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Eden and Evolution
Religious critics of evolution are wrong about its flaws. But are they right that it threatens belief in a loving God?

By Shankar Vedantam
Sunday, February 5, 2006; W08

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.

Crocker said that subsequent research had shown that chemicals used in the experiment did not exist on Earth 4 billion years ago. "The experiment is irrelevant, but you still find it in your books," she said.

She cited another experiment, involving researcher Bernard Kettlewell, who produced pictures of variously colored peppered moths on tree trunks to show that when the moths were not well camouflaged, they were more likely to be eaten by birds -- a process of natural selection that influenced the color of the moths. "This comes from your book -- it is not actually true," Crocker said. "The experiment was falsified. He glued his moths to the trees."

Gasps and giggles burst out. Why was the experiment still in the textbook? Crocker said the authors' answer was, "because it makes the point . . . The problem with evolution is that it is all supposition -- this evolved into this -- but there is no evidence."

The students sat stunned. But Crocker was not done. From this ill-conceived theory, she concluded, much harm had arisen. Nazi Germany had taken Darwin's ideas about natural selection, the credo that only the fittest survive, and followed it to its extreme conclusions -- anti-Semitism, eugenics and death camps. "What happened in Germany in World War II was based on science, that some genes and some people should be killed," Crocker said quietly. "My grandfather had a genetic problem and was put in the hospital and killed."

Nguyen was among the first students to speak. "With so many things disproving evolution and evolution having no proof, why is it still taught?" he asked.

"Right now, in our society, we have an underlying philosophy of naturalism, that there is a material explanation for everything," Crocker replied. "Evolution came with that philosophy."

Carolyn Flitcroft, a student in one of the front rows, said: "So far, we have only learned that evolution is true. This is the first time I have ever heard it isn't."

"I lost my job at George Mason University for teaching the problems with evolution," said Crocker, a charge that the university denies. "Lots of scientists question evolution, but they would lose their jobs if they spoke out."

As more students began to speak, many expressed what were clearly long-held doubts about evolution. Nguyen said later that Crocker had merely provided evidence for what he had always suspected.

When Lowe finally spoke, it seemed as if the lecture had lifted a load from her shoulders. "I believe in creationism, I believe in intelligent design," she declared to the class. Humans have souls, which make them different from other animals, she told me later. To believe in evolution meant that "after you are dead, you are done." Without the accountability of Judgment Day and Hell, why would people follow the Ten Commandments?

A woman in the back of the class raised her hand. Her voice shook with emotion. "If science is the pursuit of truth, why is evolution not questioned?"

"I've heard scientists say people won't understand, so they should be told only one side," Crocker replied.

There was a long moment of silence. Finally the student said, "Isn't that lying to the public?"

Crocker declined to answer the question, but someone else grimly observed, "Won't be the first time."

I went up to this last student after the class. She initially agreed to be identified, but moments later, remembering what Crocker had said about the scientific establishment's intolerance of dissent, she begged me not to publish her name. The fear on her face was palpable. She wanted to be a veterinarian and was convinced that dream would be smashed if powerful scientists learned she had dared to question evolution.

Before the class, Crocker had told me that she was going to teach "the strengths and weaknesses of evolution." Afterward, I asked her whether she was going to discuss the evidence for evolution in another class. She said no.

"There really is not a lot of evidence for evolution," Crocker said. Besides, she added, she saw her role as trying to balance the "ad nauseum" pro-evolution accounts that students had long been force-fed.

Late last fall, Crocker debated Alan Leshner, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The audience was a group of seventh-grade students at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Falls Church. Leshner will not debate opponents of evolution in person, and he will not debate them in a science class, because the science association believes that such events convey a false sense to the public that there really exists a scientific controversy over evolution. As a result, Leshner and Crocker spoke to a debating class on consecutive weeks.

The theory of evolution, Leshner announced to the students, was as firmly established as the theory of gravity. That didn't mean it couldn't be disproved, just that no one had ever done so -- or even raised any significant doubts. Leshner grabbed a set of papers and books. If the theory of gravitation still held true, it predicted with very high probability that the bundle would fall. He let go, and the papers and books landed with a thud.

