Stephen Meyer and Creation Week

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Stephen Meyer and Creation Week
Dean Jacobson, Assistant Professor of Biology, Whitworth College
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Setting the Stage

Soon after coming to religiously-affiliated Whitworth College to teach microbiology and join an evolution-friendly biology department, I learned that we had a highly vocal creationist among us - a philosophy professor named Stephen Meyer. I had not previously encountered a creationist colleague, and since I do not delight nor excel in verbal skirmishes, I did not relish the prospect of dealing with this Meyer.

During my first 5 years at Whitworth I had only one meeting with Meyer - a chance encounter in the Science building stairwell that stretched to 45 frustrating minutes. I remember his describing Archaeopteryx as a "mere mosaic", definitely not a transitional form, and making the "no new phyla after the Cambrian explosion" argument. I was surprised that he was unfamiliar with the term neoteny and most of the molecular points I made. I was later re-united with his arguments by reading the creationist high school text Of Pandas and People. Meyer and I have since remained cordial, if distant, until "our" (or more accurately "his") recent Creation Week.

Creation Week: The Proposal

Creation Week grew out of a proposal by Meyer to schedule one or two fora (all-campus student assemblies) involving two off-campus speakers, one on Monday and the other on Friday; Meyer would select one speaker and the Biology Department the other. Meyer chose University of California law professor Phillip Johnson, author of several anti-evolution books. The Biology Department chose Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, who had successfully debated Johnson on William F Buckley's Firing Line program. Months later, the week before Creation Week, we had the unpleasant surprise of learning that, in addition to Johnson, Meyer had scheduled (without our knowledge) 4 other "intelligent design" (ID) speakers resulting in 8 events featuring creationists, and only 2 with evolutionists. Further, the brochure titled the event "Detecting Design in Creation". Consequently, members of the Biology Department were furious both because we had not been consulted about these four additional creationist presenters and because we were concerned that students and others would conclude that this bias reflected an official institutional position.

On to Creation Week!

Johnson's lecture began Creation Week on November 16, 1998. Johnson apparently predicted the nature of his audience well; most students seemed to respond enthusiastically to his energetic, engaging delivery and swallowed his bogus strawmen without hesitation (a student told me later that he still resented the way evolution had been taught in high school, a complaint that must have some validity). Some, my students among them, resented Johnson's distortions and oversimplifications.

Johnson preached a view of science as a struggle between two opposing sides - one having the freedom to follow the evidence wherever it leads, the other being blinded by a naturalistic world view which excludes the possibility of God. He characterized all Christian Darwinists as hopelessly indoctrinated into an extreme version of materialism. He says they are enslaved by a Darwinian power structure which smites dissidents with loss of funding and reputation, and they are thus unable to think objectively!

Although feeling a bit nauseated at this point, I continued to take notes. Johnson built a strawman version of neodarwinism, characterizing it as merely a deduction based on materialistic assumptions with no need of evidence beyond what is necessary to persuade (naive) students. To underline his contention that there exists no middle ground between a (his) proper Christian rejection of evolution and an atheistic acceptance of it, he compared the mindless forces of natural selection to John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word", not, "In the beginning were the particles, and then you get human beings" (this got a big laugh).

After stating that "anyone can learn enough to make up their minds about evolution in a few days", Johnson nonetheless demurred "I can't run through too much evidence, there is not enough time, and I don't want to bore you". His one example without which evolution utterly collapses was the "peppered moth story". Big deal, he said, no new structures or increased diversity is involved. Further, Johnson charged that the data were fraudulent, the whole thing is a hoax, based on a report in a recent (uncited) issue of Nature: "The moths don't even sit on tree trunks; they were put there by scientists!"

By this time, I was thinking that if this was the best Meyer could come up with, the ID movement was in real trouble. Perhaps I was witnessing a Darwinian principle: Johnson did not have to be "perfect", he just had to be "good enough" (to fool his naive audiences). Johnson ended his talk with two opinions: "Scientists know deep down they can't win" and "It ain't the things you don't know that will hurt you; it's the things you do know that ain't so." In a presentation later in the week, he urged his audience "not to be deceived" by what Miller would tell them. Afterwards, an emeritus Whitworth biology professor told me that he was appalled by such unabashed ideological merchandizing, feeling it was a singular disservice to our students.

