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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 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.