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Survival of the Evolution Debate

Why Darwin is still a lightning rod.

Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By ADAM WOLFSON
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WHAT IS IT ABOUT EVEN the slightest dissent from Darwin's theory of natural selection that drives liberal elites (and even some conservative elites) bonkers? In the 1920s, in the days of the Scopes trial, it was the fact that anyone could believe the story of Genesis in a literal way that offended the delicate sensibilities of our cultural mavens. Then in the 1970s it was something called "creation science" that drove them apoplectic. Today it is the heresy of "intelligent design" that they seek to extirpate root and branch. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, liberals are haunted by the specter that someone, somewhere harbors doubts about Darwin's theory.

But in truth most people nowadays do believe evolution's basics--which is to say that species evolve--and most people believe that natural selection explains part of the change or adaptation. Where there is doubt or disagreement, as there always has been, is over whether natural selection explains everything. Despite what you might think from reading the New York Times, there is nothing indecent or philistine about this question, a question Darwin himself considered of the utmost importance. As he commented in On the Origin of Species, "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down."

Enter in the 1990s the intelligent design movement, also known simply as ID, an interconnected group of biochemists, mathematicians, and philosophers of science who argue that certain forms of biological complexity, what they call "irreducible complexity," cannot in fact come into being by Darwin's "numerous, successive, slight modifications" but require instead an intelligent designer. Some scientists with first-rate credentials, namely Michael J. Behe and William Dembski, are the driving intellectual force behind the theory of intelligent design. Relying in particular on recent discoveries in biochemistry and mathematical physics, they argue that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection cannot explain the existence of some complex biological systems. That is to say, the emergence of these systems is neither mathematically nor biochemically plausible without some intelligent designer in the background. For example, according to the biochemist Behe, we haven't a clue how certain highly complex biological systems at the cellular level, such as the mechanism of blood clotting, could have emerged via natural selection. "All parts must function in synchrony or the system breaks down," he explains.

In making such claims the IDers are putting old wine in a new bottle. Some version of the design thesis is to be found in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and, perhaps most famously, in the writings of William Paley. The 18th-century English theologian argued that when we find a watch we infer a watchmaker; so too when we discover evidence of design in nature we properly infer a Maker or Creator. The basic point is that one can make a legitimate, rational inference from the orderliness and regularity of the cosmos to some sort of intelligent first mover. And it's important to point out that this inference was thought, up until recent times, to stand on its own merits, requiring no assistance from Divine Revelation.

In rejecting this inference, Darwin himself was hardly a path breaker, though clearly his assault on the inference was one of the most powerful ever made. For example, before him, the philosopher David Hume unleashed an influential critique of the notion of what he called an "intelligent cause"--a notion he viewed as utterly useless and uncertain. In sum: This is a venerable debate, indeed, and one that has never been settled.

But is this really a scientific debate, a question that science in the strict or modern sense of the term can solve? Here's where things get tricky. It is the contention of many IDers that their case for intelligent design is science, and that it should thus be taught as a part of the science curriculum in the public schools. Similarly, it is the mantra of the Discovery Institute, a think tank dedicated to furthering the cause of intelligent design, that the controversy between intelligent design and natural selection should be a part of any science curriculum. Even President Bush has weighed in on the matter, declaring that "both sides ought to be properly taught."

ID's liberal critics disagree, calling intelligent design a cover for religion, and in late December, in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, a federal judge reached the same conclusion. At issue was the constitutionality of including in the science curriculum the reading of the following statement: "Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. . . . With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind."

Though this statement might seem innocuous enough, Judge John Jones III, an appointee of George W. Bush, concluded that "the writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity," and thus to teach their theories runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Certainly, the Discovery Institute has made clear its goal "to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."

What is one to make of this latest skirmish in our nation's culture wars? Often overlooked is the fact that one does not have to be a card-carrying liberal to have qualms about the modern-day rendition of intelligent design, and that there is much more to this story than either Orthodox Darwinians or IDers are willing to admit.

The philosopher Robert George of Princeton argues that IDers have, to be sure, performed a useful service in their critical program. They have better than most shown how natural selection comes up short as a universal meta-explanation. And they have also highlighted how many of today's popularizers of Darwinism, for example biologists Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould, have misused Darwinian theory as a battering-ram against religion. Dawkins, for one, famously stated that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist," and that "if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane."

Well, if the point of Darwinism is to refute the existence of God, as these popularizers tend to claim, then it too would have to be excluded from the science curriculum. The Supreme Court, after all, has ruled that the state must remain neutral between religion and irreligion. In their more heated polemics, Darwin's popularizers paint themselves into this intellectual corner.

However that may be, George raises serious questions about the constructive aspect of the IDers' program, the point at which they attempt to replace natural selection with intelligent design. As George points out, there's nothing wrong with making an inference from biological complexity to an intelligent designer, an inference that is perfectly rational, even if it is not "scientific" per se. Aquinas, after all, was a great rationalist. "It is important for IDers to avoid buying into an imperialistic understanding of science, which says that if it's not the scientific method it's not rational," he comments. What's needed is not a "scientific" refutation of Darwin, but a philosophic understanding of what Darwinian theory says, and what it does not say.

Stephen Barr, a theoretical physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware, and a frequent contributor to the journal First Things on matters of science and culture, also believes that some IDers have strayed beyond the confines of science strictly understood. As he comments, "The design hypothesis is a perfectly reasonable one, but it is an explanation outside of natural science." Like George, he believes some IDers have erred in trying to shoehorn the design thesis into science curriculums. In doing so, moreover, they make a mistake similar to that of Darwin's popularizers, claiming more for their theory than the science itself allows. "There are dogmatists on both sides of the debate," Barr observes.

The former head of the President's Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, has also been following this debate. A physician and Harvard-trained biochemist, Kass credits IDers for drawing attention to various difficulties in orthodox Darwinian theory, as well as for understanding the human stakes involved in such questions. And he believes IDers are generally right in raising the question of causality--a question that should in fact be at the center of a true science of nature. In other words, these are genuinely important questions. "But the IDers' assertion that the only possible answer is a Designer-God is not warranted. There is simply no evidence in support of this proposition."

It seems pretty clear that ID, as a public teaching, is going to meet the same fate as creation science. This modern update of an older understanding will not soon be taught as part of the science curriculum in our public schools. And this may be a good thing, in so far as it isn't really "science" anyway. What's unfortunate is that the ideology of Darwinism--that is, the mistaken notion that Darwin defeated God--not only reigns culturally supreme, but also apparently increasingly has the legal backing of the state.

The policy question 80 years ago, in the famous Scopes trial, was whether a public school teacher ought to be allowed to teach students about Darwin's theory of evolution. The question of today is nearly the opposite--whether anything other than orthodox Darwinism will be taught in the public schools. This marks not so much enlightenment's progress as a narrowing of our intellectual horizons.

Adam Wolfson is consulting editor of Commentary magazine and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.