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Signs of Intelligence?

What the neo-Darwinists don't understand about theories of Intelligent Design.

12:00 AM, Jul 13, 2005 • By ISAAC CONSTANTINE
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IF YOU'VE BEEN CASTING A SIDELONG GLANCE at the world through the liberal press of late you've likely been alarmed by the latest faith-based assault on science and rationality. You might have been moved, despite your better instincts--born of the sad knowledge of hope's futility in the new Dark Age of George W. Bush's Evangelical Crusade at home and abroad--but perhaps you couldn't suppress the tepid delight at having your biases affirmed in the gallant counterassault on Darwin's religious assailants by Evolution's latter day devotees. The last defenders of Reason fight on in bold, quixotic determination, allied with the chattering presses, preaching to the choir in the name of their ancestral hero.

A recent editorial in the New York Times bemoans the legislative progress of the "dangerous" brood of creationists, barely disguised in the pseudo-scientific trappings of "intelligent design." The editors charge the movement, and anyone who questions Darwin on the basis of "supernatural explanations," with breaking the presumably unspoken code of positing forces beyond "the usual domain of science." The editor's at the Times don't seem concerned that many physicists, in light of the curious ability of subatomic particles to occupy infinite locations at once (one of those quirks in nature resistant to "natural" explanation), propose a "Many Worlds hypothesis" where people live infinite lives in infinite parallel universes--each hidden from each other--to account for every possible quantum outcome.

Maybe ideas like this are "scientific" as long as they're labeled "hypotheses." Once you've called your idea a theory, only then does metaphysical speculation seem to breach the purview of physics. But another impassioned stab at the "junk science" of intelligent design in the New Yorker by H. Allen Orr, a biologist at the University of Rochester, belies any claim to scientific rigor by the liberal media or, when ideology compensates for intellectual laziness, science itself.

THE PURPOSE of this argument is not to defend the science of intelligent design. With legions of biblical activists and conservative lawmakers among self-appointed experts coming out of the woodwork to testify to the "problems with Darwin's theory," ID hardly seems to need my help. And to be fair, the counterassault on evolution's detractors has been convincing in casting reasonable doubt against ID's methods. On the evidence presented intelligent design does come off as less than sufficiently coherent or validated as a "theory"--especially if Darwin's ingenious, broadly encompassing, experimentally bolstered body of work sets the bar. Based on Orr's sometimes cogent parsing out of the so-called intelligent design theory's lapses in logic and consistency, even theists are left suspicious of the fledgling movement's present fitness for the classroom.

But while the would-be Darwins might have succeeded in dismissing ID on scientific grounds, their argument has been less convincing in a secondary aim. Much of the controversy surrounding their hero derives from an aspect of Darwinism (as currently construed) that is itself unscientific; one might even say, if not "religious," distinctly political--Darwinism's vaguely defined but apparent relationship to atheism. As a caveat to its attack on ID the press denies any such relationship. The Times op-ed invokes "many empirical scientists" who are implied to dismiss ID in spite of their faith. These theistic scientists, the editorial claims, understand that "theories about how God interacts with the world" are "beyond the scope of their discipline," and by implication are disinclined to entertain challenges to Darwin based on questions of divine agency. So the Times's preference among scientists of a religious turn of mind are those who keep God in church or the closet where He belongs. It's okay to believe in God as long as God doesn't step on Darwin's toes--as long as you've reconciled your faith with Darwin's ostensibly infallible insights.

In the New Yorker, Orr takes a similar tack. In careful language he denies the notion that Darwinism is "yoked to atheism" listing the "five founding fathers of twentieth-century evolutionary biology," three of whom were religious (a fourth dabbled in Eastern mysticism). He goes on to mention the late Pope John Paul II's oft-touted recognition of evolution as "more than a hypothesis" and then appears to give a sly wink-nod to his fellow atheists in concluding "Whatever larger conclusions one thinks should follow from Darwinism . . . evolution and religion have often coexisted."

