One of my favorite books on evolutionary theory is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. I would rank Dennett’s achievement with Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker and the various Stephen Jay Gould collections — though Dennett has problems with Gould, and I imagine the sentiment was reciprocated while Professor Gould was alive. Tufts versus Harvard.
Near the end of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett gives us a startling paragraph (page 515): “Save the Baptists? Yes, of course, but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world ... Some recent writers recommend a policy in which parents would be able to ‘opt out’ of materials they didn’t want their children taught. Should evolution be taught in the schools? Should arithmetic be taught? Should history? Misinforming a child is a terrible offense.”
Dennett’s words came to mind recently when a vote by the School Board of Dover — a small Pennsylvania town about a two-hour drive from my house — made national headlines. The Board in its wisdom decided that science teachers must hereafter present “intelligent design theory” as a valid and vigorous alternative to Darwin’s account of life on earth. On January 16, 2005, Dover High School administrators read a four paragraph mandated statement to students at the start of their biology classes. The second paragraph comprises the following ill-ordered sentences:
“Because Darwin’s theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.”
I find this paragraph incoherent at best. “Gaps ... exist for which there is no evidence” is simply bad writing. A gap is ipso facto something for which evidence exists (namely, human observation of the void in question). Would the Board tell Dover’s high school students, “Alligators exist for which there is no evidence”? Perhaps they would. I assume the Board meant to say, “Gaps exist that the theory cannot explain.”
The first three sentences were evidently composed in the hopes that from now on, whenever the term “scientific theory” reaches a student’s ear, he or she will hear “mere theory” — that is, a simple and perhaps even hazy conjecture (which is not how scientists employ the term “theory”). But then, bang, along comes a walloping non sequitur, sentence number four, in which “a theory” suddenly becomes a robust, satisfying, and noble thing indeed.
What is the poor student to make of this self-contradictory paragraph? Is this what passes for public education in Dover, Pennsylvania? Deliberately misinforming a child is a terrible offense, and willfully confusing him or her isn’t much better.
The Dover School Board’s third paragraph is equally unenlightening:
“Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.”
So what exactly is “intelligent design” (or, to give the argument its full name, Intelligent Design Implicit Onto-Theology)? I would argue that intelligent design is “an explanation of the origin of life” the way that Poseidon is an explanation of the origin of tsunamis. Like the Poseidon hypothesis, IDIOT cannot be falsified, cannot be tested, makes no predictions, and begs every single scientific question it raises. If our planet’s biosphere was designed by the Martians, or Jesus Christ, or Cronus on his throne, or a mediocre graduate student doing a Ph.D. experiment on Altair-4, then who the hell designed them? There is no way to ponder such mysteries without leaving the realm of science entirely — a perfectly reasonable thing to do, except in certain contexts, such as a high school biology classroom.
BEHE'S DISINGENUOUS IDEOLOGY
Monday’s New York Times included a piece by Lehigh University biologist Michael J. Behe, our culture’s most conspicuous exponent of intelligent design theory. Behe’s article is a masterpiece of obfuscation, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who wishes to understand the depths of disingenuousness to which an otherwise honorable man will descend in the name of defeating Darwinism. (Check out the op-ed page for February 7, 2005.)
Behe's religious views are hardly a secret, and the God hypothesis is implicit in every page of his monumentally unimpressive book, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. But, of course, Behe knows better than to announce his theism up front, hence his opening gambit in the Times: “The theory of intelligent design is not a religiously based idea, even though devout people opposed to the teaching of evolution cite it in their arguments.”
The theory of intelligent design is manifestly a “religiously based idea.” What it is not is a theory.
When it comes to argument by false analogy, Behe has few equals. “Unintelligent physical forces like plate tectonics and erosion seem quite sufficient to account for the origin of the Rocky Mountains. Yet they are not enough to explain Mount Rushmore.” Note the rhetorical sleight-of-hand by which Behe moves from the uncontroversial idea that Mount Rushmore was carved by human beings to an ostensibly iron-clad conclusion that the biosphere was consciously contrived by a higher power.
But of course living creatures are not remotely like Mount Rushmore, a work of art that, with all due respect to Gutzon Borglum, I can take or leave. Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and other biologists have exhaustively documented the ways in which hundreds of species, our own included, are actually pretty miserably designed, bursting with appalling inefficiencies, functionless redundancies, weird improvisations, and endlessly fascinating instances of evolutionary opportunism.
To give Behe his due, he is apparently willing to allow that something like natural selection may have occurred after the Christian God — whoops — after the Intelligent Designer assembled those organic molecules, programmed them to bring forth complex forms, and plopped them down on our planet. But the fact remains that Behe is essentially in the same position as those 19th-century physicists who realized that Newtonian mechanics could not fully account for the perihelion shift of the planet Mercury. To their everlasting credit, neither the physics community nor the clerics of the day appealed to an Intelligent Clockwinder as the only plausible way out of the difficulty. Instead they remained true to their respective callings, and eventually one of best and brightest of our species, Albert Einstein, devised a paradigm — the general theory of relativity — that seems to have resolved the discrepancy.
With its overwhelming scope and exquisite subtlety, the theory of natural selection is, to say the least, difficult to grasp. I’m not really sure I can do it. Evidently the human mind is poorly equipped for simultaneously holding all the various material and nonmaterial forces in its grasp: the scale of geological time, the algorithms of biological reproduction, the myriad selective pressures, the often complex logic of the fit between an organism and its ecological niche — not to mention the unimaginable quantities of death and copulation that lie at the heart of the theory. (Could it be that Americans’ traditional discomfort with oblivion and orgasms partially explains our native detestation of Darwin?) But just because you and I and Michael J. Behe have difficulty wrapping our intellects around Darwin’s dangerous idea, that does not, in my view, give us the right to lie to our children.
THE LATEST NEWS
I recently had the pleasure of chatting in cyberspace with Frank Herbert’s grandson, Byron Merritt. You can check out the interview at these coordinates:
The J.R.R. Tolkien online secondary school curriculum I wrote with my wife Kathy still appears on the Houghton Mifflin website:
The conversation between James Morrow and Brett Alexander Savory still resides in this sector of the digital galaxy: