OPEN DEBATE ON LIFE’S ORIGIN
Stephen C. Meyer | Department of Philosophy, Whitworth College
Can scientists change their minds about controversial ideas? Can they reject theories if evidence requires? That may depend upon what theories are at stake.
Consider a disturbing case in California involving a distinguished biology professor, Dean Kenyon. In January of
1993, Kenyon was removed from his biology classroom at San Francisco State University after a few students complained to administrators about ideas they heard in lecture.
Can scientists change their minds about controversial ideas?
The problem? Kenyon’s approach to teaching evolutionary theory. Professor Kenyon had grown increasingly skeptical about the textbook theory of how life first originated on Earth ¾ a theory he had earlier done much to advance. SFSU’s administrators have insisted that Kenyon not discuss his new views¾or the reasons for them¾with introductory biology students. Ironically, they justified their actions in the name of “science.”
Controversy in San Francisco
The controversy emerged in the fall of 1992 after the biology department chairman, John Hafernik, told Kenyon not
to teach “creationism.” Kenyon, who included three lectures on biological origins (out of 27 total) in his introductory
course, presented both standard evolutionary interpretations of biological evidence and difficulties with those
interpretations. He also discussed philosophical controversies raised by the issue and his own view that living systems display evidence of “intelligent design,” a view not incompatible with some evolutionary thinking.
Hafernik accused Kenyon of teaching biblical creationism and ordered him to stop. Kenyon asked for clarification. He
wrote the Dean, James Kelley, asking what exactly he could not discuss. Was he “forbidden to mention to students that
there are important disputes among scientists about whether or not chemical evolution could have taken place on the ancient earth?” Was he barred from mentioning “the important philosophical issues at stake in discussions of origins?”
Kelley insisted that Kenyon “teach the dominant scientific view” not the religious view of “special creation on a young
earth.” Kenyon replied that he taught the dominant view. But he also discussed problems with it and that some biologists
see evidence of intelligent design.
He received no reply. Instead, he was yanked from teaching introductory biology and reassigned to labs.
Recently, following pressure on the administration from SFSU’s Academic Freedom Committee, its Academic Senate and
the American Association of University Professors, Hafernik informed Kenyon that he would be reinstated. The biology
department has since, however, proposed to ban as “unscientific” any discussion of “intelligent design.”
Academic Freedom: Disturbing Implications
Kenyon’s case raises troubling questions about whether scientists must now pass ideological muster to maintain standing in the scientific community.
Kenyon, as it turns out, is an authority on chemical evolutionary theory and the scientific study of the origin
of life. After receiving a Ph.D. in biophysics at Stanford, he later completed post-doctoral work at Oxford, NASA and
the University of California, Berkeley. In 1969, he coauthored a seminal theoretical work titled Biochemical Predestination.1 The book articulated what was arguably the most plausible evolutionary account of how a living cell might have organized itself from chemicals in the “primordial soup.”
Kenyon’s subsequent work resulted in numerous scientific publications.2 As evidence rolled in during the late 1970s,
however, he began to question his earlier ideas. When run under realistic conditions, so-called “simulation”
experiments repeatedly produced irrelevant sludge or low yields of desired amino acids.3 Further, molecular biology
revealed the encoded messages along the spine of large biomolecules such as DNA.4 Both experiments and developments
in the field of information theory suggested that simple chemicals do not arrange themselves into such complex
information-bearing molecules without, that is, “guidance” from human experimenters.5
To Kenyon and others, these results raised important questions about how “naturalistic” the origin of life really
was. If undirected chemical processes cannot produce the coded strands of information found in even the simplest
cells, could perhaps a directing intelligence have played a role? By the 1980s, Kenyon was sympathetic to the idea.6<D>
That a man of Kenyon’s stature should have to lobby for the right to teach introductory biology, whatever his current
view of origins, is absurdly comic. Dr. Kenyon knows perhaps as much as anyone in the world about a problem that has
stymied an entire generation of research scientists. Yet he has been prevented from reporting the negative results of
research7 and from giving students his candid assessment of it.
Moreover, as Kenyon has been at pains to explain to his administrators, his view hardly qualifies as biblicism, let
alone religious advocacy. When Kenyon discussed the notion of “intelligent design” he did so as an inference from
biological data, not a deduction from religious authority. It may well be that the biological evidence Kenyon discussed
has larger philosophical¾even theistic¾implications. Yet one can hardly fault Kenyon for that. As his personal history
makes clear, his present view has resulted from long years of experimentation and study not a prior religious commitment.
Yet even if he had spoken from a prior conviction that “God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), it is
unclear that academic freedom means college students must be shielded from such notions. Secular intellectuals now openly profess a variety of ideologies and philosophies from Feminism and Freudianism, to Deconstruction and Marxism¾as motivating influences on their scholarship and teaching.
