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scientists confront intelligent design and creationism page 2

17 june 2007

While the creationists who inspired Godfrey's 1981 volume were largely innocent of scientific method, newer-issue "intelligent design" advocates like Michael Behe and William Dembski have made at least an attempt to critique evolutionary theory in scientific terms. As 2007 contributor J. Michael Plavcan notes in an insightful essay,

Creation scientists are strident not only in their belief in a literal interpretation of biblical Creation but also in the acceptance of "science" as a valid and important phenomenon. Hence, there seems to be a dissonance forced by their simultaneous acceptance of literal biblical authority and the overwhelming opinion held by the scientific community of a disconfirming theory. (373-74)
Plavcan, it seems to me, gets at one of the most puzzling aspects of the evolution wars. Why would people of faith, confronted by a scientific method that is at best utterly indifferent to faith, insist on pressing their claims in terms of that method?

For indeed they do. Dembski has devoted considerable thought to developing an algorithm that is supposed to separate deliberate design in living things from naturally selected features (see the essays by Wesley R. Elsberry and by Robert T. Pennock in Scientists Confront). Behe has argued intensely for the impossibility, in what he says are purely scientific terms, of the natural development of complex biological systems.

Science, for such people, carries almost as much cultural capital as religion. Ultimately religion carries more – hence their near-fanatical determination to express their religious critiques in scientific terms.

Intelligent-design advocates are not far from those researchers I wondered at in reviewing Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code: people who insist that they have found the coffin of Jesus' brother, or explain how He could have walked on water with the help of a well-placed spring cold snap. It is as if some literal-minded contemporary Christians are literally diffident about mysteries. Almost all are Protestant. (By contrast, fervent belief in the mysterious, combined with an untroubled attitude toward the physical, has been increasingly the norm for Catholics since the time of Galileo.) As Protestants, IDers subscribe to an empirical, pragmatist worldview. If revelation says that God is the Creator, it by God ought to be possible to get lab results that indicate as much. But then they wonder why they can't get grant funding to carry out their work.

As Pennock explains, "intelligent design" is certainly a possible answer to the problem of the meaning of life. But it is not a scientific answer. Behe and Dembski, for instance, point to biological systems that biologists are incapable of explaining by recourse to natural selection. (Often they are just wrong about that incapacity, but let's just say.) If we can't explain how the whale got his throat, perhaps, then we must say that some divine engineer built that throat for the whale.

But Pennock notes, and the italics are his, that "anything might be designed in any circumstances in just the same way that anything might be intended in any circumstances" (321). God might have designed the sycamore outside my window just as some hardware engineer assuredly designed the laptop I'm writing this review on. The problem is, we can investigate the design of the laptop, by calling up the company and asking them who does the good work. "Intelligent design" coyly refuses such investigation. "Who made the sycamore, then?" is a legitimate question. "We must not ask, child, but we are certain it was a Designer," says the ID specialist. And among the reasons not to ask is the aforementioned Edwards v. Aguillard, where the Supreme Court found that to teach creationist beliefs alongside evolution is to promote religion. By stopping short of naming the Designer, ID folks thought to have found a way around the Edwards doctrine – until Kitzmiller v. Dover wasn't impressed with that particular veil of reticence, either.

"ID explanations begin and end with an appeal to the featureless hypothesis, 'It was designed'," says Pennock (323). That isn't science. Scientists frequently have to say "I dunno," but that's always temporary. Next year someone will get a grant to try to figure out why we dunno. But "It was designed" admits of only one course of investigation: the theological. And our ID researcher will not get a grant to take that direction, not even if s/he teaches biology at Brigham Young or Baylor. S/he will certainly get no standing in the academic community of biologists for asking what kind of God made little green apples.

Meanwhile, the real struggle is not about the hearts and minds of scientists or even of the NSF. It's about the next generation, growing up impressionable, and likely to stay just as ignorant as I stayed back in the early 1970s in South Jersey. Because one reason I had such a staggeringly superficial grounding in evolutionary theory is that the entire politics of education at the elementary and secondary levels in this country is geared toward keeping kids confused about biology.

I remember the one day that my 10th-grade teacher spent on the origin of species, for instance. We were taught that people used to believe that barnacles could turn into geese and fly away, until Louis Pasteur, uncontent with merely sterilizing milk, did an experiment (I imagine involving goose eggs in one box and barnacles in another) and concluded that geese beget only geese, barnacles only barnacles.

Fascinating, but what the hell did it mean? It might have meant (ex nihilo nihil) that there is no creation in nature, just descent. Which would still have left me to deduce all of evolutionary biology from that one observation, but at least might have pointed me in the right direction. But it could also have meant, now that I think about it, that species don't turn into other species. There are almost certainly 40-something casual lay creationists alive today who drew exactly that lesson from Mrs. Jordan's Fundamentals of Biology. And after a day on Pasteur and the barnacle geese, we went back to sticking fetal pigs and growing beansprouts in Dixie cups.

Creationist pressures on education make school boards and teachers reluctant to teach even basic ideas about evolution to children. Either reluctant to teach them at all, or reluctant to teach them with the flair and energy that good teachers can generate when discussing the periodic table or To Kill a Mockingbird.

In such a crisis, a book like Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism is both vitally necessary and somewhat doomed in advance. The ideal audience for this carefully-reasoned rebuttal of ID is doubtless people like me: educated non-professionals who need informing and bolstering. But its authors can be a bit testy at times (if you'd been explaining the obvious for decades, wouldn't you be?) And even the most careful rehearsal of evolutionary arguments will not change the minds of those who are determined from the outset to disregard rebuttal.

Creationists, as John R. Cole shows in a piece on the "wedge" tactic used by creationists, are essentially hostile to any teaching of science. Because science purports to explain the natural world, creationists (and their ID allies) would like to wrest that explanatory enterprise away from scientists and place it in the hands of people who would stop looking for answers that raise further questions to be answered – to place natural science in the hands of those who simply want to admire the handiwork of an (unspecified!) Designer.

Science isn't about to go away any time soon. For one thing, there's way too much money in bioengineering (ironically, the one completely natural form of "intelligent design") for our society to demolish basic research in biology. But one wonders how many more of tomorrow's bioengineers could come from the American public school system if we actually threw ourselves into teaching biology there. In the meantime, our public education system is being held hostage by people who would prefer it to be parochial, in all senses of that word.

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Petto, Andrew J., and Laurie R. Godfrey, eds. Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism. New York: Norton, 2007.