Heretics in the Laboratory

WHEN KURT WISE ARRIVED AT Harvard University as a graduate student in paleontology, he was bright and intellectually ambitious, just like everyone else in the department. But unlike everyone else, he was, and is, a creationist. He believes that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, because that is what the Bible implies, and not the 4.5 billion years that astronomical and geological evidence suggests. He also believes that every plant and animal species, from Arabian steeds to maple trees to humans, was created by the hand of God, rather than evolving from dawn horses, multicelled green algae and australopithecines by natural selection operating on genetic variation. At Harvard, such views are heretical. When Wise met evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, "he bawled me out," says Wise. But his beliefs didn't handicap his doctoral research (on inferring when species appeared and went extinct). He received his Ph.D. in 1989. Now he teaches geology at William Jennings Bryan College in Tennessee, and investigates how fossils support the story of the Biblical flood.

Can a creationist be a good scientist? Can a good scientist be a creationist? To mainstream researchers, the answer has long been an emphatic "no": no serious scientist can doubt that evolution fits the known facts of geology and biology better than any other model. And, conversely, no one naive enough to believe the arguments of creationists could possibly do good science. But a new book and an impassioned exchange of letters in the magazine The Sciences have reopened the questions. Says historian Ronald Numbers of the University of Wisconsin, "Published scientists with creationist beliefs are not uncommon."

Most are in disciplines far removed from evolutionary biology, geology and astronomy, the subjects whose data are most economically explained by evolution. In a computerized search of more than 4,000 scientific journals, the only papers by prominent creationists "were in fields such as analyses of stress cracks in airplane wings," says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, whose article on the "evolution wars" sparked the battle of letters in The Sciences. "People compartmentalize. They are perfectly capable of doing ordinary science until a subject affects their religious sensibilities. Then the mind shifts into a different mode." Russell Humphreys of Sandia National Laboratory, for instance, has published more than 20 articles in his specialty, power generation. He is also on the board of the Creation Research Society.

John Baumgardner does not like to think he compartmentalizes. A creationist, he is also a geophysicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. A paper he coauthored on convection in the Earth's mantle (with no relevance to creationism) appeared in Nature, a leading science journal, last February. In 1994 he presented research at a major geophysics conference implying that the slip-sliding geologic plates that cover the Earth might once have moved thousands of times faster than they do today. If true, that would cram lots more geological change into less time, exactly what creationists need to support the idea that Earth is a mere stripling. It has not caused much of a stir, however. "Few [in the audience] were thinking of the [creationist] implications," Baumgardner says. He insists that he brings the same analytical insight to his criticism of evolution as he does to his "secular" work.

Evolution is the defining paradigm of biology. But in "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution" (307 pages. Free Press. $25), published last month and already in its third printing, Michael Behe argues that biochemical systems such as those involved in vision, the immune system and blood clotting are so complex that "you can see they were designed by an intelligent agent and did not evolve according to Darwinian theory." Behe is an associate professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University. He has published more than 30 scientific papers (his field is the structure of nucleic acids such as DNA). Although he says, "I do not consider myself a creationist," for more than a century "intelligent design" has been a staple of creationism.

The overwhelming weight of evidence supports evolution. The presence of creationists in the lab, then, is a valuable reminder that scientists are only human: a powerful ideology, be it creationism or capitalism or anything else, can shape some scienttists' conclusions as strongly as any empirical evidence.

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