(Of course, had Orr attempted to unpack the precise implications of John Paul's admission, he would have had to conclude one of two possibilities: the Pope was either claiming that Darwin's theory was "true" down to the last detail, which would suggest that God, or the "miraculous," has no agency at all in human development; or, on the other hand, the Pope might have been acknowledging the obvious, confirmed truths surrounding evolution's insights--man was not created in his present form all at once, the fossil record stretches back more than 10,000 years, etc.--while leaving room to disagree with radical atheistic interpretations of Darwin, or with Darwin himself on specifics. This is just one instance where Orr ignores nuance and distorts logic for polemical convenience.)

It may be the case that evolution's founding fathers had no deliberate pact with atheism, but if the two are still unrelated why does the Atheist Alliance ("the only national democratic atheist organization in the United States" according to their website) partake in the annual celebration of "Darwin Day"? Why does the National Secular Society of Great Britain feature the face of Charles Darwin as part of a series of "Hero's of Atheism" coffee mugs and why was the father of evolution voted the overwhelming favorite hero by the organizations members?

And those groups are just the riff-raff. Respected intellectuals often make the same association--people like Oxford's Richard Dawkins, for instance, the biologist and "great popularizer" of evolution whom Orr mentions. In an interview on beliefnet.com, Dawkins explains "why the world would be better off without religion." Dawkins compares religion to a computer virus; claims never to have met a "genuinely intelligent" person who was religious; and equates baptism with child abuse. The eminent British biologist envisions a "paradise on earth . . . ruled by enlightened rationality" and free of religion. Without religion, he reasons, there would be "a much better chance of no more war." "Obviously," he continues, "nothing like 9/11 [would happen], because that's clearly motivated by religion"; in the absence of religion "there would be less hatred, because a lot of the hatred in the world is sectarian hatred." If people lived "according to rationalism," says Dawkins, "There would be less waste of time. People would concentrate on really worthwhile things, instead of wasting time on religion, astrology, crystal-gazing, fortune-telling, things like that."

Dawkins, of course, would build his atheist "paradise" on the incorruptible moral foundations of science and art, as though Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong Il had never reigned. But that's the world according to one of Darwinism's central figures today. Is this the stuff of science and enlightened rationalism?

ORR'S IDEAS on evolution and religion, though less caustic and vulgar than Dawkins's, are no more scientific. His New Yorker essay is evasive enough that it's hard to pin down his atheism, but in the end he can't resist weighing in on divine influence. In dismissing the ideas of William A. Dembski, a mathematician and leading theorist of intelligent design, Orr argues the following:

Organisms aren't trying to match any "independently given pattern": evolution has no goal, and the history of life isn't trying to get anywhere . . . Despite all the loose talk about design and machines, organisms aren't striving to realize some engineer's blueprint; they're striving (if they can be said to strive at all) only to have more offspring than the next fellow.

All this coming from someone who in the same essay denies that Darwinism and atheism go hand in hand--whether or not they "should." And why should they? Well, according to Orr, evolutionary biology provides evidence that life evolved on its own with no purpose but survival. Specifically he points to the fact that species of fish and crustaceans found in dark caves often have degenerate eyes, or "eyes that begin to form only to be covered by skin" which he deems "crazy contraptions that no intelligent agent would design."

If Darwinists and liberals examined their own logic as scrupulously as that of everyone else, they might deem this line of argument, which speaks to "theories about how God interacts with the world" (if only in denying any such interaction) "beyond the scope" of science. It doesn't take a trained biologist to recognize Orr's statements as nothing more than assertions, inferences based on the speculation that no intelligence could account for what Orr perceives as the chaos and randomness of life. Half-hearted concessions to faith notwithstanding, Orr doesn't really care that four of the five founding fathers of 20th century evolutionary biology, and many scientists today, and the 80 percent of Americans whose faith he mocks, clearly disagree with him in one way or another. He's interested in his understanding of evolution alone.

ORR'S ASSERTION that life arose purely by accident and evolves by itself--with no goal but to prolong itself--is simply an atheist creation myth. It might not contradict anything observable (or at least established) in the known universe, but neither does the notion that invisible forces act upon the visible, natural process of evolution. The difference is Orr assumes that what we see is what we see, that nothing eludes our--or his--current understanding.

