On the outside, it’s really the type of joke you’d come to expect from a bunch of scientists. On the inside, though, it’s far more heated and has been hotly debated ever since a man named Charles Darwin published his observations from a trip to a remote island in the Pacific.
The joke is code-named Project Steve, in honor of popular evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in May.
Scientists from the National Center for Science Education compiled a list last month of scientists named Steve who signed a statement endorsing the theory of evolution and discrediting the popular creationist argument for intelligent design.
Why the list?
In September 2001, The Discovery Institute published an advertisement in a series of national publications titled “A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism,” that was accompanied by 100 signatures of scientists nationwide who refute the argument for evolution.
“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged,” the signed statement read.
It isn’t exactly clear who thought up the idea for the retaliatory list of Steves or why it took a year and a half to respond to the creationist ad. According to Skip Evans, NCSE’s network project director, the list sort of “evolved.”
But the idea of asking only scientists named Steve (or Stephanie) to sign the endorsement was meant to prove a point.
Evans said the institute researched the U.S. Census and found that about 1 percent of the population is named Steve. The group hypothesized that about 1 percent of scientists are also named Steve.
“We could get tens of thousands of names. We could dwarf (the creationists’ list),” Evans said. “But we resisted. Science isn’t done in lists. We just thought it would be a humorous way to make a point.”
But scientific creationists will argue that evolutionary theory should not be swallowed so easily. Authors like Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael Behe have constructed biochemical arguments that expose what he calls “Darwin’s Black Box.”
In his book of the same name, Behe looks to biochemical systems to find proof for intelligent design, using examples like the complexity of the eye, cellular transport and blood clotting. He contends that science simply cannot account for all the collaborative parts in many bodily systems.
This, and not the Bible, contrary to popular belief, is the basis for scientific creationism.
The idea is endorsed by Buddy Payne, a Florida College dean of academics and mathematics professor, who has spoken about the theory of intelligent design at USF in the past.
The makeup of the human body is “irreducibly complex,” he says.
“The basic argument is this: If you’re going to explain the evolutionary order of life, you have to explain how all these complex, chemical systems came to be how they are,” Payne said. “And there is no legit theory that I know of.”
Payne says the idea behind a grand designer — who he believes to be God — is just logical.
“When we look at other systems that are man-made, we know that they are designed,” he said. “But nature is so much more complex. It must have a designer.”
And just because Payne believes in intelligent design, he doesn’t toss out the notion of evolution completely. He believes in what he calls “limited evolution,” the idea that many species have evolved during the course of time but haven’t evolved as much as some scientists believe. He believes species’ genes can only be changed so much. He doesn’t believe man evolved from the common ancestor of an ape.
“Any breeder will tell you, you can only breed a population so far,” he said. “There is only so much change you can make before you kill the organism or make it dysfunctional.”
Payne thinks that both theories should be taught in school, however, he thinks evolution is taught with an ironic sort of bias.
He looks back to the 16th century, when Nicolaus Copernicus introduced the heliocentric theory, which said the sun was the center of the universe. This flew in the face of the geocentric and biblical theory, which for centuries, had Earth at the universe’s core, with all the planets revolving around it.
One of Copernicus’ most famous followers was Galileo, who was convicted of heresy by the Catholic Church in the early 1600s for books he published supporting heliocentric theory.
Evolutionary scientists today are, in essence, doing the same thing the church did then, Payne says.
“There are evolutionists who say that (evolution) is an indisputable fact. I’m sorry. That’s not a fair representation,” Payne says. “It’s almost like the fellows back in the day of Copernicus. ‘This is how it is, (they would say). It’s in the Bible.'”
Payne insists that creationists who use the Bible as the basis for arguing for intelligent design do a disservice to legitimate science that he says can prove it.
Henry Mushinsky, a USF biology professor who teaches evolution, said creationism is outdated and is used simply as an excuse for some to “impose their religious beliefs on others.” It’s not science, he says.
“I don’t care if people think the world is flat. They can believe what they want,” Mushinsky said. “We share over 96 or 97 percent of our proteins with apes. If people want to think that’s an accident, I don’t care.”
Scientific creationists are quick to point out the gaps in evolutionary theory. But finding holes in one theory doesn’t lend credence to another, Mushinsky said.
“That, in itself, is bad logic.”
USF chemistry professor Gerry Meisels agrees. Holes in evolutionary theory don’t equal small victories in creationism.
“A theory is not just a guess. It’s well-established, fact-based and observation-based,” Meisels said. “Another great fallacy is that every hypothesis needs to be disproved, and that’s not true.”
Both sides agree evolutionary theory and intelligent design both require a great deal of faith. In order for creationist theory to work, believers must have faith in God. For evolutionary theory to work, believers must have faith that life began as a result of natural causes, such as the Big Bang.
“We don’t understand everything,” Mushinsky said. “And clearly, the weakest of our theories is how life really started.”
The list of Steves was published on the NCSE’s Web site (www.ncseweb.org) in mid-February. As of Wednesday night, it had 282 names, including USF ichthyology professor Stephen Ross, who could not be reached for comment.
Back at NCSE headquarters, Evans is hopeful more Steves will endorse the theory.
“Intelligent design is nothing more than an argument from ignorance,” Evans said. “Because something is unexplained doesn’t make it unexplainable. We just keep looking.”
Around the block at Florida College, Payne shakes his head.
“You look at a cell. You examine how complex that thing is. It’s got language. It’s like a factory,” he says. “And you tell me that nature can produce that sort of thing without some sort of intelligence?”
Contact Ryan Meehan at firstname.lastname@example.org