Why my research does NOT support intelligent design

Several years ago, Susan Haverkos won a seat on the Ohio Board of Education (Nov. 2006). As she cited my research on her campaign website, I feel obligated to respond on my own. Here is what Susan Haverkos said about my research:

I know the political climate of this race, and I will have to be labeled either a evolutionist or a creationist/Intelligence design proponent (by some). I found this interesting article, which sums up my viewpoint.

Recently published in Popular Science Magazine was an article titled "The Fifth Annual Brilliant 10", a review of 10 top young scientists. Brilliance, they define as: "marked by insight, creativity and tenacity. It's the confidence to eschew established wisdom in order to develop your own. It's the foolishness needed to set out for the edge of understanding and sail right past it."

The article introduced a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate Kelly Dorgan. Ms. Dorgan questioned Darwin's theory that worms move through the ground by eating dirt. She proved Mr. Darwin's 120-year-old theory was wrong and her scientific finding has changed scientists' understanding of the entire underground ecosystem.

She challenged a theory. What if she had been told, "We only teach Darwin's theories, and you can't question it." Worms would still have to "eat dirt." If she were a student in Ohio, she would have been taught to accept what she was taught, it's the truth, and that all there is. But somewhere in her education she was taught to question, to be creative, to have tenacity.

Here is the letter I sent (Nov. 9, 2006) to Susan Haverkos and the members of the Ohio Board of Education:

Dear Susan Haverkos and Members of the Ohio Board of Education:

It has been brought to my attention that my research has been cited by Susan Haverkos on her campaign website http://www.electhaverkos.com/issues.html [NB: This web site has since been removed]. Ms. Haverkos seems to have misunderstood my research and I would like clarify a few points.

Contrary to Ms. Haverkos' assertions, my work does NOT in any way challenge Darwin's theory of evolution; in fact, my work on worm burrowing illustrates an outstanding example of convergent evolution. I have found that burrowers across many animal phyla exert forces in similar ways and have evolved to have a wedge shape and/or anatomies allowing exertion of large forces to propagate a crack. Without an understanding of the theory of evolution, I would not be able to explain this similarity across unrelated animals.

Although Darwin is most famous today for his theory of evolution, he spent his life studying biology and observing animals in their natural environments. One of his observations, published in his short book "The formation of vegetable mould through the actions of worms," was that by burrowing, earthworms mix soil, turning over a patch of dirt amazingly quickly and altering the composition of the dirt. He is known as the 'father of bioturbation', the mixing of soils by animals important in both marine and terrestrial environments and still an important area of research because of the implications to carbon burial, nutrient regeneration, and fate of pollutants in marine environments. Darwin's major contribution was to identify the importance of this process, and to explain the mechanism, he proposed the idea that worms were eating their way through the soil. Because no alternative hypotheses had been proposed until recently, his hypothesis of how worms move has held up for over 100 years. My background in physical ecology enabled me to more closely examine the mechanism of burrowing and to develop a new hypothesis that is supported by data I have collected. My research does not challenge Darwin's main idea that bioturbation is an important ecological process, but builds on his theory by explaining the mechanics. My work is, if anything, a tribute to Darwin, in advancing a field of research that he started in 1881. As a scientist, I hope that 100 years from now students are still building on my research as I have built on Darwin's.

I find it very disturbing that my research has been grossly misinterpreted to support the idea of intelligent design. Intelligent design is NOT a testable hypothesis and therefore has no place in science classrooms. Ms. Haverkos points out the importance of challenging theories, which I fully support. However, the way scientists challenge theories is by generating alternative TESTABLE hypotheses and collecting data to TEST those hypotheses. Students of science should certainly be taught to ask questions and to challenge established ideas, but they should be taught to do so using the scientific method. In addition, in order to generate intelligent questions that can advance the field of biology, it is essential to have a basic understanding of the field. The theory of evolution explains a tremendous amount of scientific data and there are currently NO other viable theories to explain those data that withstand scientific tests. Telling students to challenge an established theory without either presenting a testable alternative hypothesis or specifically encouraging students to develop their own testable alternative hypothesis confuses them not only about the theory itself, but about the entire process of doing science.

I hope the Ohio School Board will consider my research for what it is: a significant advance in a field started 125 years ago by Charles Darwin that has no greater relationship to his theory of evolution than does any other branch of biology. Darwin's theory of evolution is an important component in my research, as it is in most aspects of biology. Natural selection has favored burrowers who are able to move with the least energy used; by understanding the mechanism of burrowing, we are beginning to see the extent of evolutionary convergence toward burrowing efficiency.

Thank you again for your interest in my research and please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to discuss my research further.


Kelly Dorgan

Ph.D. Candidate
University of Maine
School of Marine Sciences