In defiance of the varied voices and perspectives in and apart from his field, Orr squints through a keyhole view of the world, interpreting what little he sees in quasi-rational isolation: While all reasonable parties can understand why scientists and teachers might be loath to overhaul their methods based on the scientific expertise of Rick Santorum, surely sensitive liberal editors and readers get why decent, intelligent Americans, who believing in God believe that God might have some part in the way atoms interact to form life, and the way individual lives interact to inform the evolution of species-why people who believe in a guiding principle beyond selfish survival might be reluctant to entrust their children's minds to an Orr, let alone a Dawkins.

The latter, in a rare twist of near-clarity allows that although life arises and evolves from nothing besides this violent preservationist instinct, humans have reached a point where we can "escape" the ugliness of our origins.

Our brains have become so big, says Dawkins, that we can conjure order from chaos on our own. We can create "new goals, new purposes that are not directly related to natural selection at all." Though we are born for no good reason we've become smart enough to "seek more altruistic, sympathetic, artistic things that have nothing to do with the preservation of our selfish genes." But as for why once-lifeless particles are compelled to coalesce in ways that give rise to life, why microscopic particles that don't need to worry about surviving evolve to take on such a burden, and why, if life becomes life by accident, for no purpose, why then does it hold onto to itself, prolonging the agony of survival when it could just as easily let go and return to quiet oblivion; if you can't help but wonder why, if not for some hidden purpose, would selfish, brutal, mindless life evolve to pursue beautiful abstractions that have no clear evolutionary function--what purpose does evolutionary purpose serve--well, don't ask. Buzzwords like "random mutation" will only get you so far.

INTERESTINGLY, much of what today's evolutionists claim is far from clear in Darwin's own writing.

"I see no good reason," writes Darwin in the conclusion of The Origin of Species, "why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone." Illustrating his point he goes on to describe a letter he received from a "celebrated author and divine" that had "gradually learned to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development and needful forms, as to believe He required a fresh act of creation . . . " Darwin doesn't exactly endorse this theistic take on evolution right then and there, though he ends his treatise with the following: "There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved" [italics mine].

Darwin's lyrical crescendo calls to mind, among others, Michael J. Behe, the biochemist and intelligent design theorist claiming that, starting from the "irreducible complexity" of a cell (which itself must be designed by an unspecified intelligence), life might evolve on its own through Darwinian processes. Unlike the so-called "creationist" Behe, Darwin, to the discomfort of many of today's evolutionists, makes specific reference to "the Creator," only one of several references often ignored by those quoting Darwin.

So why, exactly, is intelligent design "squarely at odds with Darwin," as Orr claims in the New Yorker?

GRANTED this particular reference to the Creator, added after The Origin's first addition, might have been a pragmatic concession to the religious police of Darwin's time, an attempt at damage control. Or the reference might, as some suggest, have been added to keep peace within his home with his deeply devout wife. Maybe Darwin wrote what he did with tongue in cheek, confident that his ideas would revolutionize society and that people like Orr and Dawkins would one day come along to tell everyone what he really meant. It's unlikely, given Darwin's claim in his 1876 autobiography that he'd been convinced of God's existence when he first published his theory. But Darwin didn't end up religious in any tangible sense, and later in life his theistic conviction seemed to fade. Still it's somewhat confusing how he wound up with his face on an atheist coffee mug when he himself seems to have ended up an agnostic: In 1876 (six years before his death) he wrote "I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems [as the existence of God]. The mystery of the beginning of all things is impossible by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic."

Not only did he claim not to know whether God existed, Darwin insisted that we can't know. So on what authority does Dawkins parade his atheism, and Orr hint slyly at his, if not Darwin's? Have they found definitive proof against God in evolution that Darwin missed? Dawkins and Orr could be said to depict the "neo-Darwinist" narrative of history, a vision of life and its origins that is less equivocal on God than Darwin's, taking his (almost) perfect theory to its "logical" conclusion. Given what we've seen of neo-Darwinist logic we might be safer sticking with Darwin's take on Darwin.