"Whew!" he quipped. "That's a relief."

Evolutionary theory, Leshner explained, does the same thing. It explains and makes predictions about the living world that hold up. Even though Darwin's theory predated -- by a century -- the discovery of DNA and a scientific understanding of the role of genes in heredity, the more science learns, the more the living world looks exactly like what would be expected if evolution were true. All living things are built from the same genetic toolbox, and species that evolution predicts are closely related share more genetic material than those that evolution says are far apart. Humans and chimps, for example, share 96 percent of their DNA sequence. Intelligent design's argument that evolution cannot explain the origin of astoundingly complex biological systems such as the flagellum of bacteria -- the microscopic, whiplike propulsion system with multiple interdependent parts -- is indistinguishable, Leshner said, from the bland assertion that science has not explained everything. Unexplained, however, is not the same as unexplainable. When ID advocates see something unexplained, they point to the supernatural. But science, by definition, looks only for natural explanations, Leshner said.

"For all I know, there was an intelligent designer, but science can't answer the question," Leshner told the students.

Crocker's arguments are part of a familiar litany of half-truths and errors, said Alan Gishlick, a research affiliate at the National Center for Science Education. The Miller-Urey experiment was not intended to be evidence for evolution but part of a research program into how biological mechanisms might arise from nonbiological chemical reactions. As for gluing moths to trees, Gishlick said, researcher Kettlewell affixed the moths to trees to determine how birds spot moths of different hues. The photos were illustrations and never meant to be depictions of real life.

"They put us in a position that we have to defend things that don't need defending, and then they come back and say, Why are you defending things that we know are wrong?" Gishlick told me, his voice rising.

While critics of evolution point to gaps in the fossil record -- asking, for instance, why no fossils of intermediary species exist between land mammals and sea mammals -- new discoveries regularly fill those holes. By 1994, observed Brown University biologist Ken Miller, scientists unearthed fossils of animals near the Indian subcontinent that had front and hind limbs capable of walking on land and flippering through water.

Why have such examples failed to convince doubters? Over many months of interviews about intelligent design, I gradually came to realize that evolution's advocates and critics are mostly talking about different things. While the controversy over intelligent design is superficially about scientific facts, the real debate is more emotional. Evolution cuts to the heart of the belief that humans have a special place in creation. If all things in the living world exist solely because of evolutionary competition and natural selection, what room is left for the idea that humans are made in God's image or for any morality beyond the naked requirements of survival? Beneath all the complex arguments of intelligent design advocates, Georgetown theologian John Haught agreed, "there lies a deeply human and passionately religious concern about whether the universe resides in the bosom of a loving, caring God or is instead perched over an abyss of ultimate meaninglessness."

If intelligent design advocates have generally been blind to the overwhelming evidence for evolution, scientists have generally been deaf to concerns about evolution's implications.

At a news conference last year to mark the start of a trial in Dover, Pa., where parents had sued a school board for trying to introduce intelligent design into curricula, Leshner's science association and Gishlick's science education center repeatedly argued that evolution has no moral implications. They insisted that science and religion could coexist easily and pointed out that many scientists who accept evolution are religious.

Many religious conservatives believe the assertion that science and religion occupy separate, non-conflicting spheres is a smokescreen, a convenient way for religious liberals to brush conflict under the carpet. That may be why Leshner's diplomatic views are rarely mentioned by critics of evolution. And it is also why a 64-year-old biologist in England has come to occupy an outsize role in one of America's oldest culture wars. No matter the forum, location or theme, any debate about intelligent design or evolution will sooner or later invoke the name of Richard Dawkins.

"Anyone who chooses not to believe in evolution is ignorant, stupid or insane," said Dawkins, professor of public understanding of science at Oxford University.

