Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.
Michael Shermer. xxii + 199 pp. Times Books, 2006. $22.
Those of us who live outside the United States can only gawk in
amazement: How is it possible that almost half the adult population
there rejects evolution and believes in the account of creation
found in the book of Genesis? How is it possible that one U.S.
president (Ronald Reagan) could say that evolution is "only a
theory" and another (George W. Bush) that schools should
"teach the controversy"? There is no end of speculation
about how this bizarre situation came about—theories range
from the country's Puritan origins to an inherent
anti-intellectualism—but I find none of it convincing.
In Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design,
Michael Shermer lists several possible reasons why Americans reject
evolution, including the antiscience attitude that is widespread in
the United States and the fear that accepting evolution will subvert
religion and lead to moral nihilism. Are these plausible explanations?
I'm skeptical that Americans really are scared of science. Often
what is called an "antiscience" stance is really a fear of
technology and its effects, from genetically modified foods to
global warming. Fears of moral nihilism, however, are quite real.
Darwinism, many people believe, will undermine religion, thus
undermining morality. The first inference is reasonable, but the
second is not. There's no need to worry about the loss of morality.
(For a detailed discussion of why that is, talk to your friendly
neighborhood philosopher or read the first chapter of Peter Singer's
Although Shermer doesn't offer any more-compelling reasons for his
countrymen's attitudes, he does a good job of explaining what
evolution is, how natural selection works and how "intelligent
design" differs from Darwin's theory. In
particular, Shermer deftly counters the examples that
intelligent-design advocates such as Michael Behe have put forward
as instances of "irreducible complexity." The general
claim is that an "intelligent designer," not blind chance,
must be responsible for the intricate arrangement of some of the
biological structures we see around us. This is where intelligent
design stands or falls as biology. Behe's most famous example, the
flagellum of a bacterium (the little tail that propels the cell),
could not have come about by any Darwinian process, he claims,
because every part is needed in its current form; alter any bit and
the whole collapses like a house of cards.
There are problems galore with this and other such arguments for the
existence of an intelligent designer. First, even if no Darwinian
process that can explain the flagellum is known at present, it does
not follow that no such process exists. This "god of the
gaps" reasoning is a sham. Second, biologists actually do have
a Darwinian explanation for the development of the
flagellum—and for other examples once thought to be
"irreducibly complex." Third, and this is the most
important point (although apparently incomprehensible to
intelligent-design proponents), the way something functions now need
not be the way it has always functioned. The eye, for example, is
sensitive to light; in the past a proto-eye was sensitive to heat.
Moreover, features such as the mammalian spine (which serves
four-legged creatures well but is a near-disaster for us bipeds)
suggest a designer who is none too bright.
After dismissing the best arguments intelligent design has to offer,
Shermer describes what he takes to be the movement's "real
agenda." The Discovery Institute and its fellow travelers are
hoping to bring about a social revolution that makes conservative
Christianity the center of American life. The fight over Darwin is
just a "wedge," as Phillip Johnson, a law professor and
one of the originators of the intelligent-design movement, has
called it. "This isn't really, and never has been, a debate
about science," he said in 1996. "It's about
religion." When scientists and philosophers react with
anger, it's because they know what's really going on.
Shermer is quite aware that he's in a battle over culture as well as
science, so he often tries to soothe the ruffled feathers of
Christians, though not with complete success. After attacking
intelligent design as utterly silly, he sympathetically quotes the
theologian Paul Tillich: "God does not exist. He is being
itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God
exists is to deny him." This statement strikes me as bordering
on nonsense, and it almost inclines me to sympathize with
fundamentalists appalled with the blither that often passes for
Shermer is at his worst when he tries to make nice. Hence, Chapter
7, "Why Science Cannot Contradict Religion," is the
weakest in the book. Shermer surveys three possible ways of viewing
the relation between religion and science—as a state of war,
as two roads to the same end, and as separate realms. He adopts the
last. The late Stephen Jay Gould, whom Shermer mentions, articulated
such a view in his book Rocks of Ages. The idea is that
science deals with the way the world is and religion deals with
morality, meaning and purpose. The realms are completely different,
so there's no conflict.
