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A Conversation About the Past, Present & Future of Darwinism & Design
Jed Macosko, who received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley for his work on influenza hemagglutinin and HIV RNA and then received a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, will begin teaching biophysics at Wake Forest University this August. Paul A. Nelson has published articles in popular and scholarly journals and contributed to the anthologies Mere Creation and Signs of Intelligence. His forthcoming monograph, On Common Descent, critically evaluates the theory of common descent, and is being edited for the series Evolutionary Monographs, produced by the University of Chicago’s Department of Ecology and Evolution. See the other writers’ articles in this issue for their biographies. The answers begin with those by Phillip E. Johnson, as the leader of the movement, followed by the others in alphabetical order.
Touchstone: Who are the “prophets” who anticipated the intelligent design (ID) movement? (I mean people writing before Phillip Johnson.) Did anyone influential listen to them?
Phillip E. Johnson: I would name, first, Dr. A. E. Wilder-Smith, author of The Scientific Alternative to Neo-Darwinian Evolutionary Theory, who pioneered the “origin of information” analysis (see http://emporium.turnpike.net/C/cs/sa.htm), and Dr. Michael Denton, author of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Both these brilliant men were noticed to some degree, but prejudice prevented their ever gaining a fair hearing.
William A. Dembski: I would add to Phil’s list Michael Polanyi and Marcel Schützenberger. Like Wilder-Smith and Denton, they were deeply critical of scientific materialism and the reductive approach to biology that it fostered. They also had stellar reputations in the secular intellectual world, so it was hard to dismiss them as cranks.
Paul Nelson: I’d list Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen, who published The Mystery of Life’s Origin in 1984, a book that anticipates many of the central concerns of the ID community. If you ask Charlie Thaxton who he was reading, however, in the years that led to Mystery, I think he’d mention people such as the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi, mathematician and biologist Marcel Schützenberger, and the theologian Francis Schaeffer. And A. E. Wilder-Smith, a polymath who thought hard about exactly why Darwinism failed.
What do you say to people who say—in one way or another—it’s just not plausible that mainstream science took such a wrong turn?
Johnson: Freud, Marx, and Darwin were all revered as major scientific heroes throughout the twentieth century. Of the three, only Darwin retains any scientific standing.
Nelson: Look at the history of science: plenty of wrong turns. Taking and then discovering that one has taken a wrong turn is what science is all about.
Edward Sisson: The history of science for the past 500 years includes many such “wrong turns” by the mainstream science of the day, including Ptolemy’s earth-centered universe (replaced by Copernicus’s sun-centered theory), Galen’s theory of the four humors of the blood (replaced by Harvey’s work on blood circulation), the theory that now-extinct land animals crossed to different continents by means of now-submerged “land bridges” (replaced by the theory of plate tectonics), and other now-rejected theories as discussed in the landmark work by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Thus, opponents of Darwinism are not, as this kind of objection suggests, asserting something that has no precedent in the history of science.
Darwinism has gained and maintained its position because it is a theory that scientists very much want to be true, because it removes one of the main lines of argument asserted by religious leaders: that there must be a God because no natural force could explain the diversity of life. By removing that line of argument, science enhances the authority of scientific leaders in competition with religious leaders on matters of great public importance. That is what the famous debate between T. H. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce was all about: who would be humiliated and who would control the podium.
Richard Weikart: As a Christian who specializes in European intellectual history (especially the history of Darwinism), I consider many intellectual movements of the past two centuries “wrong turns.” For example, historicism, the idea that everything—nature, human society, morality, and even God—is in constant flux, was an idea that dominated nineteenth-century European thought. This was a reaction against traditional Christian views of an unchanging God who created a stable world with immutable moral laws. Historicism was already ascendant before Darwin published his theory, and it obviously heavily influenced Darwinism. Another major intellectual current in the nineteenth century, positivism, taught that all of reality could be explained through science, and whatever could not be discovered through the scientific method does not count as knowledge.
Science, especially historical science (such as Darwinism), was not immune from these ideological influences. The positivist mentality effectively eliminated from science any possibility of supernatural creative events in the past. Once supernatural acts were ruled out of bounds (not by any scientific data, but by philosophical presuppositions), then evolution became the only possible game for explaining the origin of living organisms and humans, and anyone believing in creative acts by a supernatural being was marginalized and branded unscientific. By the way, mainstream religion took the same turn, and under the influence of the same anti-supernatural bias, produced liberal Christianity.