Dawkins was sitting in his Victorian Gothic home in North Oxford. The house boasts high ceilings and beautiful views of the garden, and, from this sanctuary, Dawkins has penned some of the world's best-known prose in praise of Darwin's theory of evolution. Among religious people, Dawkins is known primarily not for his science but for his militant views on evolution's implications, especially as they pertain to religion in general and Christianity in particular. What beneficent creator, Darwin himself asked after his voyage of discovery to the Galapagos Islands in South America, would permit the sort of suffering so widespread in nature? "The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical," agreed the American philosopher David Hull, writing in the scientific journal Nature. "He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray."

Dawkins first shot to fame with his bestselling book, The Selfish Gene, published in 1975, which laid out the idea that animals -- humans included -- are essentially survival machines for genes. Individual animals die, and whole species may go extinct, but an unbroken genetic line connects every living thing on Earth. In the three decades since he wrote that book, Dawkins has seen his ideas become textbook orthodoxy, even as the notion of selfish genes has grown controversial among nonscientists. Even his wife, the biologist noted, once said, "Selfish genes are Frankensteins, and all life their monster."

It occurred to me as I listened to Dawkins that there is a parallel between the public's fear of selfish genes and the blockbuster science fiction movie "The Matrix," where highly sophisticated robots take over the world: Humans in the movie do not realize they are circumscribed by unseen rules and artificial parameters; they believe they are free, when in fact they are serving the robots. Genes, Dawkins asserted, behave much like these robots, with some differences. While the robots are malevolent and manipulative, genes lack conscious intention. The "selfishness" of genes is only a metaphor. Nor are genes purely deterministic. Behavior, especially at the level of humans, is complex, and leaves much room for learning and culture. Humans can also outsmart their genetic commanders -- contraceptives, for example, have disentangled the genetic lure of sexual pleasure from the genetic goal of procreation. Still, one implication of neo-Darwinian ideas is that even when people believe they are acting autonomously, they may really only be obeying the distant tugs of genes.

Dawkins's refusal to blunt the sharp implications of evolutionary theory places him at ground zero in debates about evolution. For doubters of Darwin, Dawkins has become the poster boy of how evolutionary ideas lead -- inevitably, many religious people believe -- to atheism. I asked Dawkins about his propensity to rub religious people the wrong way.

"I honestly think it comes from being clear," he said. "Some people can't bear clarity . . . to say someone is ignorant is not insulting. I'm ignorant of baseball, and I wouldn't be insulted if someone said, 'You don't know what you are talking about.' Anyone who thinks the world is 10,000 years old doesn't know anything about the world."

Dawkins told me that the idea that science and religion occupy separate spheres doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Every miracle in the Bible, from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection, tramples on what Dawkins calls the scientific grass. "Politically, it's expedient to pretend there is no conflict," he told me. "What I care about is what's true, not what's politically expedient."

And evolutionary science has a great deal to say about ethics and morality, Dawkins said. Being "pro-life in debates on abortion or stem cell research always means pro-human life, for no sensibly articulated reason," he once wrote. The fact that humans think of themselves as altogether distinct from other animals -- and the biblical notion that humans have dominion over other animals -- is a sort of racism, Dawkins said. Evolution shows that fox hunters and bullfighters are tormenting their own distant cousins, which is why the biologist sends money to anti-bullfighting groups in Spain, and why he notes with pride that fox hunting was banned on the family farm. "The melancholy fact," Dawkins wrote in an essay called "Gaps in the Mind," "is that, at present, society's moral attitudes rest almost entirely on the . . . speciesist imperative."

Darwinian ideas about natural selection are also freighted with moral import because they show that nature, while spectacularly beautiful and ingenious, requires prodigious amounts of ruthlessness and suffering to achieve its ends. The grace of the cheetah, the beauty of a butterfly's wings and the complexity of the human brain were all achieved by the same general process that allows bacteria to evolve into a resistant strain -- they required the death of those less quick, less strong and less smart.

