 2001b).

Arguing more globally, Dembski claimed that the No Free Lunch Theorems make it clear that the program could not do what Schneider claimed. David Wolpert, however, one of the developers of the No Free Lunch Theorems, says that Dembski applies the theorems inappropriately (Wolpert 2003).

Dembski’s criticisms of the other models were more general. He and other ID advocates complain that naturalistic models for the evolution of biological complexity lack causal specificity. According to Dembski, “Causal specificity means identifying a cause sufficient to account for the effect in question” (Dembski 2002a: 240). He argues that, until sufficient details are worked out (presumably in terms of the order in which components became associated, the manner by which these assembled components interacted to improve function, and the mutations that led to obligate dependency) there is no way to evaluate naturalistic scenarios. “Lack of causal specificity,” he says, “leaves one without the means to judge whether a transformation can or cannot be effected” (Dembski 2002a: 242).

Dembski accuses evolutionists of being satisfied with a very undemanding form of possibility, namely, conceivability (Dembski 2002b). Allen Orr reviewed No Free Lunch and took Dembski to task for using biologically irrelevant probabilities and requiring unrealistic details of causal specificity (Orr 2002). In his rebuttal, Dembski said that, for Orr, “Darwinism has the alchemical property of transforming sheer possibilities into real possibilities” (Dembski 2002b). He went on to say that “Orr substitutes a much weaker demand for ‘historical narrative,’ which in the case of Darwinism degenerates into fictive reconstructions with little, if any, hold on reality.”

Dembski positions himself as the critical empiricist, asking only for what all scientists should ask — details by which to determine the validity of Darwinist claims. Howard Van Till reviewed No Free Lunch and commented upon Dembski’s demand for causal specificity:

Many scientific hypotheses regarding the manner in which various transformational processes may have contributed to the actualization of some new biotic structure might fall short of full causal specificity — even though they may be highly plausible applications of mechanisms that are at least partially understood. When that is the case, the ID approach tends to denigrate them as nothing more than “just-so stories” and to remove them from further consideration. (Van Till 2002)

Dembski’s demand for greater details is reminiscent of earlier anti-evolutionists’ demands for more transitional fossils. Undoubtedly, there will always be gaps in the fossil record, and there will always be room for more details in evolutionary scenarios. The biologist’s search for these details is ongoing.

ID’s explanation for the origin of biological complexity

Biologists have proposed a number of models to account for biological complexity. ID proponents have criticized these models for lacking sufficient detail. It is instructive then to examine ID’s own explanations for the origin of biological complexity. Dembski (2002a) claims that certain types of biological systems, such as Behe’s “irreducibly complex” systems, must have been designed by an intelligent agent, because they possess a characteristic he calls “specified complexity.” It is possible, he says, to distinguish objects that were designed from those that arose by natural mechanisms because only designed objects have this characteristic (Dembski 1998, 2002a). ID advocates offer no models to explain the processes by which biological complexity came to be. They argue, nevertheless, that “specified complexity” is empirical evidence that the observed structure or function was intentionally designed.

How can we know that an object possesses “specified complexity”? Dembski says that structures or events that are highly complex will have a low probability of occurring by chance. Therefore a probability assessment must first be made. Because even rare or improbable events might occur by chance if given enough time, Dembski (1998) has set a probability value of 10-150 as a criterion for design.

To be specified, an object or event must possess a pattern independent of or detachable from the nature of the object or event in question (Dembski 1998). In the movie Contact, for example, SETI researchers interpret a radio signal as a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence because the signal contains the first 100 prime numbers. That particular sequence of numbers is specified because it has no inherent relationship with radio waves and is therefore independent of the radio waves themselves. Finally, a designed object or event, regardless of its complexity or specificity, cannot be the outcome of a deterministic natural law.

ID proponents argue that certain biological systems exhibit specified complexity and therefore must have been intentionally designed. But is specified complexity a reliable indicator of design? The validity of Dembski’s approach is questionable at best. Flaws in his argument have been pointed out previously (see for example, Orr 1996, 2002; Miller 1999, 2003; Schneider 2001a; Van Till 2002). But perhaps the best way to evaluate ID’s claim is to consider the application of their criteria to a specific example.