Jonathan Witt: Given humankind’s penchant for institutionalized stupidity, the more puzzling question is: How did even one group of mistake-prone humans (Christian Europe) ever figure out how to thresh the wheat of scientific truth from the chaff of inevitable error? History is replete with popular, persistent, false “facts”: the supposed efficacy of child sacrifice, gods cavorting on Mount Olympus, spring optimism at Wrigley Field.
Or consider an example from modern science: Astronomers from Newton’s day well into the twentieth century assumed that the universe was eternal and infinite. But then Edwin Hubble decided to regard this “fact” as an open question and went on to show that the universe is finite and had a beginning. The great thinker Aristotle assumed that a heavy object would fall faster than a lighter one. It’s only a slight oversimplification to say that a bridge, a pebble, and a stone could have disproved that easily enough. However, the idea persisted for centuries until a Catholic named Galileo Galilei thought something like this: “Aristotle’s position sounds right, but human reason is fallen. I’ll consult the book of nature; I’ll test the idea.” He discovered that weight had nothing to do with the matter.
Hubble and Galileo embodied the scientific method in motion. Darwinism, in contrast, is just one of many missteps in the history of science. One question remains: Will we guard the misstep or the method?
What do you say when someone accuses you of being a creationist or using (i.e., misusing) science to advance an unscientific agenda?
Johnson: This appeal to prejudice is meant to distract attention from the fact that Darwinism is founded upon naturalistic philosophy, rather than upon unbiased empirical testing. I like to ask such accusers if natural selection can be demonstrated to have the power to create new genetic information or new complex organs. If not, then it is the Darwinists who are using science to advance a philosophical agenda, the agenda of scientific materialism.
Dembski: With questions like this I always try to get back on topic. The crucial issue always in this debate is whether material mechanisms have the creative capacity to bring about biological complexity. This claim cannot be a necessary truth, for otherwise we are talking metaphysics and not science. And since it is not a necessary truth, the question is open for scientific discussion, and design becomes once again a real possibility.
Jed Macosko: As I told the Christian Networks Journal when they interviewed me about this, the ID position is a minimalist position. It argues that the information we see in the biosphere is too complicated to have arisen by chance plus natural selection, and that something intelligent needed to bring all those complex systems into existence. It is a scientific theory about how we see the world around us that expects to be evaluated on scientific grounds.
Nelson: It’s funny—or sad—to see how “creation,” one of the loveliest words in the English language, becomes a byword in science when “-ist” is attached. “Creationists” are seen as Bad Guys nowadays, so few people outside the young-earth creationism camp want to use the label self-referentially. When critics say to me, “Hey, you’re a creationist!”, I try to carry our discussion past what they intend as an inquiry-stopping insult. Usually, with a little patience, one can do that—and that works with the pejorative “anti-science,” too. Just let the invective pass; get back to the evidence.
Sisson: No one has yet laid this accusation against me. Were it to happen, I would respond that I am a non-churchgoer; that my religious affiliation is mainline Episcopal; that I graduated from MIT with a bachelor of science degree; and that I have never believed in young-earth creationism or anything of the kind. I got interested in this issue by reading mathematical analyses of Darwinism that demonstrate that under the rules of the mathematics of statistics, evolution as posited by the Darwinian theory is impossible.
If someone were to say I am advancing an unscientific agenda, my response would be: Mathematics is the foundation of science, and mathematics disproves many of the most important Darwinian evolutionary claims. I am being scientific, not unscientific, in rejecting Darwinism.
Weikart: If the charge is that I believe that God can and has intervened in the past with miraculous creative acts, then I plead guilty. The view that “science” excludes even the possibility that God could have intervened in the past is not a scientific position, since this claim is not based on any empirical data. It is instead a philosophical and religious position. Those who defend such a view are being just as “unscientific” as those they criticize. Science should be free to follow empirical data, even if it doesn’t support the view that natural laws and chance are sufficient to create all living organisms, including humans.
Why does Darwinism—using the term to include the later versions of naturalism, like neo-Darwinism—appeal so strongly? In particular, why does it appeal to so many people more than the Christian story, when it (the Darwinian story) offers them a universe with no meaning, purpose, or end?