"The sheer amount of suffering in the world that is the direct result of natural selection is beyond contemplation," Dawkins told me. He recently published a collection of essays called A Devil's Chaplain, drawing on a phrase Darwin employed to describe the indifferent cruelty of nature, where wasps paralyze caterpillars segment by segment so their larvae may feed on living meat: "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature." But in response to his wife's suggestion that Frankenstein-like selfish genes have created living monsters, Dawkins believes that, alone on Earth, human beings can rebel against the mechanistic indifference of nature. Understanding the pitiless ways of natural selection is precisely what can make humans moral, Dawkins said. It is human agency, human rationality and human law that can create a world more compassionate than nature, not a religious view that falsely sees the universe as fundamentally good and benevolent. That is why, Dawkins said, he donates to disaster relief efforts -- work that is "un-Darwinian" -- and why he is a stickler for human laws, even the unimportant ones: When riding his bicycle, he stops at red lights even when there are no traffic and police officers present.

"I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to explaining how things are, but I am an even more passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics," said Dawkins, who comes close to describing himself as a pacifist. "Let us understand Darwinism so we can walk in the opposite direction when it comes to setting up society."

Moral implications have attended Darwin's theory from the beginning. The arrow that points to the past, to the origin of human beings, also points in the other direction -- to human purpose and meaning.

"Moral concerns are exactly what most people who are concerned about Darwinism in the classroom are concerned about," said Russell Moore, dean of the theology school at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. "They may not articulate it in the same way, but most Americans fear a world in which everything is reduced to biology."

David Masci, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, who helped conduct a recent poll that found only about 1 in 4 Americans believes that humans came about through evolution alone, said that many Christians are disturbed by the Darwinian notion that human beings, far from being the point of creation, are essentially an accident: "But for a different mutation here or there, or if an asteroid had not hit the Earth 65 million years ago, none of who we are would have happened."

Some religious scientists have argued that evolution is consistent with a God who sets the world in motion and then leaves it to function according to fixed laws, or that the evolution of intelligent life reveals a divine plan for the emergence of creatures capable of recognizing God. However, those ideas of a distant designer are at odds with the notion of a loving God who regularly intervenes in the world to lift the burdens of the faithful. "There are a lot of forms of Christianity that are not compatible with Darwinism," said Richard Weikart, a professor of history at California State University in Stanislaus and the author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany.

Weikart, who is also a research fellow at the Discovery Institute, the chief proponent of intelligent design in the United States, said Darwinism advanced the cause not of immorality, but amorality. As evidence, he pointed to the work of evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists who have applied Darwin's ideas to human behavior and society and who have concluded that the same processes of natural selection that gave rise to eyes, hands and legs also produce emotions and behavior -- even morality. Reduced to the Darwinian arithmetic of natural selection, emotions are neither good nor bad but merely appendages, such as wings or hands, selfishly designed by genes for their own survival. The distant tugs of genes may give rise to altruism, love and compassion, not just to selfishness and hatred, but that means human assertions about good and evil are just that, notions that humans impose on an indifferent universe, instead of absolute law. It would be as if human beings invented God, rather than the other way around.

"It may be difficult," Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, "but we ought to admire the savage instinctive hatred of the queen-bee, which urges her to destroy the young queens, her daughters, as soon as they are born, or to perish herself in the combat; for undoubtedly this is for the good of the community; and maternal love or maternal hatred, though the latter fortunately is most rare, is all the same to the inexorable principles of natural selection."

If humans descended from animals, Weikart argued, no one could assert that humans ought to behave in qualitatively different ways from animals. And whatever Dawkins may say about humans choosing to turn their back on survival-of-the-fittest mentality, Weikart said, evolutionary ideas make the opposite more likely. "Eugenics would have had a difficult time getting off the ground without Darwinism," he said.

Evolutionists abhor that assertion, but social Darwinism goes right back to Darwin himself. In The Descent of Man, Darwin noted that it was "highly injurious to the race of man" that civilized nations care for and keep alive "the imbecile, the maimed and the sick." And while natural selection ascribes no particular value to any trait or race -- fitness is merely how well an organism adapts to its environment -- the naturalist reflected the prejudices of his time, 19th-century colonial Britain, when he quoted others who worried that the "careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman" and the "inferior" Celt usually multiply faster than the "frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious" Scot and the Saxon. Darwin believed society would be aided by "the weak in body and mind refraining from marriage."

