Review: Doubting Darwin?

When I first heard that this book was being written, I confess that I was skeptical. We have heard a huge amount in recent years about so-called "intelligent design" (ID) and much that we have heard has been very critical. Why then do we need yet another book on the topic? Now that I have had a chance to read the finished product, I think I was wrong and that my doubts were overstated. This is a splendid discussion of the whole question of ID. It is true that Sahotra Sarkar, a well-known philosopher of science, like most philosophers has little interest in going behind the scenes to dig up the real motives of ID enthusiasts - their religious drives. But, sticking to his task and looking fairly at all of its claims to be science, Sarkar does a great job of rejecting decisively the claims of ID. With a reservation to be noted, this is an excellent primer to the subject.

Sarkar plays things in a very straightforward manner. After an introductory overview, he begins with the thinking of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, taking things up through the discovery of Mendelian genetics. Then we have a discussion of the argument from design - the eye is like a telescope, telescopes have telescope designers, therefore the eye must have had a designer, namely God - and the ways in which Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection roughs up this argument. Rightly, Sarkar has little sympathy for the attempt by leading ID exponent William Dembski to bring this argument back to life.

On then to discussion of contemporary evolutionary biology. Overall, this is very fair and balanced, with a good discussion of the neutral theory of evolution as compared to the more standard Darwinian selectionist theory. I do confess however, that Sarkar's contempt for human sociobiology, very evident here but a leitmotif through the book, started to grate a little. Why keep harping on the point? Of course, his discomfort shows that he is not a blind selectionist, but the point could have been made once and then left.

Now, the biological science given as a foundation, Sarkar starts to rip into the claims of the ID side. First, he goes after William Dembski's invocation of No Free Lunch theorems, supposedly showing that selection cannot be that effective. We learn that Dembski is mistaken mathematically and, even if he were not, the evolutionary situations to which he would apply these theorems are not relevant. Then on to Michael Behe's claims about irreducible complexity. Sarkar is right, although I doubt he will have much effect. Behe has recently published a new book (The Edge of Evolution [New York: Free Press, 2007]; see review, p 38) showing that he is quite indifferent to the many criticisms of his work. If you can't answer them, ignore them!

We move on to information theory and then to the trendy anthropic arguments. These are the arguments that work from the improbability of the laws of nature being as they are, and the necessity for life of the laws of nature being as they are for life to appear, to the existence of a supreme lawmaker or some such body. Strictly speaking, as Sarkar realizes, these are not part of the ID package and are in fact popular among people who detest ID. They are not intended to replace science but rather to supplement theologically or philosophically. But I think Sarkar is right to include them, because at some level they have the aim of ID, namely to resurrect the argument from design. Biologists got the argument out of science in the 19th century. Who would have thought that physicists would be trying to bring it back in the 21st? I agree with Sarkar's arguments - how can one argue about any kinds of probabilities when all one has is a set of one? But I would like to have seen some discussion of Steven Weinberg's claim (which strikes me as plausible) that the world is nothing near as fine-tuned as is claimed by people like my former colleague, the philosopher John Leslie.

So we move on to a discussion of naturalism and a final chapter ending with the wrongness of including ID in biology classrooms. I think readers will appreciate Sarkar's careful discussion of kinds of naturalism and his rejection of the critics like Alvin Plantinga. Of course, although Sarkar can refute Plantinga, one doubts that Sarkar will change Plantinga's mind. This will have to wait until we evolutionists can show people like Plantinga that they can be evolutionists and Christians at the same time. Or rather, not just show them, but convince them. With works like The God Delusion on the best-seller list, I am not holding my breath.

What is my reservation? Although Sarkar writes clearly and gives carefully chosen examples, I still feel that he is too technical for the general reader. This might be a good book for a more advanced philosophy of science class, with a qualified teacher, but it is not for the person picking something up off the shelves of Borders or Barnes and Noble. Sarkar gets into mathematics and he is not always aware of how difficult even fairly straightforward discussions can be. Take for instance the discussion of evolutionary algorithms that is a crucial part of Sarkar's attack on Dembski's use of No Free Lunch theorems. I defy anyone without some background training to understand the definitions that are given or the subsequent discussion.

Or put things this way: William Hamilton's formal discussion of kin selection was complex and mathematical. In The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), Richard Dawkins brilliantly explained all of this in words. I am afraid that Sahotra Sarkar is no Richard Dawkins. But then, no one else is either! Judged on his own terms, Sarkar is right at the top of what he is doing. Get this book and read it.

About the Author(s): 
Michael Ruse
Program in History and Philosophy of Science
Florida State University
Tallahassee FL 32306

Michael Ruse is Lucyle T Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University and a Supporter of NCSE. His latest book is Darwinism and its Discontents (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Doubting Darwin? Creationist Designs on Evolution
Michael Ruse
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Sahotra Sarkar
Malden (MA): Blackwell, 2007. 214 pages