April 9, 2007
The God lab
New Scientist visits—or at least tries to—the Redmond, WA-based Biologic Institute, which specializes in “lab science in intelligent design.” And seems a little defensive about its mission:
Pay a visit to the Biologic Institute and you are liable to get a chilly reception. “We only see people with appointments,” states the man who finally responds to my persistent knocks. Then he slams the door on me.
I am standing on the ground floor of an office building in Redmond, Washington, the Seattle suburb best known as home town to Microsoft. What I’m trying to find out is whether the 1-year-old institute is the new face of another industry that has sprung up in the area—the one that has set out to try to prove evolution is wrong.
This is my second attempt to engage in person with scientists at Biologic. At the institute’s other facility in nearby Fremont, researchers work at benches lined with fume hoods, incubators and microscopes—a typical scene in this up-and-coming biotech hub. Most of them there proved just as reluctant to speak with a New Scientist reporter.
The reticence cloaks an unorthodox agenda. “We are the first ones doing what we might call lab science in intelligent design,” says George Weber, the only one of Biologic’s four directors who would speak openly with me. “The objective is to challenge the scientific community on naturalism.” Weber is not a scientist but a retired professor of business and administration at the Presbyterian Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. He heads the Spokane chapter of Reasonstobelieve.org, a Christian organisation that seeks to challenge Darwinism.
… [F]ollowing his communication with New Scientist, Weber has left the board of the Biologic Institute. Douglas Axe, the lab’s senior researcher and spokesman, told me in an email that Weber “was found to have seriously misunderstood the purpose of Biologic and to have misrepresented it”. Axe’s portrayal of the Biologic Institute’s purpose excludes religious connotation. He says that the lab’s main objective “is to show that the design perspective can lead to better science”, although he allows that the Biologic Institute will “contribute substantially to the scientific case for intelligent design”.
… Axe appears to be one of the prime movers in this latest version of the anti-evolution enterprise. In a Discovery Institute strategy paper that was leaked on the internet in 1999, Axe is identified as heading up a molecular biology programme that has the aim of undercutting the scientific basis for evolution. At that time he was funded by the Discovery Institute and working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Protein Engineering, a research centre in Cambridge, UK, funded by the Medical Research Council, under the supervision of protein specialist Alan Fersht of the University of Cambridge.
… By 2002 it was becoming clear that Axe and Fersht were in dispute with each other over the implications of work going on in Fersht’s lab. At the time Fersht was preparing to publish a retraction of a paper in which he and three colleagues had claimed to have caused one enzyme to evolve the functionality of another (Nature, vol 403, p 617). Axe interpreted the fact that problems had surfaced with the result as evidence that there were problems with the theory of evolution. […] Fersht disagreed with the suggestion. The problem result “didn’t show anything of the sort”, he says.
… Since 2004 Axe has resurfaced in Washington state, where he has set up shop at the Biologic Institute, a short drive away from the Discovery Institute. Weber told me that Biologic was a “branch of Discovery”. Both Axe and Discovery spokesperson Rob Crowther insist that it is a “separate entity”.
Biologic’s staff consists of at least three researchers, including Ann Gauger, who like Axe signed a petition titled “a statement of dissent against Darwin’s theory of evolution” that was organised by the Discovery Institute in September 2005. […] Gauger would not speak to New Scientist about her work.
… Biologic is [also] pursuing a programme in computational biology which draws on the expertise of another of its researchers, Brendan Dixon, a former software developer at Microsoft.
Who wouldn’t speak with New Scientist either. I can’t imagine why.
… Steve Fuller, a sociologist at the University of Warwick, UK, who testified in favour of ID in the Dover trial, believes the Biologic Institute’s activities could help break down barriers between religious people and scientists. “Regardless of whether the science cuts any ice against evolution, one of the virtues is that it could provide a kind of model for how religiously motivated people can go into the lab.”
Ronald Numbers, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has studied creationism, views it in a different light. The lab’s existence will help sustain support within the anti-evolution community, he says. “It will be good for the troops if leaders in the ID movement can claim: ‘We’re not just talking theory. We have labs, we have real scientists working on this.’”
Even if their science is about as real as the fairies at the bottom of my garden.
Read the entire article here.
[Recycled post: I’m traveling. Originally published on December 13th 2006.]
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