Skip to main content

Features

2009 Daniel of the Year

Stephen C. Meyer

2009 Daniel of the Year

WORLD's 12th annual Daniel of the Year does not save lives abroad, as Britain's Caroline Cox and Sudan's Michael Yerko do. Nor does he regularly save lives of the unborn, as Florida's Wanda Cohn does through her pregnancy center work. No, Stephen C. Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, fights to show that those lives have eternal value because they are the work of a Creator and not the product of chance.

This fall Meyer came out with a full account of what science has learned in recent decades: Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (Harper One, 2009) shows that the cell is incredibly complex and the code that directs its functions wonderfully designed. His argument undercuts macroevolution, the theory that one kind of animal over time evolves into a very different kind. Meyer thus garners media scorn for raining on this year's huge celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin 200 years ago and the publication of On the Origin of Species 150 years ago.

Meyer's Seattle-area office is filled with books and papers, drawings of the interior of plants, and trilobite fossils-obviously evolved, a Darwinist would say. Hanging from the ceiling is an obviously created mobile that displays sets of eyes along with pictures of people from many cultures. That mobile, made by Meyer's teenage daughter, reminds him of the passage from 2 Chronicles 16 that notes how "the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward Him." Those with biblical faith in God see both fossils and the mobile as works of intelligence.

From his office Meyer has ventured forth to debate at least nine prominent Darwinians on CNN, NPR, FOX, the BBC, and other venues. In it he has written numerous newspaper and magazine columns in defense of Intelligent Design (ID), as well as an academic article that became notorious five years ago when Richard Sternberg, a Smithsonian-affiliated scientist, agreed to publish it in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Darwinian higher-ups demoted Sternberg for allowing the other side to have its say. They interrogated him about religious and political beliefs.

ID proponents regularly receive that type of harassment: No lion's den, but denials of tenure and media depiction as anti-science. Ironically, scientific advance is now backing ID, which starts with the idea that-in Meyer's words-"certain technical features in a physical system reveal the activity of an intelligence or a mind. A simple example might be Mount Rushmore: You drive into the Dakotas and you see carvings of the presidents' faces up on the mountainside, and you immediately recognize that you're dealing with a sculpture, an intelligence, rather than an undirected process like wind and erosion."

Our new ability to peer into cells also shows ID: Meyer says, "We don't see little faces but we do see other indicators of intelligent activity, such as the digital code that's stored in a DNA molecule, or the tiny little miniature machines, the nanotechnology, the sliding clamps and turbines and rotary engines that biologists are now finding inside living cells." Darwin did not know any of that and Meyer, 51, did not always know it. His career shows the four-stage pattern that is common among intellectual Daniels: Questioning, discernment, courage, and perseverance.

Meyer's questioning stage came in the 1970s and 1980s. He grew up nominally Catholic-he, his wife, and their three children now attend Covenant Presbyterian in the Seattle area-and as a teenager "had a long and tortuous conversion experience. I was constantly asking myself questions and over-thinking things. In my junior year in high school I vowed that I would not think about Christianity for two whole weeks and I broke the vow within a day. I probably was already a Christian but I had so many questions and I wasn't sure."

At Whitworth College in Spokane, Professor Norman Krebs introduced Meyer to books by Francis Schaeffer that helped him answer theological questions and also led him to a philosophy of science: "I was very taken with Schaeffer's argument from epistemology that the foundation of the scientific enterprise itself rested on certain assumptions that only made sense within a theistic worldview, in particular, assumptions about the reliability of the human mind."

Meyer after graduation kept thinking about "the big questions" and "was first inclined to accept the evolutionary explanation of things mainly because all of my college science professors did." While working as a geophysicist in Texas, he dropped in on a conference concerning the origin of the universe and of life: "Nearly all the panelists acknowledged that there was no materialistic, evolutionary explanation for the origin of the first life . . . the veneer of objectivity in the discussion broke down and some of the scientists started scolding and lecturing this other scientist about his giving up on science. . . . It got really personal and kind of ugly."

Non-questioning minds would have steered clear of what looked like trouble. Meyer's reaction: "I want to know more about this debate"-so he accepted a fellowship that allowed him to study at the 800-year-old University of Cambridge, which includes among its alumni Isaac Newton, Darwin himself, and 85 Nobel Prize winners.

The question that occupied Meyer at Cambridge was, "Could this intuition of a connection between information and intelligence be developed into a rigorous scientific argument?" He "began to study the scientists who had developed a scientific method for studying biological origins. That led me, obviously, to Darwin, and from Darwin to his mentor, the famous 19th-century geologist Charles Lyell, who had pioneered the method of studying events and causes in the remote past. . . . Lyell had a way of distilling this principle of reasoning: He said we should be looking for presently acting causes, or as he put it, 'causes now in operation.'"