During the week Meyer and Johnson breakfasted with the Deans of Whitworth College and neighboring Gonzaga University (where Johnson also spoke) and made a pitch for the hiring of ID faculty in biology departments. These colonizers would in effect be "wedges", in a good position to influence subsequent recruitment of like-minded biologists. While I can imagine the frustration experienced by these IDers at their failure to be taken seriously by the scientific community, they seem to be overlooking the way science works: the theory with the greatest explanatory power and which provides the most fruitful research strategy is (provisionally) accepted. The shortcomings of ID theory are substantial, and it hasn't yet earned a place in academia. To "wedge" ID into the universities before it has earned a place is not only premature, it's cocky.

The next day Scott Minnick from the University of Idaho in Moscow gave a science seminar (with 5-10 times the normal audience size, dominated by first-timer, off-campus folk). In a polished, well-illustrated presentation, Minnick described the structure, assembly and genetic control of the bacterial flagellum. Minnick's presentation was as detailed and comprehensive as seminars I have attended at MIT. However, he stressed trivial details, such as the high rotation rate of the flagellum, failing to mention that such high rates are not so extraordinary given the small scale of the structure, and was rewarded by ooh and ahs; one person even asked him, awestruck, to repeat the 30 000 rpm figure. (I suspect the fact that a bacterium stops in the space of an angstrom would have seemed equally impressive to this audience.) He concluded his straightforward lecture by saying simply "this is too complex and intricate to have resulted from natural processes".

When I asked Minnick why he failed to mention the similar spinning mechanism of the enzyme Aptness, he had no answer. He also failed to see the relevance of the structural similarity and apparent homology of a bacterial cell division protein (FtsZ, which links up into rings) and a eukaryotic cell division protein (tubulin, which also links up into rings, sheets and tubules). However, earlier I had been able to force Meyer to concede that this example offers an instance of a protein developing a novel function, since tubulin is involved in many other activities besides cell division.

Immediately after this seminar, the two sides (Johnson, Meyer and Minnick vs the Biology Department 4 plus Dean Howard Stein) sat down to chat over coffee and brownies. After 2 hours of talking past each other, the only point of agreement we reached concerned the details of how a design-oriented science "freed from the chains of naturalistic blinders" would improve its productivity. After repeatedly being asked the question, Minnick finally admitted that his own scientific strategy would be the same regardless of his taking a Darwinian or anti-Darwinian perspective. Johnson and Meyer also made a guest appearance in an evening science and society "Core" course (a required non-major course), an event that again brought in twice as many off-campus visitors as students.

Finally, Friday brought evolutionist Kenneth Miller to the podium; he presented a whirlwind slide-illustrated talk that touched on 4 basic questions: "Has life remained constant? If not, how has life changed? How long have humans been on earth?" And, "Can you approach such questions by science?"

Miller described 2 ways that creationists attack evolution: First, some say that it's all wrong (the ICR approach). In dealing with the concepts of "young earth" and "flood geology" Miller used some clever tactics, 3 of which I will describe. First, the complete list of radioactive nuclides was examined, revealing that only those elements with a half life of less than 80 million years are present on earth, implying an age much older than 6000 years. Second, given that a young earth explanation for earth's huge sedimentary rock deposits is a global flood that sorted dead animals according to their sinking rates (that is, according to Morris of the ICR, spherical, streamlined objects such as sea urchins sink to the deeper strata), how does one explain the fact that sea urchin fossils are most abundant in the most shallow strata? (After all, sea urchins are not known for their ability to run to higher ground.) Finally, Miller proposed that large Jurassic coprolites (fossilized dinosaur dung) provide a potentially useful test of young earth assumptions, since these assumptions would imply that the remains of "modern" looking mammals such as rabbits might be embedded within the coprolites.

