By Lynne Cassimeris
What do evolution and intelligent design mean to me? To answer those questions, I must first introduce myself. I'm a cell biologist interested in understanding the inner workings of cells. My lab group is trying to understand how each cell replicates itself and then divides itself into two exact daughter cells. Birth defects or cancer can result when the division process goes wrong. While most people in my field don't study the origin of the first cell, or how cells evolved, evolution underlies everything we do.
Darwin was one of the first to realize that all living organisms are related to each other and that they all came from a single ancestral organism a long time ago. The interrelatedness of all living things means that research we do on organisms as simple as the yeast that's used to bake bread and brew beer can tell us how our own cells work. As an example, studying how yeast cells and sea urchins' eggs control cell division led to an understanding of how human cells control their divisions and to the development of new anti-cancer drugs now in clinical trials. As cell biologists, we take for granted the evolutionary relationships when we look at yeast, flies, worms, and human cells and find that very similar proteins do very similar things.
According to Darwin's theory, evolution is driven by the survival of the best-fit organism. Those best suited to their environment are better able to survive and reproduce. This concept also applies at a cellular scale. Cancer cells divide rapidly and have a high rate of genetic mutation. Each cell within a tumor competes with all the other tumor cells for survival. Those cells that grow fastest will out-compete their rivals for nutrients. Evolution and competition on this small scale gives us a framework for the types of mutations we see all the time in cancer cells and even helps predict how a tumor might respond to a drug.
As I hope you can see from these examples, evolution isn't only the history of life, it applies to life in the here and now. Evolution and selection of the best-fit organism or cell help us understand cancer biology, antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and a possible bird flu pandemic.
To consider intelligent design, we need to define it. Intelligent design means different things to different people, but I will use the ideas suggested by its major proponents. These writers accept that the vast amount of evidence indicates that life began from an ancestral cell 3.5 billion years ago, and that all life evolved from this ancestor. Where the intelligent design proponents differ from conventional biologists is in invoking a designer, a supernatural force, that shaped cell evolution over several billion years. Whether they imagine a designer who worked continually for several billion years, or only occasionally to nudge cells in one direction or another, or whether the designer created cell structures, cell processes, or just some of each isn't clear to me.
The Chaplain's Forum held on campus in September posed the question: What does intelligent design mean to science? I answer very simply that intelligent design does nothing for me. Intelligent design doesn't provide me with any new insight into how cells work and it doesn't stimulate me to imagine new questions or new ways to approach a problem. There is no reason to include intelligent design in the science classroom or to broaden the definition of science to include supernatural forces.
What's the big deal? Why do I oppose teaching intelligent design in biology classes? Intelligent design has no place in science curricula because the goal of science is to use natural laws, and not the supernatural, to explain the natural world. Textbooks and curricula must be based on well-accepted theories to provide our students with the knowledge and tools they need for future success. Asking teachers to include a non-scientific and unaccepted idea would violate their ethical responsibility to their students.
As a researcher, I oppose expanding the definition of science to include supernatural explanations. Proponents of intelligent design say that the designer is God. Since science is testable and falsifiable, these proponents are suggesting that it is possible to falsify God by experiment! The last hundred years or so have seen dramatic progress in our understanding of biology, and with that knowledge has come the ability to fight many diseases. Let's keep our knowledge in the sciences moving forward by keeping science and religion separate.
Lynne Cassimeris is a professor of biological sciences who conducts research in mitosis, or cell division. She also works with light microscopy and directs the Confocal Light Microscopy Facility at Lehigh. Recently, Cassimeris was named a Fellow by the Keith R. Porter Endowment for Cell Biology. The award recognizes only two outstanding scientists annually for early and mid-career accomplishments.
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Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Posted on Friday, January 20, 2006