Johnson: Many people are glad to see God—and God’s judgment—relegated to the never-never land of subjective belief. Even devout Christians have been attracted to Darwinism because it seems to distance God from natural evil. These Christians usually don’t realize that in distancing God from the unpleasant aspects of reality, they are pushing him out of reality altogether, and thus will end up with a godless world in which there is no escape from nihilism. The depressing conclusion to the journey is concealed from most people for a long time because they assume that our moral traditions will somehow continue to direct human behavior even when their foundation in God has been removed. As Nietzsche warned the Victorians, that assumption is unrealistic.
Dembski: Two reasons: (1) It provides a materialistic creation story that dispenses with any need for design or God (this is very convenient for those who want to escape the demands of religion, morality, and conscience). (2) The promise of getting design without a designer is incredibly seductive—it’s the ultimate free lunch. No wonder Daniel Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, credits Darwin with “the single best idea anyone has ever had.” Getting design without a designer is a good trick indeed!
Nelson: If one looks at the population as a whole, I’m not sure more people do prefer the Darwinian story. Polling data in the United States, for instance, consistently show large majorities for creationism or God-guided evolution. The scientific community, however, strongly prefers naturalistic evolution. I think they do so because of how most scientists understand the scientific enterprise. Design simply cannot be “science.” I think that’s false, but it’s a deeply rooted preconception.
Sisson: I believe Darwinism is so appealing because it serves human pride. It facilitates the belief that there is no supernatural intelligence operating in our world. The absence of any such intelligence means that the human mind is the most intelligent and creative force in the known universe. Scientists, having mastered difficult masses of knowledge, and having proven their reasoning and thinking abilities under rigorous and competitive conditions, can fairly lay claim to being the most intelligent and creative among human beings.
Anyone who has observed or read about the smug put-downs scientists inflict on each other in debates, and who has observed the obsessive drive of scientists to be the first to publish a discovery—thereby getting credit for having the sharpest and fastest minds—knows that the drive for the feeling of intellectual superiority is very strong in the scientific community. The net effect of Darwinism is that it allows top-level scientists the satisfaction of believing that nothing in the whole known universe is smarter than they are.
Weikart: Ironically, many Darwinian materialists, despite their overt rejection of meaning or purpose in the cosmos, do in fact find meaning in evolution. In the early twentieth century, many Darwinists embraced eugenics, which was an attempt to help the human species improve and thus make further evolutionary progress. Though many Darwinists have themselves pointed out that progress is not really compatible with Darwinian theory, nonetheless, many—including Darwin—continually refer to evolutionary progress.
Other Darwinists are more consistent and exult in the lack of meaning or purpose in the cosmos. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, claimed that Darwinism shows there isn’t any purpose in the universe, so we are free to construct our own values. James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, tells us that since everything has come about by chance, we should “play God” (he actually uses that term) by genetic engineering of humans.
Witt: First, Darwinism grants its followers entrance into the lists of the brave and unblinking, the übermenschen willing to confront the frightening reality of annihilation and nothingness. Second, Darwinism is also a handy belief nowadays if you want to get very far in the naturalism club of elite academia. Third, for the philosophically inconsistent, Darwinism opens the door to various forms of feel-good pantheism with its promise of spiritual self-discovery. Whether that spiritual journey takes them into the desert or into the arms of their neighbor’s spouse, well, that’s nobody’s business but their own, for Darwinism slew the Lawgiver, leaving each free to be his own little god.
What are the implications for morality of Darwinism and intelligent design? What is their “cash value”?
Johnson: The fundamental issue is whether God is real or imaginary. An imaginary God has no moral authority. Intelligent design is bitterly resisted because it threatens to allow God to re-enter the realm of reality as the object of public knowledge.
Dembski: Darwinism explains why we act morally and why we have moral sentiments. It does so on the basis of historical conditioning by our evolutionary past (how good such explanations are is another matter). What it can’t explain is why we shouldn’t, upon conscious reflection, rebel against that historical conditioning. Also, evolutionary ethics has a real problem explaining genuine good. When you read that literature, Mother Teresa’s life of self-sacrifice is always explained in terms of some underlying self-interest. See E. O. Wilson, for instance.
Nelson: The philosopher Michael Ruse has argued that if we take Darwinism “seriously,” we need to rethink the nature of moral intuitions. Morality on this view is a set of powerful illusions built into us by natural selection. Design takes a rather different approach. Maybe adultery (for instance) is wrong, not because it may be selectively disadvantageous under certain conditions, but because human beings were designed to function best with one life-long, committed partner (of the opposite sex). In other words, the designer knows what’s good for us—not natural selection, which, as an utterly mindless process, wouldn’t care in the least if Homo sapiens went extinct tomorrow.