Miller then suggested that the second creationist approach is to turn the tables and describe Darwinian evolution itself as a creation myth and pronounce it to be scientifically invalid, having a flawed methodology and a materialistic bias. This is Phillip Johnson's strategy. Miller challenged the notion that all "types" of creatures were independently created by documenting some striking transitional forms, including some freshwater Mekong River snails, the horse tree (noting that, lacking the context of the tree, the small browser that was once called Eohippus would not be recognized as a horse at all), and the famous rhipidistian lobe-fin fish/amphibian transition. Johnson had written that Darwin himself would have been disappointed if the soft body parts of an ancient amphibian could be examined. In fact, such a fossil has been found, revealing internal fish-like gills unlike those found in modern amphibians. Finally, Miller displayed a set of data showing the gradual, seamless increase in an unidentified organismal trait over time, then revealed the trait: cranial capacity from Australopithecines to species within the genus Homo.

In conclusion, after alluding to recent, cited studies that indicate the actual rate of beneficial mutations in bacteria is sometimes 107 times greater than would be needed to account for the general time course of fossil change, Miller stated his take on Richard Dawkins, the arch-enemy of creationists. Miller (like myself) greatly respects and enjoys Dawkins's thinking on evolution, but criticizes him for his second agenda, actually an extra-scientific conclusion: that the cosmos is necessarily a place of "blind pitiless indifference", devoid of God. According to Miller, Dawkins and the creationists both make the same mistake: they limit God (or the concept of a deity) to a being who must, to use the pool table allusion, hit each ball into the pocket, rather than one that can clear the table with one shot. In other words, to use Miller's phrase, "they think too little of God". Then Miller surprised many in the audience by revealing his Christian, Catholic faith, and his belief that God had enabled a process of evolution that ultimately resulted in an organism, endowed with free will and free choice, that could know and serve God.

The final event was "Homology in Biology: Common Descent or Uncommonly Designed?", a talk on molecular development by Jonathan Wells, who has PhDs in molecular biology and religion. He explored the expression of apparently homologous homeobox genes (master control genes that trigger the expression of many other genes during embryonic development), concluding that since the targets of such genes differ (a mouse gene controls brain formation while the equivalent fly gene influences the head) they cannot be used as evidence for common descent. As a parting shot, I asked him how he interpreted the interchangeable nature of two homeobox genes that control eye development: eyeless in fruit flies and pax-6 in mice. Wells, predictably, gave no ground; he saw no evidence of common descent in this admittedly remarkable experiment.

Despite my fear that students would be misled and confused by Johnson and the lopsided schedule of the week, it appeared that at least some students were offended by the skewed approach. The high point of the week was an informal Q and A session between Miller and an overflow classroom on Friday afternoon. The questions were respectful but bold and sincere; the answers were presented both eloquently and compassionately. Fortunately, Miller was able to describe the recent whale transitional discoveries (assisted, ironically, by an overhead transparency provided by a creationist speaker, since the room was too bright for Miller's whale slides) and elaborate on how he personally manages the perilous balance of faith and science. I could not have imagined a better, more effective person than Miller to represent evolution on the Whitworth campus; students responded with great appreciation of him, and at least he got the last word.

Still, Creation Week may have done more harm then good, in that it suggested to the local news media that Whitworth is a refuge for anti-evolutionary ideologues. Such a reputation, in my opinion, is not in consonance with the college motto: "An education of the heart and mind" and may ultimately cost the Biology Department its best recruitment prospects, be they students or staff.

Meyer has undoubtedly benefited personally from being perceived in the eyes of certain creationist patrons (including a benefactor of Whitworth College) as a leader who courageously spearheaded a confrontation with his Darwinian opponents. As a result the forum increased the visibility and credibility of the ID movement in the minds of some undecided students. This is in keeping with Meyer's directorship of the "Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture". CRSC is a part of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a right-wing think tank, and seeks the "overthrow of materialism" - that philosophy of "Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud" that "undermined personal responsibility", portrayed humans as "animals or machines", and "spawned a virulent strain of utopianism" and "coercive government programs" (). Clearly, Meyer's intelligent design agenda appears to be just a tip of a much larger iceberg.

About the Author(s): 
Dean M Jacobson
Assistant Professor of Biology
Whitworth College
Spokane WA 99251