Eden and Evolution

"There really is not a lot of evidence for evolution," says biology professor Caroline Crocker, who supports the theory of intelligent design. (D.A. Peterson )

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By Shankar Vedantam
Sunday, February 5, 2006

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid . . .

-- Isaiah 11:6

What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature.

-- Charles Darwin

Ricky Nguyen and Mariama Lowe never really believed in evolution to begin with. But as they took their seats in Room CC-121 at Northern Virginia Community College on November 2, they fully expected to hear what students usually hear in any Biology 101 class: that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was true.

As professor Caroline Crocker took the lectern, Nguyen sat in the back of the class of 60 students, Lowe in the front. Crocker, who wore a light brown sweater and slacks, flashed a slide showing a cartoon of a cheerful monkey eating a banana. An arrow led from the monkey to a photograph of an exceptionally unattractive man sitting in his underwear on a couch. Above the arrow was a question mark.

Crocker was about to establish a small beachhead for an insurgency that ultimately aims to topple Darwin's view that humans and apes are distant cousins. The lecture she was to deliver had caused her to lose a job at a previous university, she told me earlier, and she was taking a risk by delivering it again. As a nontenured professor, she had little institutional protection. But this highly trained biologist wanted students to know what she herself deeply believed: that the scientific establishment was perpetrating fraud, hunting down critics of evolution to ruin them and disguising an atheistic view of life in the garb of science.

It took a while for Nguyen, Lowe and the other students to realize what they were hearing. Some took notes; others doodled distractedly. Crocker brought up a new slide. She told the students there were two kinds of evolution: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution is easily seen in any microbiology lab. Grow bacteria in a petri dish; destroy half with penicillin; and allow the remainder to repopulate the dish. The new generation of bacteria, descendants of survivors, will better withstand the drug the next time. That's because they are likely to have the chance mutations that allow some bacteria to defend themselves against penicillin. Over multiple cycles, increasingly resistant strains can become impervious to the drug, and the mutations can become standard issue throughout the bacterial population. A new, resistant strain of bacteria would have evolved. While such small changes are well established, Crocker said, they are quite different from macroevolution. No one has ever seen a dog turn into a cat in a laboratory.

The students leaned forward. They were starting to realize that this was unconventional material for a biology class. Many scientists, Crocker added, believe that complex life reveals the hand of an intelligent designer. The theory of intelligent design holds that while the evolutionary forces of random genetic mutation and natural selection may shape species on a small scale, they cannot account for the kind of large-scale differences between, say, chimpanzees and humans. Only some form of intelligence -- most people read that phrase as "God" -- could have accounted for the origin of life from nonliving matter, or the existence of complex structures within cells and organisms that rely on many parts functioning together. While many advocates of the theory of intelligent design, including Crocker, are religious, some are not. What unites these advocates is not religion but the belief that supernatural forces are active in everyday life. Science, they say, fails to see the true nature of the world when it refuses to admit anything other than material evidence. Crocker believes that biological systems cannot grow more complex on their own any more than a novel, through chance typographical errors, can turn into a different book, with a different story. How could anyone think that new books get written because of typos in old books?

Ripples of excitement spread through the class. Crocker took the students on a tour of experiments that she said were supposed to prove evolution. In the 1950s, she said, scientists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey ran electricity through a soup of chemicals to show how chemicals on the early Earth could assemble themselves into the building blocks of life.

"Anyone read about it?" she asked.

"It's in our book," a student said.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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