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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > March-April 2007 > Bookshelf Detail


Fundamentally Mistaken

James Brown

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 Practical Ethics.)

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 liberal theology.

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 certainly can.

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.


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