Domning's Letter to Maryland Public Television

by Daryl Domning

Howard University

Department of Anatomy
College of Medicine
520 W Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20059 USA

Maryland Public Television
11767 Owings Mills Blvd.
Owings Mills, MD

11 June 2003


I watched "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" on 10 June 2003, and am sorry to say I was disappointed. Although this program was presented as a science documentary, in fact it was no more than an elaborate infomercial for "intelligent design" creationism (ID). By failing to make clear that ID is currently rejected as pseudoscience by the vast majority of evolutionary biologists, it seriously misinformed the public about the present state of thinking in this field. There is certainly nothing wrong with making minority views in science known to the public. Minority views, however, bear the burden of proof; and truth in advertising requires that they be identified as such. Instead, this program was subtly designed to mislead. Some specifics:

  • The first person presented onscreen was Philip Johnson, a key figure in the ID movement. The rest of the program featured ID advocates with scientific credentials, and Johnson reappeared toward the end to state his own definition of "science", as though he were himself a leading scientist. Viewers were never told that he is, in fact, a professor of law.

  • The animation sequence of the voyage of HMS "Beagle" gave the clear impression that the expedition touched only at the Galapagos Islands - ignoring the fact that it spent most of its time exploring the coasts of South America and other Pacific and Indian Ocean islands. This inaccuracy planted the subtle and false impression that Darwin's evolutionary views were derived from only a few observations made in only one locale, when in fact they were based on widely-gathered data of many kinds.

  • The lengthy discussion of molecular biology made reference to "a feature of molecular machines known as irreducible complexity" - as though this concept were a standard one accepted by all molecular biologists as a "feature" of the real world. In fact, the term "irreducible complexity" is used only by the handful of ID proponents (Michael Behe in particular), and its validity has been refuted, repeatedly and in detail. It is not used at all in the mainstream scientific literature. No contrary views were noted, however.

  • A major contention of the program was that without DNA there can be no self-replication of molecules, and hence no natural selection. No mention was made of the widely-discussed possibilities that self-replication of RNA or even simpler organic molecules could have preceded the synthesis of DNA.

  • A telling contrast between ID and real science was inadvertently revealed in the quotes from Darwin in which he emphasized testable predictions of his theory - e.g., that no complex organs would be identified that could not have been formed by successive slight modifications of simpler ones. (In fact, no such complex organs have been identified, including the much-ballyhooed bacterial flagellum, whose simpler origins have been outlined by Kenneth Miller and other molecular biologists.) ID, in contrast, has made no testable predictions, on this program or elsewhere, and for this reason it is disregarded by most scientists.
Near the end of the program, the narrator noted correctly that "intelligent design has sparked intense debate." If so, then why was this debate not reflected in the program itself? No opposing views were aired, despite the ready availability of prominent and articulate spokesmen for the Darwinian view, who have published extensive and detailed refutations of the contentions of ID proponents. An honest portrayal of this "intense debate" would have made for a more informative as well as more dramatic program - and would have revealed that the arguments for ID are simplistic and specious.

As has often been said, extraordinary claims in science demand extraordinary evidence. ID makes claims that most scientists consider unfounded and that have so far failed to survive critical scrutiny. Worse, ID offers no testable alternative to the well-tested Darwinian explanations of biological complexity and adaptation. For this reason, ID is recognized by mainstream biologists as junk science - specifically, as merely the latest incarnation of the religiously-motivated "creation science" that our courts have justly banned from public-school science classrooms.

The religious subtext of this controversy was kept almost entirely out of sight in the program itself, but the religious motivations of many of the ID proponents is clear in some of their writings and other statements. As a practicing Christian myself, I take offense at their misguided, under-the-table attempts to further Christianity by means of such flawed arguments. No cause is well served by bad science. Neither is public education, or public-interest broadcasting.


Daryl P. Domning, Ph.D.
Professor of Anatomy
Research Associate,
Dept. of Paleobiology,
Smithsonian Institution

Reprinted with permission.