In fairness, Darwin mostly refrained from extrapolating natural selection to human society. And he abhorred slavery at a time when many justified it as the natural order of things. Yet, it is unquestionably true that Darwinian ideas have been easily appropriated by advocates with axes to grind. In his own day, Darwin's research was eagerly seized upon by Thomas Henry Huxley, who used evolutionary ideas to cudgel religion.

"Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules," Huxley declared in an 1860 essay about The Origin of Species. "And history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter have been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed, if not annihilated."

In the caverns of the University of Cambridge, among darkened library stacks, Alison Pearn opened a small box. Inside were red, leather-bound notebooks, 3 inches by 6 inches, held shut with a metal clasp. The notebooks belonged to Darwin, and the ones we were examining reflected his notes on how evolutionary processes may explain the development of emotions. Lacking the tools of modern neuroscience, the naturalist studied animals, got nieces to monitor pets and even asked the parents of newborns to report to him on their crying babies.

On adjoining shelves that form the basis of the Darwin Correspondence Project, a massive effort by Pearn and her colleagues to collate the private letters and musings of evolution's prime theorist, yellowing sheets bore diary entries from Darwin's travels to South America on the HMS Beagle. Pearn delicately lifted pages of the notebooks with both hands; pens and ink of any sort were forbidden in the library area. As I examined the notebooks, I saw that Darwin's handwriting was spidery and bore idiosyncratic little ticks above his W's.

The origin of the moral conflicts over evolution goes back to those notebooks. They help explain why Darwin held his tongue for 20 years between his voyage and his publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. Realizing the religious and moral implications of his work, Darwin told a friend, was "like confessing a murder."

"The Origin of Species for people was a bombshell," said Darwin biographer James Moore. "It went off like a terrorist attack on the intellectual establishment."

Moore is a philosopher of science at the University of Cambridge, a visiting scholar at Harvard University and a co-author of Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. I spoke with him at Cambridge last year, on the sidelines of a fellowship I was attending organized by the university and the John Templeton Foundation, which seeks to build bridges between science and religion. The foundation is critical of intelligent design for discounting abundant scientific evidence but has offered forums for advocates and critics of the theory to debate one another.

Darwin himself studied at Cambridge, where he showed the same curiosity about the natural world that would mark the rest of his life. For instance, no pursuit at Cambridge, Darwin noted in his brief autobiography, gave him more pleasure than collecting beetles. On one occasion, having peeled back the bark on a tree, Darwin spotted two rare beetles. Eagerly he scooped them up in either hand. At that very moment, he spied a third beetle, which he could not bear to lose. "I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth," Darwin wrote. "Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one."

Like many educated men of his time, Darwin planned to become an Anglican clergyman. When an opportunity arose to become a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, he set out expecting "to see God's magnificence manifested in nature," Moore said. Throughout the voyage, there is evidence Darwin held closely to his faith, to the point that he was teased for being such a keen believer, said Thomas Dixon, a historian at Lancaster University in England. That faith endured as Darwin was writing The Origin of Species, and it was eventually shaken less by his scientific findings than by a personal tragedy that caused Darwin to reject the existence of a Christian God who was loving and good.

At one point in Darwin's voyage to South America, Moore told me, the naturalist stopped in Brazil, where his blood ran cold to see slaves in manacles being tortured by Catholic traders. Darwin was enraged as a Christian, but also as a scientist, because he recognized that the slave trade relied on the false notion that slaves were a different, inferior and exploitable species. Upon his return to England, Darwin extended the idea to the way people treated animals, an early precursor to Dawkins's argument about speciesism. "To say man is the pinnacle of creation and all things were created for him . . . Darwin says that is the same arrogance we see in the slave master," said Moore. Quoting Darwin, he added that it is "more humble and I believe true to see man created from animals -- because that makes us netted together in the web of life."

