In God's Country

William Dembski thought Baylor University would be the perfect place to investigate a scientific alternative to Darwinism. Little did he realize he would be crucified for his cause.

The bacterium's flagellum may be intelligent design's favorite subsystem. A flagellum is a whiplike outboard motor, complete with an acid-powered rotary engine, O-rings and a driveshaft. "The scientific community has come up short with any sort of plausible, detailed explanation of how you could have gotten something like this by purely natural causes," says Dembski, "and when you start applying the sort of methods that I've developed, it clearly indicates design."

A flagellum is compatible with natural law but not required by it; after all, there are bacteria without flagella. It is specified in the sense that its pattern of parts performs a specific function. And it is complex, not just in the sense of its machinelike combination of parts but also in the improbability of its arising by chance. In fact, Michael Behe, the biochemist who most famously made the case for design in the bacterial flagellum, contends that it would be virtually impossible for the motor to come about by mutation and natural selection.

Behe calls the flagellum an irreducibly complex system. In other words, its parts are so interrelated that if one part were taken away, the entire system wouldn't work. A mousetrap, for instance, is irreducibly complex. Take away the platform, the hammer, the spring, the catch or the holding bar, and it is impossible to construct a working mousetrap. Similarly, if you take away any one of the 50 proteins required in the bacterial flagellum, the motor ceases to work. Behe's argument is that the flagellum is too complex to arise in one single mutation and then be acted upon by natural selection, and that the undirected nature of the Darwinian mechanism could not support a gradual accumulation of the necessary proteins. Just one of these proteins offers no survival and reproductive advantage. How could nature know to preserve it for future generations? How could nature know that the bacterium was in the process of building itself a motor?

Organic chemist Charles Garner is one of the few hard scientists at Baylor who supports Dembski's work.
Deron Neblett
Organic chemist Charles Garner is one of the few hard scientists at Baylor who supports Dembski's work.

Dembski is looking to apply his specified-complexity theory on an even more microscopic scale than the bacterial flagellum: that of DNA. The precise sequence of nucleotides in DNA conveys the information necessary to build proteins. The origin of this information has become the Holy Grail of origin-of-life biology. Mainstream science is looking for an algorithm or a natural law to account for it, but Dembski says that this DNA encoding is complex, specified information if ever there was any -- and thus indicative of intelligent design. Natural causes cannot originate information, Dembski argues via his complicated mathematical proof, the Law of Conservation of Information. It's a somewhat circular argument: Natural laws and algorithms cannot create complex, specified information, because they cannot create anything that is not required by natural law. Chance can generate complex, unspecified information or simple, specified information, but not information that is both complex and specified.

It is for this law that Rob Koons, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, calls Dembski the "Isaac Newton of information theory." It may be that intelligent design will revolutionize science just like Newtonian physics did. It may also be that this is just the perfect way to evangelize a generation of Americans who put their faith in science without entirely understanding it.

William Dembski met Baylor University President Robert Sloan in the summer of 1996, when he was teaching Sloan's daughter at a Christian study summer camp not far from Waco. Sloan, who is the first Baptist minister to serve as Baylor's president in over 30 years, had read some of Dembski's work. "He liked my stuff," Dembski recalls. "He made it clear that he wanted to get me on the faculty in some way."

Three years later the president offered Dembski not just a position at Baylor but a whole center dedicated to studying the relationship between science and religion, and to furthering Dembski's own work in intelligent design. It would be named after Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian chemist who questioned the idea that the world could be explained by just natural laws. It was a big step for intelligent design, the first center of its kind at a major research university, a huge inroad into mainstream academia.

The Polanyi Center was established quietly in October 1999. Dembski and his like-minded colleague Bruce Gordon were hired outside the traditional academic channels of a search committee and departmental consultation. Dembski says that he did meet with some faculty, both before and after Baylor hired him. But the vast majority was unaware of the existence of the center until its Web site went on-line and scientists outside the university began sending incredulous e-mails to their colleagues at Baylor. What, they asked, was this? Had Baylor gone fundamentalist? Would they be teaching creation science instead of evolution in their biology classrooms? The Baylor scientists, already sensitive to their university's religious mission, were now the laughingstock of the scientific community, and they didn't like it.

"When you say Baylor now, people are going to go, "Oh, yeah, they have that creationist center,' " says Charles Weaver, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor and one of the most outspoken critics of the Polanyi Center. "We fought that as a city for a long time: "Waco. Oh, you guys are the crazy ones with Koresh.' " He worries that the Polanyi Center and Dembski's association with the intelligent-design movement will discourage promising premed students and respected faculty from coming to Baylor.

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