By Tamra Mendelson
As an evolutionary biologist, I specialize in animal speciation, which means that I ask the question of how new animal species come to be. I use a variety of techniques, including molecular genetics, observations of animal behavior, and bioinformatics.
I can tell you with certainty that neither evolution, nor the concept of intelligent design, are controversies in biology. These are controversies in society, in politics, but not in science. This distinction is critically important.
Another critical distinction is perhaps less obvious. Proponents of intelligent design take two separate approaches, and I believe the biggest source of confusion surrounding our national debate is the blurring of these two approaches into a single argument. The two approaches are fundamentally different: One is science, and one is not.
The first approach is to criticize evolution, and this is largely scientific. We can (and love to) argue about basic principles of evolutionary theory, we make predictions, we design experiments to test specific hypotheses, and we identify gaps in our knowledge about how biological structures or species have arisen.
The second approach is to propose a supernatural entity as an "alternative hypothesis." This approach is decidedly not scientific. Science restricts itself to the material world, seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena, and has done so for about a thousand years. Thus, science as it has been practiced for the past millennium simply cannot address the existence or intentions of a supernatural entity. We can propose alternative scientific hypotheses to evolution, but a supernatural intelligent designer would not be one of them.
Bottom line: Intelligent design is not "the flip side" of evolution. These are not competing hypotheses in the realm of science. Even if evolution were disproven scientifically, that would not prove the existence of a designer.
A final word concerns the definition of a "gap" in scientific knowledge. The word has been tossed around in school board meetings, courtrooms, and churches until its fundamental meaning has been utterly lost. A gap is simply a natural phenomenon that has not yet been empirically or theoretically explained in the context of a prevailing theory. A gap is not a disproof, and it is not even an inconsistency. It really is that simple.
Darwin's theories of natural selection and common descent have never been disproven. Altered and expanded, yes. Disproven, no. Evolutionary theory forms the foundation of modern biological research and therapeutic drug discovery, and herein lies the greatest concern. If we fail to teach our students the reality and fundamental principles of evolution, proposing instead that the origin of complex natural phenomena can only be explained by a supernatural designer, the next generation of American scientists will be poorly equipped to carry us into a healthy and prosperous future. We expect, and you expect, the best from Lehigh students.
Tamra Mendelson is an assistant professor of evolutionary biology. Mendelson's research, conducted with a University of Maryland researcher, led to the identification of a cricket living in Hawaii's forests as the world's fastest-diversifying invertebrate. The breakthrough was published in
Nature magazine, one of the world's most respected scientific publications, and shed light on the role of individual choices in the origin of species and the growth of biodiversity.
Next: Finding the divine in the everyday
Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Posted on Friday, January 20, 2006