Assembling and collating the staggering range of observations he made during his travels about plants, insects and animals, and drawing insights from geology and embryology, Darwin set about his argument. He realized it was going to be controversial, but far from being anti-religious, Moore said, Darwin saw evolution as evidence of an orderly, Christian God. While his findings contradicted literal interpretations of the Bible and the special place that human beings have in creation, Darwin believed he was showing something even more grand -- that God's hand was present in all living things.

"He is not degrading man," Moore told me. "He is bringing up the rest of creation."

But Darwin's religious worldview was shaken after the death of a beloved daughter in 1851, when he was unable to reconcile the death to God's will. Moore said Darwin determined that "yes, there is a God; yes, he governs by law, but the tragic consequence of these laws is that the very old and very young go out of existence . . .

"It was the personally providential Christian god that he gives up," Moore said. "He [still] believes in the power of God, but this is not the Lord and father of Jesus Christ."

Darwin's dilemma reverberates to this day: The basic tenet of all religions is that everything will work out in the end, said John Green, who studies religion and science at the University of Akron. In an indifferent universe, however, "everything is not going to turn out okay in the end."

While Dawkins believes that Darwin referred to "the Creator" in his book merely to assuage religious critics, Moore and Alison Pearn said it was a true reflection of Darwin's beliefs.

"Darwin stared deeply into the naked face of nature without a God, and I don't believe he could accept what he saw -- that there was just this natural machine," said Moore. The machine, Darwin eventually concluded, was the way God brought complex life into existence. This idea of a distant designer who sets creation in motion and then does not interfere with it is embraced today by many religious scientists.

"There is grandeur in this view of life," Darwin insisted in the conclusion to The Origin of Species. From simple beginnings "breathed by the Creator" the naturalist wrote, "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Eighteen Christians filed into the chapel of Truro Church in Fairfax. It was a sunny fall morning, and the group had shown up to listen to a different kind of sermon: Paul Julienne was giving a lecture on science and faith. Julienne is a physicist for the federal government and a believer.

"When people argue that science proves there is no God, they are taking a step beyond the science," said Julienne. "If I have a criticism of intelligent design, it is that . . . natural theology is not the way one comes to understand God. God loves us. We're not accidents. There is purpose. You don't have to snap at Darwin at the heels."

Julienne reflects two curious facets of the debate over intelligent design. The first is that while physicists were the original source of science's conflict with the church, Christians by and large seem to have made their peace with physicists. Passages in Genesis about Earth's central location in the universe are contradicted by astronomy, but battles between science and Christianity today are almost entirely over biology. In part, said Richard Potts, a biologist who studies human origins at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, this is because evolution requires a comprehension of enormous amounts of time; by contrast, telescopes have made Earth's peripheral location in the cosmos obvious. But there is another reason. With the advent of quantum mechanics, physicists have come to believe that there are things about the universe that are not only unknown but unknowable. Biologists, by contrast, are far more likely to be reductionists, who believe all phenomena are explainable.

Julienne's criticism of intelligent design echoes the concern of many people who are worried not about the consequences of intelligent design to science but about its consequences to faith. Brown University's Ken Miller, a devout Catholic, noted in his book Finding Darwin's God: "If a lack of scientific explanation is proof of God's existence, the counterlogic is unimpeachable: A successful scientific explanation is an argument against God. That's why this reasoning, ultimately, is much more dangerous to religion than it is to science."

Why have intelligent design advocates sought to conduct the debate on scientific grounds -- seeking to undermine the validity of evolutionary theory, while studiously avoiding mention of God or morality? In part, several historians said, this reflects the growing hegemony of science in a society where arguments need to be seen as scientific for them to carry weight.

Ronald Numbers, a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied Darwinism and creationism, contends that a focus on evolution was also the only way to get creationists to set aside their own disagreements. Different groups, he told me, disagree over whether the world was literally created in seven days, as described in Genesis, whether those seven days were a metaphorical way to refer to seven epochs, or whether there were large, undocumented gaps of time between the days.

"There are three camps just within the creationists," said Numbers. "The intelligent design people say, let's set aside these quibbles, and let's focus on evolution. They want to create a big tent with all the anti-evolutionists."

