Scientists Take on Intelligent Design [1]

[ Sun. Jun. 18. 2006 ]

Science journalism is a demanding profession, and the list of its great practitioners is not long. Even shorter, however, is the list of professional scientists who write engaging and accessible prose - who write, in short, excellent popular science. The literary agent for a large subset of that group is John Brockman, himself an author as well as literary entrepreneur. In "Intelligent Thought" (Vintage, 272 pages, $14), he has assembled a set of 16 essays, each responding to the current, anti-evolution Intelligent Design Movement (IDM), and the authors include some of the best-known science writers.

The war (it must be so named) between science and the fundamentalist faith-driven IDM is of a deeply troubling import for science education, and for science itself - thus inevitably for contemporary culture. How serious the implications are has only recently been recognized, probably too late for a reasonable cessation of hostilities. The wake-up call seems to have been national coverage, in all the media, of the "Dover" trial, which ended in December, 2005. In it, the plaintiffs - parents and teachers in the Dover, Penn., school district sought relief from an action of the district's Board of Education, which had in effect mandated the addition of Intelligent Design Theory (so-called) to the public school biology curriculum and classrooms. Presiding over the lengthy trial was U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, III. An extract from his painstaking and scholarly opinion is an appendix to this book. It is perhaps its most immediately valuable contribution. What are these often eloquent essays about, are they needed, and are they helpful?

The contributors represent a broad range of scientific disciplines. Richard Dawkins, for example, is a noted evolutionary biologist, as are Jerry Coyne and Neil Shubin. Leonard Susskind is a theoretical physicist; so is Lee Smolin. Greatly respected are philosopher-cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett; paleontologists Tim White and Scott Sampson; psychologists Steven Pinker, Nicholas Humphrey, and Marc Hauser; physicists Seth Lloyd and Lisa Randall; mathematical biologist Stuart Kauffman; anthropologist Scott Atran, and historian of science and behaviorist Frank Sulloway.

In the opening essay, "Intelligent Design: The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name," Mr. Coyne sets forth the argument that the IDM is motivated by religion and is, rather than serious scholarship, a faith-based attack on the architecture and trustworthiness of natural science. This is a strong but by now routine presentation of the case, and Mr. Coyne's expert treatments of it have appeared elsewhere, for example in the New Republic. The prolific Mr. Dennett writes on "The Hoax of Intelligent Design and How It Was Perpetrated." Hoax is a belligerent word, but the argument supporting it is solid.

Mr. Dennett's essay is not a paper-trail of the IDM: There is no such thing in this book - a significant lack. But a rich paper trail certainly exists. The IDM's history - with documentation - was presented in Harrisburg, Penn., by plaintiff's witness Barbara Forrest. It was eye-opening and central to the Dover outcome. In the trial, the IDM's attempt on the science curriculum was ruled unconstitutional. Mr. Dennett's contribution is a sharp expose of the IDM's logical and epistemological blunders.

Mr. Humphrey, examining the certainty that consciousness itself is a product of evolution, explains why it must be that, and presents a delicious paradox of consciousness research: An evolving consciousness among higher animals must have produced the insistent denial in us - conscious animals - that consciousness has evolved. Mr. White offers a short but authoritative review of hominid paleontology. We have today an embarrassment of riches in what were once called "missing links": our own, non-human ancestors, as well as those of many other contemporary vertebrates. There is no longer any question that our species had ancestors.

Mr. Dawkins dissects with eloquence the illusion of intelligent-agent design in natural objects. Mr. Sulloway's contribution is a short but incisive account of Darwin's initial failure to understand what he saw and collected in the Galapagos, and his subsequent epiphany on the meaning of those observations for "the species question," that is, for belief in the immutability of the biblical "kinds."

Steven Pinker addresses the common fear underlying most forms of resistance to evolution. It gives rise to the ancient claim that without revealed religion and its key principle - that humankind is of special concern to and under continuous observation by a powerful God - the moral order would collapse; we would succumb to a destructive anarchy. But the evidence is clear that all humans possess a moral sense independently of the details of their religion, if any, and that religion in us is a plausible, indeed an inevitable, consequence of evolutionary history.

This volume has other pleasures, including Lee Smolin on several forms of the Anthropic Principle and the relevance thereto of recent cosmology requiring a multiverse, rather than "the universe"; Stuart Kauffman, whose mathematics of self-organization is often misunderstood as a denial of Darwinism, clarifies in his essay the position in no uncertain terms; Lisa Randall offers a theoretical physicist's view of the facts of evolution and the "theory" of intelligent design, from which she derives the conclusion that


Whoever is responsible [for the history of life] is just trying out various possibilities. We don't have an intelligent designer (ID), we have a bungling consistent evolver (BCE). Or maybe an adaptive changer (AC). In fact, what we have in the most economical interpretation is, of course, evolution.

This collection is helpful but not because it provides the primary knowledge base for the current effort to limit the impact of the IDM - a politically potent hoax with an excellent public relations machine and adequate funding. The necessary primary sources on the IDM and on the relevant science are already available in excellent recent books and in a rising stream of papers in the relevant scientific literature and on the Internet. Nothing coming from these reliable scientific sources constitutes or implies the existence of a "conflict" of "theories."

There is no scientific conflict. ID is not a theory in the ordinary sense of science, and it is certainly not a reputable "alternate view" of the planet's life. It has no unique content other than its claim for the existence of a designer. It is not worthy of the time it would take away from real science in the schools, where the time is already far too short. It is in fact the denial of theory, supported only by unsupported claims of flaws in Darwinism. No positive scientific evidence has ever been offered for ID.

We need this book because its authors have name recognition with the general reading public, because they write well, and because the fight will not end any time soon. Humanity needs to come to grips, sooner rather than later, with its biological meanings, and with the values and anti-values of its religious belief systems. The fight is just beginning. If the real values of religion and spirituality, which include humility before the wonders of nature, are to survive our rising tastes for religious war and destruction, then more than just an elite among us must understand science - and what it yields as description of physical reality through deep time. The more often the small faction of us who read can pause to browse engaging books like "Intelligent Thought," the better is the chance that we can stop the impetus of Homo sapiens toward self-destruction.


Mr. Gross last wrote for these pages about Charles Darwin.