Monday, August 22, 2005

"Intelligent design" dividing God and evolution?

The debate over Intelligent Design (or ID), has become particularly acute in recent months and years. School boards and state and local governments in Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas have exerted considerable effort at introducing it into public schools. In and of itself, this is unexceptional -- the creationism/evolution debate has been going on for over a century -- but this old debate now has a new air of credibility, if not acceptability. Language inserted by Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum into versions of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act made the seemingly innocuous mandate:
Where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy.
What's so objectionable about that? After all, shouldn't our students understand why some people object to evolutionary biology and how to respond to those objections? Unfortunately, this was not the intent of that language at all. By cleverly exploiting the American public's combined religiosity and ignorance of evolutionary biology, IDers have been able to convince a wide swath of the public that it is not only good to have both sides of any debate, but that there are surely gaps in neo-Darwinism that only an Intelligent Designer could fill.

In parallel to the debate in public schools, which has increasingly worried some IDers as being "too much, too fast," our political and religious leaders have weighed in, as well. On July 7, 2005, in a New York Times Op-Ed entitled "Finding Design in Nature," the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, began the process of deconstructing John Paul II's statement in a 1996 letter that evolution is "more than just a hypothesis":

The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.


Naturally, the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees: ''Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason.'' It adds: ''We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance.''

Riding the domestic wave of support for ID, President Bush recently began his own personal exploration of the boundaries of science and religion, taking a weaker stance than that of Schönborn, but parroting the Discovery Institute's talking points (PDF) in his inimitably cosmopolitan way:

"I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought...You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes."

Very clever, Mr. President! Irving Kristol would be proud! As Paul Krugman puts it on the NY Times Op-Ed page on August 5, three days after President Bush's statement:

...what if creationists do to evolutionary theory what corporate interests did to global warming: create a widespread impression that the scientific consensus has shaky foundations?

Creationists failed when they pretended to be engaged in science, not religious indoctrination: ''creation science'' was too crude to fool anyone. But intelligent design, which spreads doubt about evolution without being too overtly religious, may succeed where creation science failed.

The success of ID will depend on convincing enough Americans that neo-Darwinism excludes God (as Schönborn appears to believe), that ID is simply another possible explanation for biological origins, that all IDers want is to have a fair debate on the subject, and that it's all really just an extension of the Red State/Blue State, conservative/liberal divide that has swept the nation.

The problem is that ID has no standing as a true scientific theory. No, I'm not going to cite the definition of "theory", as everyone seems to when discussing this topic; rather, I want to point out, following Jerry Coyne's incredible article in The New Republic this month (subscription only), the basic set of facts we should be keeping in mind when talking about ID:

  • Evolution (i.e., descent by modification) is an extraordinarily well confirmed fact; it is not just "an assumption" or just "a theory." By the way, if the word "theory" is properly defined, the phrase "just a theory" is meaningless.
  • Intelligent design has produced no cracks in evolutionary or neo-Darwinian theory; indeed, natural selection and descent by modification have been extremely powerful for explaining natural phenomena and providing a rationalization for "nature, red in tooth and claw."
  • ID has no research program of its own (only one "peer-reviewed" article in the controversial submission of a paper to the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington by Stephen Meyer).
  • ID is historically rooted in "creation science", but modified for today's legal landscape.
But most importantly, we need to be very careful about how we talk about religion. My dad is an evangelical Anglican minister in Southern California. I deeply respect him, even though he and I may disagree on a couple of issues. We do agree, however, on the fact that evolution occurred. But he adds to his acceptance of Darwinian evolution a very deep sense of God's purpose for the Universe and for humanity. Let's be sure that we can build a discursive framework that buries ID but can include people like my dad.

Calling it "intelligent design" was brilliant, obscuring the difference between a supposed body of scientific theory ("intelligent design") and the assertion that God created the Universe. Most Americans believe that God did in fact create the Universe, so provided IDers can maintain the false dichotomy of God v. Evolution, those poorly informed of the debate (i.e., most of the American public) will continue to find it odd if not offensive that anyone would oppose even mentioning "intelligent design" in public schools. The argument would go something like this: "Darwin never included God in his theory, and I believe in God, therefore evolutionary biology is too narrow." It is because of this divorce of God from evolution that our great nation is in the weird place that it is.

The best way for us to fight ID is to insist that God and evolution are compatible. Do not, under any circumstances, make fun of anyone's religion!

The dKos community could probably benefit from getting into some of the reasonable discussions of this topic available from the religious end of the debate. I recommend a set of recent articles, as forwarded to me by my dad, written by Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic, John F. Haught in Commonweal, John Garvey also in Commonweal, and John McMullen in Catholic Exchange. For me, the best quote is from Wieseltier:

The cunning souls who propound intelligent design are playing with fire, because they have introduced intelligence into the discussion. It is a standard to which they, too, must be held. The theory of intelligent design must itself be intelligently designed. I cannot judge the soundness of their science, but that is not the only standpoint from which they must be judged. Their science, after all, is pledged to a philosophy. Philosophically speaking, I do not see that they have demonstrated what they congratulate themselves for demonstrating. The "argument from design," the view that the evidence for the existence of God may be found in the organization of the natural world, is an ancient argument, but philosophers have grasped, at least since the sixth section of the third chapter of the second book of the Critique of Pure Reason, that it may establish only the wisdom of a creator, and not the existence of one. It is impossible, of course, not to marvel at the complexity and the beauty of the natural order; but marveling is not thinking. The mind may recoil from the possibility that all this sublimity came into being by accident, but it cannot, on those grounds alone, rule the possibility out, unless it is concerned only to cure its own pain. (Cosmic accident is also an occasion for awe.) Intelligent design is an expression of sentiment, not an exercise of reason. It is a psalm, not a proof.

I hope you find this useful.

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