Sisson: Darwinism, by undermining the necessity to believe that any supernatural creative force must exist in our world, tends to diminish faith in any god, and thus to diminish commitment to the moral rules pronounced by those whose claim to authority derives from a god. To persons looking for a way to enhance such authority, intelligent design gets only part-way there. ID tends to increase the necessity to believe that there must be in fact some kind of supernatural force operating in the world, but it does not provide criteria for selecting any one current religion as the best explanation of what that force is.
What would be lost if the ID movement and its works disappeared tomorrow? To put it another way, is it merely a critique of Darwinism or does it offer man something he needs to know?
Johnson: Intelligent design has the potential to become the basis for a recognized scientific research program, but its main importance is cultural, as changing society’s definition of knowledge, so that nature is known to depend on something beyond nature.
Dembski: People’s intuitions will continue to lead them to see the design in biology and the cosmos. But without intelligent design, the scientific materialists will claim to have a theoretical justification for dispensing with design in nature. Intelligent design provides a theoretical justification for why design in nature is in fact indispensable.
Macosko: You start from where you are. We are saying that Darwinism is not sufficient. More than half of the work of the ID community is still directed to pointing out the problems with Darwinism. It has made some mistakes in the past 150 years, and those mistakes have gone unnoticed for generations. At the least, the ID movement is good for challenging Darwinism where it needs to be challenged. But at best, it could be an entirely different and more fruitful way of looking at science.
Nelson: It offers more, but demonstrating that is going to be a long-term challenge. “Science in the Key of Design,” if you will, is a melody that we’re going to have to teach others to hear and play. First, of course, we have to master it ourselves!
Sisson: If the ID movement and its works disappeared, it would bolster the current social trend towards the growing prestige of science and scientists, as compared to the diminishing social prestige of religion and religious leaders, because more members of the public would be more inclined to believe that the only forces active in our world are forces within the bounds of the laws of physics, i.e., that there are no supernatural forces. Thus, fewer people would pay attention to religious leaders, who claim to have special insight and understanding into the workings of supernatural forces, i.e., the mind of God.
Witt: What would be lost if all the voices pointing out the powerful evidence for intelligent design were silenced? The short answer is: Western Civilization—that is, all those crucial ideas derived from belief in a transcendent, rational lawgiver: natural law, the sanctity of life made in the image of God, a rational cosmos accessible to rational inquiry, the objective reality of good versus evil, absolute truth. All of these are lost if naturalism is left to run the show, obstructing real faith in God by bracketing off scientific evidence of design in nature, and historical evidence of divine revelation and miracle.
“Those things aren’t science,” it says. “They’re just irrational faith commitments.” The ID movement exposes naturalism’s irrational game for the unscientific dogma it is.
What would be the effect if Darwinism disappeared tomorrow? Has the philosophy produced any practical scientific results? Has it impeded scientific progress? To put it another way, is it dangerous only as a veiled form of religious advocacy or also as a scientific mistake?
Johnson: The importance of intelligent design in science is made murky by the fact that biologists even now freely employ the concept of design, saving themselves from charges of heresy by arbitrarily attributing the design to natural selection.
Dembski: Natural selection acting on randomly varying replicators is fruitful and certainly a factor in biology. It needs to be properly acknowledged. On the other hand, the claim that this Darwinian mechanism can produce all of biological complexity and diversity represents a huge leap unwarranted by any evidence. The disappearance of such grand pretensions can only strengthen science. Evolutionary biology these days is an exercise in credulity: a willingness to believe just about anything so long as design is left out of the picture.
Nelson: I think the Darwinian view that organisms are cobbled-together kludges—the “low” view of life, so to speak—was a scientific blunder of the first order. Biology is having to unlearn “facts” about putatively non-functional systems all the time, which might not have happened if investigators had begun with the premise that what they were looking at was the product of a subtle, exceedingly clever mind. What evolutionary theory has discovered of genuine value—and there’s a lot of that—is important and useful, of course (for example, population genetics). But all the true and reliable stuff can be incorporated into a new science of design.