Jewish and Christian students have long endured the anti-religious polemics of professors who perceive in their
fields support for secularism. Why, then, must theistic professors refrain from discussing evidence that seems to lend credibility to their philosophical predilections?
The problem is Kenyon’s opponents assume science has a unique rational standing and ideological neutrality.
Subjective considerations from philosophy and religion do not influence scientific theories; and scientific theories,
in turn, can have no philosophical or religious implications. Intelligent design, with its potential implications, violates this alleged neutrality. Thus, despite Kenyon’s credentials and concern with biological data, Hafernik and Kelley decreed that he had moved beyond science and into “religion.” Therefore, he needed to be muzzled¾concerns about academic freedom notwithstanding.
This line of reasoning may seem plausible. It certainly seems consistent with the “just-the facts” stereotype of
science presented in many introductory science courses. Nevertheless, it reveals a disturbing double standard within
an area of science notorious for its philosophical overtones.
On any reasonable assessment of the origins controversy, Kenyon’s design theory and the dominant materialistic view
are not two different types of thinking, one religious and the other scientific. They are two competing answers to the
same question: ’What caused life to arise on earth?’
This competition is tacitly conceded in biology texts that routinely recapitulate Darwinian style arguments against
intelligent design.8 Yet if arguments against intelligent design are philosophically neutral and strictly scientific,
why are Kenyon’s arguments for design inherently unscientific and religiously charged?
Neither approach to origins can claim strict philosophical neutrality. Standard evolutionary theories make the
decidedly metaphysical claim that brute matter organized itself into more and more complex living structures without
assistance from a guiding intelligence. Neo-Darwinism teaches, as the late Harvard biologist G.G. Simpson put it,
even “man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.”9
Evolution conceived as a completely purposeless process a “blind watchmaker’’10 as Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins
calls it¾eliminates any role for creative intelligence in the origin of living things. It, therefore, directly
contradicts not only ”special creationism," but all theories inconsistent with an aggressive philosophical materialism
This includes “God-guided evolution” and even more generic notions such as intelligent design. Whatever the merits of “blind watchmaker” evolution, it is hardly ideologically
Yet Kenyon’s opponents insist that his approach to origins, unlike their own, does not qualify as science. They argue
that scientific theories must limit themselves to strictly materialistic explanations. Science is by definition limited
to observable realities. Its explanations must, therefore, invoke only natural processes or events. Scientists must
obey what philosophers call the principle of “methodological naturalism. ’’ll Explanations involving a designer are
This judgment agrees with popular conceptions of what most scientists, especially experimental scientists, do. But
“methodological naturalism” cannot be justified as a normative principle for all types of science¾without doing
violence to science as a truth-seeking enterprise.
Prohibitions against inferring intelligent design are particularly problematic in historical sciences such as
archeology, forensics and paleobiology. Historical scientists address different kinds of questions. Rather than
asking about how some part of nature generally behaves, historical scientists ask about what happened in the past or
about how things came to be. For example, origin-of-life biologists ask ’what happened to cause life to arise on
earth?’l3 This question specifically asks about the events responsible for life’s origin. Since, conceivably, a
designer could have played a role, it is difficult to see why postulations of such agency must necessarily be
excluded¾especially if biological evidence now supports such a view.
It is true that scientists in other fields do not generally make design inferences. Yet, these scientists are not asking
about causal origins. Consider the question ’how does atmospheric pressure affect crystal growth?’ To state
’crystals were designed by a creative intelligence’ (or, for that matter, ’crystals evolved via natural processes’) fails
to answer the question. Here appropriate answers must discuss how one part of nature generally affects another.
They are, therefore, law-like and naturalistic, but only because of the focus of the question. Other types of
questions may require other types of answers. Those who insist otherwise make an unwarranted extrapolation. They treat a feature of some science as a normative rule for all. True Science?
Defenders of methodological naturalism insist, however, that prohibitions against design inferences are necessary to
preserve the rigor of scientific reasoning. Some of Kenyon’s critics at SFSU, for example, have argued that his theory of
intelligent design fails to qualify as scientific because it refers to an unseen entity. Since the existence of an
unobservable designer cannot be tested, it can’t be part of a scientific theory.
Yet many scientific theories postulate unobservable events and entities. Physicists postulate forces, fields and
quarks; biochemists infer sub-microscopic structures; psychologists discuss their patients’ mental states. If unobservability precluded testability and scientific status, many scientific theories would not qualify as science.l4
Evolutionary biologists themselves traffic in unobservables.”They invoke processes whose creative effects
often are too slow to see and infer the existence of extinct organisms for which no fossils remain. Like Kenyon’s
designer, unobservable ancient forms are inferred because their existence would explain evidence in the present.
Darwinian theory and design theory alike rely upon indirect
inference and testing, not just direct observation.l5
By inferring an unobservable entity, Kenyon violated no canon of scientific method. Indeed, in seeking the best
explanation for evidence, Kenyon employed the same method of reasoning as before he changed his views. His conclusions, not his methods, have changed.
Truth or Science?
The Kenyon case illustrates another reason for challenging methodological naturalism: It sometimes limits the ability
of scientists to seek the truth. Philosophers of science now recognize that theory evaluation is often inherently
comparative. l6 Especially in historical sciences where theories can not be tested by predicting outcomes or
repeating experiments, scientists must test theories indirectly. l7 They do this by comparing the explanatory
power of competing theories to seek the best explanation.
If this process of testing is subverted by arbitrarily
excluding theoretical options, the rationality of science is
compromised. Theories that succeed in gerrymandered
competitions can claim to be neither ’the best explanation’
nor ’most probably true’. Instead, they can only be
considered ’most probable’ or ’best’ among artificially
As Kenyon’s case illustrates, such a situation now exists in historical biology. Currently, both biological and chemical
evolutionary theories are protected from challenge by arbitrary rules excluding non-materialistic theories. Yet
the question that must be asked about origins is not: ’which materialistic theory can best explain the origin of life?’
but ’what actually happened to cause life to arise on earth?’ Insisting upon strictly materialistic explanations¾whatever the evidence may force scientists to reject a true theory for the sake of an arbitrary convention. Science so encumbered is unworthy of the name.
Evidence for Design
Considerable evidence now contradicts the dominant
evolutionary view of biological origins. The almost
universally recognized failure of chemical evolutionl8 to
explain life’s initial origin, is now matched by neo-
Darwinism’s failure to account for subsequent biological
form.l9 Fossil studies now reveal a “biological big bang” in
which one hundred disconnected phyla (major groups of
organisms) emerged suddenly without clear precursors 530
million years ago.20 Fossil finds repeatedly confirm a
pattern of sudden appearance and prolonged stability (not
gradual change) in living forms.2l Biochemical evidence
reinforces the impression of organisms as systems whose
parts as with machines¾can not be altered gradually or
dramatically without destroying the functioning whole.22
For naturalistic theories, a growing awareness of biological complexity has posed enormous, and perhaps insuperable,
challenges. Organisms display any number of distinctive features of intelligently engineered high-tech systems:
information storage and transfer capability, regulatory and feed-back mechanisms, hierarchical logic and organization,
and precisely sequenced strings of encoded information.
Confronted with problems and evidence suggesting a new approach, the Darwinist lobby falls back on subjective
complaints about the “imperfect” design of human eyes, panda’s thumbs and male nipples.23 They also invoke their
own self-serving rule¾theories must be materialistic to disqualify challengers as crackpots.24
Yet personal attacks and arbitrary rules can not suppress
altemative theories forever. With recent developments in
probability and complexity theory, the detection of
intelligent design has already entered science proper.
NASA’s $100 million search for extraterrestrial intelligence
(SETI) has been based upon the ability to detect the
statistical and mathematical signature of intelligently
Less exotic (and more successful) design detection occurs
routinely in both science and industry. Archeology and fraud
investigation, forensic science and cryptography would all
be impossible if prohibitions against design inferences were
applied universally.26 Imagine an archaeologist forced to
treat the Rosetta Stone as a natural erosional effect or a
homicide detective required to conclude that all victims
died of natural causes.
Professor Kenyon believes similar absurdities now rule
origins biology. To Kenyon and many others,27 the presence
of biochemical messages and a corresponding molecular
grammar in the cell strongly suggest a prior intelligent
design. About this, he may be wrong or right. His argument
is based, however, neither on ignorance nor religious
authority, but on a biological data and an expertise
informed by the modern informational sciences.
It has no doubt served the purposes of philosophical
materialists to portray Kenyon as a religious fundamentalist
unwilling revise dogma in the face of new evidence. In fact,
it is their fundamentalism, not his, that is on trial.
1Dean Kenyon and Gary Stienman, (1969) Biochemical
Predestination (New York: McGraw-Hill).
2See, for example, Nissenbaum, A., Kenyon, D.H. and Oro, J.
(1975). Journal of molecular evolution 6: 253. Kenyon, D.
and Nissenbaum, A. (1976). “On the possible role of organic
melanoidin polymers as matrices for prebiotic activity.
Journal of molecular evolution 7: 245-251. Kenyon, D.
(1984a) ”A comparison of proteinoid and aldocyanoin
microsystems as models of the primordial cell." In:
Molecular evolution and protobiology. Matsuno, Dose, Harada
and Rohlfing, (eds.), pp. 163-88.
3Kerr, R. (1980). “Origin of life: new ingredients
suggested.” Science 210: 42-3. Thaxton, C., Bradley, W. and
Olsen, R. (1984). The mystery of life’s origin. New York:
Philosophical Library, pp. 42-98.
4Portugal, F.H. and Cohen, J.S. (1977). A centurv of DNA.
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5Yockey, H.P. (1981) “Self organization origin of life
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