While creationism in general has moved ever closer to scientific language in its various incarnations over the past century, Lancaster University historian Thomas Dixon noted that the modern debate over intelligent design -- largely an American phenomenon -- is really about neither science nor religion, but the American constitution, which has kept religion out of schools. The intelligent design movement, he said, is simply a reaction to this prohibition, which does not exist in Britain.

Given that so many scientists and religious people believe the theory does disservice to both science and religion, Dixon said, "a solution to this may be to have schools teach religion. Let them teach Christianity and everything else. It may be a complete and utter revolution in American history, but I'm saying it's a good idea."

Sitting in the pews of the church the morning I heard Paul Julienne was Caroline Crocker, the biology professor whom I had watched teach a few days earlier. I asked Crocker what she made of Julienne's assertions about intelligent design.

"I agree it makes for weak theology," she said.

But Crocker was reluctant to say much more. In fact, she seemed reluctant to be speaking to a reporter at all. She asked if I had seen the e-mail she had sent me the previous day; I had not. In it, she described the attacks targeted at her career as a result of her views on evolution. Losing the faculty position at GMU had left Crocker worried about how she could support a son at school in England. Family members were asking why she was sticking her neck out. Crocker and her husband, Richard, who is associate rector at Truro, believe she has become the victim of scientific authoritarianism. It is one thing to believe his wife is wrong, Richard Crocker told me, and quite another to deprive her of her right to speak.

GMU spokesman Daniel Walsch denied that the school had fired Crocker. She was a part-time faculty member, he said, and was let go at the end of her contract period for reasons unrelated to her views on intelligent design. "We wholeheartedly support academic freedom," he said. But teachers also have a responsibility to stick to subjects they were hired to teach, he added, and intelligent design belonged in a religion class, not biology. Does academic freedom "literally give you the right to talk about anything, whether it has anything to do with the subject matter or not? The answer is no."

Crocker said she came to her views on evolution not because of her religious faith but while working on a PhD in biology, when she learned about the complexity of the cell and the immune system. When I asked her what she made of the extraordinary genetic relatedness of living things, Crocker said she saw it as consistent with the hand of a creator, who uses the same palette of DNA to build protozoa, pandas and people.

The sense that the scientific establishment is intolerant of dissent has become common wisdom among intelligent design advocates. Many are convinced the fight should be left to tenured professors, such as biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the author of the anti-evolution tome Darwin's Black Box, and to professionals at the Discovery Institute.

"She is really brave for it, but I felt bad that her contract wasn't renewed," said Irene Fanous Kamel, a student who took Crocker's class at GMU and whose orthodox Coptic Christian family hails from Egypt. Kamel, who recently presented her own sympathetic views on intelligent design at a seminar, said she heard exasperated sighs from professors. In private, however, many students said they agreed with her. Kamel said she "would be very surprised to find another teacher talk about ID in class, unless they have tenure. It's not welcome."

An unintended consequence of the scientific establishment's exasperation with evolution's critics is that supporters of intelligent design such as Crocker and Kamel are increasingly limiting their conversations to fellow sympathizers. Among themselves, these advocates believe the wheel has turned full circle: If Galileo and Copernicus were the scientific rebels who were once punished by the dogma and authority of the church, these advocates now believe that they are being punished by the dogma and authority of science.

"Just like they say you can't discriminate against black people, or against gays, maybe they will say you can't discriminate against Darwin-doubters," Crocker told me.

The personal flavor of the fight over intelligent design has been exacerbated by the political contours of the debate in the United States, where many backers of evolution fear the Christian right is seeking to impose its views on a secular nation, while religious people feel they are held in contempt by intellectuals. In an increasingly partisan atmosphere, advocates have begun to treat opponents -- and not just ideas -- as fair game.

Nancey Murphy, a religious scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said she faced a campaign to get her fired because she expressed the view that intelligent design was not only poor theology, but "so stupid, I don't want to give them my time."

Murphy, who believes in evolution, said she had to fight to keep her job after one of the founding members of the intelligent design movement, legal theorist Phillip Johnson, called a trustee at the seminary and tried to get her fired.

