How did life begin? How did we get here? These questions are universal in the human experience. Virtually every culture has posited answers based on religion, philosophy or science. These days, another question has similar urgency: Where should this debate take place—in science classes or church?

In 1831, an inexperienced naturalist named Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle for a five-year expedition around the world—a journey that served as the genesis of his theory of evolution. When he published his seminal work, The Origin of Species, in 1859, he sparked a controversy that has shown no signs of abating, despite giant strides in the biological sciences that have in most respects proven him right.

Last year, when President George W. Bush told a group of reporters that schools should teach intelligent design—“to expose people to different schools of thought” about creation—his remarks added fuel to the fire of an ongoing quarrel regarding what should be taught in science classrooms about the origin of life. Some advocates of intelligent design think schools should teach competing explanations, regardless of whether they have been thoroughly proven. Opponents believe that science classes should teach only generally accepted science.

Thomas Jefferson died five years before Darwin’s expedition, but it’s interesting to ponder what he would make of this debate that is being waged in the courts and the popular press, as well as in the classroom. He founded the University of Virginia to give students a secular, public education that would prepare them to be leaders in a democratic society. Above all, he encouraged free exercise of reason and debate to discern truth, freedom of conscience and religion, and the strict separation of church and state.

Free inquiry is what some UVA students had in mind when they established a local chapter of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Club two years ago. Part of a national organization, the club promotes the idea that life was designed by an intelligent being. It challenges the philosophical assumptions of Darwinism, naturalism and materialism, pointing up scientific problems with purely natural explanations for the origins and evolution of life.

“I’m no expert on Jefferson,” says Micah Crowsey, a fourth-year systems engineering major who co-founded the club, “but I think if he were alive today, he would encourage the idea of students having a lively debate on a subject.”

With an e-mail list of more than 100 students, community members and faculty, the IDEA Club has certainly succeeded in fostering debate. It sponsors events on Grounds such as a recent lecture by Salvador Cordova, an engineer and vocal proponent of intelligent design. “We definitely had a few hecklers at that event,” Crowsey recalls. He estimates that 50 percent to 60 percent of the audience had a faith background. “The rest were curious, or knew someone who was going.”

“God of the Gaps”

The contention that life is too complex to have arisen without direction or intent is not new. Modern Christian theology still rests on what Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 14th century in his Summa Theologica: “Everything that is possible to be and not to be, has some cause: because, looked at by itself, it is indifferent either way; and thus there must be something else that determines it one way.”

The novelty that intelligent design theorists bring to the table is the proposal that the existence of a creator can be proven scientifically—and thus should be considered science. In the natural world, the evidence of an intelligent force at work can be seen in the high levels of what proponents refer to as “complex specified information.” For example, the propulsion mechanism in a bacterial flagellum is considered to be an affirmation of intelligent design because this biological system is too irreducibly complex, and its parts too interdependent, to have evolved separately and spontaneously.

Most scientists firmly disagree. The National Academy of Sciences emphatically states that intelligent design is not a scientific theory at all because its tenets cannot be tested through scientific methods. Even scientists who are avowed Christians, such as Francis S. Collins (Col ’70), do not necessarily support treating intelligent design as a science.

As director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, Collins is one of the preeminent researchers in human genetics. He is also the author of a forthcoming book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

“No serious biologist today can really question the reality of evolution of all animal species, including humans, by natural selection from a common ancestor,” Collins says, “especially with the vast array of data on DNA sequences from different species providing the kind of digital evidence that Darwin never dreamed of.” But, he adds, accepting evolution doesn’t require an assent to atheism. “Many scientists, including myself, find perfect harmony in belief in a personal God who had a plan to create creatures with whom He could have fellowship, and who chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to accomplish this,” he says.

“Intelligent design has made the mistake of confusing the unknown with the unknowable, and the unsolved with the unsolvable.”

Collins was in his 20s when he began exploring whether a belief in a personal God “made sense.” He actually did it to confirm his own lack of faith, he says, but the results surprised him: “After careful consideration of the rational arguments, I concluded that belief was a far more reasonable alternative than atheism.”

The concept of intelligent design, despite its thought-provoking ideas, fails to qualify as a scientific theory, Collins says. “It is lacking any means of experimental verification, which is a fundamental requirement of any useful theory. It inserts a supernatural explanation to answer a natural question. As such, it no more belongs in science class than a discussion of astrology.

“By insisting on the need for some supernatural intervention to make evolution work, intelligent design is the latest in a long series of ‘God of the gaps’ theories that have not fared well down through history,” he adds. “Intelligent design has made the mistake of confusing the unknown with the unknowable, and the unsolved with the unsolvable.”

“Science should acknowledge the shortcomings in evolutionary science, especially as regards what is known about transition species.”

But does science acknowledge its own shortcomings? There are holes in Darwinism that are bridged by inference rather than hard evidence, critics say.

“Scientific knowledge is a malleable body of information that changes over time, as new tools are applied and new facts are integrated,” says Bryce Paschal, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at UVA. “Good science identifies weak links in what is known. Science should acknowledge the shortcomings in evolutionary science, especially as regards what is known about transition species.”

An expert on nuclear transport and cell signaling, Paschal might seem an unlikely candidate to serve as faculty adviser for the IDEA Club. He accepted the post, he says, because a discussion of alternative theories has value. “At the least, it provides a framework for discussions about gaps in understanding,” he says.

