Darwin

Frederick Crews writes in 2001:

* Darwin’s contemporaries saw at once what a heavy blow he was striking against piety. His theory entailed the inference that we are here today not because God reciprocates our love, forgives our sins, and attends to our entreaties but because each of our oceanic and terrestrial foremothers was lucky enough to elude its predators long enough to reproduce.

* Richard Dawkins has asserted that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” What he meant was not that Darwinism requires us to disbelieve in God. Rather, if we are already inclined to apprehend the universe in strictly physical terms, the explanatory power of natural selection removes the last obstacle to our doing so. That obstacle was the seemingly irrefutable “argument from design” most famously embodied in William Paley’s Natural Theology of 1802. By showing in principle that order could arise without an artificer who is more complex than his artifacts, Darwin robbed Paley’s argument of its scientific inevitability.

* the Darwinian outlook is potentially a “universal acid” penetrating “all the way down” to the origin of life on Earth and “all the way up” to a satisfyingly materialistic reduction of mind and soul.

* Working evolutionists, once they notice that Behe’s and Dembski’s “findings” haven’t been underwritten by a single peer-reviewed paper, are disinclined to waste their time refuting them. Until recently, even those writers who do conscientiously alert the broad public to the fallacies of creationism have allowed intelligent design to go unchallenged. But that deficit has now been handsomely repaired by two critiques: Robert T. Pennock’s comprehensive and consistently rational Tower of Babel, the best book opposing creationism in all of its guises, and Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, whose brilliant first half reveals in bracing detail that intelligent design is out of touch with recent research.

* The proper way to assess any theory is to weigh its explanatory advantages against those of every extant rival. Neo-Darwinian natural selection is endlessly fruitful, enjoying corroboration from an imposing array of disciplines, including paleontology, genetics, systematics, embryology, anatomy, biogeography, biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, physical anthropology, and ethology. By contrast, intelligent design lacks any naturalistic causal hypotheses and thus enjoys no consilience with any branch of science. Its one unvarying conclusion—“God must have made this thing”—would preempt further investigation and place biological science in the thrall of theology.

Even the theology, moreover, would be hobbled by contradictions. Intelligent design awkwardly embraces two clashing deities—one a glutton for praise and a dispenser of wrath, absolution, and grace, the other a curiously inept cobbler of species that need to be periodically revised and that keep getting snuffed out by the very conditions he provided for them. Why, we must wonder, would the shaper of the universe have frittered away thirteen billion years, turning out quadrillions of useless stars, before getting around to the one thing he really cared about, seeing to it that a minuscule minority of earthling vertebrates are washed clean of sin and guaranteed an eternal place in his company? And should the God of love and mercy be given credit for the anopheles mosquito, the schistosomiasis parasite, anthrax, smallpox, bubonic plague…? By purporting to detect the divine signature on every molecule while nevertheless conceding that natural selection does account for variations, the champions of intelligent design have made a conceptual mess that leaves the ancient dilemmas of theodicy harder than ever to resolve.

* In recent decades both Kristol and Himmelfarb have been ideological bellwethers for the monthly Commentary, which, interestingly enough, has itself entered combat in the Darwin wars. In 1996 the magazine caused a ripple of alarm in scientific circles by publishing David Berlinski’s essay “The Deniable Darwin,” a florid and flippant attack that rehearsed some of the time-worn creationist canards (natural selection is just a tautology, it contravenes the second law of thermodynamics, and so forth) while adding the latest arguments from intelligent design. And as if to show how unimpressed they were by the corrections that poured in from evolutionists, the editors brought Berlinski onstage for an encore in 1998, this time declaring that he hadn’t been taken in by party-line apologetics for the Big Bang, either.
In answering his dumbfounded critics, Berlinski—now a fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, an organization founded to promote anti-Darwinian ideas—denied that he is a creationist. What he surely meant, however, was that he isn’t a young-Earth creationist.

* Commentary is not the only rightward- leaning magazine to have put out a welcome mat for intelligent design. For some time now, Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, has been using Phillip Johnson as his authority on the failings of natural selection—this despite the fact that Johnson’s willful incomprehension of the topic has been repeatedly documented by reviewers. On the dust jacket of The Wedge of Truth, furthermore, Neuhaus calls Johnson’s case against Darwin “comprehensive and compellingly persuasive,” adding, remarkably, that its equal may not be found “in all the vast literature on Darwinism, evolution, creation and theism.”

Further: when, in 1995, the neoconservative New Criterion sought an appropriate reviewer for Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—a book that rivals Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker as creationism’s bête noire—it was Johnson again who was chosen to administer the all-too-predictable put-down. The New Criterion’s poor opinion of evolutionism can be traced to its managing editor Roger Kimball’s esteem for the late philosopher David Stove, whose book Darwinian Fairytales (1995) is notable for its obtusely impressionistic way of evaluating scientific hypotheses. But since Kimball and The New Criterion regularly divide the world’s thinkers into those who have and haven’t undermined Western ethics, here once again the ultimate source of anti-Darwinian feeling may be moral gloom.

* Liberals and radicals who have been taught in college to believe that rival scientific paradigms are objectively incommensurable, that the real arbiter between theories is always sociopolitical power, and that Western science has been an oppressor of dispossessed women, minorities, and workers will be lukewarm at best toward Darwin. The latter, after all, shared the prejudices of his age and allowed some of them to inform his speculations about racial hierarchy and innate female character. Then, too, there is the sorry record of Social Darwinism to reckon with. Insofar as it has become habitual to weigh theories according to the attitudinal failings of their devisers and apostles, natural selection is shunned by some progressives, who are thus in no position to resist the creationist offensive. And while other leftists do broadly accede to evolutionism, much of their polemical energy is directed not against creationists but against Darwinian “evolutionary psychologists,” a.k.a. sociobiologists, who speculate about the adaptive origins of traits and institutions that persist today.

* Take, for example, The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith by Robert Pollack, a molecular biologist at Columbia University and the director of its recently founded Center for the Study of Science and Religion. The title of Pollack’s book appears to promise a vision encompassing the heavens above and the lab below. By the time he gets to evolution on page 2, however, the project has already collapsed. There he tells us that a Darwinian understanding of the natural world “is simply too terrifying and depressing to me to be borne without the emotional buffer of my own religion.” By cleaving to the Torah he can lend “an irrational certainty of meaning and purpose to a set of data that otherwise show no sign of supporting any meaning to our lives on earth beyond that of being numbers in a cosmic lottery with no paymaster.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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