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Evolution, intelligent design eyed

By Clifton B. Parker on March 3, 2006 in University News

If anyone in the audience disagreed, they did not speak up last week when UC Davis Professor Maureen Stanton laid out a simple argument favoring evolution over intelligent design as the origin of species.

She was the first speaker in the Sacramento Zoo's annual spring lecture series, this year focusing on evolution. All three speakers are evolutionists, which spurred criticism from people on the other side of the coin: creationists and those who believe in intelligent design, the theory that life forms are too incredibly complex for there not to have been a "designer."

Stanton, an evolutionary ecologist, said there need not be a conflict between evolution and intelligent design in a social context. But the scientific realm demands evidence to prove and disprove theories, she said. No physical evidence exists for intelligent design, nor can the idea of an omnipotent designer be falsified, she said, "so it falls outside the narrow realm of the scientific method."

The controversial topic spurred a sellout for the first time since the lecture series began about 10 years ago. Waiting lists developed and zoo officials braced for a potential clash of beliefs. Two uniformed Sacramento police officers stood by during Stanton's talk the night of Feb. 22.

Bible cards distributed

But there was no trouble, no overt protest, only a small group of people outside the zoo who handed out cards that labeled evolution "a delusion" and suggested that "the Bible may be of interest to you."

Inside the zoo's Kampala Center auditorium, an audience of about 100 behaved respectfully as Stanton stated her case, with evidence, for evolution's reality. About this, there is no legitimate scientific controversy, she said.

Stanton, chair of the Department of Evolution and Ecology, and recipient of last year's $30,000 campus Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement, titled her lecture "The Truth Behind Intelligent Design." She said the truth is that intelligent design proponents, motivated by religious beliefs, are purposefully trying to disguise a social-religious controversy as a scientific one, in an effort to get their belief system into science classrooms. It does not belong there, Stanton said.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled that way in December, telling the Dover, Pa., school board that it must eliminate intelligent design from the district's science curriculum. Still, efforts persist in various school districts around the country to pair the teaching of evolution and intelligent design.

What is the harm of teaching both? This question, written on an index card by an audience member, was the closest anyone got to challenging Stanton.

The harm, the professor said, is that "we are misleading students about what scientific inquiry really is." Such inquiry — with open-minded, unbiased evaluation of evidence — is important for Earth's future, she said.

The professor presented almost an hour's worth of evidence in support of Charles Darwin's theory on the origin of species — that all life evolved from common ancestors.

Stanton described some of the complex changes in animals over hundreds of thousands of years, and how different species — like the bottlenose dolphin and people — are connected. She showed a photo of an embryonic dolphin with a pair of flattened nostrils in the middle of its face. As the nose elongates, the nostrils are pushed to the top of the head — and the nostrils turn into a breathing spout.

Also, the photo of the embryonic dolphin showed a five-parted limb — like a hand with fingers — that develops into a flipper.

Stanton spoke of the human tailbone as a remnant from the time when human ancestors had tails. This genetic trait has not disappeared altogether, she said, displaying a photo of an Indian child born four years ago with a tail.

She showed the skeletal structure of a snake and pointed out its pelvis, just like a human's. And she pointed out the pelvis in a whale, too. The whale's pelvis is largely nonfunctional, Stanton said, "a holdover, a relic of ancestors that walked."

"So it is no stretch at all to see that humans may well have evolved from primate ancestors. … This is nothing compared to the evolution of a whale," Stanton said.

In response to a question, Stanton said evolution's naysayers may persist in their opposition because they do not want to be related to other primates.

Or perhaps people fear being alone in the world without a divine being looking over them. "That's a really scary thing" for some people, Stanton said. "It might suggest we are in this on our own, that there's no one out there to bail us out."

Robin Whittall, the zoo's education director, said: "We don't think these ideas — evolution and the hand that may guide the process — are mutually exclusive."

Stanton agreed, and noted the importance of teaching belief systems — just not in science classrooms.

She said a creative force or forces may indeed be responsible for some of life's many remaining mysteries, like what causes gravity or where did matter come from, or who or what "set this all in motion."

"Those are huge questions," she said. Scientists are attempting to answer them by developing theories, and proving them right or wrong. Intelligent design proponents, on the other hand, start with the answer they want and discard opposing evidence, she said.

"A common fallacy of the pseudo-scientific arguments put forth by intelligent design proponents," Stanton said, "is they assume a complex trait has to be created in a single step, rather than evolving through intermediate stages."

Creationists say the Bible's Book of Genesis explains how people and plants came to be — that God brought them forth.

If the Book of Genesis happens to show up in the DNA of say, salmonella bacteria, then "I'm a believer," Stanton said.

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,