Meyer recalls the beginning of his discernment stage: "When I saw that phrase, 'causes now in operation,' the light went on, because I thought, 'What is the cause now in operation that's responsible for the creation of digital code, of alphabetical information in a digital form?' There's only one: intelligence. So I realized that by using Darwin and Lyell's principle of reasoning, you could make a compelling scientific case for Intelligent Design." That type of evidence assessment is different from the standard scientific method emphasis on laboratory analysis and experimentation, but it's what historians use in looking at singular past events and inferring their causes from evidence left behind.

When Meyer completed his dissertation, "Of Clues and Causes: A Methodological Interpretation of Origin of Life Studies," the University of Cambridge in 1991 awarded him its prestigious Ph.D. Meyer, having proceeded through questioning and discernment stages, had to decide whether to enter the courage stage. Everyone knows that microevolution-change within species-occurs, but the critical issue is whether the descendants of dinosaurs become birds through natural selection. Denying macroevolution leaves scientists unprotected even at some Christian colleges.

Meyer says, "You ask how someone gets the moxie to take something like this on. Part of the answer is that I didn't know any better when I was young. I was just so seized with this idea and these questions: 'Was it possible to develop a scientific case? Were we looking at evidence that could revive and resuscitate the classical argument from design, which had been understood from the time of Hume and certainly the time of Darwin to be defunct?' If that was the case, that's a major scientific revolution."

Courage becomes a determinant once we count the cost and see that it's great. Meyer's first inkling came when "talking about my ideas to people at Cambridge High Table settings, and getting that sudden social pall." But the cost was and is more than conversational ease: San Francisco State University in 1992 expelled a professor, Dean Kenyon, who espoused ID, and other job losses have come since. Meyer and other ID proponents saw "that this would be very controversial. One of the things that emboldened all of us who were in the early days of this movement was meeting each other. In 1993 we had a little private conference [with] 10 or 12 very sharp, mostly younger scientists going through top-of-the-world programs in their respective fields who were all skeptical. I think the congealing of this group gave everyone the sense that this was going to be an exciting adventure: Let's rumble."

Meyer taught from 1990 to 2002 at his alma mater, Whitworth. Then he and his family moved to Seattle and full-time work at the Center for Science and Culture, which he had planted in 1996 following "an electric conversation" with famed free market economics writer George Gilder, a Discovery Institute leader. Gilder understands that the creative ingenuity of the human mind, and not material stuff by itself, leads to wealth creation. Similarly, biological functions arise from information in DNA, which points to a designing mind. Our computer age knowledge of the role of information technology helps us to grasp what Darwin did not: That matter does not matter unless someone or Someone precisely arranges it.

Many who enter the courage stage at first think that the war in which they find themselves will end in a few years. There comes a time in many lives, though, when a hard realization sinks in: It will not be over in my lifetime. That's when some give in while others proceed to the perseverance stage. That's where Meyer is: Signature in the Cell ends with a long list of testable predictions concerning the direction of science over the next several decades. Meyer predicts that further study will reveal the importance of "junk DNA" and the reasons for what seem to be "poorly designed" structures: They will reveal either a hidden functional logic or evidence of decay from originally good designs.

Life for ID Daniels may even grow harder as some Darwinists realize that time is not on their side. As ultrasound machines have undercut abortion, so information revolutions have led more scientists to embrace ID. As Meyer says, "When we encounter a computer program we can always trace it back to a computer programmer. . . . So the discovery of information in DNA points decisively back to an intelligent cause, to a mind, not a material process."

That discovery undermines the current Darwinian empire, which is and will be striking back. Meyer's wife Elaine occasionally asks him, "Is it too late for us to still be farmers?" It looks that way: Meyer is way past the point of no return for a placid academic life. And today's Daniels hang in there, as their predecessor two-and-a-half millennia ago did.
To read Daniel of the Year profiles from previous years, click here.

Going against the stereotype

This year atheistic biologist Richard Dawkins refused my offer to schedule a debate in New York between Meyer and himself: Dawkins, who says that Darwinism makes for "intellectually fulfilled atheism," apparently does not want to lose his sense of fulfillment. But theistic evolutionist Francis Collins also attacks ID and is unwilling to enter into a public discussion with Meyer.

Some thoughtful evangelical professors believe the Bible allows for one kind of creature to become another by chance over time. Others compartmentalize: To use Francis Schaeffer's parlance, they put God in the "upper story" for devotional visits but macroevolution in the lower story where it rules their daily work. Some Christians in academia sat at the feet of materialist professors and have never transcended their graduate school training. Some evangelical professors have enough status anxiety already without suffering further indignity by being called anti-scientific.

Socrates in the City, the Christian gathering in Manhattan hosted by Eric Metaxas (see "Mission to Metropolis," Feb. 14), has witnessed attacks on ID by Collins and, last month, by Harvard professor emeritus Owen Gingerich, author of God's Universe (2006). Gingerich noted that today "even high school students study a great deal more about genetics than Darwin ever knew." He said he supports "lower case intelligent design" but opposes ID: He acknowledged that God created the universe but said such a consideration has no place in scientific discourse.