"His tactic has always been to fight dirty when anyone attacks his ideas," she said. "For a long time afterward, I would tell reporters I don't want to comment, and I don't want you to say I don't want to comment. I'm tired of being careful."

Johnson denied he had tried to get Murphy fired. He said that he had spoken with a former trustee of the seminary who was himself upset with Murphy but that he was not responsible for any action taken against her. "It's the Darwinists who hold the power in academia and who threaten the professional status and livelihoods of anyone who disagrees," Johnson said. "They feel to teach anything but their orthodoxy is an act of professional treason."

The odd thing is that while religious people are striving to sound like scientists, some scientists are starting to sound like religious advocates, Cambridge cosmologist John Barrow warned. "In doing science, one should be careful about wanting your theory to be true," he said. "This is a big difference between science and religion. If you have a religious theory, you have to want the theory to be true."

And it was exactly the kind of fight that Darwin abhorred, said Alison Pearn, the historian at the Darwin Correspondence Project. Although the naturalist's extraordinary scholarship entitled him to strong views, Pearn said Darwin always reached out to people with different opinions. In his books, he strove mightily to represent the best arguments against his own theory, a fair-mindedness that has sometimes been abused by critics who selectively use quotes to suggest the naturalist himself had doubts. Pearn said Darwin welcomed debate because he believed that, eventually, the better ideas would win.

"The question is whether other people must be made to believe what you believe," she said. If Darwin were alive today, she added, "Dawkins would have been goading him to say something, and he would have found a way to politely get out of it."

A wealth of studies in recent years have suggested the benefits of faith and religious community for mental and physical health -- potential markers, in Darwinian terms, of evolutionary success. Given that traditional people tend to have larger families, and that the doubters of natural selection are more likely than not to be religious traditionalists, I asked Dawkins whether natural selection may favor those who don't believe in it.

Dawkins said he thought the scientific evidence on the benefits of religion was equivocal. Still, he said: "That's an interesting suggestion that natural selection may favor those who do not believe in natural selection. It might be true."

Religious scientists and philosophers who believe Darwin is right on evolution are striving to reconcile the implications of evolution with their faith. Theologian John Haught argued that a loving God can be reconciled with the suffering inherent in evolution because divine love implies freedom, and freedom implies the possibility of suffering. John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge physicist and clergyman, wrote that the world's suffering is redeemed when God suffers along with creation: ". . . the Christian God is the Crucified God, not just a compassionate spectator of the travail of creation, but also truly 'a fellow sufferer who understands.'"

While evolutionary ideas may coexist better with Eastern religious traditions that do not emphasize the active, involved God of Christianity, there are still obstacles. When asked about Buddhist views on evolution at a recent meeting in Washington, the Dalai Lama said the theory failed to account for the idea of karma, the ledger of reward and punishment carried over from life to life.

Peter Lipton, a University of Cambridge historian and philosopher, said the only way he has found to reconcile the factual evidence for evolution with religious faith is to think of religious texts as novels, texts in which believers can emotionally immerse themselves, while still knowing, at another level, that the truth claims being made are not literally true.

Russell Stannard, a religious physicist and the British director of the fellowship where Lipton spoke to a group of journalists, bristled at the idea. "I can't see how a Christian can approach the New Testament as a novel," he said. "Whether there is a Resurrection or not is not the stuff of novels -- it is supposed to be historical fact."

"Maybe I am asking less of religion than you are," Lipton replied. "Think of all the worldly benefits you derive from religion -- they are benefits that might or might not be divinely caused. I get those benefits; I don't think they are divinely caused."

I asked Lipton whether he was trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He admitted he was: "Here I am in a synagogue on a Saturday morning, and I say the prayers and say all these things to God and engage with God, and yet I don't believe God exists. As I am saying that prayer, I recognize it as being a statement to God. I understand it literally, and it has meaning because of the human sentiments it expresses. I am standing saying this prayer that my ancestors said, with feeling and intention, those things are moving to me. What I am saying is, maybe that is enough."

Shankar Vedantam writes about science and human behavior for The Post. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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