This notion sounds good until we give the matter a moment's thought.
Religious people, in this view, shouldn't concern themselves with
human origins, and scientists (as scientists) shouldn't worry about
determining what's right and wrong. Philosophers know this as the
fact-value distinction—and they also know its flaws. Consider
this question: Is homosexuality a disease? Of course not, but why?
Does the assertion that homosexuality is a disease fail as a factual
claim or as a value/religious one? The answer is far from clear. And
in trying to decide where the statement falls, are we arguing within
the realm of facts or of values? The distinction is highly
problematic and won't rescue Shermer's hopes for peaceful
coexistence. Within the values realm we are still faced with
questions, such as Which values are the right ones? Reason and
evidence must play a role here, just as they must in the factual
realm. And once we accept that idea, there is no way the precepts of
religion are going to escape the impartial glare of reason. Even if
science, as Shermer claims, can't contradict religion, reason
The next chapter is also implausible. In it, Shermer tries to
convince fundamentalists that they should embrace evolution. Why?
Because creating humans via evolution is much more impressive than
doing it at a stroke. Appealing to some warmed-over sociobiology,
Shermer goes on to assure religious conservatives that the
evolutionary process will yield sexual monogamy and instill in us
the sort of self-interest that Adam Smith commended for a
flourishing market economy. The connection, superficial though it
is, is that competition and struggle in the biological realm will
carry over to the world of commerce. Any religious conservative with
half a brain should see through this smoke screen. Those who don't
see this silliness for what it is might enthusiastically pursue the
matter by reading Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, only
to be shocked to learn that (according to Dawkins) male philandering
and homosexuality are completely "natural."
No fundamentalist will find Shermer's argument here palatable or be
remotely content with a mechanism that replaces God as a source of
morality, even when it produces the kind of behavior the
conservative wants. And what about those of us—religious or
not—who are appalled at the unbridled capitalism in the United
States that leaves so many of its citizens in poverty? Are we to
find Shermer's account a cheery tale? Could he really believe this
odious drivel? I suspect not.
Like others before him (notably, Gould in Rocks of Ages and
Michael Ruse in Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?), Shermer
wants to pacify Christians, especially the fence-sitters, hoping to
keep them from falling into the antievolution camp. To that end, he
tells tales to make believers think they can swallow the Darwin pill
with no side effects. I understand this strategy, but I doubt it
will work. Better to be straightforward and to point out that there
are serious tensions. Either do that or simply leave the matter
undiscussed and let the religious sort things out for themselves. It
should be noted that the strategy of soothing ruffled feathers has
not worked so far. Perhaps fundamentalists find it rather
patronizing—I wouldn't blame them if they did.
Although Shermer's attempt to placate the irrationally religious is
an unwelcome failure, that does not detract from the considerable
value of the scientific parts of his book. His explanation of
Darwinism and his presentation of the evidence for it are very good,
as is his account of what is wrong with intelligent design. Shermer
also makes clear why it is important to accept Darwin's theory:
Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters
because science matters. Science matters because it is the
preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we
came from, and where we are going.
I couldn't agree more, which brings me back to the question I posed
at the beginning, about why the United States differs from the rest
of the developed world on this issue. I can offer a guess—and
I do mean guess.
It's often said there are no atheists in a foxhole. This may well be
true—terror can induce all sorts of beliefs, including grossly
false ones about witches, AIDS or the communist menace. And socially
and economically, Americans genuinely have much to fear. Good jobs
are disappearing, wages are falling, schools are decaying and
massive numbers of people have no health care. The gap between rich
and poor is huge and growing. (Where's the god of the gaps when you
really need one?) Unlike people in other industrialized nations,
Americans have little in the way of social services to fall back on.
It's small wonder so many are taking comfort in religion.
Books such as Why Darwin Matters helpfully clarify the
scientific situation for the general reader. But I suspect reason
won't prevail in the United States until there is, for example, a
decent national health care system in place. Then Americans can
begin to climb out of their foxholes.