August 19, 2005

TNR, Slate and Slacktivist on Intelligent Design

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:10 pm

I really think this intelligent design debate is a distraction from the important issues for Christians, say, ending extreme poverty in Africa. But there are a lot of interesting things being written on the topic worth blogging about. Here are a couple more.

First, Fred Clark, aka Slacktivist, has an excellent rebuttal to a piece by Jacob Weisberg in Slate. Weisberg seems to have the opposite reason than Christian fundamentalists for insisting that one can’t both be a Christian and believe in evolution — he wants to shoot down Christianity, not evolution. This is the real downside for the intelligent design argument: since evolution is demonstrably true, then Christianity must be false. Also be sure to check out Fred’s follow-up post as well (I will never look at a beetle, or an ostrich, in quite the same way again.)

And then, not able to avoid the ID debate, I cracked open my print copy of the New Republic, and caught an article with the most comprehensive rebuttal to ID I’ve seen. Maybe this is old news to some of you — it’s been on the web for a week — but I had missed it until now.

In the article, Jerry Coyne covers the scientific evidence for evolution and against intelligent design:

Insofar as intelligent-design theory can be tested scientifically, it has been falsified. Organisms simply do not look as if they had been intelligently designed. Would an intelligent designer create millions of species and then make them go extinct, only to replace them with other species, repeating this process over and over again? Would an intelligent designer produce animals having a mixture of mammalian and reptilian traits, at exactly the time when reptiles are thought to have been evolving into mammals? Why did the designer give tiny, non-functional wings to kiwi birds? Or useless eyes to cave animals? Or a transitory coat of hair to a human fetus? Or an appendix, an injurious organ that just happens to resemble a vestigial version of a digestive pouch in related organisms? Why would the designer give us a pathway for making vitamin C, but then destroy it by disabling one of its enzymes? Why didn’t the intelligent designer stock oceanic islands with reptiles, mammals, amphibians, and freshwater fish, despite the suitability of such islands for these species? And why would he make the flora and fauna on those islands resemble that of the nearest mainland, even when the environments are very different? Why, about a million years ago, would the designer produce creatures that have an apelike cranium perched atop a humanlike skeleton? And why would he then successively replace these creatures with others having an ever-closer resemblance to modern humans?

Coyne then goes on to the motive of proponents of intelligent design. He quotes a Christian journalist’s description of the strategy of Phillip Johnson, a retired law professor and ID advocate:

Johnson calls his movement “The Wedge.” The objective, he said, is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism v. evolution to the existence of God v. the nonexistence of God. From there people are introduced to “the truth” of the Bible and then “the question of sin” and finally “introduced to Jesus.”

Of course the problem with this strategy is that Darwinism is not inherently atheistic, unless one insists on adhering to a theology that shrinks God to a tinkerer in a workshop instead of the creator of all that is, seen and unseen. As Coyne points at, and many of us Christian bloggers and commenters exemplify, it is entirely possible to be Christian and to accept evolution as scientific fact.

So why does the ID crowd cling to this antipathy to evolution? Coyne has an answer:

The real issues behind intelligent design–and much of creationism–are purpose and morality: specifically, the fear that if evolution is true, then we are no different from other animals, not the special objects of God’s creation but a contingent product of natural selection, and so we lack real purpose, and our morality is just the law of the jungle. Tom DeLay furnished a colorful example of this view on the floor of the House of Representatives on June 16, 1999. Explaining the causes of the massacre at Columbine High School, he read a sarcastic letter in a Texas newspaper that suggested that “it couldn’t have been because our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud.”

Coyne points out that belief in evolution doesn’t really lead to anarchy: Europe is far more secular than the US, but relatively more peaceful. But this isn’t about a rational fear of increasing crime rates.

I believe the fight against evolution is a symptom of a fear of the loss of moral certainty in life, or what Paul Tillich in The Courage to Be calls “the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness”. It is a terror of falling into a moral abyss with no bottom. Despite the IDers assertion that their objection to evolution is because of their faith, it is based on fear, which of course is a failing of faith.

I’m not about to criticize anyone for struggling with doubt about their religious beliefs. It is part of being human. Which is kind of the point. Instead of fighting in the school boards, we Christians can accept doubt as part of the natural religious experience. Biblical literalism can’t give us stronger faith, only God can do that. We can confess our doubts to God, and let God nurture us and give us the courage to accept the world as we find it. And as God increases our faith, fighting over evolution will seem a lot less important.


  1. “Despite the IDers assertion that their objection to evolution is because of their faith, it is based on fear, which of course is a failing of faith.’


    Comment by wildwest — August 22, 2005 @ 7:15 am

  2. You put so much on the plate here that I cannot in one sitting give a full
    response; but I can’t resist suggesting that if Covine does not think or-
    ganisms are organized, he might do well to get a CT scan, or to open up any
    anatomy text written since the mid-Rennaisance. He may choose to believe
    that his liver is his liver and his spleen is his spleen because of sheer chance,
    and many evolutionary blind alleys; but as in so often in debate and like
    so many, he is so in love with his side that he makes statements (in fairness, in his case, a statement) that his allies themselves would tell him is utter
    Now. We need to remember that this debate, properly framed, is not over
    whether there are evolutionary processes in nature. The scientist proponents
    of ID, and I believe most Jews, Christians and Muslims, would agree thst
    there are; and that many or most of these give every appearance of acting
    randomly and without the direct, case-by-case involvement of an outside in-telligence. The question is whether or not we are to accept as proven beyond
    any reasonable scientific doubt whether these are (or this is) the only acceptable explanation for the history of Everything That There Is. The proponents of *Darwinian* evolution simply have not proven this to be so.