The bacterial flagellum: ID’s test case

Dembski (2000) says, “Design theorists are not saying that for a given natural object exhibiting specified complexity, all the natural causal mechanisms so far considered have failed to account for it and therefore it had to be designed. Rather they are saying that the specified complexity exhibited by a natural object can be such that there are compelling reasons to think that no natural causal mechanism is capable of producing it.” ID advocates have presented the bacterial flagellum as a biological structure that is clearly the result of design. Dembski’s application of his own complexity-specification criterion in the case of the bacterial flagellum, however, fails to demonstrate that the flagellum is either complex or specified (Van Till 2002).

Dembski’s calculation of the probability for the origin of the flagellum treats the flagellum as a discrete combinatorial object that self-assembled by pure chance. In other words, all the proteins spontaneously formed by the chance coming together of amino acids in the correct order, then the chance assembling of those proteins in the correct arrangements. This is not an evolutionary scenario ever postulated by biologists (Miller 2003; Van Till 2002). Evolutionists envision a far different scenario. Proteins are not built or assembled with the intent to construct a flagellar system. Protein variants appear through time, forming new interactions and taking on new functions. Protein assemblies that contribute to the reproductive success of the organism are maintained and shaped by natural selection.

Although Dembski (2002a: 19) stated that, in calculating the probability of an event, it is necessary to take into account all the relevant ways an event might occur, he himself failed to do so. By calculating only the probability that the flagellum arose by sheer chance, Dembski cannot justify his claim that the flagellum is a product of design (Van Till 2002). Dembski (2003) responded to such criticisms by stating that it was not his intention to “calculate every conceivable probability connected with the stochastic formation of the flagellum ... My point, rather, was to sketch out some probabilistic techniques that could then be applied by biologists to the stochastic formation of the flagellum.” Dembski then challenged his critics to calculate their own probabilities using whatever scenario they wish.

The bacterial flagellum is indeed a discrete combinatorial object, and the self-assembly that I describe is the one we are left with and can compute on the basis of what we know. The only reason biologists would refuse to countenance my description and probabilistic calculations of self-assembly is because they show that only an indirect Darwinian pathway could have produced the bacterial flagellum. But precisely because it is indirect, there is, at least for now, no causal specificity and no probability to be calculated. (Dembski 2002c)

There will always be a level of uncertainty in elucidating an evolutionary pathway for the origin of a flagellum or any other biological system. Dembski hides behind this uncertainty, content to continue using a pure chance model regardless of the fact that it bears no relationship whatsoever to our understanding of evolutionary processes.


ID proponents claim that biologists are engaged in a program of inquiry, which is doomed to fail. According to ID proponents, a naturalistic explanation for the origin of genetic information and complex biological organization is not possible. The ID proponents assert that they have developed rigorous criteria by which design in nature can be detected, but they have yet to demonstrate the validity of their criteria. Furthermore, ID proponents fail to engage fully the naturalistic scenarios of evolutionists to explain the origins of biological complexity.

Certainly much remains to be learned about the evolution of complexity, but there is every reason to believe it happened by natural processes. Consider for example the following case. In 1966, Kwang Jeon observed that his cultures of amoebae were dying as a result of a bacterial infection (Jeon 1991). The bacteria had apparently escaped digestion in a food vacuole and were reproducing within the amoebae. Over a period of time, some of the cultures began to recover. Bacteria were still present in the surviving amoeba, though at a much reduced level. Jeon was able to show that the bacteria had become dependent upon their host cell and the host cell was dependent upon the bacteria. Additional work demonstrated that genetic information lost from the bacterium and amoeba genomes had led to their obligate relationship. A mutually obligate endosymbiosis was established, creating what is essentially a new cell organelle. Two component systems became associated, mutated, and are now irreducibly linked to one another. Perhaps ID proponents will argue that the complexity is not sufficient to have required the action of an intelligent agent, but the point here is that undirected natural causes are all that are needed to explain an observed increase in complexity and generation of an irreducible system.

Biologists have advanced plausible naturalistic scenarios for the origins of biological complexity. These scenarios are based upon an understanding of established natural processes. To dismiss them as merely conceivable stories is unwarranted. To demand a detailed chain of causality for evolutionary scenarios is unrealistic. To insist that design has been detected in the bacterial flagellum by calculating the probability of its assembling by pure chance is simply wrong.




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About the Author(s): 

Finn Pond
Biology Department
Whitworth College
300 W Hawthorne Rd
Spokane WA 99251