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Remarks of William S. Harris, Ph.D.
Delivered at the Kansas State Board of Education Public Forum, May 11, 1999


My name is Bill Harris. I received my PhD from the Univ of Minnesota and did my dissertation research at the Mayo Clinic. I spent 11 years at KU Medical Center in the Department of Internal Medicine, and am currently a full professor at the UMKC School of Medicine, the first recipient of an endowed chair in metabolism and vascular biology. I have published over 80 scientific articles over the last 20 years, and currently do full-time research funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association. With that personal background, let me address 5 questions pertinent to the issue of how theories of origin ought to be taught.

1. Do students need to believe in ANY theory of origins be successful in science and medicine? No. Origins theories have almost nothing to do with the daily grind of science. The notion that kids who don’t believe in evolution will, in some way, be handicapped and non-competitive is absolutely false.

2. Do students need to understand the basic principles of the theory of evolution to be successful in science and medicine? Yes. This teaching should be part of modern science education because it is so widely believed to be an established fact.

3. Would embracing a design-based theory of origins mandate major changes in the curriculum for science PhDs or medical students? Not at all. The basic coursework required for life sciences: anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, genetics, pharmacology, microbiology, etc. would not change. Biochemistry is the discipline most intimately tied to Darwinian evolution, nevertheless, in a survey of 33 Biochemistry texts published between 1970 and 1995, index entries referring to evolution accounted for less than 0.1% of entries. In other words, we could live without it. Modern life sciences seek to describe nature AS IT IS; there is little need to guess at how it WAS or how it came to be. Origins theories are fun to think about and provocative to discuss, but they do not affect the work of the vast majority of scientists.

4. Can a design-based theory of origins be taught without invoking religion? Absolutely. The conclusion that something was designed can be reached without concluding anything about how or when it was designed, or who the designer was. These are completely separate questions. For example, I can visit Mt. Rushmore and see 4 faces carved into the mountain. It takes no talent whatever to determine that this was not the work of natural forces (wind, water, heat, cold, vegetation, etc) but of some designer. BUT, I cannot tell a thing about who designed it, who sculpted it or when. Not knowing these facts does not, however, diminish my conviction that the Presidents’ faces were put there with planning and purpose. The same is true of the biological world today: we see the exquisite intricacy and interdependence of life at the biochemical level – vastly more complex and interwoven than any statue hewn of rock. It is incredible to think that some would not allow us to even consider the possibility that this highly complex and ordered system may likewise have been designed! How can we call ourselves honest, unbiased observers of nature, and then disallow the most obvious of conclusions: that biological systems work because they were designed to do so. The only way this can happen is if a decision has been made a priori to limit our choices, ostensibly to prevent us from arriving at the "wrong" conclusion. When plausible theories are pre-defined as off limits because they are politically or religiously unacceptable, we have left the realm of science and returned to 1632, when Galileo was punished by the established order for proposing disallowed ideas. In my opinion, we must train students in the 21st century to do exactly as Galileo did … think outside of the box.

5. Darwinian evolution or Biblical creationism? Are there only 2 options? No.
The lines have been clearly drawn. We either teach that Darwinian evolution is true (with a capital T) and that there is no other possible way in which life could have arisen on planet Earth, OR we teach that the Judeo-Christian God created all life in 6 days about 6,000 years ago. Neither of these perspectives can be proven to be true by the scientific method because both occurred in the distant past. The lack of a middle ground has made compromise elusive.

So what should we teach? I would propose that our goal should be to maximize freedom of thought. We should teach that there are two common theories to explain the origins of life. One holds that life arose from simple chemical compounds programmed by their very atomic structure to develop into molecules, then into macromolecular complexes, simple life forms, and finally complex plants and animals. This is one theory, and there are data to support, but not prove, it. There is another theory that proposes that a designer created the basic life forms. Many of these have not survived to the present, and those that have, have changed in relatively minor ways to adapt to differing environments. Like the first theory, this one has some scientific support and also is ultimately unprovable. Introducing both of these theories is the most intellectually honest approach to take; it deals straight forwardly with observations made in the world around us and it does not mandate that either be accepted as established fact. This is, in my view, the middle ground. It acknowledges the popular Darwinian hypothesis, and it acknowledges what anyone with an ounce of sense can see is at least a possible explanation of present reality.
 
When I look at a process as simple as building a protein, I am awestruck with its precision and complexity. For example, cells need cholesterol to live. How does it know it’s "running low?" Biochemists now know that the concentration of cholesterol in a specific intracellular membrane can be sensed by a certain protein. When the levels are low, this protein changes shape, which opens up a vulnerable piece of its chain to another protein whose only purpose in life is to cut the sensor protein at one, specific point when the opportunity presents itself. Once the cut is made, the clipped piece of the sensor protein makes a bee-line for the nucleus of the cell, and with the help of several other proteins, finds the right chromosome, and exactly the right spot on that chromosome (out of MILLIONS of possible binding sites), and attaches to the DNA chain. This is the signal to start translating the DNA sequence into a new protein, the specific one that happens to be the rate limiting enzyme for cholesterol synthesis. As this amino acid chain emerges from the cellular factory, it does so one piece at a time and each link in the chain, like a charm bracelet, has a different shape and magnetic property. As this mixed chain emerges, the charms are either attracted to each other or repelled by each other so that they fold up into a precisely configured shape. The final product then, which is made up of thousands of amino acid links, has a shape that is specific to its purpose. It has peaks, valleys, dents, twists, tunnels, and tendrils that make it unique in all biology, like each of our fingerprints. This new enzyme then, with the help of other proteins, finds its specific home on a cellular membrane, which happens to be just upstream from another protein that makes the immediate chemical precursor on the cholesterol assembly line. After hundreds of other similarly-orchestrated steps, we end up with a new molecule of cholesterol. And this all started with that special protein that sensed that our cell’s cholesterol tank was low.

If I am told that I cannot even CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITY that this system was designed to do this, that IT IS IMPOSSIBLE that this orchestra of chemical processes was planned, programmed and constructed to accomplish this purpose, then I know immediately that the game is rigged. We have departed from the truly scientific process of observation, hypothesis generation, experimentation, interpretation and hypothesis reevaluation. It is patently obvious to me that the rules of the game have been fixed so that the most obvious explanation for the existence of a life process – intelligent design – has been ruled out of bounds from the outset. This is dishonest and not an attitude towards science that our students should learn.

As scientists we must remain open minded to all possible explanations of the data; science education fails when, for fear of the social, religious or political implications of a theory, plausible hypotheses are automatically eliminated from consideration. Those who would have our children taught that the only acceptable theory of origins is Genesis 1 are being just as unscientific and close-minded as those who would teach that the only possible way in which life could have arisen is via Darwinian evolution. Both extremes are wrong and the truth is to be found somewhere in between.

In conclusion, I believe it is intellectual tyranny to force students to ignore any possible interpretation of a set of data. Our science students must be free to take any theory to task; this is the purpose of the scientific method we learned from Galileo. Science education is a sham if it marches to any other drummer.


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