IT'S TRUE THAT IN THE VISIBLE, known, world Darwin seemed to find no evidence of the Divine. He seemed to believe, like Dawkins and Orr, that life evolves without God. In the opening chapter of The Origin of Species Darwin, in tracing the roots of his theory, praises the natural scientist Lamark for "the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all change in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition." In the conclusion he adds "Nothing at first can appear more difficult to believe than that the more complex organs and instincts have been perfected, not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but by the innumerable slight variations . . . Nevertheless, this difficulty . . . cannot be considered real if we admit the following propositions . . . ." [Italics mine]

Darwin supports the view that life evolves autonomously with evidence of a "struggle for existence leading to the preservation of profitable deviations of structure or instinct." In other words organisms fend for themselves, and those that are strongest or most adaptable survive longer, passing on the distinguishing traits to their offspring, and they to theirs as weaker prototypes die off and a species evolves to look more like the elite minority with each successive generation. The evidence for this is overwhelming, and pretty much rules out the notion that God created man in his present form. Darwin, however, seems to jump from identifying the struggle to assuming it wholly unmediated.

INTELLIGENT DESIGN's campaign against Darwin has been misdirected. ID's theorists concede too much in debating on neo-Darwinist terms, fighting assertion with assertion, or seeking to contradict evolution by way of obscure mathematics. In declaring one's intent to disprove Darwin one grants, based on all evidence until now, that Darwin had proven himself. And he did in many ways that most of us can agree on. But just because most of his theory remains sound and remarkably descriptive of the world as we now recognize it; just because he was right on so much doesn't mean we should take his every word for gospel.

Maybe changes that seem "random" to a neo-Darwinian fundamentalist, or to Darwin himself, might seem deliberate to a more evolved intelligence. How would Darwin's self-proclaimed legatees prove that we got here by sheer accident, with no inherent purpose and destined for nothing but extinction? If someone could explain this view without merely reciting Darwinian koans for "natural forces" that Darwin himself might not have thought through all the way--if Orr and Dawkins could prove all that I'd order my Darwin mug in the mail today and shoot myself tomorrow.

IMAGINE A WORLD where high school students could not only absorb a fraction of Darwin's profound insights, but could discuss them critically. Imagine an open exchange of interpretations that make unembarrassed use of literature, philosophy, and even theology--ways of thinking beyond the limiting scope of science. All modes of thought and innovation come with their own set of limitations, blind spots which other disciplines can illuminate. If we read Darwin more carefully, or at all, and discussed his ideas in good faith to differing perspectives, atheists might be less anxious to claim his image for their anti-religious crusade and creationists might be slower to banish him and his modern minions to the fiery pits. The separation of church and state was intended to protect democracy and religious freedom from despots in holy robes, not to protect school children (or science) from religion. It is unbecoming of teachers to proselytize students on behalf of any particular faith or ethos, including atheism. If religious or theistic philosophies are deemed inappropriate to science curricula, so should any ideas that expressly contradict those philosophies. Neo-Darwinists, however, aren't interested in fairness or academic freedom. They'd rather take cheap shots at ideas that can't defend themselves. With the moral and propagandistic support of the media, they prefer to attack an argument at its weakest point instead of its strongest.

In the context of a serious, civilized debate a scientist like Dawkins might come to understand that religion, when properly invoked, is a vehicle for knowledge, progress, and humanistic unity like science and other rational disciplines. Religion is not inherently opposed to reason. At the same time, science often flirts with the mystical, veiled in the tortured gravitas of technical nomenclature; calling on the imagination but often reluctant to admit it.

If the current evolution debate is any indication science has hit a wall, reaching a point in its development where once-reliable paradigms will no longer suffice to keep up with the mysteries of existence, seeming greater and more numerous each day. Sorting it all out will take help from disciplines that have focused for centuries on the hidden dimensions of life that science has barely begun to acknowledge. One can only hope more scientists will find the humility to ask.

Isaac Constantine is a writer in New York City.