    Nor, so long as we are here where we see through a glass darkly, could they.
    They can, as scientists, say that they have come up with a framework that allows them to reliably, accurately and replicably show how we got from where we
    began to here and now. They are unwise to go beyond this and claim, nay, in some cases insist, that this framework is a final and timeless truth. (Which is exactly what they seem to be doing.) This is simply bad science; and scientists ought to be the first to know it. They are fond of citing Galileo v. The Church, but seem to overlook that what Galileo and Copernicus falsified was no Biblical doctrine, but a *scientific* theory first propounded by Aristotle and then expounded by Ptolemy. In short, scientists who refuse to even discuss a dissenting idea might well be wise to wander through a portrait gallery of
    their predecessors. The ones where the artists painted egg all over their faces.
    In this respect, what strikes me first and foremost about this Scopes Trial
    Revisited is how the roles have so totally reversed. While the proponents of ID seek only to discuss, and to present what they believe are unsnswered or wrongly-answered questions, the Darwinians follow the example of William Jennings Bryan
    and huffily assert that Every Word Of This Is True And Beyond Any Contradiction.

    Quick (or maybe not-so-quick) break.


    Comment by BobW — August 23, 2005 @ 5:54 pm

  3. Now, Part Two.
    Whether we read Genesis literally, poetically or as myth, we and our Jewish and Muslim brethren and sisters know that it expresses truth, and that that truth is that In The Beginning, God [Intelligence} Created [which, though not necessarily synonymous with “designed,” certainly shows prima facie evidence of design.)
    And, far from being the Deist God who then put the whole thing on the sheld,
    our God constantly intervened in it. In the Hebrew Bible, he chooses Abraham and not Lot, Jacob and not Esau, David and not Saul, Nebuchadnezzer to enslave his people and Cyrus to free them. His prophets speak under his direct inspiration. In the New Testament, he literally intervenes “in the flesh.”,
    and later (and to this day) through what we’ll here call a disembodied Spirt.
    Though our Islamic friends deny that Jesus could be one aspect of an indivisible God, they credit Jesus as God’s messenger; and in turn believe that their Koran was literally dictated word for word by Allah. That a God who intervenes so often, so forcefully in historic times did not do so in the prehistoric? C’mpm!

    I have no doubt that your metaphysical comments on this subject of a few dayss ago come closer to the capital – T Truth than anything that either ID or Darwinian Evolutionists are ever going to come up with. Alas, the fight is not at this level; but at one Nils Bohr described as more about our perceptions of reality than reality itself. There’s that “through a glass darkly” again.
    But for Heaven’s sake, let’s let this be discussed. If the Darwinian case is really so airtight, this should in fact be to their advantage and they should be first to want it. In the classroom, under the framework of the scientific method; instead of in the media, where the axes of the extreme partisans ob both sides are so audibly being ground.
    Again regards,

    Comment by BobW — August 23, 2005 @ 6:19 pm

  4. Any biologists out there?

    Comment by wildwest — August 24, 2005 @ 4:26 am

  5. The design IS intelligent.

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law…

    Trackback by A Mind Occasionally Voyaging — October 3, 2005 @ 6:52 pm

  6. Coyne’s arguments are
    1) philosophical in nature. i.e. “Would an intelligent designer create millions of species and then make them go extinct. . ” is not a scientific answer but a philosophical, even theological answer. What would God do is obviously not a scientific question. By asking the question, he’s opened the door to an answer that is equally beyond the province of science. What Coyne wants is to fire off his questions in a science classroom but relegate the answers to his questions to a philosophy classroom.

    2) hidden motive/conspiracy theory/character assassination, i.e. “The real issues behind intelligent design–and much of creationism–are purpose and morality: specifically, the fear . . .” So everyone who opposes Coyne’s viewpoint is motivated by fear.

    A statement that says or implies that there is no intelligent design or purpose or meaning or ultimate goal in any natural process is not a scientific statement but a philosophical one. Coyne’s defense does more harm to science than does the ID movement.


    Comment by Matthew Tenney — December 19, 2005 @ 4:31 am

  7. First of all Darwinism = evolution = atheism is false. Natural slection is a testable evolutionary process that is one of many. Thousands of research papers are published on evolution by natural selection every year. In Biology there is no controversy about it. The controversy is from neoconservatives who want to use their “wedge strategy” to divide Christians and voters at large. Their chief advantage is our passive response as they come up with laws to require the teaching of intelligent design, “academic freedom” laws to restrict what teachers can say in class, and Bible classes taught in high schools. When Jesus asked that when he would return, would he “find faith?” This insistance that the evidence of God’s work be “scientific” is anti-faith!

    Comment by John Aliff — January 27, 2007 @ 2:54 pm

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