Gingerich takes that position because he defines science as "methodological naturalism": Anything supernatural cannot be part of science, so by definition ID has no place in scientific journals. I asked him why science should be equated only with naturalism: Why can't science be an attempt to find the most likely reasons why reality is as it is? In writing history books I haven't pretended to know exactly why certain events happened, but I've reported likely causes. In looking at the history of the development of life, can't we also assess likelihoods?

Gingerich is not willing to go that far, but Meyer is. He notes the importance of "generating a list of possible hypotheses" and then "progressively eliminating potential but inadequate explanations." In Signature in the Cell Meyer notes "the inability of genetic algorithms, ribozyme engineering, and prebiotic simulations to generate information without intelligence." Since the possibility of undirected materialistic causes producing life in its profusion is virtually nil, and since "conscious, rational intelligent agency . . . now stands as the only cause known to be capable of generating large amounts of specified information starting from a nonliving state," ID is by far the most plausible explanation.

Can science accept the concept of an intelligence beyond nature directing nature? If not, should the definition of science change?

Going against the party line

The existence of David Berlinski is a problem for Darwinists who attempt to stigmatize critics by labeling all of them as religious creationists. The 67-year-old secular Jew and agnostic was born to Jewish-German refugees from Nazi Germany who fled to New York City. As a child he experimentally stuck a fork in an electric outlet. He has since shocked students through his teaching at Stanford, Rutgers, and at least eight other colleges and universities. He received his Ph.D. at Princeton University and has written curmudgeonly books such as The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions and Deniable Darwin and Other Essays.

Berlinski, proceeding from a scientific rather than a Christian viewpoint, sees "big holes in Darwinism. It's inadequate as a theory, and I feel very sympathetic, very warm, towards Intelligent Design." He also sympathizes with ID Daniels: "The academic world does not reward any kind of dissent . . . if you dissent from Darwin in any way, the suspicion immediately arises that you're going to be handling snakes next. The hostility toward the American evangelical community in particular and the Christian community in general (the Jewish community plays almost no role in this) is very powerful."

Perhaps because he cannot be typed as "some sort of religious nitwit," secular critics of Darwin sometimes confide in Berlinski: "There is a lot of dissent out there that is unexpressed. When I talk to mathematicians they say, 'We knew this stuff all along but we're not going to open our mouths.' When I talk to biologists, some of the good ones say very candidly, 'Darwin? That's just the party line.'"

Concerning Stephen Meyer's view that Darwin's theory will lose support as we gain more scientific knowledge, Berlinski says, "I think he's completely right. Either the gaps in Darwin's theory will shrink or they will expand, and I think the second is much more likely both in biology and physics." He adds, "We have to maintain a completely open mind, and I see no reason that the insights of Christian theology, Jewish theology, and Islamic theology should be ruled out of court at the very beginning because they're incompatible with a certain idea of what science is really about."

Flossing a lion

Richard Dawkins is suggesting that students rip out part of the latest edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species-the Christian introduction challenging Darwin's theories.

Frustrated that students are getting a "lopsided view of their origins," author and evangelist Ray Comfort realized that On the Origin of Species was in the public domain, which meant he could publish his own edition with his own introduction and distribute it across college and university campuses. He wrote a 54-page introduction challenging Darwin's views and with the help of evangelism organization Living Waters, recruited 1,200 volunteers to distribute 170,000 books at 100 universities.

The introduction starts with Darwin's biography and goes on to talk about the evidence against evolution: DNA as a sophisticated language that could not evolve by chance, the lack of transitional fossil forms, and the "irreducible complexity" of the human body. Comfort also argues that Darwin held racist and sexist views, and he traces Hitler's racism back to Darwin.

Because of Dawkins' suggestion and other talk of book burnings and protests, Living Waters decided to move up the date of distribution-from publicly announced Nov. 19 to Nov. 18. Comfort said a UCLA student protester told him, "You're not supposed to be here today. We're not ready."

Tristan Miller, the president of Bruin Alliance of Skeptics and Secularists at UCLA, said his group planned to hand out counter-fliers, pro-evolution materials, and free T-shirts. As for book burnings, "We would never do anything of the sort," he said. From Miller's perspective, the event was more about evangelism than science.

Comfort doesn't hide his evangelistic purpose, especially since the end of the introduction includes the gospel story and an invitation to accept Christianity. His goal is not only to turn people from evolution but also to bring them to Christianity, he said.

Living Waters will continue to print and distribute its edition across college campuses, but the when and where is secret, Comfort said: "Atheists will be trying to find out what universities we're going to visit and when we're going to visit them, but they have more chance of flossing the teeth of a lion at the L.A. zoo at feeding time than they have of getting that information."

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.