Not all biologists accept the totality of the evolutionary theory of life’s origins. “The scientific reality is this: the ancestral relationships that are the glue that holds Darwinian evolution together are inferred,” Paschal explains. “The intelligent design folks are constantly criticized because they cannot do an experiment to test their theory, but you also can’t do an actual experiment to show that old prokaryotes have given rise to eukaryotes. These relationships are inferred.”

Paschal’s own views of the ultimate questions of human existence are informed by his religious faith, rather than by his faith in science. “Regardless of the number of simple organisms on this earth, and regardless of how many simple molecules are found on other planets, the notion that we evolved by random mutation from a pool of amino acids requires more ‘faith’ than I am capable of mustering,” he says.

Like his colleague Paschal, William Pearson, a UVA professor of molecular biology and computer science, is supportive of the IDEA Club to the extent that it advocates an open forum for discussion—but he believes that its value probably ends there.

A world authority on computational biology, Pearson studies molecular evolution and biological sequence comparison, looking at protein families that potentially stretch back more than 2 billion years. He co-developed one of the first widely used programs for searching protein and DNA sequence databases. Pearson says he has no doubt that evolution explains how change occurs in life at the molecular level. “Biology is about variation, and all of the different ways things can work. So it is not a surprise if change occurs—it is the norm,” he says.

“There are times when nature comes up with new ways of doing things, even if it doesn’t need to,” Pearson says. “We as a people have a desire to believe that nature does things well, to see elegance in nature. But as we are learning through sequencing genomes, not all creation is elegant. … There is lots of redundancy and unnecessary complexity.”

In Pearson’s view, that complexity does not imply that there is intelligent design. Sometimes the complexity is symptomatic of our ignorance: “As science proceeds, things we once thought very complicated we now understand are not so,” he adds.

A Legal Setback

“I think that if we teach other theories about how life began,” says Micah Crowsey of the IDEA Club, “we should teach intelligent design. It has enough scientific basis to be taught in schools.”

But the overwhelming majority of professional biologists, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association disagree.

Thus far, the courts have sided with the majority view. In September 2005, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III, appointed by President Bush in 2002, presided over Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. The first of its kind to be heard in federal court, the case directly challenged the direction of a public school board that required the presentation of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution “as an explanation of the origin of life.”

Jones agreed with the plaintiffs, a group of 11 parents in the Dover area school district, ruling that intelligent design was a form of creationism. He held that teaching intelligent design in public school biology classes violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (and Article I, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania State Constitution) because intelligent design is not science and “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based public policy think tank, immediately responded with a statement: “The Dover decision is an attempt by an activist federal judge to stop the spread of a scientific idea and even to prevent criticism of Darwinian evolution through government-imposed censorship rather than open debate, and it won’t work.”

For now, though, the decision stands. In the November election following the ruling, none of the members of the Dover School Board who advocated inclusion of intelligent design in the science curriculum were re-elected. The new board members who replaced them rejected the policy, thus effectively precluding an appeal.

If there is one thing all sides agree upon, it is that the discussion of life’s origins is worthwhile—whether it takes a scientific, religious or philosophical form. Although they may be controversial, clubs like IDEA might very well be exactly what Jefferson envisioned for his university. Perhaps with a caveat to all sides: “It is error alone which needs the support of government,” Jefferson averred in his 1782 Notes on Virginia. “Truth can stand by itself.”

What is Intelligent Design Theory?

According to intelligent design theory, the existence of life is best explained by an intelligent cause, rather than as the result of an undirected, chance-based process such as evolution. It differs slightly from creationism in that the theory does not identify the creative intelligence as God, nor does it ascribe to the biblical timeline described in Genesis. It also allows room for evolution to explain how species change over time—but only after an intelligent designer got the ball rolling.

The crux of the theory is that cellular systems are “irreducibly complex”—that their structure has too many complex parts, all of which must have been developed at the same time, to have arisen by chance. As evidence, biochemist Michael Behe, professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University whose current research involves delineation of design and natural selection in protein structures, points to a bacterial flagellum—a rotary propeller, powered by an acid, that bacteria use to swim. According to Behe, 40 distinctly different types of proteins are needed to produce a working flagellum. Just as a mousetrap can’t catch mice until all the pieces of the trap are completely assembled in exactly the right way, Behe argues, the flagellum—like life itself—could not have started unless an intelligent agent put the right pieces in place, together at the same time.

Proponents of intelligent design argue that the likelihood that such complexity, with so many dependent parts, arose randomly is virtually nil. While they don’t deny that evolution is occurring today, or that there is physical evidence for adaptation and natural selection, they instead offer critiques of evolution’s weaknesses. For example, they point out that that there is little fossil evidence of “intermediate species”—organisms that were at the midpoint of evolving from one species to a new kind. Behe argues that recent gains in molecular biochemistry have revealed information that cannot be explained by evolution.

Finally, supporters of intelligent design argue that evolution has not offered a conclusive, testable explanation of the origin of life. “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged,” reads a statement issued by the Discovery Institute and signed by 152 biologists.

To date, Behe and others have argued their case primarily via the Internet, in the popular press, at conferences, in legislative testimony and in the courts. Few peer-reviewed scientific studies have been published in the major scientific journals, although letters arguing for and against intelligent design have appeared in Nature. An overwhelming majority of biological scientists deny the validity of intelligent design because, by definition, it posits something that cannot be tested through the scientific method.

“[ID publications] do not offer hypotheses subject to change in light of new data, new interpretations, or demonstration of error,” reads the National Academy of Sciences’ statement on science and creationism. “This contrasts with science, where any hypothesis or theory always remains subject to the possibility of rejection or modification in the light of new knowledge.”