Sisson: If Darwinism and its related theories of “unintelligent evolution” disappeared, it would tend to diminish the social prestige of science and scientists, as compared to the social prestige of religion and religious leaders. There would be no effect on the productivity of science, because the theories have not produced and cannot produce practical results in any field outside the field of evolution itself, which is not truly a scientific field when you compare it to real scientific fields like physics. I don’t know whether Darwinism has impeded other sciences, except that it has impeded the study of design in nature, of course.
Where is the ID movement going in the next ten years? What new issues will it be exploring, and what new challenges will it be offering Darwinism?
Dembski: In the next five years, molecular Darwinism—the idea that Darwinian processes can produce complex molecular structures at the subcellular level—will be dead. When that happens, evolutionary biology will experience a crisis of confidence because evolutionary biology hinges on the evolution of the right molecules. I therefore foresee a Taliban-style collapse of Darwinism in the next ten years. Intelligent design will of course profit greatly from this. For ID to win the day, however, will require talented new researchers able to move this research program forward, showing how intelligent design provides better insights into biological systems than the dying Darwinian paradigm.
Nelson: Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a real problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity”—but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.
Name (1) the two books on the subject every Christian should read, and (2) the five or so books every Christian interested in the subject should read.
Johnson: Modesty forbids (grin).
Dembski: Two books: Darwin on Trial by Phillip Johnson and The Design Revolution by me. Five books: Evolution: A Theory in Crisis by Michael Denton, Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe, The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells, and Signs of Intelligence, edited by me and James Kushiner.
Nelson: (1) Signs of Intelligence, edited by William Dembski and James Kushiner. This is a volume that sprang from a Touchstone special issue, and it’s a great introduction to the key questions. (2) The Design Revolution by William Dembski. Good answers to the first several waves of criticism of intelligent design. (3) Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, edited by J. A. Campbell and S. C. Meyer. A more in-depth treatment of the public-policy (education) questions, including several chapters from critics of intelligent design. (4) The Mystery of Life’s Origin by Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen. An insightful classic. (5) Darwin on Trial by Phillip Johnson. Can anything good come from Berkeley? Yes.
Sisson: Christians and non-Christians and, indeed, agnostics and atheists should read the following books that establish the mathematical impossibility of “unintelligent evolution,” such as Darwinism: Sir Fred Hoyle’s Mathematics of Evolution, Dean Overman’s A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization, and Lee Spetner’s Not By Chance! They should also read The Design Revolution by William Dembski, which deals with all the objections to intelligent design and rebuts every one of them.
They should also read Maciej Giertych’s introduction to the book Creation Rediscovered, published on the Internet (note: I have not read the book, only Professor Giertych’s introduction). He demonstrates the lack of observed data for unintelligent evolution in the field of population genetics.
Is there anything else you think needs to be said?
Johnson: I have insisted that the ID movement should not focus exclusively on scientific issues, to the exclusion of literature and the arts, which are just as important as science or philosophy in forming a culture’s understanding of what is real and important. I love Benjamin Disraeli’s remark that utilitarianism in philosophy and unitarianism in religion suffer from the same defect. They both neglect imagination, said Disraeli, and yet imagination rules the world! In that spirit, I have recently founded a “Second Wedge,” consisting of creative writers and other artistic people, because it is illogical that literature and the arts should be dominated by materialist ideas that lead to nihilism and despair. It is not only scientists who need to be liberated from the straitjacket of materialism.
Dembski: In this debate, always keep your eye on what the real issue is. This is not a Bible-versus-science debate. The real issue is always about the nature of nature: Is nature a closed system of blind material processes ruled by unbroken natural laws, so that any God or designer is merely a lawgiver, or is nature fundamentally open to novel information from an intelligence? Many religious traditions are now opening up to intelligent design because it promises to give scientific expression to their deepest intuitions about the intelligence and purposiveness that animate all levels of reality.
Nelson: We ain’t seen nothing yet.
Weikart: Darwinism is not an isolated issue that affects science only. It has implications for our understanding of human nature, psychology, anthropology, social thought, and morality, as well as religion. Darwin himself discussed all these issues in The Descent of Man, and myriads of Darwinists have expounded on the implications of Darwinism for other areas of human existence. Darwinism was based on and perpetuates presuppositions that are essentially antithetical to traditional supernaturalist understandings of Christianity, and even though many Christians try to synthesize Christian doctrine and Darwinian evolution, the incompatible elements ultimately ruin such a marriage. Not scientific data, but anti-supernaturalist bias, produced the Darwinian revolution.