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Just Check the ID

By Sally Jenkins
Monday, August 29, 2005

Athletes do things that seem transcendental -- and they can also do things that are transcendentally stupid. They choke, trip and dope. Nevertheless, they possess a deep physical knowledge the rest of us can learn from, bound as we are by our ordinary, trudging, cumbersome selves. Ever get the feeling that they are in touch with something that we aren't? What is that thing? Could it be their random, mutant talent, or could it be evidence of, gulp, intelligent design?

The sports section would not seem to be a place to discuss intelligent design, the notion that nature shows signs of an intrinsic intelligence too highly organized to be solely the product of evolution. It's an odd intersection, admittedly. You might ask, what's so intelligently designed about ballplayers (or sportswriters)? Jose Canseco once let a baseball hit him in the head and bounce over the fence for a home run. Former Washington Redskins quarterback Gus Frerotte gave himself a concussion by running helmet-first into a wall in a fit of exuberance. But athletes also are explorers of the boundaries of physiology and neuroscience, and some intelligent design proponents therefore suggest they can be walking human laboratories for their theories.

First, let's get rid of the idea that ID (intelligent design) is a form of sly creationism. It isn't. ID is unfairly confused with the movement to teach creationism in public schools. The most serious ID proponents are complexity theorists, legitimate scientists among them, who believe that strict Darwinism and especially neo-Darwinism (the notion that all of our qualities are the product of random mutation) is inadequate to explain the high level of organization at work in the world. Creationists are attracted to ID, and one of its founding fathers, University of California law professor Phillip Johnson, is a devout Presbyterian. But you don't have to be a creationist to think there might be something to it, or to agree with Johnson when he says, "The human body is packed with marvels, eyes and lungs and cells, and evolutionary gradualism can't account for that."

The idea, so contentious in other contexts, actually rings a loud bell in sports. Athletes often talk of feeling an absolute fulfillment of purpose, of something powerful moving through them or in them that is not just the result of training. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a neuroscientist and research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, is a believer in ID, or as he prefers to call it, "intrinsic intelligence." Schwartz wants to launch a study of NASCAR drivers, to better understand their extraordinary focus. He finds Darwinism, as it applies to a high-performance athlete such as Tony Stewart, to be problematic. To claim that Stewart's mental state as he handles a high-speed car "is a result of nothing more than random processes coming together in a machine-like way is not a coherent explanation," Schwartz said.

Instead, Schwartz theorizes that when a great athlete focuses, he or she may be "making a connection with something deep within nature itself, which lends itself to deepening our intelligence." It's fascinating thought. And Schwartz would like to prove it's scientifically justifiable.

Steve Stenstrom, who played quarterback for the Bears and 49ers, works as a religious-life adviser to athletes at Stanford, where he organized a controversial forum on intelligent design last May. "I don't think it's a reach at all," he said. "Talk to any athlete, and if they really are honest, they realize that while they have worked and trained, and put a lot of effort into being great, they started with some raw material that was advantageous to them, and that it was meant to work a certain way. We all recognize that we have a certain design element."

A strict Darwinist would suggest this is an illusion and point out that there are obvious flaws in the body. Peter Weyand, a researcher in kinesiology and biomechanics at Rice University, observes, "Humans in the realm of the animal kingdom aren't terribly athletic."

Racehorses are much faster, and, for that matter, so are hummingbirds. We seem to have a basic quest to go higher, farther, faster -- one of our distinguishing features is that we push our limits for a reason other than survival, and construct artificial scales of achievement -- but we have some built-in debilities. Human muscle can only get so strong, it will only produce as much force as it has area, about 3.5 kilograms of weight per square centimeter. "We're endowed with what we have by virtue of evolution, and it's not like engineering where we can pick materials and throw out what doesn't work," Weyand said.

Our bodies break down a lot. If we were designed more intelligently, presumably we wouldn't have osteoporosis or broken hips when we get old. Some evolutionists suppose that the process through which people evolved from four-legged creatures to two, has had negative orthopedic consequences.

We are flawed cardiovascularly. Horses carry much more oxygen in their blood, and have a storage system for red blood cells in their spleens, a natural system of blood doping. Humans don't. Also, while a lot of aerobics can make our hearts bigger, our lungs are unique. They don't adapt to training. They're fixed. We're stuck with them, and can only envy the antelopes.

None of which satisfies Schwartz, or Stenstrom. "I don't think we can attach athletic design to 'better' design," Stenstrom said. ". . . Some people are designed with an ear for music, others with a capacity to think deep thoughts about the world."

Schwarz finds little or nothing in natural selection to explain the ability of athletes to reinterpret physical events from moment to moment, the super-awareness that they seem to possess. He has a term for it, the ability to be an "impartial spectator" to your own actions. "The capacity to stand outside yourself and be aware of where you are," he said. "Deep within the complexities of molecular organization lies an intrinsic intelligence that accounts for that deep organization, and is something that we can connect with through the willful focus of our minds," he theorizes.

Crackpot speculation? Maybe -- maybe not. ID certainly lacks a body of scientific data, and opponents are right to argue that the idea isn't developed enough to be taught as equivalent to evolution. But Darwin himself admitted he didn't know everything about everything. "When I see a tail feather on a peacock, it makes me sick," he once said, before he understood it was for mating. And try telling a baseball fan that pure Darwinism explains Joe DiMaggio. As Tommy Lasorda once said, "If you said to God, 'Create someone who was what a baseball player should be,' God would have created Joe DiMaggio -- and he did."

None of this is to say that we shouldn't be wary of the uses for which ID might be hijacked. In the last year, numerous states have experienced some sort of anti-evolution movement. That makes it all the more important for the layman to distinguish the various gradations between evolutionists, serious scientists who are interested in ID, "neo-Creos," and Biblical literalists. One of the things we learn in a grade school science class is a concrete way of thinking, a sound, systematic way of exploring the natural world.

But science class also teaches us how crucial it is to maintain adventurousness, and surely it's worthwhile to suggest that an athlete in motion conveys an inkling of something marvelous in nature that perhaps isn't explained by mere molecules. Johann Kepler was the first to accurately plot the laws of planetary motion. But he only got there because he believed that their movements, if translated musically, would result in a celestial harmony. He also believed in astrology. And then there was Albert Einstein, who remarked that "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." Historically, scientific theorists are sandlot athletes, drawing up plays in the dirt.

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